Blurred lines and dead chooks in fieldwork

Author: Elena Tjandra is a PhD student in human geography at the University of Melbourne. Her research considers everyday life, place, and territory, in a pueblo across the highway from a large underground silver mine in Oaxaca, Mexico. She tweets from @ElenaTjandra 

It was in the moment where I held my dead chook upside down by its feet, waiting in a line to singe its feathers over the fire, that I realised how bizarre this had turned out. How exactly did I get into this?

In episode #51 of the Familiar Strange, Kylie Wong Dolan wonders if she is turning into her research project, in the sense that it’s becoming a part of her identity. In episode #54 Sophie Pezzutto raises the dilemma of social duties, trying to balance her positions as both a friend and a researcher. Both questions give thought to the tangle of relationships between personality, person, passion, identity, and research. Often it is difficult to draw any clear distinctions between where something starts and where you begin.

My own fieldwork experience, like many others, demonstrates a blurring in what is ‘professional’ and ‘personal’, what is ‘leisure’ and ‘work’, whether you are researcher, student, or known by another identity. While researchers may strive to draw boundaries, distinctions in field research are blurry, because the nature of fieldwork facilitates an element of the unknown and the out-of-control. It is the intersection of different people, things, position, gender, power, knowledge and ways of being in the world. As feminist geographers and anthropologists often note, fieldwork is messy.

Student, researcher and la chinita

I recently returned from doing my fieldwork in a pueblo (small town) in the central valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico. Since returning, it’s been difficult to stop thinking about how my departure would be received. I left earlier than planned, and in a mad rush, due to the Covid-19 complications. I was months out from completing the research and hadn’t been able to meet some agreements I had with the municipality. Had I become a ‘bad’ researcher – those that come and extract information, then never return? Did I disappoint people? Would I be welcomed back in future, or would there be animosity on account of my leaving? Was I thinking too much of myself? Maybe my presence wouldn’t be missed?

In self-isolation, I think I’ve almost made peace with this situation, and have for the most part stopped these wild spirals of thinking. I am sure, as my supervisors reassure me, the community will understand why I left. But in hindsight, I was never able to determine how anyone in the community thought of me during the entire field period, not in the leaving, nor at any other time. There are things you might do, and ways you might act, that are given different meanings, but at the end of the day, you never have control on how other people think, or relate to you (although it does not mean that we do not try to be as responsible as possible).

In a lighter sense, there were a number of instances, mostly comical, where my research assistants and I were perceived as other than researchers.

The first time we met one of our closest informants, she mistook us for Jehovah’s Witnesses. She only told us a few months later that she only entertained us because she thought it was nice to talk to ‘la gente que habla de la Biblia’ or people who talk about the Bible.

On another occasion, we were startled by a man who was sent by his mother to chase after us in the street, to ask what we were selling. We responded saying we weren’t selling anything, but he was so sure of our purpose in town, panting that he needed to bring the thing we were selling back to his house.

In March, the national census was being carried out by a team of young people working for INEGI (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía). While I was initially concerned that people in the community we hadn’t met yet might perceive us as people working for INEGI and would be reluctant to talk to us, only one man insisted we were from INEGI, despite us telling him we had been in the town for some months now. My research assistant and I surmised it could have been because I was wearing a similar hat to the INEGI workers – a hat I often consider to be my fieldwork or geographer’s hat!

By the end of my fieldwork, I noticed that a few people referred to me between themselves as ‘la chinita’. ‘Chinita’ whilst having other meanings in Mexico, referring to someone with slanted eyes, but here, is said as a diminutive of ‘la china’ that conveys affection. Although the community knew I was from Australia, this identity was constructed based on my appearance. I cannot say that I liked this (I never have) yet was interested in how we can be known by different attributes, and according to different contexts. In meetings with the municipality for example, I was both a student (who seeks help from the community), and a researcher (whom the community might seek help from).

Outside my job description?

At other times I was sought out for other personal attributes. I can think of two moments in particular where I was asked to do things that felt completely outside of my ‘job description’.

One of these was being a judge for a spelling bee at a primary school in the city. In another I was asked to speak about climate change in Australia, given the bushfires and extreme weather events that were happening at the time. This presentation was meant to be for a health event where other topics discussed were diabetes and hypertension, so naturally I felt more than a little out of place, but was told that the speech would be an entire item, accompanied by an address by a doctor who raised the environmental health theme and a choreographed dance sequence to a Boney M song by students in the local high school (sadly I never saw the dance due to a schedule change).

Neither of these moments pertained to my research topic about place and territory nearby a large underground silver mine. Nor was I asked to participate in the role of a researcher or student. I was an Australian that had connections to people who were experiencing the bushfires, and a native English speaker, for the spelling bee.

Here is the blurring of the lines: I participated in these activities to reciprocate. I wanted to return favours because the people who asked me had previously helped me significantly, and it was the least I could do. This reciprocity is so common in fieldwork, and it should be, to avoid being the researcher that extracts and never returns. However, reciprocity and contribution come in different forms, and I did not expect that my connection to Australia or my language would be what was valuable. While these were not my ‘regular’ fieldwork activities, fieldwork functions best on having good relationships with people, and these relationships involved drawing on innate capacities, not my research skills or abilities. In this sense, the personal and the professional cross over: drawing on my personal qualities in order to be a person (to reciprocate, maintain social relationships), doing a ‘personal’ favour’, doing a personal favour because it pays back my ‘professional’ opportunities.

What is considered ‘professional’ and ‘personal’, or ‘leisure’ and ‘research’, is particularly difficult to parse in ethnography. I used ‘job description’ at the start of this section because I had fallen into a good routine of visiting the pueblo with one of two research assistants most weekdays. I did not live in the town I worked; I was living in a larger town, about 15 minutes away by colectivo or camioneta. We would meet in this town, then go into the pueblo to spend time with people, carry out interviews and participant observation, and walk or drive around the vast semi-desert terrenos. Even though these ‘normal activities’ were not in any way similar to working in my PhD office in Melbourne, I had more of a distinction between ‘home’ and my ‘day-job’ than if I had lived in the town where I worked.

Yet, I would also be lying if I said I did not fastidiously take field notes about the spelling bee or the health event – the unusual activities according to this schedule. I didn’t just click off the ‘ethnographic meter’ when I returned home to the town I was living, or divorced the conversations I had with the family that I lived with from my research.

This is why I think there are another two blurry lines at play here. The first is artificial – I was the one that categorised these activities as ‘unusual’ because they didn’t look like the other research activities. The second, might be what my PhD colleagues and I discuss all the time: an inability to take oneself out of the ‘field’, with effects that range from troublesome to very serious.

The chook

I want to end by explaining the chicken episode I started with.

One of my research assistants and I were invited to a wedding in the pueblo. We arrived at the home of the mother of the bride several hours early to help with the preparation. We weren’t allowed to help if we didn’t eat, so we were first sat down to a spread of a ‘non-religious’ wedding breakfast of some champurrado (a version of the corn-based drink atole with chocolate), pinole (another corn-based drink with a type of sugar called piloncillo) and coloradito (a type of mole) at 11am, while the men were already tossing back tequila and mezcal. As we ate, we saw a trestle table being assembled and washed down. Soon after, some recently dead chickens arrived on the table, their necks still dribbling blood.

Both of us, raised in cities, and me, vegetarian for eight years before coming to Mexico, acknowledged this, and thought it would be best to offer to help peeling garlic. I said to my research assistant that we didn’t need to put ourselves in situations where we felt uncomfortable. This was not some Malinowski-style research, where we needed to participate in every exchange and happening in town with the bravado of a cis-white male anthropologist exploring a ‘jungle’ community with no regard for our own limits, please! Yet, when we were turned away from the garlic, the very next second we were facing the chicken table, and it dawned on us that we were going to get our hands dirty. The next minute we were de-feathering chickens by hand and holding them over the fire to burn off the smaller feathers our fingers could not pluck, all the while trying to stamp out any city-based hesitation.

It was at this point that I reflected that fieldwork requires a lot of you, personally. This was a re-negotiation of our vulnerability. This moment engaged our personal limits and our physical body. It involved what our hands did, what we decided to put in our mouths. I was out of my depth. I was always out of my depth in terms of my grasp of Spanish, it was shocking, and I was exhausted at the end of the day.

Ethnographically, it was an incredibly rich experience, but we were there because we had connected with the bride’s family, as friends. We were there based on that social connection.

Sometimes the ambiguities and challenges in fieldwork can be light. At other times it can lead to serious issues. In this moment, all I could do was pause, take stock of the chicken in my hand, and celebrate messiness.

[Image of the landscape courtesy of the author]

[Image of Oaxaca is taken by Roman Lopes sourced from Unsplash]

[Image of the marketplace is taken by Brett Spangler (CC BY-SA 2.0)]

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