Deep Hanging Out in Rotterdam
Last year, I passed my anthropological initiation and did my first immersive fieldwork stint. My previous stint had been part of a larger research project on European Diplomacy and so this was my first foray into the field standing on my own two feet, accountable only to myself.
Fieldwork was a totally amazing experience. I met a fantastic, energetic organisation full of enthusiasm and ideas. I met volunteers who were not only my research participants but my close friends. I really went for the philosophy of ‘deep hanging out’ (Geertz 2000), living alongside the volunteers: participating in and observing their volunteer projects, bonding over dinners, parties, and card games, experiencing the intensity of trainings and travels, sharing the same apartment. I had the added bonus of a close relationship with their organisation, deepened by philosophical conversations over dinners and fascinating discussions about their experiences as an urban development organisation in Rotterdam.
For those 3-4 months, I really felt like I saw the world as they saw it, and I experienced Rotterdam as they did.
By the time my fieldwork ended, the lines between personal and professional had definitely blurred. This had become my life; these were my colleagues and my friends.
I wasn’t fussed about this at all – for me there was no ethical issue with the fact that I now had to turn our myriads of encounters and experiences into data and analysis. After all, that had always been in my mind. I’d been asking lots of questions all the time, trying to get as many perspectives on the European Voluntary Service as possible, soaking in all the different opinions, beliefs, viewpoints, ways that people volunteered and conceptualised volunteering, and what they chose to do with their 6-month experience as a whole.
Jigsaw Puzzles and Rainbows:Turning People into Ethnography
Putting it together felt like nutting out a jigsaw puzzle that had been sitting in my brain waiting to be pieced together. With every day in the library, I was getting closer to completing the puzzle. I started with mountains of fieldnotes and interview data and attacked them with highlighters, coding a rainbow, tracing patterns, finding themes that emerged. It became like a story as the ethnography unfolded, as the theory wove itself in with my data.
Although I don’t entirely agree with the idea that anthropology turns reality into fiction, in a way it felt like that – like the real people I knew, made from flesh and blood, were becoming like characters in a book, standing for particular themes or theories or points of wider social significance. Their voices were strong, and their voices were heard throughout my writing – but my interpretation turned their voices into more than just voices, into symbols or signifiers for something more theoretical, more philosophical, more…ethnographic.
With each draft the voices became less diverse and dispersed, messy and contradictory, and rather came to stand for particular ideas or case studies or themes. If they were contradictory, this contradiction was used to demonstrate something theoretical.
For me, this process of theorising and ‘writing up’ my friends was normalised, just as writing in a diary might be at the end of the day. The real people I interacted with and had relationships with coexisted with the people I was writing about – these were two separate yet interlinked worlds, facets of the same reality.
Yet I had an uneasy feeling, as I am sure many anthropologists do, about what ‘they’ may think about what I wrote. Would they ‘get’ it? Or would they think it was too abstract, too removed from their lived reality? Or would they worst of all feel insulted or misrepresented?
Trying to be Ethical: Being Structurally Rushed into Feedback
I didn’t think I would have to face any of these sticky questions as I wasn’t planning to show my thesis to anyone. I would write everything up in a more publishable and less personal way at a later date. However, unfortunately due to a new policy at my university stating that our theses would be ‘googlable’ (outrageous for anthropological theses which often contain deeply sensitive and confidential information), I went into an ethical dilemma frenzy and, trying to be ethically responsible, decided that if that was the case all my participants would need to ‘ok’ the contents of the thesis pre-google. I sent them the full version.
Many of them didn’t really take the time to read it. But one, who had never been comfortable with my research for reasons never conveyed in a straightforward manner, asked to be removed from my thesis completely. Another wrote to me and told me I had totally misrepresented them and made them look selfish. At a later time, the organisation I worked with got back to me and said they liked the thesis, but that it was more ‘ideal’ than ‘real’.
I responded immediately to this feedback, asking the one did not want to be included, explaining to the other the broader political and structural point I was making rather than a personal one. Similarly, the organisation and I engaged in many ‘bigger picture’ emails about the nature of research and academia, which were interesting for all parties involved. In the end, I felt I had remained friends with all key participants.
Yet this first experience of hearing participants respond to my research left me feeling confused and ambivalent. What was the point of anthropological methodology and analysis if all participants didn’t see its value? They had been excited and responsive about my research when I was with them….but perhaps they had never really understood what I had set out to do. And perhaps I had made it that way, slightly covert, so as to preserve the ‘naturalistic’, to let them act normally round me and not feel as though they were always being studied and analysed.
For them also, perhaps the boundaries of the professional and personal were more clear cut. While for me, everything had the potential to be turned into data, for them, research time was in the volunteer projects ‘at work’ when I had my notebook out, and in formal interview settings. Including other parts of their lives in the research was perhaps for them a slight betrayal, whereas I saw this as a full, holistic and ‘real’ representation of their entire volunteer experience.
To get perspective and perhaps to make myself feel better, I reflected upon the fact that many anthropologists have similar experiences, and many have found it impossible to stay friends with their participants. Others shirk away from confronting the politics of representation by never showing their participants what they write about them. I also reminded myself that my participants were diverse – only two of all the participants were uncomfortable, and English was not their native language, so they may have missed some of the subtleties of the academic analysis. Others with better grasp of English and some experience with the social sciences had no problems with the thesis – in fact one helped me design interviews and often read my fieldnotes with interest.
So something I gained from the whole process was a practical understanding of how difficult navigating the politics of representation across a diverse range of participants can be.
Contradictions: Academic Accolades and Attempting a Publication
While I was experiencing this reaction from my participants, my university was heaping praise upon me for my thesis. They gave me the top grade in the class, and later awarded me the Thesis Prize.
The contrast between academic accolades and mixed messages from my participants left me feeling deeply ambivalent. How could my thesis be deemed a ‘success’ when it didn’t resonate with everyone it was about? Then again, could I accurately represent all my participants to their liking anyway? And should I be trying to cater to their needs or understandings, or analysing them? I was after all also a researcher, not only a friend.
Back in Australia, I decided to dip my toe in the water of ‘writing up’ again, and did a piece about my fieldwork for Arena, a magazine of social and cultural commentary. However I made it highly epistemological, focused on political philosophy questions about citizenship, voluntarism, and neoliberalism.
The result was an interesting article, but one devoid of the voices of my participants, which is what I wanted to capture in the first place. The whole point of an anthropological approach to studying volunteering was to hear the volunteers’ voices about their own experiences, instead of perspectives from above. Instead, the article ended up focusing disproportionately on the structures within which the volunteering took place.
Lessons: Keep the Voices, and Continually Negotiate the Politics of Representation
After it was published, I tried to think about the piece from the perspective of an EVS volunteer and I immediately felt ashamed. Where were their ideas, where was their diversity? I had missed out on showcasing the strength of ethnography – an in-depth on-the-ground representation of participants. I thought about why, and realised I had been a little scared to write on their behalf after the thesis responses. I hadn’t wanted to risk misrepresenting them.
So, where does this leave me? With academic accolades and suffering from some existential anthropological ambivalence, but with a continued belief in the benefits of ethnography and of fieldwork as methodologies. The process of writing up is always interpretive, and not everyone will agree with that….but it doesn’t make it any less valid. It just really is a process, one of learning how to balance the multiplicity of reality with the specificity of particular theories and narratives, and making sure that the richness of that multiplicity remains palpable and tangible to the reader: that the voices are heard.
Anthropological inquiry has the power to investigate and highlight perspectives, diversities, contradictions, values, norms and beliefs at so many levels. If and when I publish something on this topic again, I’m going to try harder to highlight some of these volunteer voices…and be prepared that there are always consequences and conflicts when it comes to the politics of representation.
NOTE: I asked my university to have my thesis kept off the internet and they agreed. However at a later date I stumbled upon it online, and worst of all the raw uncensored version, not the version I had edited carefully in case it was necessary for it to be on google. I fought to get it removed immediately, which it was. However I remain truly shocked at how easy it was for the university bureaucracy to ignore my (and my participants) wishes and how vigilant I had to be to protect my participants and act ethically.