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Last week the amount of empirical data and loose ends unsettled me in my intentions to get on writing. I asked everybody I met if they could recommend me a technique to sort the data and how and where to start writing. The second best advice I got was to start listening through the interviews and jot down central themes and get inspired from that. It’s a good idea and I think the conversations and individuals were my point of departure for my Master thesis. But this time I doubt that the interviews are anywhere near my peak performance as a fieldworker. First, they were conducted in French. Second, and most importantly; my slammer acquaintances aka interviewees knew I’d not be able to anonymize them donc what they told me are mostly bland and well-groomed versions closer to what anyone can find on the internet than what one can see and hear on and around a slam session. On the other hand, the interviews certainly give me background information providing context for the individuals and their relationship to the slam… or whatever… I don’t know yet. I just know I felt ok about them but nothing more. They weren’t eye-opening enlightenments like most of the interviews I did in London.
“Start right in the middle, with the core of the issue,” a friend casually remarked during a conversation mostly about other things when I met her last week. Yes, of course, that’s obvious, I suddenly realised. I had started in the other end, in the margins, trying to track my own route of discovery from the beginning of my stay in Paris. I thought it would be an interesting journey to re-travel: Where and when and how did I come across certain topics and reach particular understandings? I realise now that first I have to determine for sure which are the important topics and understandings that need to be pinpointed – thus I have to start from the core…
And the core is… the soirées of course! I’ll go through them one by one, focusing on the different venues and events, starting with the four soirées I attended and filmed at L’Atelier du Plateau (already mentioned in this post). I don’t know yet what exactly will come out of this, but I’ll for sure get an overview of the variety of persons attending and the themes they approach. What a relief to find a way out of the empirical maze!
After I mapped out an outline two and a half months ago, my project has appeared amazingly ordered and under control. Perhaps it’s no wonder then, that I’ve postponed delving back into my fieldnotes for as long as I could, keeping myself busy with ordered and controllable intellectual activities like reading books for literature seminars and writing abstracts for upcoming workshops and conferences as well as even an article.
In Authoring a PhD: How to plan, draft, write and finish a doctoral thesis or dissertation by Patrick Dunleavy, I’ve found numerous advice on how to structure my work more efficiently. I’ll try to sum some of them up here and give a brief account of how I’m making use of them.
I’ve got one year and six months pay left of my research grant and with the help of organised writing I hope it won’t be a problem to finish in time. But I realise that the writing must be organised this time, so no more writing 140 pages too much like I did with my previous thesis. For the sake of organising myself, I read Authoring a PhD last Christmas (on a black volcanic beach on La Gomera in the Atlantic ocean, so the book is full of dark grains of sand). (Thanks to Mary Stewart for recommending the book on her research blog here).
Three recent events have inspired me to get this blog going again. The last drop must have been a post by the incredibly prolific research blogger Mary Stevens. In her last post, she tells about her PhD viva and her examiners’ interest in her research blog:
One of the things they were particularly interested in - and of which I didn’t make that much in my write-up - was this blog and the specific contribution it had made to the research experience. I talked about the inspiration, in particular C. Wright Mills‘ idea of the research file, and how it helped extend my presence in the ‘field’ into the virtual arena. Overall, they seemed to think that in an ideal world all researchers would be blogging, as a way of communicating their research to their peers and to the general public, and as a means to keep a kind of intellectual diary. Their enthusiasm has inspired me to find some way to carry on, although I suspect in a new form, as I think this blog has outlived its usefulness (as my failure to post over the last few months has amply illustrated). (Read the whole post on Mary Steven’s blog here.)
As I’ve been chronicling my experiencing continuously, I feel I shouldn’t stop now: The strange things happening after leaving the field, when experiences are turned into data and written documentation, are of course as part and parcel of the research process as is the hanging around in Paris-life I was writing about until last summer. But until now I haven’t
The second event spurring me on to continue blogging, was a brief remark from one of my colleagues who recently got back from his fieldwork: “It’s funny how your friends slowly turn into your informants when you get back to academia and start writing up,” he said. How right! That uncomfortable fact is exactly what’s been churning around in my mind for months now, and I feel it’s urgent to voice this phenomenon/experience in a research blog at this stage.
The third event is the sheer joy and inspiration it gives me to read the research blogs from some of the Master students I was teaching in the spring who now are out in the field all over the world: Rakel blogs (with photos!) from Malta, Nina from Cuba and Inger from India (I think she’s a photographer, ‘cos her photos are really incredible)…
Ah finally, there it’s done, my first post for more than three months…
Facebook hit Norway like a meteorite while I was in Paris (where, by the way, Myspace was the big thing). With 404 508 members, this tiny country with only 4,5 million inhabitants constitute one of the larges regional networks on Facebook (Norway). I still haven’t really discovered what’s so great about Facebook yet (by contrast I got hooked on Flickr immediately and can still spend so many hours immobile in front of the photo sharing utility that my eyes get sore from forgetting to blink and my shoulders stiffen.) Anyway, in my slow and trying attempts to catch up on what everybody here were doing in the spring – while I was watching other people tending other sheep in other valleys (e.g. surfing on Myspace) – I stumbled upon the Norwegian anthropologists’ Facebook association (Norske antropologers fjesbokforening). And what do I find, after a short presentation of the association and a handful of links to informative sites (where of course the incredible antropologi.info by Lorenz is on top)? Yes, a link proclaiming in capital letters: PARTICIPANT OBSERVATION ON YOUTUBE. It’s me, with a poem by the Norwegian author Jens Bjørneboe, first in French translation, then a little more comfortably in the original Norwegian version. My mate Lorent who sat next to me, suggested taking over the camcorder when the maître de cérémonie Dgiz introduced me (to my surprise), so he filmed the whole séance.
It’s incredible strange to watch this video now, in my own living room, so removed from Bellevillian fieldwork as I can be. I’ve just come back from the Cinemateket (Scarface, 1933 – the remake, with Al Pacino, is said to be a cult movie for the kids in the deprived Parisian suburbs). It’s a quiet Friday evening. Outside, it’s almost frosty, but the streets were full of people on their way to a party or a “vorspiel” when I cycled through town, like always in the weekends. So, in the middle of this, my typical Oslo life, I get reminded of my own participation in a poetry slam in haut Belleville five-six months ago. It’s funny to see my nervousness, hear the applause, see how I first forget to get the ticket (for a free drink) like so many slammers often do, then how Dgiz smiles after he has given it to me, then, finally, my big smile of relief towards Lorent after sitting down again. It’s funny to be back at L’Atelier du Plateau and this soirée, and it’s incredibly funny – yes, eerie – to have found the link on that Facebook site, inscribed in the heart of this internet community of young Norwegian anthropologists, as an example of participant observation.
“When the Government of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan asked me to make a study of the Nuer I accepted after hesitation and with misgivings” (Evans-Pritchard 1940: 7).
“A Government force surrounded our camp one morning at sunrise, searched for two prophets who had been leaders in a recent revolt, took hostages, and threatened to take many more if the prophets were not handed over. … It would at any time have been difficult to do research among the Nuer, and at the period of my visit they were unusually hostile, for their recent defeat by Government forces and the measures taken to ensure their final submission had occasioned deep resentment. Nuer had often remarked to me, ‘You raid us, yet you say we cannot raid the Dinka’; ‘you overcame us with firearms and we had only spears. If we had had firearms we could have routed you’; and so forth. When I entered a cattle camp it was not only as a stranger but as an enemy, and they seldom tried to conceal their disgust at my presence, refusing to answer my greetings and even turning away when I addressed them” (ibid. p. 11).
There is no other anthropologist I’ve read so extensively and thoroughly as Evans-Pritchard. I love how he makes reference to his arguments over witchcraft with members of the Azande community. His ethnographic descriptions of situations and even individuals in Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande are so “thick”, that you are allowed judge by yourself whether you agree with his theoretical analysis or not. When I reread The Nuer a couple of weeks ago, my hero disappointed me.
The book is nothing but generalisations – there isn’t one event, one situation, one individual mentioned after the short introductory chapter. Not even his one “constant companion in Nuerland” Nhial (p.10), who must have been indispensable in acquiring knowledge of the fierce and hostile Nuers appears in the text proper. He leaves us with an image of Nuer society as a seamless, timeless whole* devoid of real human beings. But as we know from his own introduction, Nuerland is in full anti-colonial revolt at the moment of writing. And in Evans-Pritchard’s own tent, young and proud Nuer men “endlessly visit”, talking about nothing but cattle and girls (which “led inevitably to that of cattle” ) and asking for tobacco without bothering to answer his questions.
Like anyone who’s been through a graduate course in social anthropology, I was of course familiar with the critique. However, my recent interest in colonial encounters gives an extra edge to reading 70 years old ethnographic descriptions by a white Brit in East Africa (Bourdieu among the Kabyle has certainly moved up on my reading list).
“I … never succeeded in training informants capable of dictating texts and giving detailed descriptions and commentaries. This failure was compensated for by the intimacy I was compelled to establish with the Nuer. As I could not use the easier and shorter method of working through regular informants I had to fall back on direct observation of, and participation in, the everyday life of the people. … Information was thus gathered in particles, each Nuer I met being used as a source of knowledge, and not, as it where, in chunks supplied by selected and trained informants. … Azande would not allow me to live as one of themselves ; Nuer would not allow me to live otherwise. … Azande treated me as a superior ; Nuer as an equal” (Ibid. p. 15).
Between the lines of this cold and “objective” ethnography, I read a lot of respect for the Nuers. But how on earth could this brilliantly alert and bright anthropologist not reflect on his own position as employed by the colonial – and so obviously repressive and violent – government. And equally puzzling: how can he treat the fact that he moves around with black servants (not Nuers, of course!) as such a matter of course? From the previous quote it even sounds like he usually treated his informants as servants… (This classical photo from Monica’s blog apparently gives a good indication of his relationship with the Azande).
A student alerted me to the fact that Evans-Pritchard lead African troops against the Italians in Eastern Africa during the WWII (Wikipedia). After seeing the French film Indigènes (see earlier blog post) on how the French colonial troops were treated during the war, I cannot but wonder how my predecessor treated his own soldiers.
*) This seamless whole is in fact what he wanted, as he writes that he wanted to write a new kind of monograph where the development of theory isn’t drowned in ethnographic detail.
It’s almost two months since I left Paris and time is overdue to get going with the second phase of this blog. One thing is certain; one will always have Paris, but for the time being it will be a long-distance relationship, slowly withering into a mythical landscape which hopefully will help me making some anthropological sense of it. (A landscape I hope will be fuller of poetry and revolt, than social organisation, cultural artefacts and postcolonial theory :-) ).