Monday, May 18, 2009

The ethnographer's mask

Swine flu has now landed in Osaka. This has resulted in a fair amount of panic. Yesterday, the homestay family went to visit grandparents and I was originally planning to go into Osaka, but my plans got cancelled. So I was sitting at home, watching downloaded TV shows on my laptop when I got a cellphone email: "Please put the mask in Osaka. Watch a news program". I think I let out an audible sigh, lucky I was by myself. Apparently they are selling or sold out of masks now. Of course I was told to wear mine on the train this morning. About 25-30% of the people, I'd say, were wearing them. My language teacher told me the other day that when Japanese people went to Canada and came back (I heard Canada is where a couple of the people up in Tokyo got swine flu) they were being asked (on TV?) why didn't you wear the mask??? I told her that Japanese people wearing masks in Canada may reinforce unflattering stereotypes of the Japanese. On the other hand, a friend I bumped into today on the bus, when I asked her about wearing a mask, she laughed and said no, and don't I think it's a little bit crazy? Yeah, a bit. 7000-8000 people have been infected in the world, and what? 70 people have died? And aren't all those people in the Americas, and most of them because they were old or ill otherwise? kawai [scary]?... I'm more scared of second-hand smoke in the bars.

Anyway, so I can't help, again, to feel a bit of, well, contempt for the hysteric. But then I was reminded of something someone said to me about a year ago. He was a PhD student in philosophy, but supervised by an anthropologist. Anyway, he told me, after we had been discussing something which I no longer remember, that I need to work on my "ethnography face" because I have a tendency to give away, in my expression, that I think what people are telling me is sort of idiotic. Like it's in my eyes, mouth, this look of "what you are saying is complete bullshit". He said, really, this is not good for an ethnographer and that his supervisor, for example, has the correct anthropologist's expression mastered. He can just sit there, with a straight and agreeable face, nodding along, while people tell him the most absurd things. At the time this struck me that perhaps he has a bit of a point. He's right, I think, that if you look at people like they are stupid, they're not going to want to talk to you!

So I feel a bit guilty thinking that everyone wearing these masks are acting paranoid. And really trying to bite my tongue. Like I guess its ethnocentric or something. For me, discussions in anthropology about ethnocentricity tend to be more multiculturalist platitude than actual thinking. But is there any thing to do other than just keep telling yourself, a bit stupidly, "when in Rome..."?


SITNA said...

I think you shouldn't feel guilty for thinking that they are paranoid. Having your own very personal view of things and even judging is unavoidable when perceiving cultural differences. What is important is to be aware of your own views, prejudices and so on, in order to be open and trying understand what the other is telling you or doing.
I completely disagree with this "ethnographer mask" I think one needs more than a mere facial expression to be a good ethnographer and get people tell you things. I have always thought that it is a question of emphathy. People confide you things when they feel comfortable with you and trust you. Being an ethnographer is more than a mere theatrical pretension of being understanding. I think that philosopher/ethnographer is not really being aware of his own prejudices and is not being able to drop them so he can try to understand his interlocutors.

Michael said...

Really insightful comments. I can see what you mean.

Though, I do think I, like me personally, tend to get people annoyed (all people, not just when doing ethnography) because I sometimes come across as patronizing and/or overly disagreeable...

I was also really surprised to hear today that 150+ have been infected in Japan (or Osaka area? not sure which). That's just from 3 days. One thought is that all that prevention must not be very effective :P The other, less snarky, thought was that maybe because Japan is so densely packed, contagions like flu spread more quickly. Probably doesn't help, either, that, in Japan, people are expected to go to work when they have a fever and can barely stand up...

Alex said...

Hey so I was a bit late on reading this.. sorry!
Anyways, I agree with what Sitna said about the empathy thing. That is what they taught me at West Corp anyways haha, and you hear a lot of idiotic crap in customer service (a person duct taping their cell phone to a pig anyone?).

As for the flu itself. I met someone at work, who has since become my friend, who had just got back from Mexico and she was wearing a mask at work to prevent possible spreading. She said that she was 100% sure she didn't have it, but there is an 8 day incubation period so it really was just a precaution and she was doing it to put everyone else at ease. Anyways the point is that the masks are here too, just not to the same extent ;). You look cool in your mask anyways man - I dig the facebook pic.