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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work cited:

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


Me and my recordings: a lesson

The best advice I took away from the 2013 AAAs in Chicago was what to do with recordings after completing fieldwork.  Specifically, I gained insight from a panel of students who candidly spoke about their methods and experiences in their fieldwork and analysis stages. I’m just starting the fieldwork stage of my PhD, collecting recordings on a small voice recorder of various lessons in schools to analyze the languages teachers and students use while interacting.  Already, I’ve started to process some of them as I go along, to better shape my research and observations.  In this post, I’m going to break down some of the methods I learned from the Chicago panel speakers and how to put them to use. 

Live in your recordings– One piece of advice that one of the panel members gave was to “live in your recordings.” She explained that this meant listening to them over and over again.  The key was, listening to recordings was not solely restricted to a work atmosphere.  She talked about how she would listen to them outside of a work setting too- for instance, when she would go on walks or wash the dishes, she played back interviews, almost to the effect of white noise.  I’ve been employing this method of playing back my recordings and have found that this passive listening style allows me to mentally process my recordings in new settings which sometimes brings out new insights and aspects. Listening to them multiple times also has the same effect. Especially since I am often busy, this method means that I can listen to recordings and interviews while I go about my day and multitask, so I don’t have to always carve out time to sit and listen.

Listen Actively– While going about my daily life and listening to my recordings at the same time is useful, I also need time to actively listen to my classroom recordings and interviews. Active listening for me entails listening to recordings playing back on a transcription program that timestamps recordings as I transcribe them and make additional notes. I’ve found that I can often only intently actively listen to my recordings for about 45 minute stretches, after that my mind begins to wander.  I also begin missing things, which is why listening to recordings multiple times is important. Thus it’s crucial to know yourself and your work habits.  My strategy is to let myself work for shorter spurts of time and then give myself a break rather than trying to power through a whole recording at a time.  I also slow down my recording when I listen back to it while transcribing, in order to catch all sounds made in the classroom. This means a twenty minute recording can end up taking over an hour to play back.

Layer the Process and Notes– Along with the different listening styles that I’ve been employing, different styles of note-taking and transcribing have also come in handy. I expect to do many versions or layers of transcribing with the recordings I’m listening to now. My first time listening through a recording to transcribe it, I often take meta-notes or spot notes. For example, I’ll write “storytelling” or “evaluation” to label the overall activity occurring in the flow of the lesson and recording. I’ve also been marking what I call, “exceptionally interesting moments”. These are points that relate to my research questions and that stand out to me on the first time listening through the recording. Sometimes I briefly transcribe a whole passage if it strongly exemplifies some of my main research interests.

The second time I listen to the recording, I transcribe the minutes around those exceptionally interesting moments in greater detail. I’ll also flag them in some way, like with a preliminary code, such as “codeswitching,” so I can remember the spot and why I found that part to be a fruitful location to return to. When I next listen through the recordings, I’ll try and transcribe more and more of the recording to fill in the parts between the exceptional moments or key incidents that I have previously transcribed.

Finally, I tend to take notes in the transcription about what is happening at a particular moment and how I can see it connecting to other moments or theory. In the future, I can see it being very useful to compile these notes in a separate and supplemental document to consolidate coded moments.

Tools– As with any profession, it is important to understand and utilize the tools available that will complement your work.  First, it is important to save multiple copies of recordings, just in case.  I upload all my recordings onto my music device so I can carry them with me and listen to them away from my computer. I have them saved in multiple locations like my phone, recorder, iTunes, and transcription program. I try and immediately make copies of them just in case something should happen to the originals on my recording device. Second, my life was radically changed when I purchased my foot pedal. I recommend that anybody doing any sort of transcription invest in one. I use the free version of F5 for transcription and a foot pedal to easily stop and start my recordings.

So far in my research, these are the ways that I’m working with and “living in” my recordings. While I often have an organization plan in place before I begin any sort of transcription, usually the path I end up taking is a mix of multiple methods of re-listening and transcription styles. I sometimes also let the nature of the recording dictate how I process and transcribe it.

Evernote and the Anthropologist

It’s 2015 and there are a few anthropologists who are still exclusively using paper field notebooks at worst, or at best a Word document to keep an electronic record of their fieldnotes. With the plethora of new formats and solutions for record-keeping, I am a firm believer that your research is only as good as your notes, and there’s no reason not to take advantage of digital notebooks.

My first experience came during my thesis research for my M.A. I found it incredibly useful and simple to use, and as I moved beyond lit reviews and proposals into the field my comfort with Evernote paid serious dividends. I still don’t know how I would have stayed so organized if I used another platform.

In this brief article, I explain how to use Evernote as a fieldwork notebook, but it is also so much more than that. Here are 3 reasons any anthropologist should be using it:

Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with Evernote, and I don’t even recommend giving them your money. This post is entirely a result of my experience with their free service.

1. It’s multi-platform, cloud-based simplicity.

Evernote can be used from any browser, computer, tablet, smartphone, or any other device that you may have. In the field, I typically used any combination of devices. Or I may be on campus and need to access everything via a library computer. Evernote keeps everything in one place, wherever you need it.

But I’m doing research in the middle of the Amazon with no internet!

Luckily for you, Evernote has offline capabilities. For most of my last research project in Yemen, I was lucky to have an hour of internet a day. However, between the native OSX app and the iOS app, I was always able to scribble a few notes in Evernote before connecting to the internet to sync them up to the built-in cloud.

2. Research in anthropology is more than just a basic notebook or journal.

In previous decades, one could venture into the field with a pen and a notebook and produce valuable ethnographic research. In contemporary anthropology, however, research is often multisited and carried out through a variety of media since more and more of it web-based. Evernote allows you to clip media such as photos or videos, upload PDFs, keep audio interviews and typed transcripts, bookmark webpages, and basically anything else you can imagine that might be useful to you in your research. I frequently stored Youtube videos, my own photos, journal articles, class syllabi, newspaper articles, and relevant tweets.

You can even use this Chrome extension to make it fast and easy to save web content to your Evernote, allowing you to sort post and clippings into different notebooks and tag it as you go. It also archives content in case the original content becomes unavailable, while still providing you the source you need for citations.

3. Tags!

Doesn’t all that stuff in one place get messy?

Evernote makes it pretty easy to stay organized with tags, or keywords that can index certain themes in various posts. They’re hardly a new feature on the internet, but they’re a highly effective organizing tool for your multimedia note collection. I typically use tags that indicate theme (gender, class, development, etc.), location (supermarket, political rally, home, etc.), and people (usually using the names of people in interviews or events). They can also be used to indicate time period for more historical research, source, or anything else you devise for your own personal system. Evernote can then sort all your notes by tags, or just certain notebooks or media types. Looking for that one quote from that one person you interviewed three years ago? No problem! This also makes it easy to see connections between different things that may not be immediately visible.

Other useful features are “Reminders” which you can use to make sure you don’t forget about something important or help you reach your daily writing goals, “Shortcuts” which allow you to put current projects in an easy-to-find place as your collection of notes grows over time, and sharing features which allow for collaborative work.

Evernote has been a lifesaver for me, and I use it for nearly everything. I even have all my class notes from my M.A. program in there, all tagged and sorted, just in case. And I’ve surprised myself with how much I go back to old lectures, book summaries, or my standard fieldnotes. Start early, and it will pay off quickly. Don’t get stuck with only paper notebooks or a maze of Word documents on a computer that crashes.

Taking participant observation field notes

I just began the field work component of my PhD in June. I’m beginning my field work period with a language study course and recently I had a few weeks off from my classes to dip my toes into in my research. Before this short stint I had done a summer pilot study to prepare for this project and see what was feasible and what I really wanted to focus on. In the initial pilot study, I had a rough time starting out taking field notes because I didn’t know what I should be recording in my notes. I would write a little about what I was doing and feeling, what other people were doing, and what the setting was like. I thought this would be enough to successfully produce a paper or presentation. Now, after I’ve written a paper, an article, and a couple presentations from field data, I reflected on what I wished I had known while taking those initial field notes, what I wished I had recorded, and what I have since changed in the way I record details from my experiences in fieldwork. 

The notebook

The system I have now is adapted to the nature of the research I’m doing for the time being, which includes mainly classroom observations in primary schools. In my most recent stint of field work I was collecting data on student-teacher interactions, specifically focusing on the language used in these interactions. So I had been sitting in on primary and pre-primary classes for their entire school day. I sat with a notebook and wrote down everything about the setting. I began each entry with the date, time, and my location which usually meant the school and grade level I was sitting in on. I would then describe the interactants and their activities while also trying to record how much time each activity or interaction (like disciplinary breaks) took.

I took notes on interactions also by specifically focusing on “key incidents” (Wilcox 1988:462). An analysis of key incidents helps to connect concrete actions to abstract concepts and theoretical frameworks such as language socialization and discipline (Erickson 1977). In addition to writing down what everyone was doing in as much detail as I could, I explained events that seemed to me to deviate from a norm in even greater detail often with some reflection and interpretation too. If I was confused by something, I would try to explain what exactly confused me. For example, if a student began crying why did it seem that she began crying now and not at other points of conflict?

Over my past few fieldwork experiences I’ve learned what makes for valuable information to my future-self by trying to make something out of these notes recently. I was frustrated with my past-self, writing these notes over a year ago by things I would write like, “the students are out of control” or “Mrs. S is giving a math lesson.” While to me at the time these seemed like perfectly fine descriptors of what I was observing. However, as I went back through my notes, I began to ask myself what exact behaviors indicated that a class was “out of control” and how many students exactly engaged in those behaviors, where were they in the room, and what exactly is “in control” to compare this to? Similarly, what exactly did the math lesson entail and what are some exact words, phrases, and languages the teacher used? When I went back to my notes, I had completely forgotten things that seemed so vivid to me at the time. So to do my future-self a favor, I now take more explicit notes often detailing what exactly minute things like “the teacher is angry” look like. I think I’m finally getting the hang of this practice as thick description rather than an exercise in journaling.


Something that sets my current fieldwork apart from participant observation I’ve done in the past is that while I’m in classes I try and record everything with a small voice recorder. Since my research will entail getting into the nitty-gritty of the language(s) used in classrooms the most accurate and detailed examples of language are extremely important to me. I use a small Sony recorder that I place on my desk or in one class I placed on top of a cupboard to record the communicative interactions of everyone in the room. So, I know while I’m writing, there’s also another device recording too. Therefore, I write in my notebook “started recording” and “stopped recording” respectively so when I go back and listen to the interactions on the voice recording I can read more about what I was observing from my position in the classroom at that time. In the future I plan to video record classroom interactions. I plan to continue this system, though since the video will capture a more visual representation of the scene I hope it will give me a little more freedom to move around and so I will not constantly have to sit and write. I realize sometimes that my writing attracts unwanted and disruptive attention from the students and teachers.

Electronic field notes

While I’m not in my specific field site, I find it hard to write about events from the day in the amount of detail that I use when I’m writing in my field notebook in the moment. Therefore, I had a very difficult time writing up notes at the end of the day. I wasn’t even quite sure why I needed to do this or what the purpose of since I had been writing in my notebook while at my field site during the day. I just knew that whenever I spoke with other anthropologists about field notes and methods, I’ve been told to write up field notes for the day before going to bed.  Since I am keeping a document on my computer for this specific purpose, I decided I should actually use it for something. Having electronic field notes helps me to organize my thoughts more coherently since I am more used to writing in computer documents. This way I can categorize and call attention to (or begin to code) passages as I write. Instead of copying my notebook into an electronic document (which is something I should maybe still consider doing), I’ve decided to use my electronic field note document as a place to explain general glosses of my day. This means I give a summary of the day in broad or general detail. I also write up interactions in as much detail as possible if I did not have a chance to write them out in my notebook. I still have to really push myself to do this each day but overall, when I am successful, I explain the course of main events in the day and try and step back to call my attention to larger patterns and emerging themes. I also add notes to myself in italics about topics to remember, follow-up questions, or connections to readings or other experiences. I usually write the date of the entry in bold and add a title that encompasses the main events of the day that I want to explain or highlight there. This could be something like First day with first graders or School festival day. I’ve found that doing this draws my attention to specific aspects of the day while also creating a link to remember other events that occur on these days.

These are the key ways that I’ve been keeping field notes on my participant observation experiences so far in my field site. I use three different systems (voice recorder, on-site note taking, and electronic notes on overall reflections) to best capture and remember as much as I can from my time in the field. However, while remembering details is a large part of this process, as I am taking these notes down in various forms I am trying to be kind to my future self by anticipating what I will need from my present self. My advice to anyone starting out on this journey is to think into the future about what you will need from your present. For me this includes recordings (either electronic or written) of exact speech. I will also include in this notes on how my current observations connect to larger themes and theoretical frameworks that I see applicable in the moment that I can come back to and either use or discard in the future. I would suggest to others to try and make something of your data early on to go through this trial and error process to hone your note taking skills.  I realize the way I take notes is adapted to the nature of my research and my site. I began with a basis of what I thought field notes should be and how I should take them, and then learned what works and what ends up being useless. I am still adapting my system or the different systems that work for me based on the work I’m doing that day and overall I’m still learning, which is something I think we should always be doing.

Jessica Chandras

PhD candidate, Anthropology, The George Washington University

Works cited

Erickson, Frederick. “Some Approaches to Inquiry in School-Community Ethnography.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 8, no. 2 (1977): 58–69.

Wilcox, Kathleen. “Differential Socialization in the Classroom: Implications for Equal Opportunity.” In George Spindler, ed. Doing the Ethnography of Schooling: Educational Anthropology in Action. Auflage: Reprint. Waveland Pr Inc,1988.