In January (2006) I let me son go crazy with my digital camera. We were traveling along the mountains from Guanajuato to San Miguel de Allende, and he was quite taken with the scenery. This is one of his shots:
Many years ago, I was reading an account about Margaret Mead’s childhood. Her father, also an anthropologist, taught her to write fieldnotes when she was 8 years old. At the time I thought it was a bit odd, after all, how well can I child write? And what would they observe?
Then I had my own kids. When I did fieldwork in Mexico before, they were 3 years old and not very observant. I had a great time observing them, particularly the ways Mexicans responded to their appearance (they were both beautiful blondes with blue and light brown eyes). They got lots of free candy and I got some interesting insights into Mexican parenting.
The idea here is to get the kids involved with my work and to see what I actually do. There was a several yaer hiatus when I went into the field alone, mainly to save money. When I would get back from Mexico they would ask what I did there, and (being a folklorist) I told them fantastic tales about working in Mexico. These stories usually involved whips, horses, and chases through the Mexican countryside á la Indiana Jones. I NEVER stole Mexican artifacts in my stories, however.
It’s not that my work isn’t exciting, because it is. The reality is that putting yourself out there is exhausting and often pretty mundane. So much of fieldwork is getting out in the community so you will be a recognizable person on the street. It also involves talking to people for hours each day and spending countless hours in library archives. I love the work, but it doesn’t always make a great story.
My kids are nearly 10 years old, and I think they could offer insights into San Miguel that I might not see. My daughter is an especially careful cultural observer. She can watch a social situation unfold and recount it with amazingly accurate detail (her interpretations aren’t bad either). My son is not nearly as observant or detailed, but he’s very intellectual for a young boy. When he comes up with an interpretation, it’s usually very insightful.
Based on this, I decided that for this project I would train them to be my ethnographic assistants. My expectations are modest. I’m going to let them have a digital camera, note pads, and archival quality pens and paper (to create a final project) and then set them loose to see what they can come up with. My neighbor has lent me a portable photo printer (thanks, Chris) and suggested that I let the kids “scrapbook” their photos and writings. Both the kids have an eye for what makes a good phot0, so we’ll see. Maybe there will be an article in this.