How many dead people do you know on Facebook? I know three. Well, maybe two because one was aware that she was dying and took her page down. For the others, death was a surprise, even though in one case it was planned. Plans can be surprises of sorts.
Many people worry that social media is changing the world for the worse. It is pretty common to hear people lament the lack of face to face communication these days or worry that people are ‘disconnected’ in the age of digital connection. I don’t worry about this. If the undergraduate students I teach have shown me anything, it is that the medium of communication doesn’t over determine its purpose or possibility. Plus, I am a linguistic anthropologist and a human being so I know face to face interaction isn’t a connective walk-in-the-park. One thing I have been dwelling on is how social media alters how we know death. Continue reading →
Serendipity confounds me. I spent most of Monday writing the following reflections on the death of a Bulgarian woman, one of my “key informants,” who unexpectedly passed away two weeks ago while I was in Sofia. You can imagine my surprise when I logged on to Savage Minds this morning to post my short tribute to Ana. I encountered Ruth Behar’s beautiful piece on the passing of Esperanza, her comadre in Mexico and the inspiration for Translated Woman. Behar’s essay moved me to tears, and my own purple prose pales in comparison to her poetic rumination on the way an ethnographer’s life can become intertwined with those whose stories we have the privilege to tell. Journalists would say that I’d “been scooped,” since this post evokes many of the same issues and emotions as Behar’s and she is by far the more accomplished writer and anthropologist. But for Ana’s sake, I’ll post this humble essay anyway. The fleeting immortality of the written word is the only gift we ethnographers have to give.
Getting to know people across the barriers of language, culture, and generations provides one of the greatest joys of ethnographic fieldwork. I dislike the term “informant” because of its negative connotations, especially in the postsocialist context where people once “informed” on each other to the secret police. I prefer the term “fieldwork friends.”
I’ve conducted ethnographic research in Southeastern Europe for eighteen years, and I recognize the difficult power imbalances and the hierarchy of privileges that underpin relationships in the field. My position as an American – first as graduate student, then as professor – provides certain advantages that my fieldwork friends lack. Despite these challenges, I’ve forged close relations with many Bulgarian men and women who’ve shared their lives with me over the years.