The art of fieldwork

For 3-4 months I’ve been so immersed in fieldwork that I’ve taken it to be my one and only life. Vaguely, I’ve remembered that there exist a parallel universe up north (which seem to be my one and only life when I’m not elsewhere), but it wasn’t before I actually dipped back into that life for 9 days that it all crashed back into my conscience: There is an office there waiting to host me at inhumane working hours in just a few months time. There are students to be taught and colleagues to exchange with, and loads and loads of books to read… (Unfortunately, there isn’t any home with a view over Oslo to hibernate me, my plethora of succulents and dusty books anymore…).

When I entered the field again after a short trip outside of it, I couldn’t get one sentence from a book on anthropological method and the darker arts of fieldwork out of my head:

“Is seduction one of our darker arts? As craftspeople, are we so crafty that others don’t know when they are being seduced?” (Wolcott 2005: 141).

I realised that I’m so crafty when doing fieldwork that the participant role of my persona seduces even me. I appear so sincere because I belive it myself. I want to stay here (or in London when I was there), it’s my genuine one and only wish. For the moment. I also tell people that I’m here to write a thesis and yes, it is actually my paid work to hang around in bars listening to slam poetry. But I forget at the same time that what I’ve been doing the last months, is not part of my life-to-come but part of my academic career. I suspect people around me are more aware of the fact that I’m simply dropping in and then out of their lives again, than I am myself. But I wouldn’t be surprised that the genuine enthousiasm I express by saying that I want to settle here helps strengthening my relationships with people. Wolcott calls this superficiality and seduction the darker arts of fieldwork. I was surprised to realise that my self-deception actually is treated in a book on fieldwork methods.

Both my fieldworks have been in environments close to my own interests. I could have been – and I surely would have loved to be –hanging around with policial activists in Brixton and mucisians in Tower Hamlets as well as slammeurs and slammeuses in Belleville, even without the excuse of doing fieldwork. Partly, I see this as a more honest anthropology as it is entirely based on the idea of an anthropology without radical difference, and more so, I don’t have to fake or hide anything – not what kind of information I’m looking for, neither my political views, my artistic interests and my way of life in any sense. On the other hand, as I’ve found myself asking the last week; what if I’m faking it all (so well that I believe it myself!), getting access through this perhaps naïve enthusiasm.

“Fieldworkers willing to make research commitments on such a grand scale [as to spend at least 12 months away from home] are also likely to be overcommitted in other aspect os their lives,” Wolcoff writes (2005: 117), and he continues further down: “Fieldworkers have an understandable but perhaps unfortunate tendency to represent themselves not only as different from those who do quick-and-dirty studies but somehow as more sensitive and caring humans as well.”

So, maybe this self-deception, the going native, is part of the darker arts of fieldworkers’ repertoir?

Ever since my early teens, perhaps my whole life, there has been a tension between the safe framework of academia and the attraction of adventurous escapes. In Oslo, the adventurer apparently does the head in on my entourage, and here she has been pushing the academic in the background for a while now. But almost as the conflict is about to be won, the adventurer evaporates into a cunning and crafty anthropologist…? Is that how it is?

Participant observation: The anthropologist as Slammeuse, at Lou Pascalou 11.04.07


Comment from: Monica [Visitor]

Hi Cicilie
A beautiful and thoughtprovoking post. You’re constantly challenging youreself and the readers.

04/06/07 @ 12:41
Comment from: Aleksandra [Visitor]

You,re a poet, Cicilie. I was thinking about the same subject after a short field break and while writing a post in april with that difference that my life is so totally different from my field and I DONT WANT to stay here. I am happy for you and the “homeness” of your field. For me, the permanent feeling of faking and hiding has been the most unpleasant field experience.

05/06/07 @ 01:18
Comment from: [Member]

Thanks for your comments, both of you! Aleksandra, I read your post a while ago, and I’ve wanted to comment on it. I’ll think I’ll do it right away… (It’s funny that you mention my “homeness” in the field, because for some time now, I’ve been thinking about my self as homeless. A more positive version is to think that home is anywhere I have a bike; for the moment Paris, Oslo, Trondheim and Bergen… :D )

05/06/07 @ 01:59
Comment from: Sarapen [Visitor]

It’s funny how there is such a disjuncture between fieldwork and life outside of it, at least when one is physically in the field (currently I do online research). It’s like you’ve entered a parallel universe where the laws of space and time–or at least the social conventions you normally follow–have been turned topsy-turvy. Up is down, black is white, and you do things you wouldn’t even consider when at home. You even stop following the same sporting events you’d obsess about at home (at least I did). And of course you’re a researcher 24/7, you’re always observing and cataloguing interactions even when “relaxing".

Of course, this field/home dichotomy disappears when your fieldwork is at home, or when it is someplace not so easily Other. And for online stuff, I find it’s really easy to put away your fieldworker persona–just turn off your computer. Still, I kind of miss the feel of complete immersion I had when doing traditional fieldwork.

09/06/07 @ 21:55
Comment from: Aleksandra [Visitor]

:) thanks for your comment, Cicilie:). Yes, I’ve been doing this “travel through the worlds” in 5 years now. Every time I am visiting Poland I experience both the homeness and the homelessness. And I think that these two states complement each other in the situation we’re talking about. Being homeless is the price we pay for feeling at home in too many places, I think. And yes, language is a real hallucinogen :). And everyone I know is far politer when not using mother tongue; far more modest and silly. Do you know Kristeva writing about this “mutedness” (Really, I don’t think you’re politer speaking French and me speaking Norwegian because the language is such:). I do absolutely agree with what she’s expressing in “Silence of Polyglots” (link above). Sometimes it can be really frustrating when time is passing by (f.e. me in Norway) and you’re still “the polite one” :). But I do agree that every language marks us in a different way. (I’m not fully convinced of the romantic idea of “the emotional resonance”. Sometimes it’s not enough. It’s hard loving words and living the way I do.)

Anyway, this field experience has taught me a lot and I console myself that it was the aim with this project. No regrets, just hope to make it better next time. Good luck to you and keep the “homing instinct”! (haha, I’ve always meant we can use the zoological vocabulary while talking about our work).

13/06/07 @ 19:55
Comment from: [Member]

Thanks for your comments! Sarapen, your example of sporting events is a good one. For me, it can be news stories that preoccupy me in one place and are completely forgotten after I’ve switched to my parallel universe. Anthropology is an existentially strange and challenging activity, and when I read about the eccentric star sign Aquarius, I wonder if we’re not born anthropologists ;-)

Aleksandra, Strangers to ourselves has been on my reading list for a long time, and it moved rapidly up that list after reading the quotes from it on your blog. What a beautiful and poignant description of living in a foreign language!

15/06/07 @ 11:54
Comment from: Hanne [Visitor]

Mon Dieu, Cicilie you’re amazing, aquarious or not. Congratulations on your debut as Slammeuse!

Fieldwork - life - workinglife. What’s the difference, really? I always get soaked up; I go native, no matter what. But do I feel “at home"? Rarely.

Either I seem to be missing the “homing instinct” or I might best be characterized as a “homeless” wanderer, possibly looking for parallell universes - nirvana images, perhaps…

A drawback in being a trained fieldworker is the inborn, so to speak, ability of revealing structural and retorical layers of faking and hiding; unpleasant structures in shape of unbreakable “walls of culture” - I belive it is time to buy myself a bike (-:

19/06/07 @ 11:56
Comment from: [Member]

Thanks for your comment, Hanne! Yes, it helps with a bike. You should definitely try :D

23/06/07 @ 00:13

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