Why do people wear and produce fake underwear, fake suits and fake jeans? In the new issue of Anthropology Matters, anthropologist Magdalena Craciun tells us in a well written paper about what it was like researching “the place of fake brands in lives lived in the margins of Europe".
She has been on fieldwork in Bucharest, Istabul and in her hometown in Romania - and this was no easy undertaking. “I hope that the paper contributes to the collective effort of sharing field experiences for the benefit of other anthropologists", she writes.
When an anthropologist studies people who wear fake clothes, Magdalena Craciun writes, she is suspected of secretly laughing at and condemning people, practices and objects. Angry reactions persisted as part of the field routine:
“You want to study how we dress in cheap clothes"; “you want to write about how we dress in turcisme [goods made in Turkey] and chinezisme [goods made in China] from Europa"; “we cannot afford good expensive clothes, like the branded ones, and you take us for people who lack taste in clothing"; “I am trying to weave an image, you come to point out the cracks and remind me of the fluff!”
It was no advantage being from the same place as her informants:
Our shared background made people less tolerant of my curiosity about things they thought I should already understand or experiences I should already have had. The presumption was that I was pretending to be an observer when in fact I was a participant, having a vested interest in trivia, and that I would go on to expose and misuse the information (Bakalaki 1997).
In the “Europa” market in Bucharest, she was also rejected as a researcher:
People working in this quasi-illegal place often had hostile attitudes towards me (journalists reported similar reactions). The few friendly traders pointed out that complicity in illegal activities “place us all in the same pot", and being seen talking with me could be risky for them.
Then she changed her research strategy and started “practicing anthropology out of the corner of her eye":
I pieced together various impressions, e.g. different ways of exploring the market, visitors’ clothing, ways of selecting the goods, retorts, exclamations of delight or disappointment, until I felt I saturated in this experience.
I was not looking at things from above or “nowhere", as detachment implies, but from one side, discreetly. Instead of immersing myself into social worlds, I found myself hanging around, being here and there, grasping knowledge as it appeared, but also provoking its appearance in glimpses.
In Istanbul, I was told that the act of faking a brand is like a “spark” (kivilcim gibi). This is a pertinent image, suggesting the ephemeral, the intangible, the transient that was so central to my fieldwork (fakes are fakes only in the eyes of certain people, fakes are present only for some people, fakes happen and die out). Practicing anthropology out of the corner of one’s eye allows one to catch some of the sparks.