Wednesday, October 18, 2006



Well, Tom left on Friday. Partly to keep myself from missing him so
much, and partly to get on with my work, I spent Saturday through
Tuesday in el campo. Up until now, I have been going back and forth
between a number of different communities in different zones (would
they be micro-climates?). They all have slightly different ecological
and social issues to deal with—one has a worse road (I mean, even
worse than normal), one is at a higher altitude and therefore colder
and can't grow certain crops, one has trouble with potable water, etc.
From now on, however, I am more or less planning to spend most of my
time focused on one particular community, or rather set of
communities, to the south of the city.

This set of communities is where I have spent a fair amount of time
already and have some ongoing relationships. In fact, if you were
tuned in to this blog around August, I wrote about some interpersonal
issues I was having with one person who lives there. Well, I feel
like I have come to a working arrangement with that person. In fact,
working through these issues, and seeing how other people work through
similar issues, has been very instructive for me. I feel like this is
maybe one of the first times in my life when I have had a serious
disagreement with somebody (outside of family) and have managed to
work through it. Previously, I realize that I have had a tendency to
just stop being friends with people when there was any serious issue
between us. But partly following the model of some other people in
the community, I have come to understand emotionally how it is
possible to both disagree with someone and co-exist with them.

I have a feeling that this is a skill which is very necessary for
people who live in small communities. And maybe it is especially
necessary for agriculturalists, who are tied to a particular place,
and therefore to their particular neighbors. (But it is certainly not
a situation unique to poor countries—my grandparents, who have lived
in the same town for maybe more than forty years, say they are still
seen as outsiders by some life-long residents.) In my life, on the
other hand, I have been extremely mobile. In the 11 years since I
left for college, I have lived in 11 rooms/apartments/houses in 6
cities/towns in 3 different countries, not counting when I moved back
with my family for a couple of summers during college. And despite
the fact that being an anthropologist has brought me to an unusual
situation currently, I don't think that on the whole I've been
unusually mobile for somebody of my age and situation. Maybe I'm
towards the upper end of the curve, but I don't think I'm a radical
outlier. The friends I've kept have generally been those with whom I
get along especially well (and I haven't kept enough of those), and
obviously I've left any enemies, or even any people with whom I had a
slight disagreement, far, far behind. In consequence, I'm good at
figuring out a new situation, and not so good at maintaining an old

But here I'm learning that not everybody has that luxury. And there
are tools that people use to get along despite disagreements. For
example, people talk about problems indirectly. Oftentimes, if there
is a problem people will criticize a general situation rather than a
particular individual. For example, instead of saying "You were
careless and let your chickens into the field where I had just planted
beans! They ate half the seed and I lost a lot of my crop!", somebody
might say "People should control their animals. Animals can sometimes
do a lot of damage to other people's fields. It is very good when
people have control over where their animals are roaming." Another
thing people do is to avoid using personal names, but rather refer to
people's job titles, or house locations, or some other impersonal
quality. This can make it challenging at first for an anthropologist
trying to figure out what people are talking about!

Indirectness is a quality that I've recently been coming to appreciate
more and more. For example, in a meeting, there is a great reluctance
to contradict people when they have already spoken. Sometimes this
means that disagreements just remain unspoken. Sometimes it means
that disagreements are voiced in a round-about way. Somebody might
start out by seeking any common ground. For example, the person whose
chickens ate the recently-planted beans might respond in a meeting by
saying, "I just want to reinforce what Frank just said about how
important it is to control animals. This is very important, and it
points to a need we have in our community, which is that there is not
enough chicken wire. Many people can't afford to buy chicken wire,
and so their animals escape and they can't do anything about it. It
is impossible to be always chasing after chickens, because people have
other things to do. If you shut up chickens they get sad and don't
lay as much, and we need the eggs from the chickens. We are all in
the same situation." In this fictional scenario, my fictional person
here has been defending herself against an accusation, but presenting
herself as merely agreeing with the accuser and expressing a unanimous
concern of the community.

In political discussions, this problem is even more complicated!
People will almost never directly declare themselves in favor of one
party or another, except if they are well-known to be working as a
leader of a particular campaign. And yet everybody knows everybody
else's affiliations. Sometimes this is because campaign materials are
posted (and they're posted EVERYwhere lately—a rural farmer who lives
far off the road will place a flag with their party's colors on a high
pole or tree so it can be seen from the road, and people put posters
up all over the outside and inside of their houses). But sometimes
you can also tell from indirect things that people say. For example,
if somebody says that candidates from party A are supported by a
particular industry, that means they're in favor of party B, because
that particular industry is strongly criticized by the campaign of
party B. Many people say that there is a lot of fighting by ignorant
people over campaigns. Yesterday in the north there was a man who was
stabbed to death in a fight over campaigns, for example, they tell me.
And some people say that this is why there was the war in the 1980s.
Therefore many people are disgusted by and reluctant to participate in
politics directly, since it involves so much direct confrontation,
which can lead to deadly violence.

Well, that's it for tonight. I'll probably be able to bring this blog
entry to an internet café to post tomorrow, assuming there's power
(we've been having rolling blackouts every day at unpredictable times
for the last month or so) but it's past my bedtime now, so I'm off to


1 comment:

Burns Fisher said...

I am currently in the south of India in a large city, and I also see some of the indirectness you mention. The issue is more about what we USeans think of as "yes" and "no" than about disagreements. There is a reluctance to say no, and there is a reluctance to believe that hearing "no" is not really the start of a negotiation. Two examples: One of my (US-ean) friends asked asked his driver if they could go to visit the ocean. The driver told my friend to talk to one of my friend's Indian co-workers. After a bunch of conversations, it turns out that the answer was no; it was impractical becaues of bad roads, distance, etc. But the driver would not say that directly.

From the other point of view, I was walking along a big shopping street one morning going to the grocery store. A fellow fell into step with me, exchanged greetings, and eventually told me that the stores were not open yet. (Turns out the grocery was, but that's not important). By the way, I have a tuk-tuk (auto-rickshaw) and I will take you for a little sightseeing tour while you wait for the stores to open for Rs.10 (or something like that). No thank you. I can take you to any other stores you want to go to. No. Some other possibility. No. We reach his vehicle and he says "Really no, or maybe?" Really no. Off he goes.

The other interesting piece of this is that I'm told that people here think it is phoney to start out a rebuke with a compliment. E.g. "You've done a good job on X, but Y needs to be redone." Just tell us what you want to say. Don't stick the complement on the front. This is difficult to get used to for me!