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A lesson on going native and naivety

February 29, 2012 Leave a comment

A few years ago we were hired to help our client understand what it was like to live with schizophrenia.  We were given the unusual luxury of time, so we got to spend an entire year with our participants and really get a deep look at the challenges they faced in dealing with their condition.

One of my participants, we will call him Dave, was a very kind and spirited man who lived in a group home and struggled each day to be productive and build community.  Each time I visited with Dave, I would ask him the same question ‘what have you been up to?’  His answer was always the same ‘Running the streets, drinking coffee, and smoking cigarettes.’  And that was literally how he spent his time.  Each morning, he would get up early, drink coffee, smoke a cigarette and hit the streets.  Dave would walk all day long, drink more coffee and smoke more cigarettes.  On his travels each day, he met a lot of people.  He knew everyone.

As he traveled about, he was constantly making micro exchanges.  He was always bartering and exchanging goods and services. It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t really about the value of the thing he was getting or receiving, it was about the exchange.  The exchange allowed him a mode of interaction and also allowed him to build community.  This meant he was often taken advantage of by others who were more invested in the value of the thing, but this didn’t seem to matter to him.  Dave didn’t feel taken advantage of because he was getting what he wanted and needed from the exchange.

It was sometimes hard for me to remember to see the action from his point of view and I worried about how others seemed to take advantage of him.  He was an easy mark.  But my job was to try to understand what life was like FOR HIM and so I did my best to stay focused on seeing things from his perspective.  After a few months, it became evident that I was succeeding in this goal, when I finally met Dave’s girlfriend.

One of the objectives of the project was a better understanding of how schizophrenia impacted family members and the social networks of the person with the condition.  Dave had been telling us about his girlfriend for several months and we were finally going to meet her.  Dave was clearly enamored with her and talked about her all the time.  In my mind, I had imagined an equally sweet, generous, and trusting partner for him.  That seemed to be how he saw her and I had such high hopes for him.  I think I wanted to believe he had a soft place to land because daily life was so hard for him.

On the morning we went to meet her, my partner, Steve and I rode with Dave to her house.  When we were introduced, we were both pretty surprised, she didn’t seem very friendly and actually seemed a little bit annoyed that we were there.  What’s more, she didn’t seem to like Dave very much.  When Dave left the yard (we were outside the house), his girlfriend turned to Steve and asked ‘Do you want me to do you too?’  As Steve was struggling to find the word ‘No’, I was struggling to believe what was clearly true.  Dave’s girlfriend was not a girlfriend in the traditional sense.  She was a sex worker.

I really couldn’t believe it.  During all of the time we had spent with Dave, and during all of the conversations we had had about his girlfriend, I had not once considered the possibility that this relationship, this exchange, could be like the others.  Although I was sad for Dave, I learned an important lesson that day.  I learned that fieldwork and ethnographic analysis is often a delicate balance of trying to understand things from the point of view of your participant, while at the same time, triangulating that vantage point and looking for patterns in the data that provide a holistic understanding.

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Leopard print bikinis and body exfoliation: Living outside my comfort zone

February 26, 2012 Leave a comment

Usually the things that I get to do in the field are sooooo cool. But my job also often requires me to do things that are outside of my comfort zone.  Seriously, I do things when I’m working that I would never do otherwise. It is almost like I have an alter ego that sometimes takes over when I’m in the field.  Outside the field I’m a somewhat antisocial, risk-averse, fussy vegetarian that likes the creature comforts of life.  But my alternate, fieldwork persona, we will call her Mel, is crazily social, fearless, impervious to embarrassment, above gastrointestinal upset, and generally unflappable.

When we were studying hair loss, I visited hair salons, talked to stylists and got my hair cut FOUR times.  When we studied tourism in Atlanta, I visited the Cheetah, a high-end gentleman’s club and also a world famous tourist spot.  I conducted in-context fieldwork while naked women danced all around me.  When we were studying infant nutrition in the Philippines I was offered an expensive delicacy for lunch that just so happened to be congealed cow’s blood!  Although I don’t drink alcohol, I’ve consumed cognac, homemade berry liquor, limoncello and lots of wine during fieldwork.

But last summer, I had one of my most interesting and challenging contextual mapping assignments.  It all began with a trip to Istanbul and a desire to understand hygiene rituals.  A logical stop in this trip was the local hamam (Turkish bath).  I was woefully uneducated about what to expect (this is actually a job requirement—taking an inductive approach so as not to have too many pre-conceived thoughts).

When I arrived in Istanbul, our local ethnographer called to arrange my visit to the hamam.  She told me they said I would need to bring a bikini.  It had been many years since I had owned a bikini, so I asked if it would be possible to do the exfoliation treatment nude (that is how I sometimes get massages and I thought this would be a similar experience).  I was imagining a private room, with towels and blankets to cover me.  My colleague informed me that the hamam was insisting that I wear a bikini but that I could purchase one there.

When I arrived at the hamam, I was given a box full of potential bikinis.  The one that fit best was a leopard print number that barely covered the essentials.  At this point I should tell you that non-fieldwork Melinda dresses pretty conservatively, usually in black.  No worries, however, Mel was there to put on the leopard print.

Once I walked into the room where the exfoliation experience was to take place, I realized why they had insisted that I wear a bikini.  It turns out that the exfoliation treatment happens in a communal area!  As I sat in the pool and waited for my turn, I experienced a rush of thoughts and emotions.  I went from being embarrassed and resentful of the leopard print bikini to being SOOOOOOO thankful that I had been forced to wear it.  I had rapid images of what WOULD have happened if they had granted my request to do the treatment nude.

My elation was short lived, however, once I had a good look at what was going to happen next. . . .  The exfoliation took place on a large marble slab where 2-3 women could lay at once.  The spa workers prepared each woman for her exfoliation by removing her bikini top and fashioning the bikini bottom into a thong.  Did I mention that my client was with me?  Yes, sitting in the pool, with my client, waiting for the eventual removal of the bikini top and conversion of the bikini bottom into a thong, Melinda and Mel began to have an internal dialogue.  Melinda was saying ‘this is so inappropriate and unprofessional.’  Mel was saying ‘don’t be ridiculous, this is fieldwork, you are just doing your job, pay attention to what is happening.’

Have you ever been so embarrassed that you felt like you were having an out of body experience? The exact moment this happened was during the actual exfoliation process.  There are a lot of details that I won’t share here, but did you know that when you visit a hamam, the exfoliation is so intense and vigorous that everything, and I do mean everything, is in motion?   Laying on the slab, without the shield of my leopard print bikini top, everything was wiggling and jiggling, every which way.  I had jiggles in places that I was well aware of, but also jiggles in places that I had no idea.  Luckily Mel wasn’t bothered.  She was fascinated by the whole experience. We left the hamam with a new leopard print bikini, perfectly smooth skin, and a bunch of interesting observations about hygiene, culture, and tradition.

How do you become an ethnographer?

February 21, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve been a professional ethnographer for more than a decade and there are recurring themes in the questions I’m asked about my work.  When I tell people what I do for a living, the first response is generally ‘I didn’t know that job existed.’  This is usually followed by ‘exactly how does someone becomes an ethnographer?’  It is true, ethnography is not a common career choice, but my path toward this work was perfectly logical.

I was always a nosy kid and now I’m a nosy adult.  I like to know the details. The details about what is going on.  The details about what people are doing.  The details about why they are doing it.  The details about their thoughts and feelings.  This sometimes makes me a little bit difficult to live with, but makes me ideally suited to be an ethnographer.

There were several key moments leading to my eventual career.  I don’t remember the exact moment I knew I wanted to be a sociologist, but I do remember the exact moment I got the label for what I wanted to be.  I was in my 11th grade sociology class and my teacher, Marcellus Reed, was explaining social stratification.  A light bulb went on and I remember thinking ‘oh, I want to be a sociologist’.  From that point on, I never waivered in my career choice.  I started college and immediately declared myself a sociology major.  I finished undergraduate school without ever considering a change.  I went to graduate school and held fast in my decision.  Never mind that EVERYONE was asking what I planned to do with a degree in sociology.  I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to make a living ‘doing sociology’, I just knew I was supposed to be a sociologist.

I had noted a glimpse of my eventual career when I was taking an undergraduate qualitative methods class.  We were assigned an ethnographic research project and I decided to do mine on local police officers.  The assignment was some participant observation for a few weeks and then a written report.  But I was having so much fun, so I continued fieldwork for a couple of years.  I thought at the time ‘this is what I should be doing for a living.’  But that thought was quickly followed by ‘no one will ever pay me to do this, so I better have a back up plan.’

Once I got to graduate school, I realized I could teach and do ethnographic research on the side so that became my plan.  I would work in academia and do ethnographic research for fun.  I got my masters degree and then decided to go for my PhD.  Things had changed a little bit and I was gravitating more toward applied work.  I began doing ethnographic research projects in the not-for-profit arena and found that people WOULD pay me to do ethnography.  So I revised my plan.  I would still teach and do ethnographic research on the side, but I now knew that I could use ethnography to supplement my income.  Eventually, my not-for-profit work segued into full time ethnographic research for big corporations.

I tell my kids that their most important job is to identify their dharma.  They should try to find the thing that they are ideally suited to do and they should do that for a living.  Doing ethnographic research is my dharma.  How lucky am I? I have the coolest job in the world. I get to be nosy for a living.  I get to ask the ‘what is going on’ question about everyday, and not only do I not get in trouble for it (well, rarely), I get paid to do it.

Categories: context, Ethnography, Process

Tales from the field: India

September 3, 2010 Leave a comment

We’re doing our collaborative analysis this week for our study on the luxury lifestyle in India. In honor of that, here are a few more tales we haven’t told from John’s and Kazuyo’s weeks in Mumbai, Ludhiana and Bangalore.

Hospitality of Indian People
I was pleasantly surprised how hospitable Indian culture is.  As a part of our fieldwork, we are to go to a place they frequent. But the thing is that we ‘invited ourselves’ to do this, so of course, we are going to pick up the bill. How many times I had to insist to pay!  With one participant, he ended up taking us to dinner because we paid for other things!

How Quickly The Store Comes Down on the Price
Yes, it’s a bargain culture.  It’s a part of culture, but the level of bargaining is quite different here in India. One day, John and I are doing our context mapping and going to various stores.  We have gone to a few stores, including some carpet stores.  We are shown all silk hand-made carpet in various sizes, some wool/silk combo carpet, etc. They are feast to my eyes for sure.  I ask for the price, they ask me whether I want to know in Rupees or in US dollars.  I tell them Rupees.  They start rattling price of all those carpets.  Well, it’s a bargain price compared to what people pay in the US.  As we are there for about 20 minutes looking at it, and we are not making any commitment to buy any carpet.  They suddenly tell us that they will sell us TWO carpets for the price of one. I look at him and had to repeat the same sentence to make sure.  They say yes, but they say that we have to make a decision AT THAT MOMENT. Of course, we didn’t take their offer, but was surprised how quickly they came down on the price. They are a good price, BUT it’s not inexpensive.

Toilet in India
First day in Bangalore, I check into my hotel.  I had no sleep coming to Delhi and I ended up not sleeping at all when I checked into the hotel in Delhi and I had to take a very early flight out to come to Bangalore.  So mind you, I am pretty tired.  I check in and go to the bathroom, I am very confused.  There is no bathtub, but a little hand-held shower head next to my toilet. I think to myself, “Is this the shower? Really?”  So I go out from my room and find a housekeeping person and ask, “Does any of your room have a bath tub?”  They say no.  I ask “So, I am supposed to use a little shower next to toilet?”  They say yes.  I am thinking OMG.  Well, it turns out that little shower head next to toilet is their version of bidet! Apparently, it’s very easy to use, but I was afraid I would make a mess on myself, so I was not brave enough to try it.  It’s everywhere—public restroom, etc.  I am sure that it’s a lot more hygienic than using just toilet paper.  In Japan, we have a built in bidet and they are nice.

It’s a Male-Dominant Culture
Indian women I met are strong.  They are smart and they speak up. But when it comes to public space, it’s still a male-dominant culture.  When I went to context mapping with John, at several stores, they completely ignored me and only spoke to John—especially when it came to price.  At restaurants and bars, they ALWAYS bring a bill to a male who is in our party.  They look very confused when I bring out my credit card to pay a bill. Even though I am the one who is putting down my credit card, a server often brings a bill to John (or a male person who is together).  They just do not seem to get it!

Service Sector is Superb in India—except at the airport
Service in India is something to be said.  I wish that it is like that in America.  At a restaurant, hotel, bar, shops (even though they might be trying to sell things with higher prices), people are very nice, polite and pleasant.  They say “Yes, Mom”, “No, Madam”, and they do pay attention to your needs and fairy quickly to meet our needs.  Even at one hotel I was not even a guest, they gave us several recommendation to where we should go, made some calls for us, etc.  Unheard of in America, right?  Do not expect from airport staff though.  It’s kind of a huge downer especially as the last stop to leave India.  Maybe it’s because it is an international airport and there are just simply too many people. But airport guard almost sent me away because I didn’t have an itinery which made me frantic because I was catching a flight to come home!  But another guard came to rescue me after hearing me screaming at him and straightened a matter.  I think it would have been difficult for ERI to come bail me out from a jail in India.

Bread is Life

August 14, 2010 Leave a comment

By Agnes Brandt, An ERI Partner in Berlin

“Du  bist, was du ißt.” – “You are what you eat.”

This meaningful insight into the sociocultural importance of eating is not just recognized by health food and diet gurus worldwide. Looking at the place of food in a society conveys a deeper meaning about the way a society functions. The importance people attach to eating and food tells us something about their values, beliefs and life-choices.

Being a good ethnographer is about getting access to people’s emic perspectives, to the meanings the people themselves attach to certain behaviours and beliefs. In order to do so, we immerse ourselves in the everyday life-worlds of those we are studying. A part of this is to get to know the specific customs around the preparation, sharing and eating of food.

I especially love this aspect of research. I just love food and I always try to go with local delicacies. Okay, okay, I do admit to being limited to non-meat and non-fish products, but I really do try everything vegetarian that I can get my hands on…

Anyway…I easily adapt to local eating-culture by indulging in whatever foods are popular and available, and I usually do not miss my ‘own’ food (partly because I am German and German food is – let’s face it – not the most exciting food you can find on this planet).

However, there is just one food that I am excited about and that I do miss whenever I stay some where for more than just a couple of months – and this I share with most of my fellow countrymen and women. The food that I am talking about is bread.

Bread. What about it? The pinnacle of German food culture? Maybe. Maybe not. But one thing is for sure: German bread is the most sorely missed food by Germans worldwide, and we are very proud of our baking culture. In fact, we go to great lengths to find it whenever we leave our home country. German bakeries scattered all over the world are proof of this desire for ‘proper bread’, which is usually dark and heavy, nourishing and substantial. Hmmmmmm.

Yummy! I once read somewhere that we have the greatest variety of Brot worldwide! My favourite bread at the moment is spelt bread, but I also like the classical rye and the particularly solid black bread (Schwarzbrot). If I cannot find any ‘proper’ bread at all, I resort to Pumpernickel, a German black bread specialty available in shops even in far-to-reach places such as Samoa!

Here is something that I found difficult to wrap my mind around: I found out that some cultures consider bread ‘bad’ or even ‘unhealthy’. Now, here is a challenge for the bread-loving German anthropologist!

PS: We have the notion of “liquid bread”–Flüssigbrot. It refers to: beer (what a surprise).

Animals in Ludhiana

August 10, 2010 Leave a comment

by John Kille

After a mix up with flights and luggage, I got to ride through rural northern India, in the state of Punjab, at dusk and into the night. It was dark and the streets were lit only by moonlight and oncoming cars. The traffic at night, from what I could see, was an ensemble of movement. I saw the donkey carts, bicyclists, bicycle rickshaws, scooters, motorcycles, cars, and large trucks. This was my introduction to Ludhiana, where I would be the next week.

There are more animals in the streets here than Mumbai. And I have had several encounters since arriving. During context mapping today, I saw an elephant walking down the street, led by a man with a rope. He didn’t appear bothered by the traffic wooshing by. I told my 6-year-old daughter about this later on skype and she seemed amazed.

Donkey carts are very prominent here, and while on our way to dinner in an autorickshaw, packed with 4 other people, we weaved through traffic and stopped next to a donkey cart—my head about 2 feet from his. The donkey looked over at me and seemed to say, “Hey, how’s it going?”

On the way back from dinner, the auto rickshaw driver dropped me and Sahil, my local ethnographer, off about a half a mile away from the hotel because other people in his vehicle wanted to go left, and he wanted to save gas. We paid him 10 rupees and began walking. The streets were very dark, since electric power is scarcer here, and street lamps are sometimes non-existent or not working.

Near the hotel, there was a large dark blob shifting about in the darkness directly off the road. The curious ethnographer I am, I wanted a closer look. Sahil grabbed my arm and pulled me away. “Be careful, he could run at any time.” I looked again and saw a large bull eating grass, his focus seemed on the food, but that could change.

Kazuyo on the Auto-Rickshaw

July 20, 2010 Leave a comment

We’ll be bringing you some of Kazuyo and John’s experiences in India over the next several weeks…

Negotiating with an Auto-Rickshaw Driver
One morning, I went to a fancy hotel in Bangalore to do context mapping.  The hotel people were horrified that I was planning to hail an auto-rickshaw to go there.  No problem!  I hailed one and got there for 15 rupees.  So I tipped him and gave him 20 rupees.  On the way back, I hail one, and give him my hotel address. He nodded and I got in.  He doesn’t push the button to start a meter, I say it to him, “Please start a meter” and he tells me that it would cost me 30 rupees.  I look at him, and say “It cost me 14 rupees to get here.”  He shook his head and said, “No, 30 rupees.”  I kept saying “No,” and asked him to start his meter.  He refused.  I told him that I would get out and find another one.  He thought I was bluffing because I was a foreigner, but he found out that I was not bluffing shortly thereafter!

Auto-rickshaw can go anywhere…except for a herd of cows
It’s not uncommon to see a cow in Bangalore, and I met/saw them frequently. They hang out on the street, on the road, in very random places.  Auto-rickshaws are smaller than cars, so they can go through a small alley and can go through dirt roads, mud, etc. But even auto-rickshaw wouldn’t go through a herd of cows, and we had to trail behind them on the dirt road for quite a while!