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.”

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Fieldworking in Real Time, Part I: Taking a Break, Self-care and Self-indulgence in Fieldwork

This month Fieldworking is happy to introduce the first post in a series which documents and details navigating fieldwork in real time. This post, by contributor Shweta Krishnan, outlines what planning on the cusp of entering the field can look like. In a few months she will update readers with a follow up post on the questions she poses in this piece. Check back for new work on fieldwork and data collection!

 

So far, I’ve only done three summers of fieldwork. My long-term, 12-month long fieldwork period is just coming up. But as it becomes more and more imminent, I find myself asking if I know how to break my time up while I am in the field so that neither I nor my interlocutors unnecessarily exhaust ourselves. I do not mean that I need to create a timetable which carefully tabulates what I will do every week or month and how each of these will contribute towards my overarching research questions. But I am talking about taking time between these organized and required tasks to breathe, take a break and just be. A plan for self-care! Such breaks, I think are necessary in order to remain healthy and restful during the course of the fieldwork. I also believe they will ultimately strengthen my capacity for being more present in the moment when my interlocutors talk to me, and my ability to listen and be more attentive to what they are saying, indicating and doing. Similarly, these breaks might just give them an opportunity to carry on as if I were not around, and then circle back to me after working on their tasks with focus.

During the past summers, I have been very grateful for the time that my interlocutors have given me. I work with a small agricultural community in Assam’s Brahmaputra valley. My interlocutors are extremely busy people, splitting their time between their fields, their looms, their cattle or pigs, and their family. Some of them also work as tour guides. Additionally, there are always boats to make, roofs to thatch, bamboo furniture to make or repair. So, when they take time to sit down with me and talk to me, or take me around their villages I am aware that they are stealing away from other tasks, some of which are lucrative and others are personally fulfilling. Talking to me falls into the latter category, one of my interlocutors told me one day. It pleases him that he is able to speak about his life, and yet, this means he has to take some time away from his routine and fit me into his schedule.Even if he—and others—try to multitask, they are often slower when I am talking to them than if they were working to the rhythm of the songs they sing while weaving cloth or transplanting crops.

Similarly, while I am very grateful for the time they give me, sometimes I find myself wondering if my time in the field can be paced differently. There are days when I start really early, and while I decide to give myself one task—such as follow one interlocutor around—I find myself being invited into other homes, and almost organically slipping into other tasks—such as doing a spontaneous group interview with curious women who first decided to check me out and then decided to talk to me about my research. While some of this is definitely the result of the novelty of our relationship—though I’ve known then for three years, I see them after long gaps each summer eliciting much excitement—some of it is also because of the excitement that both they and I feel about the topic of my fieldwork. I am documenting their everyday lives, and that is something that is understandably as anxiety-provoking as it is intriguing and stirring for them. As for me, this is my first ethnography, and so I am just as often on edge as I am in control and working smoothly through the situations I find myself in. So, very often I pack my day with tasks to make sure I don’t slip up; I never say no to an invitation for fear that I may offend someone, or for fear that I may never have the opportunity to explore that avenue again, or out of the sheer thrill that I feel when I think this invitation will help me examine my own data in new ways.  So sometimes, I forget to take a break and allow the exhaustion to hit me only after the summer session is done.

As I stare at months and months of upcoming fieldwork, I wonder how I need to manage my time and energy better, and be better aware of their time and efforts as well. Two things strike me as I write: one, of course, at this point, everything is hypothetical. I’ve not been in the field for months on end yet, and maybe things will pan out differently from how they do during my summer visits to the field. Maybe—and I hope not—I will find myself having too much time on my hands and desiring some of the attention that I did get in the early days of fieldwork. Secondly, I wonder if negotiating breaks will bring up and call for a recognition of methods my interlocutors use for pacing their day.I once mentioned to one of my interlocutors that I liked taking long walks by myself. As it happened, so did she. But then she quickly told me that some of her friends thought it was wasteful and somewhat self-indulgent of her to leave her kitchen and her home and go down for a walk by the river. She then tried to get some of them to join her, and while three of her friends began accompanying her as often as they could, they still could not completely shirk the guilt. Taking a break from work and walking by the river without a purpose was seen as an act of self-indulgence, not self-care.

I am not a stranger to these ideas. I too grew up in a home, where I’ve seen men take breaks, but have watched women work—or find something to work on—nonstop. My mother and I have joked about how breaks make her feel useless and guilty. They also make her feel anxious, because she begins to wonder if she has all this time because she has completely forgotten to do something. Again, a break becomes an act and a sign of self-indulgence and not self-care.

So, here is a concern: I know—because I’ve been told at least by six interlocutors—that my labour is appreciated. They can relate to me because of this common sense of purpose—they work; I work. When they take a break from their work to help me with my work, they tell me it makes them feel good and useful, even while they are sitting down and resting. So, if I want to take breaks, and become “self-indulgent” because I’ve unlearned the sense of guilt that runs in my family and have learned to see “self-indulgence” as “self-care,” how will that shape my fieldwork? Alternatively, if my fieldwork actually functions as a break for the women I interview, for them to talk about themselves and reflect about their lives, then how do I tell them I need to take a raincheck without making them feel ignored or without offending them.

Again, it is not a question I can ask myself before I begin fieldwork. It is not something I can negotiate  except when I am already in the field, feeling that need for a break, for some alone-time, when I can do nothing and when I can just be. It is only in those moments that I will know how to take that break—how to be subversive about it, or how to negotiate it. Maybe I can learn from my “self-indulgent” interlocutor. Or maybe with more time in the field, I will learn how one takes a break while doing work? Perhaps there is something to the singing, and learning to move to the rhythm of a love song while bending over vegetables or harvesting rice. Maybe it wraps in mindfulness in ways that I don’t yet understand. Perhaps it allows for conversations on exhaustion that are experienced, embodied and expressed differently from what I would term labor, pause or self-care. These are of course questions that can only get resolved in the field. But if anyone has thoughts, I’d love to hear.

Storytelling and the Politics of Reflexivity and Reciprocity

Late in May 2017, I took a walk along the Luit with M. I’d met her the year before, but we hadn’t had a conversation then. She had simply returned my perfunctory salutations and we had gone our separate ways. This year, I ran into her again, and she invited me to tea. As her husband H, brewed black tea for us, M asked me about my ethnographic work in her village. When I described my interest in understanding how riverine erosion shaped indigenous practices in Majuli, the island she has been calling home for over ten years now, she nodded and said, “you will have to experience the river with us.” That was my plan, I told her. I would be spending most of 2018 and 2019 in Majuli, getting to know how the Brahmaputra and its many tributaries, including the Luit slowly ate Majuli’s grounds and how in the wake this erosion of land created a crisis of identity among the indigenous communities. Two days later, M decided to give me a preliminary tour of Luit’s banks to prepare me for this upcoming year.

During this walk, M, with no invitation from me, began to graciously share her story with me. She told me of her childhood, her relationship with her siblings and parents, her marriage to H, her children, and then of her dreams to form a feminist collective that would form a source of support for Mishing women in Majuli. She was very particular that this collective would draw on Mishing history and not on the general experiences of all women in Majuli. As we walked home, I asked her if I could write her story in my ethnography. “Ho,” she said, immediately. Yes. She did not think much about it. And at a later date also added, “I tell you only what I think you need to know to write your story about Mishing people.”

In the months that followed, I’ve had conversations with very experienced anthropologists on the trouble with writing about “Mishing people.” One of them asked me to think of writing as the gift we give to our interlocutors in sharing their story with the world. He added very sincerely, “You don’t realize just yet how grateful people can be when we can share their story.” But this raises a methodological question about storytelling itself. We do live in a time when storytelling is acknowledged as a form of speaking to power. But what stories do we tell, and how much is that shaped by what people want to hear? In a blogpost written in 2010 and entitled, What is left of Queer, feminist writer Yasmin Nair examined how immigrations stories are produced, critiquing both the right and the left for reinscribing certain aspects of immigrant suffering, in an attempt to underscore their own roles in “allowing” or “disallowing” immigration. As Nair notes, these stories are not really about the immigrants, but about America.

One could argue that that is policy. This is ethnography. They may be stuck in a room of mirrors. We are reflexive. But we don’t have the privilege or the means to live in a world where the politics of one realm that shapes our lives doesn’t shape the other. I wonder then, as a woman who has often had to fight being subsumed under assumptions made about my nationality, ethnicity, caste, gender both in India and in the US, how do I tell the story of another woman whose life is also unfolding at the intersections of gender, race, caste, tribe, nationalism, but in ways that are markedly different from mine? How can I practice “reflexivity” as ethnographers are warrant to do, but write an ethnography which doesn’t make sense of her story only through categories that are normalized through my experience? How do I write this ethnography so that the story she entrusted me with remains hers, and does not become the story of an entire tribe, and certainly not mine?

These are of course questions ethnographers have been grappling with for many decades now. One of these many crises within the field culminated in the ‘writing culture’ movement. Close on its heels, there were other works, I admire: Abu Lughod’s essay Writing Against Culture, Ruth Behar and Deborah Gordon’s edited volume, Women Writing Culture, Kamala Visvewaran’s Fictions of Feminist Ethnography. And many more, of course: books, blogs, essays, lectures, discussions on this anxiety that cruises through the bodies of anthropologists. The extractive nature of what we do—taking/receiving stories, objects, images—haunts many of us, as it should. It reminds us of our history: anthropology’s entanglement with colonialism, the power relations within which those early ethnographic stories were extracted. But in spite of our many reflections, we are never going to be completely free from these anxieties. We can aspire to become responsible storytellers only by learning from our collective failures. Never are we more aware of the challenges and failures than when we are in our fields, when we are doing anthropology, or ‘anthropology-ing’ like one of my friends likes to call it.

But it is this very idea that anthropology can be a verb that raises questions about the process. Let’s take this act of gift giving, for example. If my writing is a gift I give my interlocutors, then isn’t it an act of reciprocation? M, shared her story with me without my even asking for it. Isn’t that where this cycle of giving gifts began? And of course, she gave me her consent. While that might satisfy the IRB requirements, we must know as feminist scholars that consent is given and received within a set of power relations, and therefore is almost always incomplete. Therefore, even when the ‘gift’ is ‘willingly’ given, do we not stand the chance of reiterating colonial methods and breaking the cycle of care, friendship, and dignity if we embed the ‘gift’ within discourses that reinscribe difference in problematic ways. And thus, coming back to what reflexivity sometimes precipitates: the story of the “other” as told in relation to the positionality of the ethnographer. (For more on how feminist ethnography too errs, please read, Gillian Rose’s essay, Situating Knowledges: Positionality, Reflexivities and Other Tactics [1997]).

As we parted ways on the banks of the Luit, M left me with this feeling that she had told me a story about Mishing people, not just her story. And yet, I know her to be very different from other women who have spoken to me? How do I write her story then? How do I perform reflexivity? If I perform a kind of reflexivity to describe myself in terms that are recognizable in Western academia, and then her in similar terms, haven’t I simply played into this politics of imperialist recognition? Can I however write her story as her story, one indigenous story among others, that does not need to be made sense of by comparing it with mine, but could perhaps be sensibly situated in a web of stories that shared the context? Can I be present in the scene and not in her story? Can I break free from the idea that she must feel grateful to me for translating her story for Western academia? Can I think of this gift cycle that binds me now to her until I have reciprocated and perhaps after that too as a form of responsibility for writing differently?

Reflexivity became a part of ethnographic writing so that the white male anthropologist may not remain unmarked. However, in practice, reflexivity has played a role in strengthening notions of cultural relativism. We are taught to make sense of our ethnographic interlocutors by reflecting on the “differences” that sets them apart from us, the ethnographers. In most cases, this method places the ethnographer in the West, and the interlocutor in the ethnographic “elsewhere,” reifying the locations of the West, of this “other” place, and of their related “distances.” But I am not exactly located in the West, in my life. I benefit immensely from being a part of Western academia, and yet, I it remains only one of the many places that shape my sense of self. However, I do know what it feels like to be read as a text, to be translated, so that my everyday life within Western academia makes sense to my colleagues and professors. I would be doing my interlocutors in my field site a great disservice if I inflicted the same violence on them. It would be poor reciprocation for taking me into confidence.

How do we then write an ethnography that makes our positionality as story tellers transparent, and yet  does not make us the primary site of inflection in our own stories? In one of our conversation a professor from whom I have learned a lot told me that writing must be humble. Perhaps, this is what Abu-Lughod means by the “ethnographies of the particular” (1991): stories that make sense within the social contexts which imbues these experiences with meaning, and will lose that meaning if extracted, interpreted, translated. I must be in the story only as much as I am within the matrix of the social context which elicited that story. Perhaps, this is what Donna Haraway (1988) means by partial, incomplete, situated knowledges: both the ethnographer and the ethnographic interlocutor are positioned in relation to each other, partially transparent, partially opaque, to each other and even to themselves. A gift that has the humility to admit the limitations of knowledge over the other might perhaps begin to repay the kindness we are shown when strangers take us into confidence. And perhaps this is a kindness, we shouldn’t forget even if, over time, these strangers become more familiar, and finally, our friends.

References:

Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1991. “Writing Against Culture.” Pp. 137-62 in Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present, edited by R. G. Fox. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Behar, Ruth and Deborah Gordon. 1995. Women Writing Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Clifford, James, Ed. 1986. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspectives.” Feminist Studies 14(3): 575-599.

Nair, Yasmin. 2010. “What is Left of Queer: Immigration, Sexuality and Affect in a Neoliberal World.” Yasminnair.net, May 12, 2010. Accessed from http://www.yasminnair.net/yasminnairwhatisleftofimmigration on Jan 21, 2018.

Rose, Gillian. 1997. “Situating Knowledges: Positionality, Reflexivities and Other Tactics.” Progress in Human Geography 21(3):305-320.

Viswesaran, Kamala. 1994. Fictions of Feminist Ethnography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.