Ethnographic fieldwork and researcher’s identities

Aïdas Sanogo. PhD anthropology, University of Basel

Studying anthropology is a great achievement for anyone who is curious about the hows, and whys of the human species. The discipline goes beyond the mere implementation of ethnographic method. The continuous questioning and analysis of social issues, coupled to the skilful weaving of theories and empirical data, is indeed crucial for the production of great anthropological work. In this blog post, I briefly reflect on the epistemological dilemma I faced, like several social scientists, drawing on ethnography: the researcher’ identities and their influences on the data co-generation process.

In early September 2014, while settling down in Bouaké, Côte d’Ivoire and familiarizing myself with my field site, I found out that I had to polish up my dexterity to switch between identities if I wanted to thrive in my choice of career.

On a bright Tuesday morning, I went through my daily world review, which consisted in reading online newspapers’ headlines, checking emails and various social media accounts. The coverage of the “ice bucket challenge”[1] to promote awareness around the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) was still much more widespread than the Ebola epidemic. I got upset by this observation because the epidemic was killing several people in two neighboring countries of Côte d’Ivoire, namely Liberia and Guinea. With the benefit of hindsight, I later realized that my reaction had less to do with whether or not I perceived one disease as more worthy of media attention than the other or vice versa. My anger toward the “ice bucket challenge” was probably exacerbated by my physical closeness to the Ebola epidemic, while this physical threat I felt was not reflected in the virtual space I peeked into on a daily basis. This in turn led me to reflect on the political implication of media coverage of various events both locally and globally.

After my immersion in the virtual world of social media, I got ready to start the day, with a field visit in the outskirts of Bouaké in the morning and a much sought after interview with a Town Hall officer. She represented a key person in the Town Hall who could provide me valuable information regarding my research topic on urban land governance in Bouaké. She could only meet me that very day, due to a busy schedule the previous weeks as well as the ones to follow.

The interview was to be conducted in late afternoon. I thought that I would have time to go back home and change. However, the field visit lasted longer than expected. I then had to rush to the interview, right afterwards. It had rained the former day and I did look like someone who had been walking and riding a motorbike for a couple of hours on muddy road paths. When I arrived at the meeting point for my interview, the interviewee graciously picked me up in her car, to head to her house. I was embarrassed to climb in the car with my muddy shoes, but felt a bit better after explaining that I was “in the field” earlier that day. When we arrived to her house, my embarrassment came back in full swing: She lived in a big well kept house and I was much more aware of my dressing in an environment where everything was bright and shiny.

I did not feel comfortable anymore to conduct an interview that I was looking forward to and had prepared. My self-awareness distracted me from my goal. I was not focused on the questions I asked as well as the answers I got back. At a certain point of the interview, one of the lady’s children came in the living room. He showed his mother the picture of one of his friends living in the U.S who took the “ice bucket challenge” and posted it on Facebook. She reacted vehemently by saying that this was a waste of water: “nowadays youth does not know how to set the right priorities”[2]. I had just come back from a neighborhood in the city where the inhabitants did not have access to running water. They had to solely rely on a well for all their water needs. My interviewee had a big compound with lawn that required a certain maintenance, while less than five kilometers close to her, people’s priorities were very far from hers. I could not help but wondering how she could consider the “ice bucket challenge” as a waste of water while maintaining a lawn a few kilometers away from the neighborhood I had visited earlier.

The interview ended after about an hour and half. I had mixed feelings and was puzzled by this bodily and emotional experience of dealing with different realities within ten hours. I started the day by being annoyed about the stark contrast between various priorities set by various people at my “glocal” citizen scale[3]. Little did I know that I would be faced with my own epistemological challenge by the end of the day: How to differentiate my ethnographer’s identity from my other ones? As a researcher I knew that I had to expect the unexpected and be open to whatever came my way during the data collection, while trying as much as possible not to read observed events, facts, individuals, with the multiple other lenses I would use as a West African Generation Y woman for instance. However, my personal backgrounds as well as the beliefs that shaped me as a Paolo Freire’s adept or a Fella Kuti avid listener for instance – to name a few faces the multiple identities I constantly carry with me, like we all do – interfered with the qualities I thrived to master as someone who identifies as an open-minded ethnographer. I made sure that I was adequately dressed during the next interviews I had with the lady. I also did my best not meet her before or after a field visit in the outskirts of Bouaké. To the lady’s credit, my dressing did not bring noticeable changes in her reaction to my questions. Nevertheless, adopting different dress codes according to my interviewee’s profile as well as the social and physical space in which the interviews were taking place helped me in impersonating as best as possible the kind of ethnographer I wanted and needed to be depending on the circumstances.

 

[1] The challenge idea had a relatively huge success on social media at the time. It was not unusual to see different kinds of challenges on Facebook walls, such as the “book challenge” for instance. The main goal was to raise awareness around specific issues dear to groups of individuals who could identify with topics that needed to be more under the spotlight for various reasons.

[2] Les jeunes de maintenant là ne savent pas se concentrer sur ce qui est important. Interview Ms. T., Bouaké, September 9, 2014.

[3] In this context glocal stands for a combination of my global and local identities, with my exposure to news and realities that were geographically close or far from me at the time.


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