Reminders along the way in field work that I cannot be part of something without changing it

I have been given permission to go to a series of working group meetings in my field site. When I was told that I might be able to get permission, the person making the suggestion raised the issue of whether it would be a ‘conflict of interest’. This person then went on to say, ‘but you cannot be part of something without changing it.’ Whether this suggests that this person had been watching ‘The Nanny Diaries’ recently (I must admit I do not know what happens in most of the movie, but I have seen the last scene when she uses that line at the end of her application to study anthropology), or if it was a line I had used earlier on for why I do not just sit silently in groups (I promise if I did use that line it would have been before I realised it was used in ‘The Nanny Diaries’), I am not sure. However, it is a good reminder that people in my field site do not only know I am doing research, they are also sizing up what sort of research I am doing.

When I first went along to the historical society in the area, one of the volunteers kept bringing out folder after folder of clippings. She had worked out I was interested in living people, and so was showing me the relevant files in their collection. I dutifully created my own record by getting permission to snap photos on my phone as a way of recording what I had seen, but I was much more interested in what was happening around me than what I was looking at. It is not that their files on living people are irrelevant, but I knew that at that state I did not know enough about the social landscape to realise who was being included, and who might be missing.

Over the following months, this volunteer seemed to build up quite a different picture of what I was doing. The volunteer kept me in the loop with what was going on in a range of local activities and occasionally asked me to pass on messages or help with little things to keep certain groups running smoothly. When this volunteer was sick and needed to take a few weeks off, I went some small way towards repaying the favour. Although our understandings were necessary for different reasons, with the volunteer having a strong focus on finding ways to include people who it was judged might benefit from being included and my understandings being employed to undertake a research project, we both needed to understand in order to be able to function in the groups. Our understandings shaped what we did, and so probably altered the experiences that others had of being in the group (whether for better or worse).

I have been changed as a result of engaging in this research. It has not only been a case of ‘growing as a person’ through deepening my awareness of the variety of approaches to engaging with social worlds (or any similar type of wanky explanation I might put on a cover letter for a job application in the future). I have also learnt to be okay with being still and to privilege stopping for a cup of tea over getting the tea cups washed. I am more willing to offer a dissenting view in a group or suggest what I think that a group should do. These changes in how I relate to others probably do not make me a better person to be around, but they have been very useful for developing and testing my understandings, as well allowing me to enjoy being a part of a group rather than just finding satisfaction in getting a job done. Sure being the first one to bound up and take care of the dishes is much less awkward than watching somebody else wait on me, but not only does such action prevent me understanding how things would get done in my absence, I really do enjoy being able to stay there to finish the conversation.

So I change the groups I am a part of and the people who have become part of my life change who I am, but the people who make up the ‘field’ for me are also changing my research project. I think they change it less when they push me towards certain details, such as when the volunteer pulled out those folders of clippings, than when they represent my project to other people. I have become okay with using words with messy academic baggage such as ‘community’ and ‘change’ partly because I see that other people think that it is a good way for other people to understand what the project is about. In offering a necessarily reductionist account to others, they seem to demonstrate something of not just what they want to share but, perhaps more significantly, what they think others will want to see represented.

There is always the chance with social research that you end up writing about what people want to talk about. In many ways, this is not always a bad thing. Furthermore, just as I have to take responsibility for the types of changes I make in the lives I encounter in my field work and how the experience of field work shapes me as a person, what my project ends up being is under my control. I might not have a positive agenda for social change in my research, but I do not mind my values and what I hope for the world will probably play a significant role. It is in my interest to ensure that any conflicts between entertaining stories, getting this project finished and the sorts of changes I am willing to bring about (whether in individual encounters or on a broader scale) are resolved in a manner I can live with.

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