Personality and ethnography

In graduate seminars, I remember long discussions about the positionality and identity of the researcher and how these would influence not only the interpretations of the results of one’s fieldwork but the results themselves. Depending on the research topic, the information obtained by a young, unmarried female anthropologist, for example, may be quite difference from that obtained by older and married male anthropologist. I think that this is fairly widely recognized in our field at this point.

One related thing that I have often wondered about and at which we only sporadically hinted in our discussions between professors and bright-eyed grad students was the impact of one’s personality on our fieldwork experience and results. We discussed behaviour, yes. We went over questions of how to go about introducing ourselves to potential informants, how to dress in a way that would not offend our hosts, whether or not to have sex with people in the field (yes, Concordia University is very liberated that way) and so forth. One of my fellow students even brought up the possibility that our hosts might be more comfortable talking about their lives if the ethnographer was willing to open up a bit about her own.

Of course, one’s personality and ideas have everything in the world to do with how one would deal with the situations mentioned above. One’s personality and self-concept will very likely determine whether an individual cares if his manner of dressing will offend members of the host group. This will also help determine one’s behaviour in various situations in addition to myriad other factors such as stress, relative comfort level, length of time in the community and so forth. Finally, one’s personality has much to do with how much one is willing to tell about herself.

However, we didn’t go too far into talk of personalities as such. Perhaps we were all a little worried about not fitting the bill if it turned out that, according to our profs, there was a standard personality type that was generally better suited to conduct ethnographic fieldwork.

One interesting that did come out during a one-on-one conversation with my thesis supervisor was that there might be particular personality types that are well suited for particular areas or for particular research topics. As I sat in her office with the pre-fieldwork jitters, she assured me that I had the right kind of personality for working with Natives. Although I could see why she would say that and felt that she was probably trying to make me feel better more than anything else, I wondered how one might be able to assess this. If we assume personality variance within the societies where we conduct research, is it really safe to say that researchers of particular personality types will be more or less successful?

I think it’s safe to say that one’s personality will influence one’s behaviour and therefore one’s results to the extent that personality influences one’s interactions. It certainly influences how well a researcher will get along with people in the field which will in turn affect the kinds of information that they will be willing to discuss. As mentioned above, however, there is no uniform personality in any location and therefore just about any ethnographer will find both people with whom s/he gets along and people with whom s/he doesn’t. Ultimately, then, any researcher, unless they are completely and utterly obnoxious and disrespectful, will probably manage to get along well enough with a large enough number of people to get the information that is required for his research.

The bottom line, I think, is that young ethnographers, such as myself, and ethnographers-to-be need not worry about how well we can live up to the caricatured image of the uppity authoritative scientist. In fact, as tacky as it may sound, I think it’s important for us to be ourselves in the field. What would be interesting to discuss, though, is how personality might affect the fieldwork experience, results and interpretation in ways similar to the various sorts of identities (gender, ethnic background, age, marital status, and so forth) that have been shown to inform our work.

10 thoughts on “Personality and ethnography

  1. Along these lines, one of the things that always seemed ironic about fielwork to me was how it is a very sociable sort of undertaking while many of the people attracted to academic anthro (myself included) are classic nerdy wallflowers. The practical part of fieldwork seems tailored for a thick-skinned extrovert, while the write-up part seems to require a disciplined hermit. What you say about different field contexts suiting different personas seems right on (culture and personality work wasn’t all nonsense). At the same time, there is an inescapable initial moment (or few months) of social bravado — can be condemned as imposition, or celebrated as reaching-out — wherever one goes and whatever one works on, for which only a tiny minority of anthros appear really to be suited. It’s a weird thing.

  2. Well, the thing about the bravado . . . ironically, my shyness in the field (I’m not shy in social situations on my own turf but was quite shy in an unfamiliar environment) helped me get along with the Cree. Had I been the “in your face” type, they would not have had the time to observe me and get used to me in silence like they did. Sometimes, I went for weeks before talking to someone but by the time I did, they knew exactly who I was and were already comfortable with me. So . . . I think that depending on where one goes, it can go in all sorts of ways. Elsewhere, my initial shyness might have backfired.

  3. I always thought the most interesting thing about fieldwork was that it was difficult to ‘be yourself’ because you had no idea who ‘yourself’ was. Who isn’t a fixed thing — it changes all the time in response to the people around you (just think of how dating people brings out new sides of you), and fieldwork always struck me as an extreme example of this. I know it took me a long time after my own fieldwork just to figure out who I’d been. As I said in my earlier post on ‘Bound By Recognition’ I think that when it comes to managing fieldwork, the best thing to do is focus on learning how to negotiate change with others, and to try to realize just how little of ‘who you are’ is something that you can know.

  4. I guess it does come down to the particulars of the situation — in fact what I was was saying came out of my own feeling early in fieldwork that if only I was more of a ‘life of the party’ type the whole thing would be *so* much easier.

    a related thing is that you only get the fieldwork that you do — like, I remember an ethnobotanist coming in to the community where I worked and feeling certain that as a female fieldworker I would know *everything* about women’s health — plant medicines for cramps, childbirth, abortifacients, etc. etc. And I had to confess that, um, I hadn’t really pursued those lines of questioning and had NO plans to start pushing them, either!

  5. I told a colleague about my plans to start the “misanthropic anthropologist association” and he suggested the whole AAA would join. Discussing it further we speculated that people who are already somewhat confused by social interactions are drawn to ethnography – and do well at it – precisely because they are used to being confused (and trying to understand the root causes of that confusion). Although I do sometimes wish I had brought my mother with me to the field. She’s better than the FBI at getting everyone’s life story after five minutes of talking to them, while I tend to dislike such intrusiveness.

  6. “I always thought the most interesting thing about fieldwork was that it was difficult to ‘be yourself’ because you had no idea who ‘yourself’ was.”

    I only partially agree with this. It is, of course, true that we go on changing all our lives and discovering aspects of ourselves through new situations, including fieldwork, new jobs, new loves, and so forth. However, I wouldn’t say that one goes into the field having no idea of who they are. By the time we engage in our first fieldwork experience, we have already, for the most part, had enough life experience to at least have gotten us on our way to the formation of an adult self-concept. It may not be complete and therefore still subject to change, but it’s there.

    Now, what I was getting at, mostly, but didn’t explicitly say because I didn’t realise that this is what I was trying to say until now, was how we may have a tendancy to hide certain aspects of our personality in the field (as in other social situations) out of fear that they may be displeasing to our hosts. Another tendancy may be to try too hard to be “like them”. I think that being oneself, or being authentic at least, one stands a better chance of speaking eye-to-eye with others in the field and establishing the desired sense of coevalness discussed by Fabian.

  7. Heh — I guess I wasn’t an adult when I did fieldwork!

    More seriously, though, while I agree people have a strong idea of who they are, I’m not sure they’d be right. Hasn’t the psychoanalytic (or even just the psychological) tradition premised on the idea that most of our psyche is not available to our consciousness? Obviously we both agree that some sort of mannered, practiced pretense is a bad idea for doing fieldwork. But what could be more ‘coeval’ (as you put it) then assuming that they could teach you something?

    It seems to me that the large literature on the ‘dialogical’ nature of fieldwork from the late 80s and early 90s was all about these questions — and of course the great traditional novels about fieldwork all focus on the way in which fieldwork was a transformative experience for the person who underwent it.

  8. Yes, fieldwork *is* a transformative experience. And yes, our hosts can teach us things. In fact, one of my all-time anthro idols, Jean-Guy Goulet, co-edited a book with David Young called: “Being Changed by Cross-Cultural Experience”.

    But for something to be a transformative experience, there has to be something there to be transformed in the first place. We might not completely know what it is and it might be volatile, but it’s there and I think that it’s something one can hold onto in the initial stages of fieldwork (as in “I am what I am”) to help get through the malaise of cultural dissonance. It would, of course, be unhealthy to think that we can keep from being changed by our fieldwork experience; but again, for change to be acknowledged there has to be a recognition of what was there to be changed to start with. But now I’m waxing metaphysical . . .or something 😉

    Speaking of not being adults at first fieldwork, the developmental psych course I took last year informed me that typical North Americans aren’t actually adults until about 25 or so, which is the end of “emerging adulthood”.

    Also, speaking of that, another thought just came to me. In the local context in which we situate ourselves, we might not be considered adults at all if we do not meet the criteria for adulthood, no matter how adult we consider ourselves to be on our home turf. I know that a 25 year-old, unmarried and childless woman was puzzling to some Cree and my next goal is to see if they will take me more seriously when I go back with my little guy. But now I’m off on a tangent . . . I do that sometimes.

  9. Love those threads! Ethnography’s one of the coolest things we do. And we don’t tend to talk about it in formal contexts so much.

    There might be something to certain personalities fitting certain field contexts but part of that might be just a question of who’s attracted to what field and, then, how we do transform into the type of fieldworker who would more likely work in this or that context. An important point, though, it probably only affects the difficulty of fieldwork. And a difficult fieldwork experience will make for as good research as easy fieldwork.

    Ok, time to go personal. In the context of this post and thread, it’s equivalent to an admission of guilt, so, no false modesty warranted… Typical social butterfly, sociable, “please be my friend,” talkative, extrovert, happy-go-lucky, easy-going, people person, human-lover here.
    Many people like that at UdeM. Humanists in the strong sense, we are. Have been interested in Africa since way back when. Quite typical for a musician and Jazz fan. And always liked the attitude of many people from West Africa. Calling it “carefree” would probably be inappropriate but there’s something like that. Like Huizinga, knowing that play isn’t a lack of seriousness, it’s just seriousness that’s devoid of play.
    Started working with a Senegalese griot in Montreal. Wasn’t working very well, for many reasons. Kind of conflict of personalities to a certain extent. He’s a nice guy but the research was going nowhere.
    Then met Madou, a hunter musician from Mali. Instantly, it all clicked. We have similar attitudes toward life, complement each other, and research progressed extremely easily. First preliminary fieldwork trip was quite impressive for how easy it was. Went with Madou, which made everything easier. You know how people keep telling you that people in the field are suspicious of ethnographers? Not so here. These are people who have a lot to say. People really opened up. Some just for the “glory” of being known outside of Africa. But many for genuine love of knowledge exchange. Really!
    Extended fieldwork trip was even easier, apart from practical details. Human contacts were unbelievable. People were ready and apparently delighted to get deep into deep conversations about everything and else. Easy to test hypotheses and frame theories with people. Was probably not perceived so positively by most people but had quite an easy time.

    Thing is, Madou has had a lot to do with this. Even when he wasn’t there, being his friend was always beneficial, even with people who were more ambivalent toward him.

    Now, what’s it got to do with personality? Well. With a more introvert, asociable, quiet, misanthropic person, things would probably have been slightly harder. But, the results would have been as valuable if not more. As long as we’re open-minded and respectful. This should really be the key. Anything can happen in the field but good results will come as long as stay true to ourselves and to the people with whom we work.

    There’s something besides personality. Well, perhaps close to the old “national character” of those Culture and Personality scholars everyone loves to thrash. In fact, it has to do with – oh no! – yes, Culture Shock!
    Even as trained as we are and as open-minded as we are, we may end up in contexts that throw us off-course. It certainly has to do with expectations coming from preparation and such but there’s also something to be said about contexts which may make us uncomfortable. And that’s ok. Discomfort may lead to great things. In fact, many of us (including yours truly) probably felt discomfort in their “own” society at one point or another (not to mention that many of us are apatrides anyway…).
    Had no shock going to Mali. Felt like home. People could be rude or caring, they always seemed to react like I expected people to react. Also didn’t feel any culture shock living in Switzerland or Eastern Canada (coming from Quebec). But had a huge shock in South-central Indiana. Made for a very interesting experience. But it wasn’t easy.
    And, even though it was mostly a personal issue, the difficulty probably had little to do with “personality” strictly defined. But it did have to do with culture broadly defined and some common behavioural patterns which are common in the MidWest and not in Quebec (or vice-versa).
    Here’s a good example of difference. Alcohol consumption isn’t a big issue among students in Montreal. It’s a huge issue in Bloomington. Still can’t get over this, seven years after first entering the weird world of Hoosier college life.
    To go back to ethnography. Doing fieldwork on university culture in Indiana would have been hard for me but I did notice a lot of things that seem just natural for most people. (Yes, I do agree with the need for «recul» in ethnography.) A lot of that comes from differences between my personal background and the way people behave in that context.
    Ok, ok. Belabouring the point, there… Ah, well. That’s what you get for going to a dry campus…

    Something that has more to do with personality is the perception of which type of scholar will go to which broad area. Who will likely work with First Nations? Who’s the prototypical Africanist? Which part of East Asia is this one person most connected to? Part party game, part real anchoring between person and field, IMHO.

    Ok. Time to don my bogolan shirt and go meet my friends under a baobab to sip green tea while talking about belief systems.

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