What do you want?

Slowly it has been dawning on me that eventually I am going to have to come up with some ways that I can actually get at what I am interested in finding out, or change what it is that I want to find out. I put in my proposal that I was interested in representations of success amongst those whom are targeted by government programs aimed at the alleviation of poverty. Success, to me, seems to mean achieving or obtaining what you want, with overtones of what you want being rather widely seen as desirable. You can succeed in a computer game, at school, in business, or through personal training. So what counts as success in life and does success matter? Also, is my research going to be at all meaningful if it only seeks to look at representations?

When I went to my cousin’s christening the parents got to say what it is that they wanted for their newly christened children. It seemed to me that the people who knew the parish assistant the best, who were also largely Indian families, expressed that they wanted their children to grow up to know ‘God’ and to live out his will. The white families used words like talent, success and happiness. It was only four (or maybe five) families, but it was enough at the time to almost make me chuckle out loud. If it was an episode in a TV series, I would yell at the screen about the reductionist approach taken. This is just an antidote, not a detailed account of what counts for these parents or the parts of our community that they come from. However, the difference in the public statements* seems to suggest different interpretations of the divine, with one contrast being the divine as external for the ‘God’ focused families and intrinsic for those families who focused on their children being happy through making the most of their individual talents.

How could I find out what such statements actually mean to those who make them? I could ask what it is that they want for themselves and/or their children and how they would know when this has been achieved. I could listen to and seek out stories of what other people have done and look at how they assess different courses of action and outcomes. Yet how do I know what the answers really mean?

Talking to someone the other day I was reminded that I interrupt too much and how I must miss out on learning a lot due to my over eagerness to be seen as interested in the conversation. I was very lucky that I had an interlocutor who persevered. This conversation reminded me that I am not prepared to do the real ‘work’ of moving beyond representations to what is actually believed, thought and done. The actual conversation was about soup vans, or more explicitly, the difference between a volunteer who sees the same people once a week trying to explain the joys of homeless life to a friend and those of us who feel the need to get a sense of the rest of the minutes of a day for some homeless people before being able to even think about the situation. While my interlocutor used an expression (that I have remembered as being something) like wanting to grab the person and shake out of them what they actually feel and think, I realised that getting past representations seems like an impossible task to me at this moment.

One of the lecturers at our post-honours debrief made a brief comment about how those of us who had undertaken (mini) fieldwork had written about public representations, and had not gotten beneath those. In the case of my work, I completely agree. It’s probably the reason I never raised any flags as far as the ethics committee were concerned and the various psychosomatic complaints I developed were due more to my concerns around being able to make it accurate than due to anticipated consequences of my work.

At this same post-honours debrief I was asked by my supervisor something about the experience of doing field work with people he did not think were particularly likeable. While I should have challenged the very premise of the question, instead I answered something about how I was so overtired due to how early the staff at many of the programs started because of something that really mattered to them. Paying attention, and trying not to miss opportunities to ask questions, simply took all the energy I had. There was nothing left with which to develop the relationships which might have allowed me to gain a different understanding in the short time.

Perhaps I need to look at not only what I want to get out of this research project, but also work out what I am aspiring for more generally in my life. I think as long as I am so uncertain of my own foundations I am going to struggle to ask questions in any sort of qualitative research which requires a personal investment.

* ‘The public statement’ was really a read letter that the parents had written to their child as part of pre-Christening preparation, so we could also debate whether the writing of the letter was a public performance.

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