Sunday, April 30, 2006

ethnography and self--my defensive manifesto

Hi Everyone,

Well, today's Saturday, and I've got the whole weekend without much to
do, in terms of my research. I've been keeping myself busy around
home, though. I figured out, more or less, how to wash my clothes with
a bucket of water and a scrubbing board. And I got a huge feeling of
satisfaction from seeing my clothes all hung out to dry on the line.
I also have done some work in translating my research proposal into
Spanish, to be able to more easily share it with some professors at
the university in Managua. I'm planning tentatively to make a trip
the second week of May to talk to some of them—I want suggestions and
moral support, and also to do some "networking" and as a courtesy let
them know that I'm here. One of the things about my advisor's career
that I admire and would like to emulate is that he has published many
of his articles in Spanish as well as English and has had a strong
involvement not only in U.S.-based academic debates but also in Latin

I've also done some things to make myself more comfortable in the
house (I feel weird calling it "my house"—I don't want to get too
attached to this place, since I'll only have it for under a year!).
The best thing is that I now have a hammock hanging in the patio. I
hung it up this afternoon, sat down to test it out, and stayed there,
"testing," for almost an hour.

I feel some ambivalence about this house, and about being quite so
comfortable in a place where I'm alone. One classic model for what an
ethnographer does is she goes to a "village", sets up her tent or
moves in with a family, and does her best to become a member of the
"tribe." An important sign of success is when she is "adopted" as a
member of a family or tribe. She does her best to emulate the
behavior and even thought patterns of the people she is studying.
Thus, by an almost mystical act of total empathy and, perhaps,
negation of her own Self, she comes to know the culture with great
authority. This is, of course, a model that has been called into
question in several ways in recent decades by anthropologists, thank
goodness. Maybe I'll talk about them in more detail in a future
entry. But despite this, the model retains a great deal of emotional

I have attempted a feat like this once before. I spent my junior year
of college in Granada, Spain, living with a family, studying at a
school of the University of Granada, and doing my best to speak as
little English as possible, learning as much Spanish as I could.
Although my conscious objectives were to learn to speak Spanish
better, I came to realize that there is not a clear line between
language and culture. I remember one time I was having a
conversation, in Spanish, with another American student. In the
course of the conversation, I voiced some ugly bigotted joke that I
had heard. When my friend reproached me, it recalled me to my Self
with a shock. It was only then that I realized the degree to which I
had been putting my Self, and certain value judgments which I thought
were pretty close to my core, up for negotiation as part of my project
of learning this language and culture. I'm not going to tell you what
the joke was about, it's still too upsetting to remember, almost nine
years later. There were some very positive things that I absorbed
during that year, too, and I by no means regret the overall
experience. But from that point on, I was more guarded and critical
about what I was willing to try to absorb.

This time, I am not expecting to try to have a totalizing experience
like that. There are a couple of reasons. First, I have a clear goal
in mind this time. I have a dissertation to write, and my
dissertation isn't an attempt to describe culture. I don't have time
and energy to try for a mystical experience of communion. Second, I
am in a permanent relationship. Somebody else has a claim on my Self.
I have a responsibility not to alter it beyond the point where he
won't recognize it. (I know, and know of, so many Anthropologists who
have been through multiple divorces. Is it just statistical, or is it
something to do with the rigors of fieldwork?) Third, I'm just too
damn old to do that again. It's really hard work. By definition it
involves huge emotional highs and lows. I have enough of those in
everyday life anyways, I don't want or need to go seeking them out!
And, maybe, fourth, I actually kinda like who I am right now. Unlike
when I went to Spain.

I do feel ambivalent about this decision, though. Not all
anthropologists will agree that it is a good idea. I've gotten
comments that 9 or 11 months isn't enough time—"you should be there
for AT LEAST a year!!!". But I've made my decision. So there. Hmph.


Thursday, April 27, 2006

house, rapport, motorcycles

Hi Everyone,


Well, I’m moved into my new house, more or less, and am really happy with it.  It’s got a patio with a tree, where I’ll be hanging a hammock very soon.  It’s certainly far bigger than anywhere I’ve ever lived in New York, but doesn’t feel ridiculous for just one person—bedroom, living/dining room, kitchen, and the patio.  There’s a place, in a hall, where there’s no roof—the very clear line between indoors and outdoors, which I’ve taken for granted, is a little blurry.  It makes the place nice and airy, and it will be a novelty for it to be raining “indoors”, when the rains start next month. 


I’ve also started work with the new cooperative, CECOSEMAC.  One of the first things I’ve been doing this week is facilitating contacts between them and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (Vermont).  GMCR buys both fair trade and non-fair trade coffee, which is good for ‘SEMAC, because they haven’t got their certification yet, but expect it soon.  My contact at GMCR seemed enthusiastic when I gave him some of the quality scores received by the coop’s coffee.  I really hope something comes of it—beyond altruism, and hoping the coop succeeds, I think it might help with the process of “building rapport”.  (This is in quotes because it’s such a cliché among anthropological fieldworkers, although a completely necessary process.) 


One classic way of “building rapport”, and also a cliché, is getting “informants” to laugh themselves silly at your mistakes and bizarre activities.  I’ve gotten a good start on that, too.  Before getting here, I took a motorcycle riding course and got my motorcycle license.  I found when I was here in October doing preliminary work that bus routes are really ridiculously infrequent and trucks are unpleasant and in many cases even impractical (yes, the roads are THAT bad sometimes.)  All of the cooperative workers use motorcycles.  So I decided I’d get one, too, hence getting my license.  But I’m having a little trouble getting people to take my plans seriously, here.  One very supportive man said, “oh, don’t worry.  I once knew a girl who rode a motorcycle.”  And when I told two of the cooperative officials, two middle-aged men who are normally the least emotive people I’ve ever met, I was startled when they both gave me huge grins!  I’m enlisting the help of a man to help me buy the motorcycle—we’re going to go on Monday.  I’m planning on giving myself a couple of days to practice and get comfortable with my new machine before actually setting off on any real trips.  And for anyone who’s worried about this idea, the roads are SO bad that it’s impossible to get up any speed even if I were so inclined, which I’m not—I don’t expect to ever be going any faster than, say, 25 miles an hour.  And I have a huge helmet which makes me look like a stylish astronaut.  Or a bobble-head doll.


I’ve been in good spirits—I realized the other day that this is because the worst has already happened!  For literally years I’ve been dreading leaving home and the familiar, leaving Tom, and setting up on my own.  But now I’ve done it, and the only things I have to look forward to are happy:  immersing myself in the ethnography, Tom’s visits, visits from others, and going home.  I don’t expect this whole time to be idyllic, but at least the bad things coming up are unforseen!  And for me, anticipation is always the worst part.



P.S. It was drawn to my attention that in the “About Me” section of my website, I seem to be describing Tom as a grumpy old cat.  I want everyone to know that if anyone in our relationship should be described as a grumpy old cat, it would be me.  Tom, if a Cat, would be more like Mungo Jerry (or Rumple Teaser), the mischievous duo with a genius for wreaking playful havoc.  And there’s nothing at all to be done about that!  ;-)

Sunday, April 23, 2006

moral and immoral economic activity

Hi Everyone,
The last few days have been mostly occupied with arrival logistics.
My original arrangements about renting a house fell through, but I´ve
found another one, in a nice safe part of town, and plan to move in in
the next few days. I´m really looking forward to being able to cook,
and brew nice, strong coffee.

Based on a rumor I´ve heard, I´ve been thinking a lot about
corruption. It comes up a lot in conversations around here when
people talk about why Nicaragua is poor. Some of course say that it
is because of economic sanctions and unfair trading practices by ¨the
First World¨ and by the US in particular. But others say the major,
most important reason is corruption on many levels... from large scale
theft, the reason why Arnoldo Aleman (most recent Nicaraguan
ex-president) is in jail, down to petty schemes, especially in
cooperatives, where poor people embezzle small amounts from even
poorer neighbors. One person, telling me about a small scheme,
exclaimed "this is the Third World!" conveying so much contempt and
disgust for the situation that I was shocked. He was looking at the
story as he thought I, someone from the "First World", must see it,
and in this imperfectly refracted image, the one situation reflected
badly not merely on the individuals involved, and not even merely on
Nicaragua, but on the entire Third World. (If anyone wants background
reading, check out W.E.B. DuBois´s writings on "double consciousness".
Or Simone DeBeauvoir´s "The Second Sex".)

Corruption elicits such strong emotional reactions. It´s interesting
to think of it in light of my interest in the relationship between
economic activity and moral codes. Because corruption is the
violation of moral codes about economic behavior. And like most types
of moral codes, these vary. What in one place is bribery in another
place is both customary and legal, like giving tips in restaurants.
And where do you draw the line between nepotism and, say, networking?
Is it moral to give a contract to a stranger, whom you may know
nothing about, when a family member needs the business AND you know
they´re trustworthy? Especially in a situation where a government is
weak, and you can´t necessarily trust that police or courts will
ultimately enforce a contract?

The Fair trade system is based on an image of a hyper-moral,
hyper-virtuous small farmer, who is fighting circumstances beyond his
or her control. In the context where the coffee is soldw this is
necessary, because if the circumstances aren´t totally out of the
control of the farmer, people tend to conclude that the farmer is
therefore to blame, and is not a worthy recipient of charity. But
this also is a really patronizing attitude--we´ll only help you if you
are an utter victim. It occurred to me that corruption, in these
circumstances, COULD be interpreted as a way of exerting agency
against these patronizing attitudes. But it´s not good to romanticize
it too much, I think. What I WOULD like to know is whether there is
something about hte system which sets groups up to fail because of

As a final addendum and disclaimer, I would like everyone to know that
this is a general discussion only. I have contacts at many many
different cooperatives in Nicaragua, and am in a position to receive
rumors from many different directions.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

In Nicaragua After Months of Agonizing Anticipation

Well, I made it to Nicaragua. I was met in the airport by a
friend-of-an-acquaintance, holding up a big sign that said ¨Carolyn
Fisher¨, which was a huge morale booster. I´ve decided that every
time I meet someone at an airport in future, I´m making a sign, even
if I know them very well.

So Managua is... hot. I´ve got a room with AC for tonight,
thank goodness, but just walking around is a bit of a chore. So
Vilma, this friend, met me at the airport and her brother, who has a
cab, drove us
all around. First to the hotel, then to a restaurant where I had
lunch and we all had some juice, and then to the university.
We showed up without an appointment at this office which organizes
cooperatives and a man was nice enough to give me a general overview
of what´s been going on re: cooperatives and landownership lately. He
also gave me some reading materials.
Vilma made another appointment for tomorrow, early morning, with one of
her professors. I´ll read some of the materials tonight and try to
formulate some intelligent questions.
Vilma and her brother are staunch Sandinistas, to
the point where they even support Daniel Ortega for the next election.
I don´t know if that´s such a pragmatic attitude--the US ambassador
has evidently been making proclamations that if Daniel wins, the US
won´t recognize his government, a la Hamas. And that is a pretty
scary prospect for the country´s economic future.
It´s hot, but I´m feeling happy to be back here and excited to be
finally starting this project!

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Itinerary to Date

I leave on April 18! But I'm actually arriving in Managua on April 19, due to an overnight connection. From then on, the relevant dates are:
May 31--Tom arrives to join me.
June 21--we both get back to New York.
Sometime at the end of July--I go back to Nicaragua. Some time in the following months I will spend another month or so back in the U.S., but I haven't decided on the timing yet.