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.


1 comment:

Burns Fisher said...

This entry was fascination, Carrie. I had never heard the Granada story before, but that, as well as your whole entry about immersing ones-self in a culture is relavent in every day life. So often I try to imagine what is going on in the lives of people we hear about in the news; what motivates them, what their view of morality is. But then I still have to realize that I can't and don't want to completely drop my own cultural bias. I'm glad this is an issue with professionals too :-)