Behind the Scenes: Reflective Accounts on Ethnolab

By Thomas Stodulka, Ferdiansyah Thajib, Samia Dinkelaker

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The collaboration between the KUNCI Cultural Studies Center and the research team from FU Berlin, Germany and the University of Berne, Switzerland, targets the training of young scholars and activists in ethnographic fieldwork and writing. The class of 2015 consisted of two literature scholars and one primatologist from Germany and Switzerland, two photography students and one trained anthropologist from Indonesia.

As organizers and facilitators of the whole process, which comprised of one full year, we had assumed that an impartial approach to describing the life of others without the ‘burden’ of anthropological training (i.e. having to attend to particular disciplinary styles, generalization, inter-subjectification, and a masking of the ethnographer’s own emotion and experience by means of a widespread detached traditional empiricism) of scholars from other disciplines promoted more flexible pathways of integrating researchers’ affectivities and subjectivities into their ethnographic descriptions. We were surprised how difficult it seemed also for non-anthropologists, who were invited to experiment with their methodical approaches and styles of writing to integrate their affects, or more broadly speaking their own experiences into their ethnographic accounts of others. On the contrary, during the proceedings of the Ethnolab workshops, we could sense that for the participants, having anthropologists as mentors may produce additional anxieties due to the implicit disciplinary pressures. Not only that the participants had to deal with the demands of fieldwork, that, as we all know, can be physically, intellectually and psychologically exhausting. They also had to cope with challenges related to daily exposure to new environments, the climate, the urgency of making new contacts and the necessity to attune their sensibilities towards social and cultural differences, and the lodging situation in which all three participants shared a house with two of their peer facilitators.

While indeed there were some qualitative differences on how challenging the situations can be between participants who have just arrived to Indonesia for the first time and those who were already embedded in the locality, still they were all equally subjected to a restrictive time frame of less than one month in comparison to the conventional duration of ethnographic fieldwork which can expand over months or even years.

As organizers we tried to anticipate the time limitation by downscaling the targets as well as the scopes of the Ethnolab as a simulated form of ethnographic practice. In this setting, the expected results are not so much focused on a definitive analysis of the studied phenomena but more about familiarizing the participants with the affective dimensions of fieldwork encounters as well as the limits and possibilities of interpretive acts in ethnographic writing. We would like to pause here for a moment, and express our great admiration for our fellow colleagues!

“Culture Shock”, image: Mira Shah

Similar to the practices of anthropologists, the affective dimensions of experiencing new fields of inquiry are rarely mentioned explicitly in the participants’ ethnographic writings. They remained ‘behind the scenes’ or ‘backdoor topics’ that were discussed during the workshops along methodical challenges, but even more so over breakfast, lunch or dinner. This came initially surprising, because the six participants were encouraged to use semi-structured emotion diaries in order to document and afterwards make sense of their affective experiences during fieldwork in relation to the more ‘other-descriptive’ data. During the multilingual review processes of the six ‘mini-ethnographies’ we realized that non-anthropologists seem to share similar difficulties with us, and many of our anthropologist colleagues, when it comes to transforming the field researcher’s emotions into analytical tools or alternative ways of knowledge production, translating and representing them in written texts. The anxiety to produce nothing but confessional tales (instead of analytically and rhetorically sound descriptions) and the fear of one’s own self-exposure towards potential readers and very real friends, informants, research partners, colleagues and supervisors seem to transpire as (academic) force majeure that obstructs more radically relational and affective ways of analysis, representation and writing.

The documentation of emotions in the field has been part and parcel of the ethnographic endeavor since its origins (Boas 1920; Malinowski 1922). The greater challenge is to foster the acknowledgement of affective experiences that emerge from and influence our encounters with those we research as systematic complementary sets of data that provide additional embodied and sensorial routes to anthropological knowledge.

All participants immersed themselves in their respective fields of interest and were deeply committed to both participating in and observing particular events, conversations, interactions or the typical ‘hanging out’ (nongkrong), where seemingly nothing seems to happen until it happens, all at the same time. Sometimes they have disembarked alone, at other times with research partners, assistants, translators, or key informants. Moreover, the admirably committed scholars from very different disciplines conducted in-situ jottings, field diaries, semi-structured interviews that were recorded, and so-called ‘informal conversations’ that were documented in evening sessions by means of memory protocols. In addition to these more traditional tools, one scholar opted for the emotion diary, and two scholars used quantitative emotion scales to document their affective dispositions on an almost daily basis. Three scholars engaged in writing reflexive summaries after their fieldwork in order to reflect on their diverse research bias and discuss it with the bigger group. We can witness these self-reflexive processes more implicitly in-between the lines than explicitly in the authors’ descriptions, analyses and essays.

Class session at KUNCI, image: KUNCI.

Anthropologists are aware of the paramount impact of their own subjectivities, positionalities and emotional positions from which they study and write about other persons, communities, spaces or phenomena. The Ethnolab strikingly revealed another important insight. The comparative perspective on the different academic and non-academic scholars that participated in the workshops reveals very vividly that different disciplines produce very different and creative styles in approaching the initially ‘strange other’, strategies of coping with field related challenges and the ways in which they are represented in written texts. We wonder, whether you, dear readers could guess the particular disciplinary trainings ‘behind the texts’, if you didn’t check their authors’ profiles?

Interestingly, the Ethnolab’s interdisciplinary and open-minded ethos and critical engagement with the multiply ‘other’ (in terms of locality, climate, culture, gender, status, disciplinary training, and so forth) have not only increased the respect towards and fascination by the multiply ‘other’, but also nurtured the confidence in having chosen that academic or non-academic discipline that fits our preferences and personalities best. For the time being, this is as good as it gets in order to continue thinking open-mindedly and collectively about the intriguing question, ‘How to do self-reflexivity systematically, transparently, and comprehensibly without having to fear the multiply ‘other’?’

 

About the Authors

Dr. Thomas Jan Stodulka is a researcher at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. His research focuses on emotion, stigma, marginality, health and illness. His long-term fieldwork (since 2001) with street-related children, adolescents and young men in Yogyakarta, Indonesia translated into a few peer-reviewed articles and the monograph Coming of Age on the Streets of Java (forthcoming). He is co-editor of Feelings at the Margins – Dealing with Violence, Stigma and Isolation in Indonesia (2014, Campus), and he is currently directing an interdisciplinary research project on ethnographic knowledge production titled the ‘The Researchers’ Affects’.

Ferdiansyah Thajib is a member of KUNCI Cultural Studies Center, a transdisciplinary collective based in Yogyakarta, Indonesia which formation is based on an affinity to creative experimentation and speculative inquiry on intersections between theory and praxis.  He is currently a Phd candidate at the Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. He is also a DAAD associate scholar at ‘The Researchers’ Affects’  project. At present he is using ethnography to explore the affective forms of political and cultural lives, particularly in relation to queerness and belonging.

Samia Dinkelaker is currently working on her PhD thesis titled Becoming a domestic worker. An ethnography of the export of Indonesian migrants to Hong Kong. She holds a Master in Political Science and is supervised at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies at Osnabrück University. In collaboration with her colleagues of the project ‘The Researchers’ Affects’ she engages in the role of emotions in ethnographic data collection and writing and is exploring how she can make a reflection of inter-affective experiences in the field productive for her own research.

 

References

  • Boas, F. (1920). The Methods of Ethnology. American Anthropologist, 22 (4) , 311-321. American Anthropological Association.
  • Malinowski, B. (1922). Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An account of native enterprise and adventure in the archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London: G. Routledge & Sons.