Fieldworking in Real Time, Part II: The Politics of Being the Outsider-Insider

This is the second post in a series which documents and details navigating fieldwork in real time by contributor Shweta Krishnan.  

I wrote my last post six months ago, when I was about to start my fieldwork. Since that last post, my relationship with my interlocutors has evolved, allowing me to rethink some of  the anxieties I had prior to fieldwork through my actual experiences in the field.

I realize instead that the binaries with which we are initially perceived and which we initially may use to perceive our interlocutors — such as insider-outsider, male-female, married-unmarried — re-emerge and constantly shift during out time in the field. In some ways, I remain as much an “outsider” as I was when I first stepped onto my fieldsite. I am always learning that no matter how many ordinary activities I learn to master, there will always be more that I am awkward at. For example, I can now climb up to a stilt house with ease, but just the other day, I was in the middle of conversation and forgot about the fact that frayed bamboo floors sometimes crack as you walk over them, and stepped with all my force and might into a kitchen, cracking the floor. But then, here is what my interlocutors said, “Good! Now you know that part of our lives too. It happens to all of us.” That wasn’t simply reassurance, but actually a moment that helped us relate to each other in spite of and across our differences.

This brings to me to something I have been thinking about: Anna Tsing’s theory of friction. Friction occurs at sites where our differences rub against one another and produce something that allows us then to collaborate and work across these differences. Working with my interlocutors allows me to think of how fieldwork is collaboration across differences. I think my initial blog post reflects the anxieties of navigating these differences. But over the past five months, my evolving friendship with my interlocutors allows me to think of how acknowledging and negotiating these differences through everyday conversations and activities is the stuff that fieldwork is made out of.

Anxieties continue to arise and they are most smoothened over during the actual “doing” of fieldwork. For example, I am often asked why I am unmarried at 35. I still find it intrusive at first blush. For me, marriage constitutes something private. It’s a topic I would discuss openly with close friends, but brakcet away from the more public space called the fieldsite. When I learned to look past this binary that I’d embodied, I learned that my interlocutors do not see the question, “are you married?” as a gateway into your private life. To them, the answer simply confirms or refutes their assumptions of your marital status. However, as I learned to engage with this question more deeply, I learned that it could open doors to more intimate conversations on how marriage helps them negotiate, subvert or sometimes affirm gender categories. They were equally curious to learn how I negotiated my femininity, when I had no husband or children. Through these exchanges, we have both learned to work across difference, and listen to experiences that are nothing like our own.

Sometimes of course anxieties cannot be resolved. I am still unsure of how to understand and deal with the following two questions, asked in this order: Are you unmarried? Are you travelling alone? It seems sometimes particularly aggressive when young men stop me on my way to a village and ask me these questions. I can never tell—unless I know this person—if it is simple curiosity or a proposition. I can also never tell if I am being put in my place and if I am being told rhetorically that as an unmarried woman I should be travelling alone. My female interlocutors and some of my older male interlocutors also believe that some of these interactions are meant to be hostile. So sometimes, I find that I have chaperones accompanying me to fend off this unwanted attention, particularly, if I am still out after dark.

Wrapped up within relations of care and friendship — but also with tense negotiatons of suspected hostility— I have learned to question the insider-outsider binary in productive ways. I am in one of interlocutors words, “never going to become Mising” like them; but I have now been a guest in so many homes that I am “not exactly an outsider either.” In fact, this particular interlocutor had to resolve this confusion for himself when his family wanted to invite guests for their familial celebration of the harvest. It is customary, he explained, for the family to feed people who were not of the family first and then partake from the new crop themselves. They were about to ask me to act as the guest, when they suddenly decided that I am so much a part of their home that I can’t really be treated as the guest anymore. Instead, they charged me with going to town and finding “an outsider” that could act as their guest. Similarly, a little boy, recently told his aunt that I was his sister because I had given him a bag to take to school. However, his aunt told me that the bag was thrilling to him because he now had an outsider-sister, a kin outside of the kinship structure he was accustomed to.

This outsider-insider that I have become is a comforting position. My interlocutors often retell the stories they told me before by revealing facts that they deliberately left out. Now that I am “one of them” or “a friend” they feel like they owe me the truth about what happened and why they don’t want particular incidents narrated. It is easier for me to explain to them how I can write more broadly about the issue under consideration without exposing their personal experiences to a wide audience. In a way, it allows me to write with them rather than about them, by explaining to them what I know from my positionality within the field and within the discipline of anthropology and by listening to what they know from their positionality within the field and from their own fields of expertise.

This queering of my position — not insider–not outsider — is also a question of constant negotiation. It changes every day and with everything I and they come to know about each other, the lives we live beyond our mutual plane of intersection and the lives we live in this shared plane of our existence.

The question I often have now is how does one leave the field? Does one ever leave? Seeing as our positionality is anything but stati and that it evolves with the relationships we make in the field., I also wonder how these relationships change when we leave the field physically, or when the dissertation we are working on is finished? This experience in the field tells me that I will only learn through time, what “leaving” really means. However, having experienced these subtle negotiations in the field, I feel a little more justified for pushing back in theory classes against writing practices that make ethnographic commentary on positionality yet another site to reinscribe the relative positions between “us” and “them.”