It took me a long time, and a lot of experience, before I realized that I’m better at some kinds of fieldwork situations than others. I don’t know if there is any way to bypass this process of self-discovery, but I do think it might help those just starting out on their first research projects to be aware of the complex ways in which their own personalities interact with those of their research subjects – and how this can impact the quality of their fieldwork. I think it is important because anthropologists have a tendency to justify these choices as theoretical or political decisions, but I believe that often temperament alone may be the deciding factor.
Personally, I find I do better work when my research subjects are people who have a kind of critical consciousness which allows them to function as real collaborators in the investigation process. This isn’t a question of education or class. I’ve worked with people from poor communities who, as a result of years of activism, were much more articulate and critical of their own situation than fairly middle-class school teachers with master’s degrees. Nor is it a question of having similar politics to my research subjects, although I find that can help. Much more important is that sense that my subjects are themselves invested in the research process.
Good research requires spending a tremendous amount of time with your subjects and making significant demands on their time as well. There are all kinds of claims people make for the superiority of one research methodology over another, but I think it often comes down to who we feel comfortable working with – and what kinds of people feel comfortable working with us. Of course, there are often cases where we must do research with unsympathetic subjects, and that’s an important skill to have, but I think there are very few ethnographers who can do good work without the benefit of some kind of bond with their informants. You don’t have to like them, but you do have to be able to work with them – and working with them means much more than just having them tolerate your presence.