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Lessons from the field: the importance of being kind
by Tanja Ahlin
Doctoral candidate at UvA & ITM/University of Barcelona
Several months ago I attended a lecture given by a respected senior anthropologist, who was lecturing a class of Master students on the (non)ethical practices in anthropological research. Among his many thought-provoking stories from the field, one particularly resonated with me. The lecturer told of a time when he was trying to find a way to interview a person who had been difficult to reach. After several failed attempts, our lecturer – then a young fieldworker – heard that his potential informant was coming into town in order to attend a funeral of a beloved family member. Upon his arrival, the lecturer approached the grieving man and asked for a meeting. The man refused repeatedly, but our lecturer was persistent. He realized that the time was perhaps not the most appropriate, but he felt strongly that this particular man would provide a valuable piece of information to the mosaic of his ethnographic story. “I was lucky,” concluded our lecturer proudly, “the man was kind to me and he finally consented.”
As an ethnographer, what would you do in such a situation?
I know what I did. During my second fieldwork period in India in 2015, I found myself in a similar circumstance. An informant of mine had just travelled for about twenty-four hours from her home in USA to visit her parents in India. Previously I had only spoken to her on the phone, but I had met and interviewed her parents in person. She came to India because her father was burdened with a serious health condition and I knew the times were rough for the family. At the same time, this lady was one of my most interesting informants and it would be highly valuable for me to see her. So when I learnt of her arrival, I called her and asked for a meeting, but also let her know that the final decision was hers. A few days later I called her again to ask how she had decided. She did not pick up at my first try and I decided to let it go.
Should I regret not having been more persistent? I don’t think so, but I can only answer this with confidence having learnt from previous experiences. This was not the first time I was confronted with a situation like this. Earlier in my fieldwork, I had fallen into the trap of anxiety and on more than one occasion I caught myself thinking ‘What if I am missing out on something? Am I giving up too quickly? Should I ask for more than that?’ So it happened that I called my informants one too many times, sat on their sofa for a bit too long, asked too impatiently and too many questions. As Bianca Brijnath writes in her reflection of her field methods, “In what I did (or did not do), I was not always who I like to think I am” (Brijnath 2015: 32).
However, with time I realized the importance of being kind – not only towards my informants, but also towards myself. I learnt not to pressure myself and the people I was working with, as that only resulted in subsequent feelings of uneasiness, I guess for us all. I came to understand that no information gathered in this way is more valuable than treating everyone involved with respect to their time, needs and, most significantly, their feelings.
How did I get things done then? How did I make sure all the pieces of information would come together? Indeed by being persistent, but in quite a different way than our lecturer from the beginning of this post, or me during my early research experiences. With time in the field I realized that it is the most important, and the most challenging, to persist in being kind to yourself and to the people around you when you seem to have hit a dead-end with your research, or when you feel you are running out of time. The most valuable discoveries I made were not attained by being pushy, but by immediately attending to serendipities – those precious moments of falling into the rabbit hole when you least expect it. Finally, I realized that the story I was after unfolded in all its depth not through force, but through patience, and it was worth the wait.
Brijnath, B. (2014). Unforgotten: Love and the Culture of Dementia Care in India (Vol. 2). Berghahn Books.