Intervening as an Anthropologist: Whose ethics apply?

My most uncomfortable encounters in schools during my observations for my fieldwork were incidents of not knowing if I should report a pattern of teachers hitting students that I witnessed in classrooms to the principals, who acted as my overseers at schools. India has outlawed corporal punishment in schools, but in the minds of many teachers and parents, it is justified as a necessary and acceptable form of discipline. In one school at the beginning of my research, it was rampant. Teachers would often hit students and the loud, “Thhwaaack” of rulers meeting supple first-grade wrists is heard sprinkled throughout my recordings. This is something I do not condone and I found myself so uncomfortable with this practice and with a few other aspects of that school that I decided to search for another school in which to conduct my observations. Since I was starting out in my research and since I had witnessed almost every teacher and even the principal hit students at that school from time to time, I decided against saying anything. I stayed silent also thinking that my role as an anthropologist is always to only observe and not to try and change the environment in which I observe any more than my mere presence already does.

However, at a different school, the one that I settled on for my year-long observations, I noted that even in the recruitment literature for prospective families there was a sentence about how the teachers explicitly do not practice corporal punishment. I found that one teacher would though. She would get frustrated by the students and on occasion, smack them upside the head, or on their backs and arms in anger. After a lot of deliberation, I decided to report it.

I asked around and consulted my friends and relatives about this practice. Many mentioned that while they were hit in school they knew that the laws had changed since their school-going days and teachers were not to be hitting students anymore. Some were even shocked that I had repeatedly witnessed this practice at such a reputable school. I built up the courage and in my last meeting with the principal, I mentioned to her that I had witnessed a teacher hitting students. I had decided to keep the name of the teacher out of it, stating that my intention was not to get anyone into trouble. I felt she should know and could address it without signaling out the one teacher. However, it turned out that she had suspected another teacher of hitting students and asked me to confirm the identity of the teacher. I gave in and assured her it was not the one she mentioned, hoping that the wrong teacher would not get into trouble but the conversation led me to reveal the identity of the teacher. The principal had also had a hunch about the teacher I mentioned and my reporting helped her to confirm it.

While I do not know if the teacher has stopped since I reported the behavior at the end of my research, it felt to me like the right thing to do even though I was a visiting researcher in their community. It was a difficult position to be in knowing that I was an outsider in the room and I was often the only other adult other than the teacher to witness the goings-on in classrooms. There is good oversight at the school though, with class assistants often in the room and the principal checks in often. But when the principal would visit, she would only sit in for short periods and everyone would be on their best behaviors. And the classroom assistants were in subordinate positions or perhaps on board with corporal punishment and did not or could not call out the teacher.

I had not intended to be a spy for the principal and I never felt that I was explicitly put into the position to report anything to the principal, but I also felt that I should advocate for the students who were 3 and 4 years old and would not know to speak up about this practice. I may have changed some aspects of the environment at the school but I feel assured in my decision to do so. Now I am working on incorporating this corporal punishment aspect into my analyses on language use. Often the teacher would get so frustrated because her role was to use English in the classroom with students who had very limited knowledge of the language, therefore creating a classroom where students often did not (could not) comply by rules, do homework correctly, or follow along in the lesson attentively. So while it was a disturbing part of my research that I hope I had put a stop to at this school, it is very illuminating for an analysis of the consequences and impacts of multilingual language education.

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Losing Data or alternately A Story of Loss and Redemption: The Yellow Notebook

In one of my favorite ethnographies, Sara Dickey’s Living Class in Urban India, Dickey speaks openly to readers at the beginning of her introduction chapter about how she lost ten integral interviews— the cassette tapes were never transcribed and returned to her as promised. Starting her book and immediately reading this sent my heart racing. Thoughts sped through my mind to make sure such a horrible event would never happen to me. I thought of all the ways my data could go missing, from cross-country flights, notebooks scattered across two states surviving various office and apartment moves, or the long international flights that seem to send me into a packing panic planning for what to leave behind and what to carry around the world with me. I’ve backed up all my typed notes on my laptop and onto an external hard drive, but the thought of all the other things that could go wrong racked my brain.

And then it finally happened. When I left my field site for an extended period of time to go to my university, I had always intended to return as soon as I could. With my good intentions to return to my field, I left an embarrassing amount of clothes and books with my kind and patient friends with the promise of gifts in exchange for using them as storage facilities. Unexpectedly, almost immediately after I got back to my university, I received a message from a friend who had promised to keep a large amount of my various clothes, notebooks, and house items. “Hey, I have that yellow notebook too” was all the message said. “Oh no! I hadn’t meant to leave that! Please keep it safe for me!” was my frantic and immediate response. I even checked in as one would do with a family pet left with a sitter, “How is my notebook doing? Can’t wait to be reunited!” my messages verged on frantic, barely holding back from asking for a Skype date with my notebook.

As you can imagine by now, when I returned to my field five months later, the notebook could not be located. I looked everywhere. I checked with everyone I could think of. I even asked if I could go through my friend’s cabinets thinking, no rather knowing, that I would do a more thorough job searching than he certainly had. I wasn’t in touch with a few of the people who had originally drawn me the precious maps in that yellow notebook. One of my interlocutors had disappeared into marriage and moved to another state. Another had escaped to South East Asia to start a new profession. Another interlocutor was already a distant connection who had barely agreed to help me the first time around. So I quickly had to accept that this important collection of data was gone forever.

I decided that since I had collected those maps as data at the beginning of my research, when I barely knew what I would eventually write about, I could now go back and collect the data again and do a more thorough job this time around. I put out of my mind the doubts that this new batch of data wouldn’t be as raw or authentic as my first iteration. And I focused instead on how I was grateful and lucky enough to have the opportunity to collect the data again, which is much more than Sara Dickey and many other researchers who find themselves in similar tragic situations can do.

This led me to reflect on all the data that has been lost that never made it into the manuscripts it was intended for. It also led me to reflect on how my data saving tactics became relaxed in the field. I followed what I had laid out in my research proposals and IRB applications, which was that my data would remain in a safe and locked place, but what about keeping my data safe from myself? Safe from me moving continents or changing apartments? I’m more than grateful that my story has a happy ending and I was able to more than make up for the lost data in my return trip to my field. But it gives me pause to think about backing up, copying, and securing data in the future and how common of a story it may be for us to lose pieces of our data in the process of losing ourselves in our work.

 

Work cited:

Dickey, Sara. 2016. Living Class in Urban India. Rutgers University Press.

Logistics and Comfort while in the Field

When building our lives in the field, there are many aspects to take into consideration apart from the logistics surrounding research and data collection. I recently found myself in a scramble for accommodation while returning to my field site for follow-up research in the summer months between my two years writing my dissertation. Plans changed, something fell through, and I needed to quickly find a low-cost place to stay where I could write. I’d be staying for less than two months and I knew I was very picky about where I wanted to stay based on knowing what I needed to be productive. It was important to me to have a workspace at home, knowing I’d be writing for extensive periods of time. I also needed to be able to cook, exercise, and be walking distance from groceries since I do not have a car or bike while in my field. With so many moving parts to bring together, I started asking other fieldworkers what they found they needed to stay sane and productive in their fields.

When I started to ask other researchers what creature comforts are necessary for them or how they create spaces of comfort while in the field, I learned that it was important to carve out time for ourselves outside of our roles as researchers in our daily lives while in the field. Hobbies or activities are important outside of data collection, reading, and writing. For me one comfort I required has always been to live in a place where I have some privacy and would be able to cook. For me, cooking was a welcome release from the strains of language studies and research. It was something that I could have control over in my personal space when so much was out of my control in my research.

This is a topic that is rarely addressed and verges on the taboo as it assumes we, as full-time researchers, are taking time away from work by doing other activities. But it is important to maintain a balanced life while researching and making sure our accommodations suit our needs and finding activities to do outside of research are good ways to maintain balance while researching. Perhaps these aspects should be considered and discussed as “para-research” activities since keeping good mental and physical health and knowing one’s limits aides in the research process. I asked two other researchers questions about how they made their work spaces and research locations comfortable for themselves and what activities they engage in to keep their sanity while working in a home away from home.

Shweta, a PhD candidate in anthropology, found that some specific decisions she made about her living space while conducting ethnographic fieldwork were attributed to her gender. More than for her own personal comfort, she did not want pressure to be on her hosts to constantly treat her specially and worry about her safety as both a guest and as a woman in the small village in northeast India where she conducts her research. Men, she said, could share a room and hosts would not worry so much over their safety and security. But as a woman in this village, she wanted to have her own room and a kitchen to have a space away from the gaze of her interlocutors and so that hosts would not feel pressured to worry about her knowing she would know how to fend for herself if she had her own, personal space. In previous visits to her field she found that as a guest, she was often given the best pieces of food or fed delicacies and fussed over constantly. Shweta knew that for a longer period of time in her field site she would need a space to “turn off” from ethnographic work and also have her personal space, and a level of comfort and freedom that she was used to having to be productive. Having her own space, she hoped, would also help to incorporate herself into the daily fabric of the village to be treated more closely to a local than as a special guest staying with a host.

Amanda, a PhD candidate in history also working in India, mentioned that it was always important to her to incorporate physical activity into her routine. Wherever she lived in India, she made sure to be able to commute by bicycle and find a gym or take part in other forms of exercise that would keep her active and offset the long hours she spent sitting and working in archives. As she stayed in a relatively conservative provincial capital in India for her research, she mentioned that it became important to her to make time to travel and visit friends in other cities to have respite from the isolation she felt working in her city.

Food and access to amenities also came up in my conversations with Amanda. She found that while working in the archives in a conservative area in her city that there were no suitable options for her to find meals. The archives were connected only to an all-male madrasa where she was not allowed to enter and eat. She structured her day so that she would eat before working in the archives but then plan to wrap up work only when she said she, “Couldn’t take the hunger any longer,” and would have to venture off, in the intense heat of summer by bicycle, to find a late lunch. What often happened was that she would lose energy to return again to the archives, which also closed relatively early. In the afternoons she would complete other work, relax, and try to exercise. Amanda perfectly justified her routine, though she said most people in her field spend whole days in archives and when she mentions her routine she felt that she was not working as much as her colleagues. She was never prepared in her classes for this kind of archival work and realized her days would look radically different if she worked in a larger archive in India or in archives based in the UK or the US where researchers have access to all kinds of amenities and the archives are kept open for long hours. However, spending more time in the archives where she was working was untenable for her due to her gender and location.

The topic of extracurricular activities and hobbies as well as needs for maintaining comfort, productivity, and even sanity during research should to be brought further into conversation to better prepare new researchers for the field. It should be made known that it is good to have hobbies and to engage in activities outside of data collection and research to make sure that one does not get burnt out from overworking. These topics should also be discussed further among well-seasoned researchers because it helps us to better understand how others manage working for an extended period of time away from our usual comforts and how to make a home away from home.

Reading and Resting to Write

As I’m in the thick of writing my dissertation, I’ve been reflecting on the writing advice I’ve received, my own anxieties about writing, my goals, and what seems to be working. In this post, I’ll reveal some of my writing habits and advice that may seem a bit contrary to the advice I’ve gotten. This is to show that there isn’t any correct way to do this as long as we complete the task and are proud of accomplishing it. There are many different roads to the final destination.

Since I was young, I’ve wanted to be a writer. I’d write stories for fun, draft poems, and was even told to “write an essay” by my dad whenever he tried to get me to occupy myself in place of turning on the television. In many ways I’ve fulfilled my dream in my career so far. But somewhere along the way I’ve gotten onto a course of scientific writing that feels sterile and clinical. Coupled with dry writing, I’ve gotten advice from many sides to “make sure to write everyday!” While this is excellent advice, I’ve found that it doesn’t work so well for me. I either feel pressure to write and then don’t write and feel bad, or I write something I don’t like or isn’t productive just for the sake of getting something on paper. I know writing just to get into a habit of writing works for some and sometimes getting anything down can end up being helpful later. I prefer to wait until inspiration strikes.

Writing

What has been working for me so far is a slow approach to writing. I write in fits and spurts. I also know I write best in the morning, so if I spend the morning doing something else, I most likely will not get to writing that day. There’s many days or sometimes weeks where I’m reading through notes or working on other tasks entirely. On a good dissertation writing day when I’m starting out on working on a chapter, I jot notes first, usually in the form of outlines and ideas, and then begin my drafting process by bringing together parts of other papers and notes I’ve written in other places. This is not actually writing per se and just a lot of copying and pasting. Once I get going, I usually hit a good stride and keep going until the task is done.

If I’m working on a deadline I can usually work well setting aside two hours every morning for writing. While I consider writing for two hours out of a whole day as a good writing day, it is very little time devoted to the task. I am working hard on seeing this as progress and not as wasting the rest of the day. Therefore I find it useful to split my attention. I work on other tasks or other goals to accomplish. I also make sure to go on walks and jogs to try and inspire ideas and connections. This has been my pattern for the conference papers and chapters of my dissertation that I’ve drafted so far. So while my process includes thinking about my work and writing everyday, it does not necessarily mean that I write everyday.

Reading

To help with the clinical and dry style of writing I adopted in grad school, I’ve been trying to read more fiction by authors whose writing styles I greatly admire. I’ve been trying to make this an even more productive task (because reading fiction does not feel like work and feels more like I’m shirking my responsibilities rather than bulking up my skills) by reading South Asian fiction literature. This helps me to see how authors weave stories into what I view as ethnographic detail about the region of my work. I’ve also read other dissertations on my topics or based in India, and the words of one of my advisors is always in my mind, “Everything in anthropology is primary data.” Maybe more than just a more descriptive writing style will make its way into my dissertation. On the other hand, maybe not and that’s okay as well.

Resting

I often have the notion that everyone else is working harder than I am. While this may be true, in my field I made sure to take time to “turn off,” meaning that while I could easily see every interaction I had from grabbing coffee with a friend to buying vegetables could be a potential entry in my fieldnotes, I quickly became exhausted wearing my anthropologist hat all the time. I’m sure I was also exhausting company for those who spend time with me while I was “on”—asking questions and gleaning information wherever and whenever I could. This is why I make sure to take time or even days off from writing or thinking about writing to rest and do other things. I find time to do enjoyable activities like watch movies and visit museums and spend time with friends and family. I often cook and listen to innumerable podcasts as well. Most importantly, I remind myself to not feel guilty for doing these activities instead of writing or thinking about writing. That is key. The task is not so overwhelming but the guilt can be. I remind myself that the time spent resting will actually help my productivity and energize me for the next bout of writing which may happen when I plan for it or may come to me out of the blue.

Leaving my Fieldsite

By lucky chances, conscious decisions, and some unlucky twists, I’m winding down a consecutive two and a half years in my fieldsite and preparing to go back “home.” In this time, I’ve learned and changed more than I am able to put into words (though I have to somehow manage to put it into a dissertation) and I’ve progressed through four stages of fieldwork—language study, research, analysis, and writing. Through all of those different phases, I made what feels like a normal life for myself in my field. Now it is finally time for me to leave and I’m working on processing a whole suitcase full of emotions and experiences. In this post, I want to outline the decisions I made about leaving that helped me to transition into the next phase of my studies and career.

 

Work

My transition from full-fledged writing to wrapping up and leaving the city I’d called home for two and a half years started about a month before my actual departure. Some of my close friends were leaving town and I realized their exits marked the beginning of my final goodbyes to people I’d grown close to. So, while I was still working on writing, I began to think about my own exit and return to my other home. I made sure to wrap up a draft of a chapter in order to end the year on a high note but after that task, I decided to leave my academic work aside for my last couple weeks in my field. However, in order to not go completely crazy or have sadness consume me, I kept a low stakes project on hand to split my attention from my packing and farewells. This allowed me to spend my last couple weeks still academically productive, but also able to have flexible time to do tasks outside my normal routine knowing that there would definitely be visits and tasks that would pop up unexpectedly.

 

Shopping

One of the tasks that I decided to take on in my last week was a whirlwind of shopping. Apart from buying gifts to bring back to family and friends, I also made time to do a lot of shopping for myself. I learned I could get nice professional clothes in India, so I used that as an excuse to re-vamp my wardrobe for my return in an economic manner. In my attempts to mentally prepare to return home, I began a process of nesting for my new place back home too, I decided to bring pieces of my field back with me to put around my apartment in the US. I made time to visit some of my favorite shops and finally picked up textiles and objects I have been eyeing for months in anticipation for my return that will gently remind me of the home I made and loved for over two years. I also made sure to stock up on some of my favorite foods and other little things I’d grown accustomed to while living in India. I figured having some of these things by my side would help to make the transition less difficult.

 

Enjoying my favorite things

Shopping also provided me a way to go around the city one last time, which I enjoyed with new eyes knowing I’d be leaving it soon. The plans I made with family and friends also centered on making sure I visited some of my favorite restaurants, cafes, and landmarks. It was a nice way to give closure to the city and also spend time with friends. I also enjoyed visiting some of these places alone to reflect on my time spent in the field and tried to take more pleasure in things I began to take for granted from sunsets, street dogs, plants and fruit that first seemed exotic to me, and even traffic.

 

Saying goodbyes

While this may have been the most important thing on my list when leaving a city in the past, this time I tried to not stress myself out by planning individual meetings with everyone I had interacted with over the last couple years. I tried to see people at group gatherings to say goodbye to friends. I also started a process of saying goodbye early and let people know that I would probably be busy and that I would love to stay in touch by email if I wouldn’t be able to meet them near the end of my stay. I figured it was going to be both emotionally and logistically hard to say goodbye to everyone who has made my stay meaningful and important, so I compromised by having a relatively open schedule for myself instead of making appointments to visit everyone one last time in a rush on my last days. While I’ve done the mad rush to cram in as much as possible in the past, I find it is not as meaningful as a heartfelt note or a more relaxed visit well before leaving. I do wish I could gather everyone I know and see them on my last day, but I also know myself and the limits of my sanity and emotions and would expect a harried meltdown if I had tried to go through with that.

 

Envisioning a return

I recognize the way that I said goodbye to my friends, family, and interlocutors in my field is a privilege because I also expect that I’ll be back in my field for a short follow-up stay relatively soon. It was helpful for me to not see this departure as a final goodbye but as an ellipsis until the next time I visit to do follow up work or come for a relaxed vacation. This is a privilege I have from working in a place where I have roots and a city that is relatively easy to reach from all corners of the world. I know my plans to return are a luxury not granted to all of us, and while for me a return trip also may not come to fruition, it was helpful to imagine one as I planned to leave.

 

Trying to be normal

Overall, I kept telling myself that life goes on. Everyone I was interacting with in my last couple weeks were working their own jobs and sticking to their normal schedules, so I tried to stick to mine and keep in mind that the world did not revolve around me as much as it seemed that removing myself from a city that became my home should be the biggest thing in the world to me and everyone around me. Rather, I kept telling myself that this was always part of the plan and that I knew this day would come. I made time to reflect on my feelings and especially to acknowledge my accomplishments, proud moments, and fun memories.

2017 AAA Annual Meeting Roundtable on Methods

It’s almost that time of year again! The American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting is coming up in a few short weeks in Washington, DC and I wanted to get out the news about a methods roundtable discussion taking place at the AAAs on Friday, December 1st. The roundtable will address topics similar to what we write about here in this blog and a few contributors to this blog will be participating answering questions about fieldwork, ethnography, and methods in anthropology.

Send your questions our way here or find us at the roundtable in DC later this month! More comprehensive information is below.

Session Title: Fieldwork and Beyond: Students share experiences and answer questions about work in and after the field

Friday, December 1, 2017, 4:15 PM – 6:00 PM
Session Abstract: Margaret Mead once said, “The way to do fieldwork is never to come up for air until it is all over” (source unknown). Fieldwork is an integral part of anthropology and due to the nature of our discipline, data collection, analysis, and writing are highly individual tasks and can be confusing at times for students. The purpose of this roundtable is to assist students in preparing for ethnographic fieldwork before diving into the field, while in the field, and after returning, therefore creating a space for ethnographers to discuss topics related to ethnography and fieldwork logistics openly from student perspectives. This roundtable discussion will be held to specifically address questions Anthropology students of all levels may have about fieldwork methods and post-fieldwork stages of analysis and writing. PhD and MA students who have completed fieldwork and/or write-up stages will facilitate the discussion addressing topics not limited to: Different methods for writing field notes and conducting observations and interviews, politics of fieldwork, structuring fieldwork/analysis/writing, IRB hurdles, ways to deal with unexpected obstacles, how to tailor data collection methods to suit each of our unique projects, creative analysis methods, and other tips that may not have been shared in our pre-fieldwork methods and theory classes. While this roundtable will be held largely to share fieldwork experiences and to answer questions about fieldwork, analysis, and write-up phases, students of all levels are encouraged to bring their own questions and experiences to the group to share and learn from one another.

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.

Writing in Circles

“I feel like I’m trying to put a square peg into a round hole!” was how I recently described writing my dissertation to a colleague. To commemorate my anniversary of two years in the field (one for language studies and one for research), I decided to write this post about moving into the analysis and writing stage while continuing to live in my field. These two years have passed as a blur but suddenly time seems to have slowed down as I move into another phase of my PhD while still calling my fieldsite home. In this post I want to explain the beginning of my writing process to hopefully start a conversation about ways to proceed onto the next steps of creating a dissertation or thesis once the data has been collected and the unique challenges that exist when trying to do all this from the field.

To begin, I had attempted to sketch out a few different versions of chapters after dividing up my data (mostly fieldnotes but some recording and interview transcripts) into categories based on their topics. I created word documents compiled of all my notes in chronological order then coded them by highlighting and grouping together common themes. In my research I looked at different ways mother tongues are used in an urban Indian city. So each of these ways presented themselves almost as separate fields in my study. I thought, “Great! Each field is a chapter.” I smugly patted myself on the back and went about writing a conference paper about one of the categories. This took about two weeks and then I assumed I’d move on and write each chapter as a conference paper to neatly sketch out arguments and if I worked as quickly as I had for that first paper. At this rate, I thought, I’d be done with a draft of my entire dissertation before the summer was over!

And yet, while delivering that conference paper, I found myself hating what I had written and feeling embarrassed about the arguments I was trying to make which sounded whiny and condescending. I got kind and valuable feedback from audience members but it struck me that the feedback sounded like I was being told that I’d gone about looking at the topic the wrong way or had ignored large parts of the issue I was trying to explore. Along with the misgivings I already had, the feedback signaled that I needed to re-work a majority of that paper and I began to wonder if I even had enough data to talk about what I was trying to say. Was I just picking and choosing data that I saw fit to prove an idea I had before even doing fieldwork? Was I ignoring other things my data was trying to say?

The categories that I had assumed would be chapters were not so clear anymore because I began to see cross-sections among them and different arguments emerging when I combined data from different categories. In a moment of exceptional pessimism I found myself completely negating the argument I made in my initial research proposal. I created a new outline of chapters and then new outlines for those chapters. I started to build and build on my outlines and categories but then suddenly I was stuck again. To get unstuck, I felt it best to start over and repeat this all over again. All the while, I also felt the need to try and dislocate myself from my field while I was still living in it. I felt that I needed some distance so I stopped reaching out to interlocutors and stopped trying to talk about my research topic with everyone I came across. I found myself missing my home institution’s library and searching for texts online cursing that it would be much easier to access everything I needed that would unlock my writers block back at my university. Though since I was still living in my field with no intentions to go back to my university soon, I felt extremely guilty for not continuing to reach out to interlocutors making it seem as if I’d dropped off the face of the earth. “I thought you had left!” or “Oh you’re still here?” were common phrases I heard from people when I occasionally resurfaced. Yet even in trying to distance myself from my field while living in my field, I still couldn’t seem to move forward with my writing. Was it my data? Was my access to resources too limited? 

This was about when I realized I needed a new approach to analyzing my data and I needed a new perspective on this whole thing that I’m deeply invested in. One way to continue working was to circle back to tasks I had completed at the beginning, like reading new theory and re-reading old, familiar texts too. Now that I knew what a lot of my data show I needed to find theory that could help me understand new ways of interpreting it. Rather than, as I said, trying to fit a square peg into a round hole or trying to find pieces of data and fit them into explaining theories I already had in my back pocket, I needed to let the data guide the theoretical interventions. What this looks like in practice is a lot of tacking back and forth between work I did previous to coming to the field, like reading and note taking for comprehensive exam preparation, dissertation research grant proposal writing, etc., and piecing together data I now have that has a lot more to say about a topic I’ve now spent over a year looking at on the ground. I realized I was trying to fit what I was seeing into theoretical interventions I had read previously or had proposed to make prior to my fieldwork. But I was ignoring new themes and topics coming out of my data that I hadn’t anticipated. Reciprocity suddenly became a theme I saw over and over, but it was something I ignored for a long time because it wasn’t a theme I had studied in relation to my topic prior to my fieldwork. So I looked at these new themes and went searching for bodies of theory that addressed them— a somewhat opposite approach of how we come into the field.

When speaking with my colleague, I joked that I felt like I was moving backwards. Wasn’t I supposed to already have done all my reading? Now I have to go back and keep finding new things to read? But she assured me, “We all run in circles,” by which she meant that the process of research and writing is circular and our processes repeat themselves but always building upon what we already know and what data we have gathered. What is often considered good ethnography challenges pre-formed ideas about the field and the anticipated data to be collected. So it was okay to be circling back to what I was doing exactly at this time last year before beginning my data collection because it showed that my pre-formed notions were being challenged and expanded.

I hope writing about this experience shows that writing up the dissertation is not a linear process. The data we collect will and should reveal new insights to us rather than solely confirm what we proposed before beginning of our fieldwork. I am still learning to embrace and contextualize my data in the bodies of theory and the constantly changing world around me rather than feeling that I’ve committed an oversight with unanticipated outcomes.

In Defense of Unstructured Interviews: What we can gain from doing away with interview guides and “going with the flow”

“What can you tell me about your experiences using different languages in your classroom?” I stated as my opening question for the professor I was interviewing. Based on my experiences observing another professor’s lectures, I had prepared about eight questions all leading off this one question for all university professors included in my study. However, her response had me scrambling. “I only use English,” she replied, staring at me like I was an idiot, “We are an English language university, so I exclusively teach in English.” “Oh, of course, of course…” I quickly responded and added something to save face about how a previous experience led me to believe otherwise.

What I was really thinking as I stammered some excuse for my assumption was what my next question should be since I could not then follow my intended list based on this unexpected answer. I panicked at first trying to grapple with the sense that we needed to stick to my script and how dare she derail my careful planning! After what felt like a difficult recovery, my common sense kicked in and I set aside my list of interview questions and sighed— releasing the expectations I had for my interview questions and the anticipated answers. Then I asked follow up questions based on her first response, as I do when organically meeting someone and just by coincidence discussing the topic of my dissertation. We ended up having a very fruitful conversation. This was in contrast to what always felt to me like an awkward question and answer session when I tried to unwaveringly sticking to my list of interview questions. In the end I learned more from this professor than I would have if I had followed my structured interview list because I allowed room for the conversation to grow and take directions different from the one(s) my interview guide had allowed for.

Making the switch from structured to unstructured interviews

I fully advocate for the unstructured interview as a main mode of interviewing interlocutors in ethnographic fieldwork. In training for my field research, the unstructured interview was often glossed over as the third interview style and lazy cousin to the structured and semi-structured interview models. But in my fieldwork it has proven time and again as the most effective interview style. In my opinion, for the unstructured interview to work well, one needs to be good at thinking on their feet, and generally friendly, confident, and open. Overall, it helps to be an experienced conversationalist to begin with, which is something I struggled with as I gained my footing in my field site and with the field language. But after ample practice, unstructured interviewing is now my go-to method and feels the most comfortable for discussing my research for the first time with new interviewees.

Based on classes, research proposals, and preparing documents for my university’s IRB review, I had my structured and semi-structured interview questions neatly laid out with a clear vision of how to use them in my research. However, as I have learned over and over again, actual fieldwork is not as neat and tidy as the proposal or classroom methods exercises. After my experience feeling blindsided by the professor, I stopped rigidly planning my interview questions most of the time. I had a guide for questions based on previous interviews or an idea of where I wanted the interview to go, but I made sure to leave room for answers that would change my route or expectations for the interview. But most of the time, I did away with using my interview guides though I always brought them along with me more as a safety blanket. I also still make sure to always begin with the general statement about confidentiality and safety and what my research is and what it will be used for.

Introduce yourself as a talking point

Contrary to what feels like good ethnographic research methods, I begin my interviews now by talking about myself. I had initially intended to do as little talking as possible to be a good listener but I found that this confused my interviewees who often had more questions about me and my work than what I started our interview with. I also found that it was helpful to give rather extensive background information to spark more fruitful conversation and to avoid having the interviewee explain something I already knew. Sometimes my introduction includes more personal details like my background and family but most of the time I first just explain my general topic and interests within the topic and answer their questions first. Sometimes, without divulging specific details, I include in these introductions what I’ve already learned from speaking to other people in the same field. Often just these initial details about myself are enough to spark conversation and generate a fruitful discussion with my interviewee.

Structuring unstructured interviews

These interviews are still structured or scaffolded in certain ways. Unstructured interviewing does not mean going into an interview blindly or without any preparation. For each person I interview, before our scheduled meeting, I most likely make first contact with them through email or in person in a previous meeting or introduction. So they know a little in brief about my dissertation topic and interests in meeting with them. I also make sure to google them or search for them and their background in some way so I don’t ask questions to which answers could be easily found by other means. This was one of my mistakes in that first interview that shifted my default interview style from structured to unstructured— if I had prepared more by looking into the school and professor rather than expecting to get all my answers from the person I was interviewing, I would have known that that school policies dictate that professors are to instruct in English, for example.

Conclusions and caveats

The first time I tried heading into an interview in an unstructured manner, I felt a sense of dread similar to the one I would get when I was about to take a test that I had not studied enough for. I felt as though I was being lazy, so in the cab I sketched out specific questions to ask. At some points during my research, last moment questions have come in handy. For example, some of my interlocutors have not been very loquacious and expect and wait for me to drive the conversation. Having questions written down not only guides and structures our interaction but it gives me time to collect my thoughts while I scan my notebook. In one interview in particular I went into a producer’s office with what I thought was a clear understanding of that person’s role was within the industry, but ended up being mistaken or having incorrect information before meeting. When this happened, I was pretty much at a loss and wished I had prepared a much more structured but open ended interview guide. I scrambled again to think up questions that would make our meeting worthwhile which I’m sure resulted in me looking quite unprofessional and fumbling.

Another caveat is that arriving for an interview without any planned questions is counter productive if it is not the first time you are meeting with that person. When I have had follow-up interviews with individuals, they have expected a much more formal question and answer session based on our first encounter. The first meeting generates specific questions for the second meeting. So, if it is a subsequent interview with the same individual, I definitely bring specific questions as we would have already covered all the general, open-ended topics. Though, I still make sure to not be so rigid in sticking to those questions and to still allow for new topics and directions to blossom out of the interview guide if needed.

Generally, after listening more intensely to my interlocutors (because I have stopped ticking off questions or trying to direct the conversation in ways that my next question does not feel so unexpected or off topic), I have found that my interviews tend to be longer and more rich with details branching into new and exciting areas of my research that I have not previously thought to consider. Some of the branches need trimming and I have to sometimes bring the conversation back to a central theme or sometimes there are topics I have in mind that I need to ask pointed questions about that I make sure to have jotted down. Overall, doing away with an interview guide and opening interviews by speaking about my own background and research has liberated my style of interviewing to produce very good results and has helped me to make meaningful connections with my interlocutors. 

Agony in Ecstasy: Loneliness and Isolation in Ethnographic Fieldwork

I recently read Rebecca Schuman’s article, “The Not-So-Splendid Isolation of Doctoral Study,” published on chroniclevitae.com’s Don’t Look Back in Anger series dedicated to exploring topics related to the grad-school experience. In the article, Schuman explains that while pursuing her PhD she ignored her physical and mental health, subsuming to and prioritizing intellectual work over all other physical and emotional needs which resulted in isolating herself to an unhealthy degree in her work. The article resonated with me and was able to put words to many of the creeping feelings I had been trying to ignore while engaging in my own fieldwork- mainly those of isolation and loneliness. Although my experiences on the way to getting my PhD are vastly different from Schuman’s, her article spoke more broadly about a period of isolation, both physical and intellectual, that occurs while pursuing higher degrees in specialized topics that require periods of independent data collection, often far from home. In this post I want to share my own experiences with isolation and loneliness to open a dialogue about how although we generally work independently as anthropologists, we should never feel as though we are alone. This blog post does not address a specific methodological approach, but I think it is equally important to discuss how we should keep ourselves sane and healthy while engaging in ethnographic fieldwork.

I’ve found that my anthropological fieldwork is both incredibly rewarding and frustrating. On good days, I am engaged in a meaningful task or bouncing from one meeting to another where I go from being absorbed in one observation to an equally enlightening interview to a fascinating cultural event. When this happens I can’t wait to take down notes and begin to theorize and analyze what I’ve experienced. On these days I feel confident, uplifted, and motivated. I independently plan and coordinate my schedule and it’s wonderful when I feel like I’m able to pull off piecing together what seems like a daunting, scattered puzzle of plans and appointments. When this goes well I’m convinced that I’m right where I should be and even the minute details I’ve diligently recorded will help yield significant contributions not only in my field but also in society in general.

Then there are days when I feel like I do nothing or my careful planning falls through and a long-awaited interview turns out to be five minutes and useless or worse, two-hours and useless. Even harder is constantly trying to explain my work which sometimes feels as though I’m justifying my personal self and my choices to research contacts, family members, and friends. I’m working on a narrow topic and sometimes I find myself so deep in tunnel-vision of my work that I forget not everyone inherently knows what I know. On one hand, this work I am fully engaged in is a professional side of my life and in efforts of having some semblance of work-life balance, I try to carve out times where I’m not working. On the other hand, I’ve uprooted and focused my life around doing this work I’ve carefully planned and looked forward to doing. I can’t keep the personal from creeping into the professional, or vice-versa, when I live full-time in my field and topic- language use in urban settings where every opportunity of communication is an opportunity for data collection.

This highly independent and self-driven project, coupled with the fact that I live alone, leads to a certain level of isolation that I shouldn’t ignore. Working independently on a project means that I don’t have a team or co-workers with whom I work with, or bounce ideas off of in the moment, or fall back on in moments of uncertainty. It is important to note advice from my department is just an email away and I’ve also met some amazing interlocutors, some who I now call friends, who have greatly helped me advance my data collection. However, while seeing a project that is fully my own come to fruition has boosted my confidence, it slowly dawned on me that I am also willingly isolating myself with this work. It took me a while to realize this because on the days I’m successfully collecting data, I spend the whole day among people. But being among others doesn’t mean that I’m not isolated. And this particular isolation is also not a question of language barriers. I find that although I can speak the local language to a certain degree, and most people I work with speak fluent English, I still find it difficult to connect with people. This perhaps comes from difficulties identifying personally with the life experiences of others. Being an anthropologist, I love learning about people and learning about their experiences from their own points of view but I’m an anomaly here as an American of half-Indian descent. I rarely find others who, while they may be interested in hearing about them, deeply share many of my experiences in life and me theirs. It is also very odd from an Indian societal point of view for me to have decided to pursue this path of study, and on top of that, I am a female happily living alone without household help. Embracing my strange position is both extremely liberating and anxiety-inducing.

I surround myself with relatives I’m lucky to have in my field and friends I’ve made in various ways and I keep a busy work and social calendar. It is difficult knowing that for now the end of my fieldwork seems to be too far in the future to see but there will come a time when the end point is within my view. When that time finally comes I’ll have to disconnect myself from the network of social connections I’ve made here and in some ways it will be as if I were never here at all. Sometimes knowing that makes it difficult to get out of bed, forge new connections, and make attempts at deep relationships. I’m no stranger to picking up and moving and keeping in touch with friends all over the world, but as I get older the adventure of it diminishes and the sadness in leaving another newly made life weighs heavier. As I move through these transitions, I’ve taken various measures to deal with my isolation in my work and the feelings of loneliness that come along with it. I’ve sought out help through therapy, made trips back to the US for R&R with family and friends and face-to-face appointments with those at my university invested in my career, and I try to stay connected in all the ways long-distance communication is possible these days through Skype, Email, Facebook, and WhatsApp.

Despite the difficulty I have with transitions, culture shock, an inevitable feeling of isolation while pursuing a narrow independent project, and the loneliness that comes with living alone and working independently on a project, I feel that I’ve gotten to know myself much more profoundly by doing this work in the way I continue to do it. I first have to justify to myself what I am doing and why I want to do it before I can explain it to others. I’ve found my way in this project through trial and error and have learned where to turn and what resources to call upon when the failures seem to outnumber the successes. I’m proud of what I’ve been able to learn about myself and my research topic, because the work I get to do is creative work and it still energizes and excites me. However, I had no idea there would be so many positive and negative byproducts of the one product I am diligently pursuing- my dissertation. The emotional stresses of conducting independent ethnographic research should be more openly shared in our circles along with our compelling analyses, findings, and contributions.