Describing Your Work in the Field

I was recently inspired by Carole McGranahan’s conversation with fellow anthropologist Pasang Yanjee Sherpa, published online at Anthrodendum. In their conversation both anthropologists address how they communicate their projects to interlocutors, reflect on how people in their fields perceive anthropologists, and how the discipline is perceived in their respective fields. This got me thinking about my own experiences of communicating my project, goals, and who I am in my field and the challenges and growth I’ve encountered through these experiences.

After I defended my dissertation proposal I could easily recite my research questions, the theory in which I was going to ground my study, my methods, and the broader implications of my research. When I arrived to my field, I began to list these key points from my research proposal to people I hoped would be future interlocutors. As a response, my spiel was more often than not returned with confused looks or glazed over eyes. Most disheartening was that many people told me that this work was not important but that I should instead study x,y,z. Suddenly my grand entrance to the field studying something big and important about globalization, the middle class, language, and education did not seem as feasible or clear cut as in my proposal and IRB documents. How could I begin to collect data if I could not communicate well what I was researching? Would I have to change my project?

How to communicate to people not in your field what you’re doing?

I learned that I needed to approach future interlocutors in a way that more clearly communicated narrow goals of my research and I also needed to consider these moments of confusion also as important moments of ethnography. I felt like I was coming out from being under water— gasping and sputtering. This was the first time in three years where I was spending an extended amount of time away from my colleagues and professors. Except for my shorter pilot studies where I was still honing my questions, I had not spent so much time around people coming from backgrounds so different from my own. I realized I had developed a new language with which I spoke about anthropology and my project with my professors and colleagues, especially coming out of the intense experience that was my dissertation proposal, defense, and comprehensive exams. Suddenly I had to learn how to communicate differently.

Was my topic one that people had a lot to say about or was it something they kept quiet about or had no opinions on? Where was the silence and confusion coming from? However, it was my fault that people could not understand what I was doing. For my research I was speaking with academics, language theorists, activists but I was not only describing my work using my academic anthropological language– I was also starting from the end point rather than from my basic questions that began my exploration of my topic. I started to ask more questions and begin my description broadly to focus more on the research questions rather than the implications and most of the time I left theory completely out of it.

I also tailored my questions to the people I was speaking to, rather than giving my IRB statement to everyone word for word. With NGOs, I talked about how I was interested in their work with language. With artists, I would ask the same thing but ask them to focus specifically on how they viewed language in the arts. It wouldn’t have been as useful to ask everyone, students, activists, teachers, and NGO workers, about their opinions on language in all these fields if I had limited time. Often I did ask people in one field about their perceptions of the other areas I was also collecting data on. But it helped to start from a narrower scope, otherwise I found it overwhelming or I received more generalized answers which were not as helpful as the answers full of details as the question pertained to that person and their specific experiences in their particular area of my research. This was not contrary to what I said I would do in my IRB and I was not willfully deceiving my interlocutors to believe I was researching something I wasn’t. I had to let my end goal fall away and stop trying to fit answers into a hypothesis or find a solution to a problem— which may also be one area where the IRB process is ill-fitted to anthropology and the methods we use for do the work we do. As I have written about, I started with more open-ended questions and explanations about my identity and experiences.

Communicating and practicing ethnography

Carole and Pasang discuss how ethnography is a method with two components— living in a community and also talking with people about what they think about things, from mundane unrelated topics to research goals. While I honed my shorter “elevator pitch” about my project to include more of my questions, I made sure to do more listening than talking. I was specific about my project and consent mechanisms but I also tried to make sure to ask them what they thought about my topics, what they found to be important in this field, and how they would go about getting answers to my questions. I made sure to listen with an open mind and not search for affirmation of my topic, goals, or project.

To the last point, I think I initially felt defensive and hurt if my interlocutors did not immediately understand my topic or questions because I was still insecure in my project as I started out. Yes, it made sense to my committee and while I was at my university, but I had to make sure my questions would hold up in this long stretch of research in my field. I did a lot of searching in the first part of my time in my field, which was devoted to language studies, to gain confidence in myself and that translated to greater confidence in my project and knowledge about my topic. This isn’t to say that I discredited the person who would sometimes tell me I was on the wrong path or that I should be looking in different places for answers or asking different questions altogether! It moreover meant that was better equipped to treat these moments as ethnographic moments and try to understand the subjectivity of the speaker and where their opinions were coming from, while taking their feedback just as seriously as I had before just without the defensiveness and self-doubt. This way I learned the different stakes my interlocutors had in my research topic and how they addressed them, often deepening my understanding and helping me to either change course when I needed to or better defend my directions.

Bringing back the big questions

The point when I realized I was getting saturated and had collected a large body of data was when I felt ready to wrap up my fieldwork and circle back to my larger theoretical questions. They had not fallen away completely, I only needed them to take a back seat while I collected data. I started seeing broader themes and connections in my data and began to read more theory as a means to broaden my understanding of what I was reading in my notes and to explain these patterns. I realized I had a lot of data and could begin to write. What I started writing was at first focused on short moments in my data collection but soon grew to reflect back on the broader implications and theoretical grounding that I couldn’t fit or communicate in the beginning of data collection which had now found its place.

To this end, ethnography is both method and goal of our work. I found I was often so exhausted after just a few hours of data collection because I was trying to soak in everything— not just listen to the answers people gave my questions but to record and document how they gave those answers, their own questions, and all surrounding details of the interactions. This is part of what accounts for ethnography; thick description and context. It should also be noted that flexibility is a large part of this process as well. I would say it is not uncommon to change the course of study or how you communicate and describe your study even after you spend multiple years building up a project and proposal. Our instincts may be to write off those who are quick to dismiss us or not understand what we are doing, but these moments of confusion are important for helping us better direct our work and are all part of the whole experience.

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