Nothing unusual about this, I know. Any job will have its ups and downs, doing ethnography is no different. What is different, however, is the emotional swings that are part of conducting ethnographic work. I remember the year before I went into the field my grad school colleague, Sara Davis, spent a year in China. When she got back she summed up her normal days something like this: she would go out in the morning, do an interview, then have to come home a take a nap.
At the time this seemed rather strange. Why would you need to nap after an interview?
Well, until you’ve done this type of research, you simply cannot comprehend the level of energy it takes to get through a working day. Okay, I’m going to try to describe it, but don’t be surprised if you don’t “get it.” Some things in life have to be experienced.
The most important issue is that being in the field means you’re always “on.” Teaching a class is the closest approximation of what this is like. When you’re teaching, for the entire class period you’re on stage. You have the (hopefully) undivided attention of 30+ people who are looking to you to lead the discussion, set the tone and pace of the session, and generally keep things moving. If you screw up, people will notice.
Fieldwork is a lot like teaching a class that never ends, or lasts all day long. The entire time you’re in the field you have to be “on” meeting people, almost always strangers. You have to make a favorable first impression on the people you meet, and if they meet your research criteria, hopefully they will want to assist you with your project. First impressions here are essential, probably more important than in everyday interactions so you can get the information you need. You have to be friendly and to establish both trust and rapport with anyone who might be a potential informant (or know a potential informant). This means you’ll have to effectively describe who you are, what you hope to accomplish with your project, and most importantly, why you think they should share their life stories and experiences.
Even when you’re not “working” officially, people will be watching. Your character will be observed and if you screw up, that could tank a project before it even begins (more on this later)
In order to find informants in San Miguel de Allende (SMA), I started by putting posts on internet chat rooms and discussion boards for Americans and Canadians who live in Mexico. This yielded some great contacts. My first interview was with a gentleman who has lived here for 2 years. He suggested that I try to meet people in the jardín (central plaza). For the last three days I’ve been in the jardín at various times of the day striking up conversations with people who look like gringos. You can never tell whether the person you’re talking to lives here or is just visiting, and I’ve started more than a few conversations with tourists, or even “regulars,” tourists who come back every year or six months, but still don’t live here. They’ve given me some good information, but I can’t use them for the oral history component of this project.
This means that I can spend hours talking to people and may not find someone who has information that is useful to my project. Even if I find someone who apparently “fits” the criteria for your project, they may not want to talk to me. Or they want to talk to me, but only under certain conditions. For instance, I met a man yesterday who was specifically looking for a pay back for his time (that is, he wanted me to pay for his time), something that I cannot and will not be able to give. So, you have to convince these potential informants that their contribution to general knowledge (a.k.a. the greater good) is a worthy of their time and effort. I’ve also met a fair number of men who are looking for hook-ups, so of course they’re immediately knocked off the list.
The point I want to make here is that everytime I step out the door and start to talk to people, it’s stressful and exhausting. It’s not unusual for me to come home in the afternoon for comida (the big meal of the day, taken around 2 PM) and need a nap. Couple the ongoing stress of always being “on” with the altitude here (about 6435 feet) and that this city set on a large hill (which means the first week I felt as if I were hiking, not walking) and that, on average, I’m walking between 8 and 10 kilometers per day (according to my pedometer). When the day ends, I’m beat.
One last point: although being in Mexico is great, doing fieldwork here is no vacation. Sure, I’m surrounded by a lovely colonial city, but I rarely have time to enjoy most of what is around me because I’m working. When I get back to the states, I’ll need a vacation to prepare for my other job teaching at George Mason University.
I love Mexico, and I love working here. But there are moments when I hate it, too. This is all part of the ups and downs of doing ethnography.