Monday, March 30, 2009

Thoughts on dread and method

Constantly my fieldwork consists of the feeling that I am not getting anywhere, that I must be working either too slowly or perhaps not even doing it right, and therefore I am wasting time, a a big problem since my time is regimented and circumscribed by a wide range of bureaucratic structuring structures. And so: recurring panic. This could be just me (perhaps I actually am doing "it" wrong). But from what I can tell from a few conversations with other people in my class, this feeling is not unusual. And when I've emailed my supervisors, they tend to tell me that it sounds like everything is going well, give me some advice to make sure I am taking good notes, and then encourage me to continue steadfastly on.

All is not lost. In the middle level sense, I somehow am getting "something". Over a period of a week, usually there is something interesting that I've written down. If I look over a couple of months, I've got a notebook or two of "solid" stuff. At least its solid in that its there, on the page.

Rather, my dread is at the low level---a day will go by in which I can not say anything interesting seemed to happen---and high level---am I going anywhere towards my research questions, rather than just recording an ever increasing number of interesting anecdotes, partial quotations, mundane descriptions, and quasi-exotic Japan trivia?

Maybe this is fieldwork's "transformative experience". Maybe dread is what anthropology is about--Heart of Darkness. Personally, I think its more the institutionalization of guilt in grad school (see PhD Comics) combined with the feeling of useless incompetence that you get from being a (linguistic/social/cultural/disciplinary) "outsider" (perhaps the latter is nothing but a subset of the former).

Some of this may be communicated in ethnographies or at least in discussions with anthropologist teachers. Granted I think it tends to be presented in a more positive sense, but perhaps this is more to do with pressure to seem legitimate and successful. Like my emails to my supervisors... things are never going badly, exactly, I have concerns, issues that I'm working to resolve. But of course, they will be resolved. The project must go on.

What I've seen discussed less often (as it happens, usually in studies like mine among science and technology types) is the response that your "informants" have to your "methodology". To be blunt, mine have a mixture of amusement, bewilderment, and, sometimes, alarm. A person will be telling me about their research, over a coffee or lunch, how they're devising such and such an experiment to see whether people treat/think of robots and humans as the same or different in various circumstances. What's almost ritualized is that at some point, they will be sort of asking about my research, and wham, it hits them! Oh yeah, you are doing your research right now! Lunch time is your primary research time! Ha Ha Ha. This is the amusement. Constantly, people laugh when they remember I am doing research on them*. I guess it is pretty weird. Like I was at an after-work party last week. I went with one french guy from my lab and we met this other European. Exchanged greetings, origin. So what are you researching? I explain. Anthropology. Hrmm, here? Oh, you study people? Hrmm, okay. And then I ask him about his research, what exactly is industrial design? What exactly does that consist of? And my french colleague laughs and says:

Him: Hah, he is doing research on you now!
Me: Damn it, now you ruined it! (laughing)
Him: Oh, sorry, sorry. Ha ha ha.
The other guy: Yikes! That's scary! Now I don't know if you are actually interested, or what... (laughing as well, while giving me a "You Dodgy!" look)

As I said, mixture of amusement, bewilderment, and alarm. But when I read ethnographies, they tend to portray everything as very serious. You are asking the informants your serious research questions. They are giving you serious answers about their deep felt beliefs, customs, emotions, passions, fears. It's dangerous, its political, people are being oppressed. For me, such conversations rarely occur "organically" and to try to force it that way I find rarely productive (I'm not sure if I've ever tried that hard), as this situation puts stress on people and cannot in fact be sustained, except in those brief moments (it is possible that this is especially so in Japan, comparative ethnographers, chime in!). A lot of social interaction is just friendly and light-hearted joking. I can't remember ever seeing this fact really addressed in ethnography, even though it is fundamental to the nature of ethnography as a method. Its the main reason, I find, why you often cannot follow up with your full barrage of questions. Of course anthropologists will explain "because its often not appropriate or possible", which is true to an extent, but not because they will get angry or feel affronted or because people are busy in the middle of serious work, which is what this wording seems to imply. The reason is often because you are having a basically normal conversation, and such a switch will only get them to respond "Ha Ha, anthropology! Your research!" or simply ignore the questions while rolling their eyes. Or smirk, snicker, and say "I don't know". Not, "I don't know" after some contemplation. "I don't know" as in oh god, please stop with this silliness! Even if there is contemplation, there is always laughter too. Hah sorry, I don't know why! Ha Ha Ha!

I said before that the reactions of informants has been discussed in science and technology. The above reactions I find happen with everyone, but the reaction I specifically get from scientists, broadly speaking, is an amazement that just talking to people, looking around, and writing it all down in a little notebook could be considered research at all (they also find the idea of a notebook hilariously anachronistic---haven't I ever heard of PDAs and laptops?). This appears in many an ethnography of scientists. Like the anthropologists before me, I usually take a defensive, counter-position to this talk. To be honest, the 'scientists' are often quite smug in their obvious objective superiority, so I can't help it. So I talk about context, building more general points from everyday practices, linking descriptions together, etc; the kind of stuff that Geertz writes about so well (that is he writes well, the arguments are nothing amazing).

One, well-thought, retort was "Well, I just don't get it. How can you be doing research without hypotheses?" Well, a standard humanities response (which is widely championed by many anthropologists) is to challenge the idea of a hypothesis. That is, when confronted with those who march under the banner of "science", look for the high ground and set to defend the territory held under "no science!". I'm uncomfortable doing that. The short reason is that such debates tend to be basically ideological (in the distoring/mystifying reality sense). In fact, a few days later this person was explaining his plans to generate an experiment with a colleague of his, and they were trying to decide on what set up of this experiment should be. I asked "Oh, well what you are trying to test, so what's your hypothesis?" He answered uhhhh, we both grinned, he spun around for a minute, and after thanked me for clarifying his thinking. In fact, he just felt they should do an experiment. It's easy to get mixed up between the motivation behind the research and its ultimate implementation in terms of method. For "hard scientists" this, to me, tends to result in a cult of counting. For anthropologists, there is a similar cult of ethnography.

This sort of returns to the beginning, because I think this is part of the reason that it is really hard to say whether the ethnography (I mean fieldwork, not the finished book) is going anywhere. But I guess you gotta just hope. Projects I've seen in science last a few months, and then they move onto something new. They're incredulous that a single project could be my entire PhD, and that it could last 4 or 5 years. Me too, at that.

* Some recent thinking would challenge, in fact take outright moral indigination, that anthropology is doing research "on people", that you "study them". But I find I prefer to express it to people, at least partially, in this way because I feel it gives a better disclaimer, a better way to say "Okay, please make sure you understand, when you talk to me, I'm going to write it down later". Even if you don't, I think it's good for people to keep this in mind, ethically.


Julie said...

I just wanted you to know that now i am just that much more terrified of my fieldwork for my MA...these are the kind of questions i wonder about. i think, doing research among teenager mothers...they are probably going to be like "hahaha why are you asking me these weird questions... ooooookaaaaaaay" or "what's it to ya?". but i think that the little anecdotes you are writing about would be good in an enthnography! even the ones when people ask you about your hypotheses...that could totally be incorporated into an article about science vs. humanities! remember, half of what we do is to take mundane anecdotes and theorize social theory on them :P (and to non-anthropologists, that was a joke...)

Michael said...

Haha, yes, as for the last part...a couple times I've been asked (by hard-core computers and sciences types) how all these things I write into my notebook can actually add up to any kind of findings in general. So I went off on an example about the use of face masks* in Japan compared to their non-use in Canada/US/UK/Europe and how this can be used to think about relativised rationalities and the link between science (especially ideas about medicine and the body) and culture.

I got the strangest looks... not sure whether it was disbelief or incomprehension. Probably both.

*Can't remember if I've written about that on this blog, but basically a lot of people in Japan use face masks when they are sick, when they don't want to get sick from other people, when they have allergies, etc, and so it looks like there are either a lot of surgeons (or perhaps ninjas) walking the streets.