Archive

Archive for the ‘International’ Category

Notes on being a cultural chameleon and a pied piper

April 17, 2012 Leave a comment

In my business it is important to try to blend in.  No matter who we are hanging out with, it is essential that we look like we belong and are able to put our participants at ease.  Each ethnographer has her/his own way of achieving this goal, but generally we have to be comfortable in a variety of different types of situations and the natural ethnographer does this, well naturally.  Most of the best ethnographers I’ve known don’t have to work at blending in, they just do.

At Ethnographic Research, Inc. we started referring to ourselves as cultural chameleons a few years ago, because that is really who we are.  We have spent time with doctors as well as people who have been unable to work for years due to chronic pain.  We have hung out with academics as well as sex workers.  We have worked along side high-end sales folks and inner city social workers.  We have learned from people diagnosed with mental illness as well as suburban soccer moms.  And in each case, we have usually been invited to come back and hang out again.

It’s true that traditional ethnographic work provides ethnographers longer periods of time to work their way into a setting and into relationships.  But for those of us who work in business contexts, the time we get to make others comfortable with our presence is sometimes only a matter of minutes.  Hence our cultural chameleon abilities are even more important.  And for the most part, I’ve been very successful as a cultural chameleon.  But there was that one time. . . .

When I did fieldwork in the Philippines a few years ago, I got to experience what it feels like to really stick out.  For starters I am very white, the kind of white that glows in the dark.  In fact, my nick-name in high school was Casper.  Also, at five foot four, I’m not particularly tall, but compared to the average Filipino woman, I am gigantic.  Since I spent most of my time in neighborhoods where most westerners don’t go, I stuck out EVERYWHERE.  In many neighborhoods we created such a spectacle that people would lean out of their windows or even come out of their houses to watch us go by.  Often they called out ‘Hey Joe!’ (a reference to American GIs).  Several times, the neighborhood kids would form a pack and follow us down the street, creating a carnival like atmosphere.  I felt like the pied piper.

In this particular setting, there was no ‘blending in’ so I just embraced my status as an outsider and made observations from that vantage point. It was as the pied piper that I did most of my contextual mapping in the Philippines.  Walking around from neighborhood to neighborhood, I met up with and had the opportunity to observe hundred of people.  I was in Manila trying to understand how moms take care of their babies, so it was convenient for me that many parents brought their children outside to see me as I walked down the street.

In the end, whether we are able to blend in and be a cultural chameleon or whether we stick out like a sore thumb, the skilled ethnographer uses each status to their advantage.  The best understandings of any subject or context come from examining and analyzing data from both an insider and outsider perspective, so although ethnographers generally don’t like to stand out, acting as the pied piper once in awhile provides a nice change of pace and a nice change of perspective.

Keeping our balance in a world of rapid change: Lessons from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

March 5, 2012 Leave a comment

 

When I used to teach introduction to sociology and sociology of marriage and family, I always had my classes watch the movie “Fiddler on the Roof”.  It was a great way to bring to life many of the sociological concepts that we were learning in class. In that one movie, there are probably more than 100 sociological lessons, and the music is pretty fantastic too.

My favorite part of the whole movie is the opening sequence.  The main character, Tevye, asks and answers the question:  “How do we keep our balance?”  “That I can tell you in one word.”  “Tradition.”  “Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything.”  “How to sleep, how to eat, how to work, how to wear clothes.”  “You may ask, ‘how did this tradition get started?’’  “I’ll tell you. . . .I don’t know”  “But it’s a tradition, and because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is, and what God expects him to do.”

Truer words were never spoken, and in my line of work, I see Tevye’s observation in action all the time.   We could easily replace the word ‘tradition’ with the word ‘norm.’  No matter who the person, or what the context, behavior and ideas are driven and ruled by norms.  And this is the case, long after we have forgotten (or perhaps even before we have learned) the reason for the norm.  Norms are powerful forces that let each of us know who we are and what is expected of us.  The number and diversity of norms that each person follows every day is staggering.

My job as an ethnographer is to try to get a handle on the norms driving the thing I’m hired to understand.  Whether it is how people cook dinner or how one reacts to being diagnosed with a chronic disease, norms are ever present in determining how people think and behave.  There are often well-established patterns in how things are done and even in how people think about and place value upon things, so many norms are obvious and often slap us in the face as soon as we spend a little time watching and listening.  However, other norms are a little more subtle, and the patterns are not always so obvious until we see someone doing it differently or spend some time in analysis, really breaking down and organizing observations.

But the thing is, even the most obvious norms are often not so obvious unless you train yourself to look for them.  Although we all follow cultural norms each day, for the most part, we do it on automatic pilot. The classic sociological example used to bring this concept to life is to ask people to think about what they do when they enter an elevator.  There are some very rigid rules for behavior on elevators.  You must face the front, go to the alternate corner if someone else is already on the elevator, keep conversation to a minimum, etc.  Most of us do not remember reading a manual on elevator etiquette, but very few people ever violate these norms.  And why do you think that is?  T-R-A-D-I-T-I-O-N!

I learned a lot about the power of tradition a few years ago when I was in the Philippines studying how moms took care of their babies.  I had spent the afternoon with a young mom (who also happened to be a biologist) and her one-year old son.  We had spent a lot of our time talking about what was important to her as a mother, and how she made decisions about how to care for her son. She told me that she was very modern, but her own mother was very old-fashioned, and this often caused conflict when they were negotiating how her son was to be cared for.  One of the things that they didn’t agree on was whether he should be seen by a pediatrician or a traditional healer when he was ill.    My participant told me that because she was a scientist, she knew that modern medicine was based on scientific principals and that traditional medicine was based on superstitions and that she didn’t put much stock in superstitions.

I had been playing with the little boy, but after a few hours, it was time for me to leave, and when I walked out the door, the little boy started to cry.  Because I’m a Western mom, I thought I should walk away as quickly as possible because I had been taught the ‘get out of sight, and you will be out of mind’ approach to dealing with crying children.    As I rounded the corner, the mom came running after me and explained that she needed me to come back to her house.  She told me that her son was very upset and she was concerned that he would get sick, so she needed me to place some of my saliva on her son’s tummy.  Saliva from the offending person was the antidote to ward off potential illness.  I of course obliged and then said goodbye again.

At first I thought maybe I had misunderstood the conversation with the mom and her seemed rejection of traditional practices and beliefs.  But after seeing some other mothers, I realized there was a pattern when it came to western versus traditional medicine and that these norms were interlocked with rapid change and younger women’s desires to be more ‘modern.’  This all resulted in a complicated system of ideals, values, and behaviors that actually contained several seeming contradictions.   In a nutshell, times were a-changing BUT many of the behavioral norms were lagging behind the changes in ideals.  And so it turned out that the mother who seemed to WANT to reject traditional medicine, but who didn’t want to take a chance on her son getting ill, wasn’t unusual and wasn’t really a contradiction once the puzzle was put together and the power of TRADITION was factored in.

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.

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.

Berlin

August 9, 2010 Leave a comment

I just arrived in Berlin to spend a week following up on the first half of fieldwork Melinda accomplished.  Here’s a few tidbits from my arrival:

– Customs was easy breezy! Just a couple of kiosks outside the arrival gate. In, out and oh so fast.

– I can eat deli meat every morning for breakfast if I want to.

– Coffee. Strong, delicious coffee.

– Berlin does not feel overwhelming or chaotic. I am grateful for that.

– I kind of like Berliner fashion. It looks comfortable, a little bit urban chic and has nice walkable shoes.

More later…fieldwork for me starts tomorrow.

Categories: International, Travel