Making friends in social research

Today Michael Herzfeld spoke about his adoption of film making. There were some interesting points in his talk but this post is shaping up to be a reflection on a suggestion made throughout Herzfeld’s anthropological work, and this afternoon’s talk, that your interlocutors are to first of all be your friends.

I often wonder how I am going to go with my field work because, as is no secret, I struggle with higher end social skills. I do not get nervous talking in front of a group or rocking up somewhere by myself. I probably have more confidence than is healthy. I just cannot get through a single social event (or conversation with academics) without cringing at myself.

Over summer I cooked for all of one camp and the first part of the next camp. The first camp was hell. The second camp was fun. Maybe someone from the first camp told the second camp to be nice to me or they would get icky lollies in their jelly instead of Freddo Frogs (the real reason is the first camp had lots of kids with nut allergies, nobody found out from the kids parents how bad they are and by the time I found out most people could eat chocolate there was no way I had time to go back to the shops)? Perhaps the fact that I had worked out what I was doing meant that I came across as confident? Since I was doing a favour to stay on for the second camp maybe I felt more entitled to enjoy being there? Or, most likely, the second camp just had a friendly leadership team.

Should I avoid ‘camp one’ in my field work?

Camp two was more fun but, on a more serious note, I also got to know both the kids and the leaders on the second camp in 24 hours much better than I got to know the first camp in four days. I did not even need to give the second camp chocolate (although maybe they knew it was coming, I had to get that dessert ready for a subsequent day). It could be me trying to project my unhappiness onto something else, but it seemed to take more time to ask questions about the programs and communicate back information about meals when I felt I did not have a good relationship with the leader I needed to speak with.

Not everything in life is fun. On camp one I did find out quite a lot about the camp dynamics between leaders, even though I was kept at arms length. I had some people drop one line complaints, one person confide in me and one leader offer a short conversation about music. So there can be benefits to not being at the centre of everything, but in this situation I was physically there to do a task. When I am doing field work I do not have a practical task that will give me the right to be there in the first place.

So how can I have enough ‘camp two’ vibes to be able to access people in my field work?

Is it about being positive and happy? Perhaps I need to make an effort to reduce the number of words I take to say things? Maybe I could count to three before seizing a turn in conversation? Could I get fit enough that I will not get too exhausted to keep up whatever the activity? Can my field be composed of ‘camp two’ type people?

Returning to questions that come out of points made by Herzfeld this afternoon…

If I cannot make friends with someone does this mean that I will feel less of an ethical obligation towards them? If I am not friends with someone will they be less willing to go along with my research?

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