Anthropological fieldwork is currently under threat from university administrators who assume it is simply inefficient and wasteful to spend 6-12 months in the field. So why does fieldwork have to take so long? I think I know the reason but I don’t think the administrators will like it. It is because the researcher needs this duration to ensure the person they are at the beginning suffers, and fails, and dies to themselves, so that they can see the world anew. I think that fieldwork is slow because it requires an element of mourning and grief. These, I notice, are themes that are also in Demelza’s and Michelle’s blog posts!
So here is the argument as a story. I began my PhD fieldwork in 1980, in the coalmining town of Kurri Kurri, in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales. My chosen focus was a struggle between the advocates and opponents of a government plan to site an aluminium smelter among the vineyards on the outskirts of town. It soon became obvious that the protestors, an uneasy alliance of left-wingers, environmentalists and vignerons, were intimidated by the reputation of the Coalfields’ towns. Kurri was the town most affected by the smelter, and only a few kilometres from where the protestors were based, yet the protestors never ventured there. Kurri was strange; they had heard stories about it. In order to understand this avoidance, and the other side of the protestors’ stories, I began interviewing my neighbours about the political and industrial history of the town.
After reading a newspaper article about me, Stan ‘Bunny’ Dawn contacted me and offered himself for interview. Bunny and his wife, in their mid-seventies, lived in a small, neat, weatherboard house. Born locally, his schooling cut short by the 1919 influenza epidemic, Bunny had entered minework in early adolescence and had stayed until his retirement, without ever being promoted or given high-paying facework. His nickname was a reminder of strikes, lock outs and shut downs, when he had earned money by catching and selling rabbits.
Kurri had a history of political and industrial militancy, and I arrived at Bunny’s house with a mind full of questions about the town’s unions and political parties and its Co-op Store and its union-funded Hospital. But Bunny and his wife had other plans. Mrs Dawn led me to the living room and plied me with tea and sponge cake, and Bunny guided me through the highlights of his life. He had already set out his coin collection, his photo albums, his trophies for bike riding, and his agricultural show prizes for his cake-decoration. He showed me paraphernalia associated with his Masonic Lodge, where he mixed with doctors and mine managers, and souvenirs of his trips to Sydney to attend Lodge celebrations. Every so often I would steer the conversation back to political and industrial matters, but Bunny had no interest. He just liked to get along in life, he said. Politics and unions got too serious.
After two hours, and again after three, I thanked my hosts for their hospitality and announced that I should leave. But Mrs Dawn wasn’t going to release me. It was good for Bunny to talk, she said. And, besides, she’d just taken more scones from the oven. By now, Bunny had ticked off his achievements and I had run out of small talk and reluctantly set aside my questions. Nowhere else to go, too full to eat, too tired to continue trying to impress each other, Bunny and I settled into this last part of the afternoon. I knew something had changed when I noticed that we were now sitting comfortably with silence. A fifty year age gap, and so many differences in life experience and orientation, yet we were together, just sharing time, undistracted by personal agendas, allowing banal conversation to rise and fade as it would. Ordinary as it was, this was an experience of presence. I was surprised, when the languorous conversation turned to mine managers, that Bunny’s disposition suddenly turned black. ‘The mine managers!’ He said the words with disgust. ‘They cared more about the safety of the pit horses than of the miners.’ But the conversation flowed on and Bunny’s mood followed it easily.
When I finally left the Dawns’ house, after more than four hours, regrets filled the empty space I had enjoyed with Bunny. My weariness soured into a sense of failure when I thought how little I’d captured in my notebook. Where was my focus? What was I doing in my fieldwork? How was this going to produce a thesis? I went to bed when I got home, so I didn’t have to think about the project. So when, three weeks later, Mrs Dawn insisted I visit again, I wasn’t impressed when I heard myself accept.
The fact that I can’t remember much about the second interview suggests that we fell back fairly quickly into a companionable drift. Late in the long afternoon, though, Bunny repeated his angry claim about managers, miners and pit horses. Wow! That woke up the researcher in me! I stopped Bunny and asked if he really thought his claim was true. There was a tiny hesitation which I registered as confusion, hurt, disappointment, and then he looked away. ‘No,’ he mumbled, ‘it’s just a saying’. After all, some mine managers were in his Masonic Lodge. Now embarrassed myself, I didn’t pursue the matter.
I immediately felt the gravity of my offence, even though the understanding of it has taken years. I think Bunny felt double-crossed, because my question switched ethical codes. According to the code that governed our early acquaintance, Bunny and I were subjects involved in a contest for confirmation of our proffered identities. Such contests are tiring because they require constant strategy, defence and psychic repression, and yet never secure the certainty they seek. The exhausted conversation that followed was guided by a different ethical code, which resigned our goals and let go of self-consciousness. Bunny and I spoke with and not just to each other; rather than making conversation, we found it, through each other’s presence. There was neither pretence nor earnestness: we could say whatever came to mind but without fear that it would not define us. My question about mine managers disconcerted Bunny because it suddenly denied this mutual implication, asking Bunny to identify what was true, as if there could be a single truth in a complex and open life. I had reverted to the identity of researcher, from which position I could form judgements about Bunny and, even more insultingly, ‘the life of coalminers’.
Nothing obvious changed after that afternoon. I had lots of busy work to do attending meetings, conducting interviews and researching the political economy of smelters. Quite often, though, I would be shaken by the uncomfortable memory of my zeal and Bunny’s unease. This memory was the field working on me. It took six more months for me to admit to myself that I was more interested in the history of coalfields’ towns than in the aluminium smelter, and another year to realise that I was most interested in the issues of stigma, ostracism and dignity.
I see these meetings with Bunny as a series of failures as a researcher. First, I failed to live up to my expectation of how a research interview should go; second, I resigned myself to this failure when just sharing time with Bunny; third, by ambushing Bunny with my question, I failed to respect the significance of our shared time. Nevertheless, this characterisation may seem odd: after all, these interviews became the starting point of my thesis, and Bunny’s look of disappointment became my ethical guide to fieldwork and the thesis. Distinguishing what a researcher does from what a project can do, I am suggesting that my failure was necessary to whatever success this project eventually had. It was my failure-as-a-researcher that taught me that fieldwork comes from research relations.
Fieldwork is a slow method because it uses duration to ensure that research participants disappoint themselves. They will find they are not who they thought they were, that they are not in control of their lives, that the other always eludes their definition. But they will also find that their dependence and vulnerability is not the catastrophe they feared, and that this failure-as-a-subject reveals truths that they would not have chosen to see. By reworking the lives of research participants in this way, fieldwork turns research about others into research with others, and this changes what can be seen and acknowledged.
Early on, researchers participate and observe, but this is not participant-observation. Participant-observation can only occur when the field has done its work and participants have learned what it is to share life. It is not research about definable individuals or discrete towns or cultures; it is writing that emerges from life that has been shared with the researcher. It is not a technique to be deployed but a way of life that is only found when the research participants have suspended their identities.