I surprised myself by not hesitating. Spinning around, I headed straight back toward one of those that had followed us into the alley—a woman in dark robes, eyes barely visible beneath a dark hood. I barked a threat, telling her to turn around and walk away. She snarled a retort that we should hand over the object or else. Seeing no other choice, I drew my sword and plunged it deep into her chest.
My heart was broken not by leaving individual people, but by leaving something much bigger. It takes us too long in anthropology to learn that the communities we study keep on going without us. They don’t stop mid lifetime waiting for us to return and press play again. Things will be different if we return, so when we leave, a certain something is left behind forever.
Bureaucracy is so deadly dull because it’s so mundane. But, as Steve Woolgar points out in his book Mundane Governance, the Latin etymology of ‘mundane’ is ‘of the world’ - just the way things are. And that’s only true of your experience with bureaucracy if you belong in the world in which you are living. If, as a grown-up, you’ve had to do any adulting in a country where you’re unfamiliar with the rules, then you'll know that bureaucracy becomes anything but mundane because you are not ‘of the world’ in which you’re trying to operate. So in this post, I want to draw on an experience from my fieldwork to explore how mundane bureaucracy, when you’re away from home, can be a stark reminder that you are ‘matter out of place’.
In preparing for fieldwork, I took a class on language training with Piers Kelly. While Piers was talking more specifically about learning in a context where a language hadn’t been written down before or had very limited resources, I think there was a nice takeaway for any learner of a second (or third, or more…) … Continue reading Talking like a child: Language learning for anthropology fieldwork