When the world invades “the field:” emotion, introspection, and ethnography

It’s been years since anthropology set aside the fantasy of “the field” — a bounded research site, where the locals, and the researcher studying them, are insulated from events in the wider world. But assumptions about “the field,” and what doing fieldwork will be like, are hard to shake. I knew full well, when I went to Flores, Indonesia, for my own PhD fieldwork, that the people I would encounter there were fully integrated with their nation and the world: coffee from Flores was traded on world markets, and Catholic missionaries trained in Flores’ seminaries were posted in dozens of countries. I knew that their community was not bounded. But somehow, I thought that I would be. While I was there, I didn’t expect to be rocked by events outside the field. Then, when I was, I didn’t know how to react. The story is laid down in my field notes, which I reread recently, and are quoted directly below: denial, then the emotional hit, followed by confusion, and then a response. I wonder if you would have responded in the same way.

On June 13th, 2016, I was down the Flores coast, where I had been invited to attend a wedding. I expected to be there all day, bouncing between the various rituals, feasts, and celebrations, taking notes, asking questions, drinking the local palm liquor, and generally enjoying myself. I started the day at a church service, crammed into a pew in the back row. I wrote, for a while, about the ceremony. “Physical discipline of church: men all hold arms in front of bodies, arms crossed or hands clasped at groin. Nobody stands arms akimbo, or puts hands in pockets. (Of course, sarongs don’t have any pockets.)”

Normal enough stuff. Then, everything began to unravel.

Grief

“Oh, I want to weep for America!” I wrote, in that back pew, deep in Indonesia and far from anything American. “So much danger and death! The good things can’t be protected! It’s a dangerous, unstable world, unpredictable, as full of the bad as the good. I wish I could leave, but I’m also flushing the grief from my system.”

This was a startling thing to find written in a field notebook, and a bizarre break from my otherwise standard descriptions of what I was seeing and doing. It happened because I made a mistake. That morning, when I woke in a sweaty hut by that tropical shore, I had not gone straight to the celebrations. Instead, first thing, I checked my phone. A faint Internet signal carried the news from America: 49 dead, 58 wounded, all assaulted by a madman in the Pulse Nightclub, in Orlando, Florida.

Pain Projection

My field notes from that day charted a kind of emotional disintegration. I veered away from the moment at hand, transforming the wedding from an ethnographic encounter to a psychological one. Everywhere I looked, I saw myself. “Every heart here has its turmoil,” I wrote, projecting my pain. “Never forget. Everyone has a heart. And a heart can churn with feeling. No one’s experience is deficient. [The] suffering and joys that westerners make movies and write novels about [are all] here.” I looked around at the congregation: poor farmers, palm tappers, fishermen. “What,” I wondered, “would the[ir] memoirs look like?”

After the church service, instead of going straight back to the groom’s house for the celebration, I went off to sit alone on the beach. I sat there so long, watching waves crash on the smooth black stones, that I missed my ride back to the village. “I can walk back,” I wrote. “Desperate for distraction and comfort. I always enjoy working, but I’m afraid of it. Especially now, when I’m so agitated.”

Disgust

All around me, people appeared joyful. Their merriment felt unendurable. “Have to eat a little more,” I wrote. “Can’t choke down any more pig fat and blood. Disgusting now. The music is a palpable fog—we’re swimming through it. It’s thick. It shakes our pant cuffs and lung cavities.” I sat with the drunken elders, who told me useful stories, made jokes about their dicks, and passed the bottle back and forth. They did not know I was upset, or what I could be upset about. I felt offended by that ignorance, and repulsed by their pleasure.

Finally I told the gathering what had happened in America, and excused myself, saying I needed to make sure my family was safe. No one in my family was anywhere near Orlando that day.

Vulnerability

For the whole drive home, I berated myself. I should never have checked the news. A real anthropologist, I thought, would never take their mind away from their field site like that. I should never have let my emotions overwhelm me, and ruin a rare field opportunity. I had blown it, and why? Because of events thousands of miles away.

By the time I got home, however, a new plan had formed. Maybe I could turn this tragedy to my advantage. In the past, I had found that interlocutors often responded to displays of vulnerability with stories of their own emotions, failings, and doubts. Maybe if I played this tragedy right, I could turn it into data after all.

When my neighbors stopped by to say hello, I carefully broke the news: something terrible had happened in America. I was upset about it. I didn’t want to go out, or see anyone. Except, I intimated, for maybe just a few friends. Within an hour, a key informant stopped by. He said he heard I was upset about something. To make me feel better, to offer me support, he agreed to a new round of interviews.

At this point, pain and disgust were joined by another emotion.

Guilt.

The anthropologist as instrument

If the anthropologist is themselves the analytical instrument of ethnography, the instrument is a sensitive one. Our hands can tremble with the delicacy of a seismograph recording distant tremors. As a result, our outputs can be hard to read without context that is both broad, spanning the world, and deep, with insight into the researcher’s mind and heart. In this case, I was reading my own work, and could pinpoint the cause of the disturbance in my writing. The unpublished notes of other anthropologists can present more of a challenge.

Anthropologists are now looking beyond the reflexive turn to ask new questions about fieldwork, including its emotional qualities, and the need for mental health support. When I did my field research, much of my support came from the ability to breach the field, to talk with friends and family elsewhere, and read my hometown news. For the most part, this ability empowered me, by giving me a break when the days turned hard. Sometimes, like the day of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, that porous boundary between field and home knocked me back. Both cases make the same point: like the “field site” itself, and the people who inhabit it, the researcher is not bounded.

                                                                    [Image by Ian Pollock]

3 thoughts on “When the world invades “the field:” emotion, introspection, and ethnography

  1. Really set me thinking, Ian reflecting on my own fieldwork in Sarawak and Java. Thanks for stimulating the tired brain cells.

    • Thanks for that! If you ever want to write up some of your own reflections, we’d be thrilled to publish them here.

  2. Pingback: Ep. #4 Killer Docs, Imaginary Landscapes, Political Lies, and Emotional Risk: this month on TFS | The Familiar Strange

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