I commented recently to a friend of mine that my sister (decogrrl) is a great interior designer in part because her identity is not wrapped up in her designs. She is really committed to using her excellent artistic and design senses to help people achieve their own visions of their space. I’ve always admired that in her.
Anyway, I was thinking about that today in conjunction with thinking about two or three recent encouragements I’ve been given, people say they know I am doing well, or that I’ll achieve something or whatever. It’s sort of a funny thing, because these are primarily expressions of faith, the people who say them don’t really know anything about my academic abilities. But today I was realizing that what such encouragement reminds me is that I have a life and an identity that is greater than my academic one.
I think that maybe this is one of the most difficult things to remember when doing fieldwork away and alone. I have heard the criticism of some modern ethnography that it is too much about the ethnographer, but now that I have done fieldwork, I have a better sense of how and why this is. Fieldwork really strips away all the parts of your life that don’t have to do with ones academic goals. So even though for me, my identity has never been fully wrapped up in my academic ability, here I am a “researcher” or a “student” above all else. Especially as the end approaches, I am very conscious that what I achieve here will be a major component in defining the rest of my career. And because while I’m here my whole life is my career, it’s hard to keep track of the fact that defining my career is not the same as defining my self or my life.
At the same time that fieldwork narrows my experience of self to my academic identity, it is the least-academic academic activity I have ever done. I don’t speak to other scholars, I don’t write or read academic papers/books, I am cut off from the academic community at my school. The dissonance between the sense of fieldwork’s consuming importance and its disconnect from academic life leaves me feeling ungrounded and disoriented. I experience this primarily as a loss of questions. As a researcher, the loss of questions is alarming in the extreme. After all, what am I here for except to answer a series of questions? I became an anthropologist because I had a driving desire to answer a seemingly unstoppable font of questions about human organization and behaviour. To have that go away is strange and anxiety provoking.
But what I’m realizing now is that I think the anxiety is provoking the loss of questions, not the other way around. I have kept a chronological set of notes about my activities, but I also have a folder of “thoughts” that are less routed in daily activities. I write these sometimes when reading through notes or interviews, or contemplating some event or observation. Re-reading them, I realize that the academic and the questioner is still there. So, I’m holding onto the encouragements to remind myself that I’m more than my work, and I’m holding onto my thoughts folder to remind myself that I still have critical thinking abilities. And I’m using this blog as an outlet for the journey of self that fieldwork inspires, but which comes across as solopsistic and self indulgent in ethnographic writing.
Filed under: academics Anthropology
14 November 2008, 06:59
The world seems to be conspiring to give me a headache today, and it’s making me grumpy. I seem to have gotten dehydrated yesterday, despite a fair amount to drink. My room is next to a water pump that goes on at 6 am. It sounds exactly like a loud vacuum cleaner that has been left standing in place directly outside my open window. Normally it doesn’t bother me too much, but this morning it gave me a wicked headache. Now I am here at the internet cafe sitting under the one dying florescent light in the place which is a little like the Chinese water torture of light.
I have started writing up my research. It is a very early stage of write-up, but it is making me feel much more accomplished about what I’ve done and I’m enjoying it a great deal. Right now I’m writing an experimental (or maybe not that experimental, but rather simply non-academic) first chapter and a more academic second chapter. I’m also making notes and outlines for further chapters, an exercise that helps to make clear what information I need to spend the rest of my time focusing on.
I’m thinking of publishing some of the first chapter here, especially since it will probably never make it into the final draft. I want to attempt to describe life in Kumasi in a way that gives a vivid sense of living here, and that manages to convey a sense of both the social structures and the random fluidity of social life. I’m not sure how I feel about putting such raw stuff out for all the world to see (potentially, obviously, since I think my actual readership is around 10). Any comments, should I/shouldn’t I? Do you want to see it?
Filed under: Daily-Living Anthropology
4 June 2008, 09:20
A while back my mom asked what interviewing is like. The answer is that it’s a lot harder than it seems like it should be. Anticipating how people are going to interpret your questions, and trying to rephrase them appropriately is tough. Rephrasing is surprisingly difficult in everyday conversation in general, because (British trained) Twi speakers use different kinds of phrases than Canadians. For example, today I was trying to say “he goes to school with me” in Twi, and when the person finally understood what I meant, they rephrased it as “he is your classmate” in English. It makes perfect sense, but it isn’t the phrase that jumps to mind.
From my interviews I had a question that was really painfully phrased about what conditions do people find are important to be in place in order for marriage counseling to be effective. That’s painful even for an English speaker. It took me a couple of interviews to come up with the streamlined and comprehensible “what circumstances make counseling a couple difficult?” The thing is, I was originally wondering if such and such or another circumstance might come up, and I phrased the question trying to ask that indirectly. Those kinds of questions are almost always disasters, but the trick is to figure out which broad and sensible questions will elicit the kinds of examples you are looking for, while allowing examples that you haven’t thought of already to emerge.
Anyway, it is getting easier, an so I have hopes that all will work out and I’ll have a dissertation to write at the end of this :)
Filed under: Anthropology
9 May 2008, 12:41
I’ve been making a concerted effort lately to make friends in my neighbourhood, talking regularly (and in Twi when possible) to some of the ladies that sell things on the main road.
One in particular had become a friend, and she wanted to cook something for/with me, so I said that I could today. We made fufuo and light soup (a peppery tomato soup that is thin in texture). It was good, and people got a huge kick out of seeing me washing bowls and sweeping up. I wasn’t much good at the main parts of the peeling and chopping (all done in the hand) or the fufu pounding (it’s hard!), but it was tasty. It wasn’t necessarily pertinent to my research, but I’m hoping that by being around and willing to participate in the sorts of activities that show that I’m interesting in Ghana and Ghanaians, I can start making inroads into building some trust that I can then use to learn more research relevant things.
Filed under: Anthropology Daily-Living