To Go or Not to Go Native: Losing and Finding My Self in Fieldwork

To a certain extent, fieldwork entails losing a part of yourself in your work and the community in which you work. On second thought, the phrase ‘losing yourself’ sounds a little too harsh to apply here. After all, as anthropologists we choose to take ourselves away from our established lives at home to cultivate a new life working and living in distant or not so distant locations among strangers for a year or two. But the common anthropological phrase “going native” entails actively and willingly shedding a previous identity to assimilate to local culture and norms to live as a member of the host community. Going native can be considered both a positive and a negative aspect in fieldwork. A large part of our work, after all, is to understand the perspectives of other people. It can be a natural progression to take on habits of those around you as you continue your work and life in the community of your fieldwork. In many cases “going native” is necessary to gain access into spaces and groups for research. However, when there is no reflexive analysis on the part of the anthropologist and their specific and unique role in the community is where “going native” can be problematic.

I entered my field not a complete stranger to the local community. I have relatives in my field site who I’ve visited at various times throughout my life. I knew when and with whom I should utilize different eating and clothing habits which I’d become accustomed to throughout the visits with my relatives and throughout conducting research stretched over a couple summers.

After all, the initial part of my fieldwork stage in Pune, India, is to learn Marathi, the regional language. Being able to apply these attributes to how I present myself to the community helps me to blend in and helps me to establish rapport with those I speak to about my research. By showing interest in the culture and language and showing that I have adapted in some ways to the community here, I try not only to show respect and gratitude to the individuals who have taken me in as a niece, cousin, student, and friend, but I also show that I am receptive to the sentiments of others. To me, I’m saying, “Look at all that I know and now tell me more.”

However, recently I’ve noticed that some of what I do to assimilate into this particular host community contradicts habits that I’ve previously taken for granted in my home community in the US. I want to explain what I mean here not to show examples of how one community is better than the other but to explain how my personal acculturation to one community is in contrast to how I’ve adapted to another community. The following examples are my own personal experiences in my field site and are not meant to speak for or against other women’s experiences in this community. Many of these new habits I’ve taken on to live in this new city highlight the place of women in a highly male dominated public society to the extent that I have recently felt that I’m losing myself for the sake of assimilation.

It first occurred to me that I should begin paying attention to my own process of “going native” began when I saw signs of my assimilation in my body. Inscribed in my posture were ways I’ve tried to blend into my host community. It began innocently enough by dressing in the local style of clothes and wearing a head scarf in public, as many women do here, to shield my hair and face not only from dust and sun but also from gazes. In fact, this was fun! I loved my new clothes and the ways that they were different from what I wear at home. Then, I noticed my shoulders began curving downwards, as if my chest were trying to turn in on itself when it was already under layers of fabric from the face scarf and dupatta or odhni, a piece of cloth worn for the specific purpose of hiding women’s breasts. Next, though I am learning the language and have a basic proficiency, I noticed that I began to take for granted that I would be spoken for if I were in the company of a man. I stand behind him or to the side; I glance his way first if a waiter comes to take our orders or ask a question at a restaurant; I make requests through him à la Ilongot speech acts to show hierarchies (Rosaldo 1982)- “I’m thirsty,” is all I’ll say, and my male companion will flag down a waiter on my behalf and ask for water. This began with my older male relatives when my language abilities were shaky though now that I share company with men my own age and use Marathi more and more in my daily life, I have let these habits of deferring to men continue, and no one bats an eye. Except for me, as I downcast my eyes in the presence of men in public and think about how I’d never instinctually behaved in exactly this way before back home.

Recognizing the aforementioned behaviors was the start to seeing how I’d assimilated to a woman’s role in this society. In many ways these behaviors and new instincts have helped me, which is why I believe I’ve taken them on. I’m allowed access to women’s-only spaces like sitting with women and chatting in a bedroom or the kitchen. I’m not an embarrassment or liability when I’m in public with other women. They don’t apologize or explain away by behavior by saying I’m not from here. No one gives a second thought to my motives for working with young children in primary and pre-primary schools for my research. So far most teachers and principals have also been female and many have been around my age, so it’s been easy to establish a friendly work rapport.

However, as much as I’m given access to spaces in a strictly gendered community, I’m also restricted from many other spaces. This was made apparent to me while visiting with another male friend. He was telling me of his daily routine and some of the places he’s explored on his own by scooter. It was done in kind casual conversation, but I sensed a familiar feeling that I was only then able to put a name to- jealousy. I was jealous of his freedom and realized that he was telling me these things in the sense that I had not done them only because I was not aware of them, and he was being nice to enlighten me to them. He had little if any idea that I was in fact aware of them but my access to these spaces are generally restricted and if I were to even try and access them, my experiences would be radically different from his. I have avoided such places he talked about like roadside dhabas or small, cheap restaurants. I have not walked into small hills around Pune, alone or otherwise, to watch a sunset. Nor have I been able to take a solitary drive into the countryside or explore some close-knit and conservative neighborhoods where a strictly gendered public space has little tolerance for women wandering alone, no matter how “authentic” and cheap the food or a goods market may be there. I also have never gone alone to a bar, a restaurant, or some entertainment event- only cafes during the day where I am often the only woman alone though not made uncomfortable by this fact.

Who is to say that these are things I would even want to do if they were socially acceptable for me to do? Perhaps it’s the gender segregation norm that is so ingrained in my habitus that I say I wouldn’t even want to do these things. But the fact remains that it would be much harder for me as a woman to stay safe in these places, in the sense that I would not be bothered by anyone or have criticism thrown my way, if I were to take part in activities like the ones he mentioned or go to these places alone or even alongside another woman.

From my feelings of jealousy I began to reexamine ways in which I resist going completely native in my fieldwork. For one, I live alone- a fact I try to obscure when I first meet people for my own safety and for the sake of assimilation. However, I could not do my work and maintain a comfortable life here any other way. I also stay out late and try to take part in activities that are also normal in my life at home, such as having a drink at a bar and going listen to live music- though I do these things with the company of friends who usually include men. Moving forward with my new realizations about space, gender, and my role as a female anthropologist, I want to try and continue (safely) resisting other gendered expectations that exist here in India that are staunchly contrary to the life I led in the US while still maintaining a position of a respectable female in this society. Therefore, I will not let myself go completely native for a fear of losing my sense of self entirely.

Work cited:

Rosaldo, Michelle Z. “The Things We Do with Words: Ilongot Speech Acts and Speech Act Theory in Philosophy.” Language in Society 11, no. 2 (1982): 203–37.

3 thoughts on “To Go or Not to Go Native: Losing and Finding My Self in Fieldwork

  1. Pingback: To Talk Like Them

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