Lily King’s Euphoria (2015, Grove Press) did not exactly leave me euphoric. On the bright side, I could almost feel the humid air of a tropic jungle while reading – at a quite enjoyable safe distance of the book, and not as suffocating as IRL. Also, it’s a page-turner, and sucked me in right from the start. The story is based on a part of the life of Maragret Mead, easily anthropology’s most popular (in the sense of widely-known; otherwise it is safe to say controversial, as well) figure at least in the English-speaking world. It describes a love-triangle between three anthropologists doing fieldwork among what they call “primitive tribes” on an island in New Guinea. In essence, it’s a story about love and ambition, women in science, and fieldwork.
But then, King’s appreciation of fieldwork is flat, with the enthusiastic Nell, who always seems to find joy in work, the ambitious Fen, who’s effortlessly going native, and the shy but smart Bankston, who’s facing an existential crisis in the face of the other. Fieldwork is about collecting facts in far away places and extracting the underlying logic. While this is historically accurate, because questions of representation and a different concept of culture were not yet to be thought of in the between-the-wars-era, it is a little disapppointing in endorsing the stereotypes of hiking-boots-and-khaki-pants-wearing pseudo-explorers.
But what disappointed me most, was that the guiding principle for the book clearly wasn’t “Show, rather than tell.”, because literally everything was told, either through letters, or the retrospective account of Bankston. The story could easily have filled 200 pages more, if it hadn’t been mostly telling what happened in the jungle. But overall, it was a worthwhile read, and possibly a good choice for a vacation in the warmer parts of this world.
How did I come across the book?
In my search for ethnographic novels, I came across Lily King. This is interessting insofar, as it is not a novel by an anthropologist, but about three of them, for a change.
When and where did I read it?
Right before heading to the field, pendeling between my two homes in Zurich and Konstanz.
The Year in Readings started with a mission: more ethnographic monographs. The first book I finished, however, does not fit into this category. On the upside, at least it is remotely related to what I do in my research. Memory, Subjectivities, and Representation. Approaches to Oral History in Latin America, Portugal and Spain by Rina Benmayor, María Eugenia Cardenal de la Nuez and Pilar Domínguez Prats (eds.; Palgrave Macmillian 2016) is meant to be an introdcution to oral history work in Latin America, Spain and Portugal. I’ve been doing a more formal review for the Oral History Forum d’histoire orale from the Canadian Oral History Association, which you can find here, if you’d like to have a look.
For the purpose of continuing with my subjective review series, I am just going to mention a few key points. Overall, reading edited volumes is often a challenge, because personally, I am rarely interested in all the contributions. This one had the great advantage, that it were those articles I thought wouldn’t fit my interests, which were the most inspiring. Some of the topics are innovative, like the articles on Lisbon’s tattoo scene, or the performance piece on the Portuguese dictatorship, and I especially liked the articles focusing on female militants from the Southern Cone and on migrant sex workers in Spain. But I would have liked more of that. Most articles are concerned with worker’s history. A real downer was the fact that articles on Latin America were restricted to the Southern Cone and Mexico, giving a somewhat eurocentric idea of the continent, and completely leaving out any indigenous contributions. Given that it is particularly this area where Oral History flourishes in Latin America, I found that quite disappointing. Apart from this (serious!) flaw, the volume is a solid contribution, and might be of interest for people wanting to know more about current trends in the region.
How did I come across the book?
Actually, the journal approached me to ask whether I would review it. I found that flattering and agreed.
When and where did I read it?
In one of Bogota’s amazing public libraries around New Year’s.
I’m on my way home with Transmilenio, and fortunately for me, I got a seat. I’m staring out of the window into the dark Bogotan night and think about nothing in specific. At the next stop, many people get in and the bus becomes crowded. As we continue the ride, I hear the voice of a man announcing his goods: the new police code (of conduct), and some drawing books for children. He patiently explains in detail some of the news, that police may now control your ID, that they may enter your car or your house for searches, and some other rules that to me actually sound a little encroaching. Then there is a short moment of silence, until he continues to speak. His voice is patient, but also more assertive and very tired, as he exclaims to someone I can’t exactly make out in the crowd who apparently told him to stop selling stuff on the bus: “You’re not living in Switzerland, sir. This is not Sweden, either. 54% of the people living in this country make their living doing what I do. You have to be a little more realistic, and face the kind of country we’re living in.” The other man stays silent to this, and he continues to explain the new police code. At the next stop he gets of. No-one bought anything.
The days in Bogota are counted for now, and with them my opportunities to collect more data. Friends and colleagues here and back home all ask me that one question: So, do you have all you needed? The most terrifying variation being “How many interviews do you have?” And every time someone asks me that, they send me down a spiral of doubts and worries. While I am convinced that there can never be “enough” when it comes to human interactions (to which I count formal interviews, but also participant observation, casual meetings with informants, exchange of material or immaterial things or favors, etc.), I also believe that my work here cannot and should not be translated into a certain number of interviews. In the end, their usefulness depends on their quality rather than the quantity. Yet, even though I am very happy with the quality of my interviews, I cannot but feel disappointed about their number.
There’s a name for how I feel about my time in the field. And apparently, it is a very common syndrome especially among women scholars. Maybe you have heard about impostor syndrome, that awquard feeling of being a fraud and the anxiety that people will find out. If you wanna know more about it, you can check out Chronicle Vitae. Also, the guys from StartupBros have some recommendations on how to get over it.
As for myself, I like to believe that even though I am deceptioned by the number, I am still happy about how well everything went. Knowing that I didn’t even know most of my interviewees before the trip, the depth of the interviews and the levels of trust reached in interactions do indeed surprise me. Considering furthermore, that so far all of them are willing to introduce me to other family members, and in general continue to cooperate with me, I can actually be at least a little proud of my work.
And, of course, I did not spend the whole time on doing interviews. There’s a lot more to being an academic in the field than being able to just run from informant to informant, extracting data from them like I was a cauchero and they the rubber trees. While I was here, I attended the publication of a book which includes an essay of mine. I met with colleagues and advisers to discuss my project and possible cooperations. I prepared a course I will be teaching during the summer term. I wrote a presentation I will hold at a conference in a week from now. I attended a virtual discussion with a research group I am part of. And that’s only the non-fieldwork-related part of the job. Why am I telling you this? Because this way I see there’s nothing to be ashamed of when thinking about “my number”. That’s as good as it gets; and maybe it’s time for me to forget about that romantic idea of simply being in the field and going about my stuff without any strings attached. One of the reasons I wanted to become an academic in the first place was precisely the variety of tasks combined in the world of science (apart from the obvious curiosity about other cultures, and my desire to teach). My way of dealing with impostor syndrome? Write about it, right here!
Sometimes I am seriously doubting whether studying Anthropology actually was a good decision. Sometimes in this case means every single time I am heading for an interview. I just can’t stop feeling unqualified, I always worry whether I’ll be asking the right questions, and I’m literally praying there won’t be too many moments of awkward silence – still being an atheist, that is. Every single time, I’m sweating more than I would on an entire day at the Caribbean. While other colleagues have told me they’re embarrassed by how much they speak themselves during an interview when they transcribe the audio file, I am more often than not worried about how to keep things going.
Every time I read texts on interviewing methodology, I cringe at the part that says one should try to make the interviewee feel comfortable. How in the world am I supposed to make people feel comfortable in a situation that is not comfortable at all, not even for me who I am supposed to be in charge of it?! I am clearly no small talk genius, and apparently worse so under pressure. Not that I would get into embarrassing moments by talking about inappropriate things, or something like that. You could at least call this a talent for ice-breaking, if you want. I am more the kind of person who becomes utterly aware of her social awkwardness around people I do not know.
So how do I go about these situations? Continue reading
So as I said, I’m back to fieldwork again. Had a nice and turbulence-free flight of some 11 hours, arrived save and sound and with all my baggage. This way around the globe, I always suffer less from jet lag and got up at a pretty average 7:15am, and with only light symptoms of soroche (altitude sickness, which comes with headache and or vertigo: Bogotá is at 2640m above sea level). I’m staying with the family, so I didn’t have to worry about where to live or how to get there, and guess I will slip back easily into this other routine. This other routine is one of different ways of doing things, not just related to different weather, place, time management and security situation. I’m always fascinated with the small things, the very quotidian practices one usually doesn’t even notice when at home. But here, I notice that making the bed, washing the dishes or going to the bathroom can be so different. Every time I spread those three to four sheets one by one onto the bed, making sure they fit neatly and don’t throw wrinkles, I also think of the one blanket I use at home and how I just fold it once. Or when I wash the dishes with rubber gloves and creamy to solid rinsing agent in fluorescent colors, instead of without the gloves and with hand and eco-friendly dish liquid. Or when every now and again I forget I’m not supposed to throw toilet paper into the toilet bowl and curse the narrow drainpipes. Or when changing back from using a big wallet with all my cards to simply keeping notes and coins in the pockets of my pants. Or when I wake up to the Lambada sounds of the reverse gear. Did I say waking up? Zzzzzzzzzz. So much for the jet lag.
I recently came across this hashtag. (Yes, I’m preparing for fieldwork…) As it seems, there’s lot’s of things that can go wrong in the field, but fortunately most of them at least do for a good laugh afterwards. I was stunned by the amount of biologists and their wildlife-encounters gone awkward – for example, the drugged zebra stuck in a tree, the exploding vials of elephant blood on a plane, or the parakeet-observer at NATO Headquarters, who was arrested by security forces. These stories tell a lot about humans in science. Still, I was wondering about the anthropologists. As we all know, human interaction is pretty likely to go awry and I am more than curious to know what can go wrong beside the classic “no batteries in the recording device”. Anyone interested in sharing their stories?
You can find beautifully illustrated and funny #fieldworkfail stories here.