Safety Issue in Doing Fieldwork

One of the major concerns in doing a fieldwork is about the safety issue. Since Jeffrey A. Sluka (1995) argued that even today when we think the world is a much safer place compared to the past, ethnographic fieldwork is still a dangerous task especially if research is conducted in a conflict area. The conflict itself is not always related to war or revolution, but can also be formed as sociopolitical conflicts. Many ethnographers who have been conducting these kinds of fieldwork became victims since they failed to calculate the possibility of the dangers of the study.

Neil L. Whitehead (2002) once studied a dangerous area when he was doing ethnography of kanaimà in Guyana. While he was interested in understanding this dark shamanic practice within the culture, he also experienced the threat of kanaimà where it almost took his life. However, rather than to argue what he experienced as something to be avoided, he believed it was inevitable. He said that the threat was part of the unforeseen consequences of his close engagement with the informants (Whitehead, 2002).

While maintaining a close relationship with informants resulted in an advantage for the study, it also influenced the objectivity of the researcher. In a conflict situation, sometimes it requires the ethnographer to take sides with one of the groups that are involved in the conflict. June Nash (1976) explained when she worked on her study about tin-miners groups in the revolution era in Bolivia, she had to take their side. Additionally, she claimed that it was not possible to remain neutral. The consequence was she had to face threats from the ‘government agency’ and even was suspected as a spy. While she was concerned about her own safety, she was also afraid that her data during the fieldwork would jeopardize the safety of the informants. Therefore, to be able to calculate the risk and to be prepared for any possibilities remained important. Continue reading


When the ‘Other’ Talks Back

Ethnographic fieldwork is a difficult task especially if the ethnographer has not anticipated certain obstacles that might occur during the field research. Rejection from the research subjects can be avoided by any experienced and trained ethnographer, but it is more difficult to handle when our research subject ‘talks back’ to us after the actual study has been done. Moreover, this feedback is not always good. It can be a cruel, critical, misinterpretation, or even an offensive statement from those who were our valuable informants. These conditions were discussed within the articles from Vine Deloria Jr. (1973), Cecil King (1997), Ofra Greenberg (1993), and Nancy Scheper-Hughes (2000).

Deloria (1973) wrote the article as a critique of the ethnographers and called them outsider intruders or even vultures. According to his argument, ethnographers are seen as a curse for Native American communities where they have been treated as objects by these researchers. The ethnographers thought that they were the most knowledgeable about how the Indians should behave and practice their culture. Only interested in studying Indian communities on reservations, ethnographers tended to neglect the negative side effect of their presence within the Indian reservations and often made the situation worse. For example, when some researchers tried to study how Indian communities adapted to modern life, rather than support them to survive, ethnographers criticized the way they lived and said it was not how the Indian culture should be. After the research was completed, these ethnographers wrote books, published their articles, and achieved their academic careers, while the Indians were still struggling with poverty and also losing their identity as Indians. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Ethnographer’s Identity

The main issue pointed out by Robben and Sluka (2012) is how ethnographers’ reflexivity is involved in the ways they interpret reality and further how they transcribe their findings. According to articles written by several scholars such as Hortense Powdermaker, Roschanack Shaery-Eisenlohr, Paul Spencer and also Walter Williams, ethnography fieldwork is considered difficult to exclude from researcher’s own personal identities. Therefore, these identities often consolidate and eventually are seen as an advantage while doing the fieldwork.

Powdermaker explained that her gender identity as a female ethnographer was considered to be beneficial when she was not only involved in women’s group in Melanesian society but also penetrated the men’s ritual ceremonies. It enabled her to participate in certain roles within the culture. This advantage might not have occurred if the ethnographer was male. However, while she felt her role as a female ‘outsider’ was welcomed by the society, sometimes she also carried by her emotional aspect while faced by certain conditions within the culture. This facts influenced how she interpreted the data. Moreover, she also felt no matter how she maintained a close relationship with the society she will never be an actual member of that society and will always be an outsider. Continue reading

How to Define ‘Good’ Ethnography Fieldwork

There are several fundamental aspects related to how to define a ‘good’ ethnographic fieldwork. Each scholar might have different criteria for this issue. For example, Joseph-Marie Degérando explained that a good ethnographic fieldwork primarily requires some methods such as collecting facts and make comparisons in order to gain a better understanding of what we observe. Furthermore, he also argued that ethnographer should not only focus on collecting physical cultural material while gathering data to explain needs, ideas, and habits of a cultural group remain important for a research. To have a proper skill to collect field data is an essential requirement, but to analyze these data is no less important.

Degérando criticized previous studies, which were mainly done by explorer rather than scholars that they were neglecting a generous intention when they observed a new culture that they have found. He also mentioned cruel intentions that have been done by turning these ‘savage peoples’ into slaves, robbed their belongings, or taking them only for these explorer’s benefits. They were interested in discovering new countries rather than to understand them. Degérando further argued that they tended to be biased in understanding these cultures and also try to compare it with their own European society. These attitudes will result not only in biased interpretation, but also in a totally wrong conclusion. Continue reading