What Do We Owe the Informants Whose Data we Don’t Use?

It’s a common theme in anthropology: your first idea is seldom your best one, and the thesis you set out to research will not be the one that you end up writing. And yet, the ideas we take to the field shape our research. We form relationships, take up people’s time, take down their knowledge. Then, as our ideas shift, we often set aside that knowledge, so generously shared with us. Our participants thought they were contributing to the growth of scholarship. But we make the decision to include or not include their data without consulting them. We can leave them out, and they might never know.

My thesis was supposed to be about the textile trade. But the thesis I’m writing hardly touches on textiles. I had one key informant on the textile trade, a weaver and trader I’ll call Ana (not her real name). She welcomed me into her home, introduced me to her family, and fed me countless meals. Most of all, she taught me. Yet the things I learned from her will hardly come into my dissertation. What do I owe Ana, then? What do we all owe the informants whose contributions we don’t use?

The first idea

I first visited Bajawa, the town where I would one day do my PhD research, long before I ever thought about going to graduate school. I was living in Bali, and working for an Indonesia-based organization that supported weavers, most of whom were women in rural areas of the southeastern islands. Part of my job involved traveling to weaving communities around the country, to purchase their artwork, and to learn about the weavers, their cultures, and their ways of working.

On that first trip to Bajawa, I had a long conversation with a textile trader about the persistence of old trade patterns among goods with ritual importance. There was a category of products, he said, which were “traditional,” in that they were vital ritual implements, and could not easily be displaced by other goods. He said that these objects, which included textiles, were difficult to price for buyers like us, who used money instead of barter: “we prefer to trade traditional objects in a traditional way.”

The moment stuck in my head, and the longer it dwelt there, the more important it seemed to be. Years later, when the time came to choose a site for PhD fieldwork, it leapt back into my mind. Bajawa had a lot to recommend it as a field site–gaps in the existing literature, recent economic upheavals, a great climate–but that conversation with the textile trader was a big part of my decision to do research there. When I finally arrived to start my fieldwork, I was determined to follow up on it. The man with whom I spoke that day had sadly passed away, but there were plenty of weavers around. I set out to find one as a key informant.

Making a key informant

I first met Ana by chance. I drove up to my own house and found her on my front porch with a bale of cloth, making sales among my neighbors. She lost little time dressing me and my partner up in full Ngadha regalia, while my landlord fetched a machete and shoulder bag to complete the costume. I told her we weren’t buying today, but could I meet with her later to talk about weaving? She agreed, and gave me her phone number.

Over the next year, I endeavored to spend at least one day a week with her. She took me through her whole weaving process, introducing me to suppliers, teaching me at least a little of every skill, and letting me observe her labor practices and shadow her on trips to sell cloth and collect debts. If a few days went by and she hadn’t heard from me, she would call me up and ask when I was coming back over.

Ana didn’t have the same sense of high stakes about my research that some of my male informants did. They moaned that the young men in their community, who were failing to learn the traditional knowledge that I so eagerly collected. When the time came for the young to take over, the old men griped, if they wanted to know anything about their own culture, they would have to buy my book! Ana, on the other hand, was transmitting her knowledge without any help from me or anyone else, teaching her own children to weave, taking them along when she went to sell or barter her textiles, and introducing them to families to which women of their line had been selling cloth for generations. She also taught my partner to weave, and on our wedding day, I wore a scarf woven by the two of them. Ana prayed that we would soon have children.

My relationship with Ana had boundaries, of course. On a major ceremonial day, she snubbed me in public. When I was preparing to leave the field, she claimed my refrigerator, setting up a minor conflict with the family I lived with. All of this was productive, from an ethnographic perspective.

The first idea is never the last one

I’m not sure when the realization started to dawn that the actual thesis would go in a different direction. It probably began when I failed to find a house in the weaving district, and ended up living in another village. I grew close to the people there, and started focusing on them, despite the fact that none of them wove. I found that textiles weren’t even important in ritual exchange any more. And that first conversation, which drew me to Bajawa in the first place? I never found anyone else who felt the same. Slowly, I de-emphasized textiles, and refocused on other, more relevant topics.

After I got back to Australia and started sifting my data, I finally admitted that the clearest path to a thesis did not lie with textiles. It was a wrenching decision, but I set aside pretty much everything Ana told me.

“Kin-like” relationships

Ana provided me with generous amounts of knowledge, time, and care. She knew I was doing a doctorate, and the understanding between us was clear: her knowledge, and her story, would be at its core. Now, that isn’t going to happen. I can use her information for articles, but it doesn’t feel the same. The thesis felt like a suitable place to honor her contributions. Journal articles feel, somehow, less-than. It was always my intention to come back to my field site after graduating, and deliver copies of the thesis to the informants who made it possible. I couldn’t come to Bajawa and not give her one. What if she flipped through, and realized she wasn’t in it? I feel awful just thinking about it.

One thing Ana spoke about, and which I remember often, was that her business required the development of “kin-like” relationships. For generations, weavers in Ana’s family visited the same towns, and stayed in the same houses, offering their hosts gifts of cloth for their hospitality. These host houses became like family, and remained a strong network, even as times changed. When Ana’s daughter moved to another island for university, she arranged to live in the home of one of these kin-like families, who had long since decamped from the Bajawa region, but remained bound to Ana and her children.

I couldn’t say that my relationship with Ana quite rose to the level of kin. But I dearly hope that when I do return to Bajawa, present her with a bound copy of my thesis, and introduce her to my son, born after fieldwork, and in the wake of her prayers for my expanding family, she will greet us as warmly as ever.

                                                                      [Image by Ian Pollock: threads on Ana’s loom]

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