Conclusion: The Ethnographic Self and the Personal Self

Conclusion: The Ethnographic Self and the Personal Self

Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 17
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3420-5.ch007


The nature of the relationship between the researcher and the researched is critical to understanding the nature of the research as a whole. To be sure, the form that a particular ethnography takes emerges in discourse. An ethnographic interview, for instance, is a highly personal encounter that is shaped by the interpersonal exchange between the ethnographer and the informant. The speaker will only reveal what he or she wants the researcher to know. Therefore, the quality and depth of the relationship between the two individuals determines what will be said. Usually, the longer and more amiable the relationship, the richer and more consistent is the final product. Even if narrators answer a prepared set of questions, how they respond depends entirely on the level of rapport. This chapter explores this relationship.
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How They See Me

Not only is the ethnographic subject interpreting the native object, but the informants are also interpreting the ethnographer. Triloki Nath Pandey (1972) emphasizes that the people with whom the anthropologist works are usually able to size him up as a person and understand his role in the community. Many ethnographers have described how they felt as if they were under constant surveillance of the natives while in the field (i.e. Adair, 1960; Bowen, 1954; Cushing, 18822; Maybury-Lewis, 1965; Powdermaker, 1965). William L. Rodman (1993) demonstrates that the interpretive process is a two-way street:

…the people we study study us, even in moments when we do not seek to study. We are not just observers observed; we are interpretersinterpreted. To figure out what the devil they think they are up to requires us to try to figure out what they think we are up to—our motivation, purposes, and (sometimes) the moral message we bring with us. This is an other side to reflexivity, one crucial to understanding the dialogics of encounters in field research, and one that anthropologists have only begun to explore (p. 189; emphasis mine).

As anthropologists, we have to be more cognizant of how “they” interpret “us.” Often, Bruner (1998) contends, native peoples’ interpretation of their own culture is influenced in profound ways by their interpretations of us.

But how does one go about acquiring such information? It is ineffective to ask informants directly since people generally will not tell you how they really feel about you to your face. This is especially true for Navajos, who tend to avoid personal confrontation. Originally, my plan was to recruit my research assistants—who are themselves members of the Benally family—to surreptitiously record comments about me from each of my informants. Upon further consideration (and after a trial run), I decided against this strategy partly for the ethical ramifications but mostly because of the technical limitations of my miniature tape recorder. As it turned out, however, any kind of subterfuge was unnecessary. Information in the form of gossip was relayed to me from all sources. Navajos love to gossip and cause trouble with revelations like “So and so said such and such about you.” Sometimes, these statements are true but, more often, eager messengers purposely exaggerate a kernel of truth and add their own malicious twist just to spread ill will.

For all our similarities and compatibilities, they still considered me to be fundamentally different from them. I am not like the other men on the reservation in that I do not drink, smoke, do drugs, or have illegitimate children by various women. I was a college student when I first met them (and still was a decade later when I conducted my fieldwork), which was as exceedingly rare then as it is now. In a society where alcoholism, domestic violence, chronic unemployment, and parental absenteeism among men are the cultural norm, I served as the only positive male role model for the youngsters in the community.

Even more perplexing in their eyes was the fact that I was a vegetarian. They simply could not comprehend the existence of somebody who refused to eat mutton stew despite their best goading. (“You don’t eat sheep?” they would gasp.) But my peculiar dietary choices did not end there. They also could not understand my aversion to soda, candy, and processed foods—all staples of the contemporary Navajo diet. I must have appeared to be a strange breed, indeed.

Prior to meeting me, they had also never known anyone who espoused anti-materialism, pro-environment views before (which I know sounds odd given the “children of nature” stereotype). Without being aware of it, I was proselytizing my values and beliefs by disseminating advice at every turn. For example, I constantly would urge the kids to focus more on their schoolwork or I would suggest healthier eating alternatives to the families. Soon, I was being consulted for everything from relationship problems to the best way to change a flat tire.

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