Fieldwork and Rapport

The major issue about fieldwork and rapport is how the ethnographer maintains his/her objectivity and subjectivity at the same time. While the concept of participant observation itself requires involvement such as ‘going native’ but at the same time we are encouraged to be able to have a detachment with the subject of our research. The problem of how to maintain intimacy and simultaneously to keep a ‘safe distance’ during the fieldwork has been aptly described by Charles Wagley (1960), Gerald D. Berreman (1972), and Antonius Robben (2012) in their writings.

Charles Wagley (1960) during his study of the Tapirapé Indians in Brazil faced following problem. He was using an informant, Champukwi, as his main source of information about how this tribe lives. Since in his early days he relied so much on this person, Wagley developed such an intimacy that the informant also shared his own personal matters with Wagley. Though Champukwi was very helpful in the research, his personal problems tended to influence how the other Tapirapé Indians interacted with Wagley. However, when Wagley tried to collect the data without using Champukwi as the main source of information, Champukwi reacted with unpleasant behavior toward him.

Likewise, Gerald D. Berreman (1972) referred to Erving Goffman’s theory of impression management and mentioned how it was a crucial factor in obtaining good rapport during his fieldwork in India. Since he conducted a study in society divided by castes, religion, etc., it was unavoidable not to maintain different approaches in how to gain a good impression among the various groups within the society. Additionally, he got a research assistant, which was part of the highest caste called Brahmin, which in turn influenced how the society reacted toward him. His relationship with his research assistant could not be detached from how the informants answered his questions. When he had to change his assistant to a middle-aged Muslim, he found that the society also changed their perspectives about him.

Antonius Robben (2012) described a similar case when he studied how Argentine people reconcile themselves about the political oppression called the Dirty War in the 1970s. He interviewed both the perpetrators and victims of that violence time. Therefore, he had to maintain his impression management approach in order to be able to penetrate both sides. While he had to build relationships with the perpetrators, he also had to detach himself at the same time by not justifying their role in the past. In essence, he had to overcome his own moral judgment. Similarly, while he interviewed the victim side, he also had to maintain his objectivity and not be seduced by the victims’ narrative and become more biased and subjective.

These articles illustrate that how ethnographers while doing fieldwork can have an intimate relationship with their informants or research assistants to develop a closer observation within the society they studied. Although providing advantages, some problems related to fieldwork relations and rapport also occurred. It seems that the ethnographers can never be compeletly detached from his/her informants or research assistants. Therefore, our ability to maintain good impression management remains the paramount factor in most ethnographic fieldwork. However, since ethnographer’s role in this impression management can also be considered as ‘acting’, is it possible that an ethnographer remain honest while conducting the research? Does disclosure within the fieldwork remain an important ethic? These questions raised my curiosity during my reading of the chapters.


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