Wednesday, December 9, 2009

On Making Connections…

How do ethnographers make connections between our on-the-ground work and relevant theory? And, over and beyond this, once we have hashed these connections out for ourselves, how and when do we try to make them explicit to our informants and colleagues in the field?

Granted my project is a little strange…it’s not just about songs that talk about AIDS directly, although they are a large part of it. It’s also about the social and cultural uses of certain genres, the ways that AIDS discourse and musical discourse intersect, and the ways that Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and Community Based Organizations (CBOs) harness the “power of music” for their own purposes. Interestingly that “power” is oft-discussed but not often actually examined in its own right…but I digress.

Many of our informants don’t want mini-lectures. Hell, many of our colleagues, friends, students, and professors don’t want them either. Nonetheless, they are good enough to take time out of their day to explain things to me, answer my questions (that they sometimes think are stupid – I have gotten good at reading body language), and generally lime (Trini for hang out) with me for anywhere from 30 mins to a few hours. I have to do some sharing too, but “I’m looking at the ways that music and HIV/AIDS are connected in Trinidad” generally doesn’t cut it. Since they generally have some stake in this in terms of music and/or public health, they’re curious.

But because my mind goes towards Big Theoretical Places quickly, I tend to explain in a very top-down way. That sometimes leaves my informants with the impression my project is a little malformed. After all, how does one connect memorial services, mas bands, sexual culture in Trinidad, the spoken word scene, open mics, and, tangentially, literature and art into one coherent project? I can see it, but when I try to explain it to anyone else it seems garbled and confused.

That probably means I should wait for quite awhile before I start writing.

But I am not just making connections between “data” and theories, I am also making interpersonal connections. Some acquaintances that I am meeting through work, and some friends that I meet while doing work and while liming after work. However, all of these people, whether they like it or not, are connected to my research. Since my life is my research now, for better or worse, it never stops. Of course, sometimes it takes a back burner – I don’t take notes when I’m out at a bar with people, or in line at a food vendor, or in a cab. But I am always there, always listening, always, in the very very back of my mind, thinking. And when I sit down at night to write up fieldnotes – even on days when nothing seemed to happen – sometimes odd things pop out.

Like the other night, my fieldnotes strayed to the interactions of patrons at a bar, and the way that bar patrons outside interact with people walking or driving by on the street. I thought it was funny, so I texted a friend of mine who frequents the bar that I was writing up fieldnotes about our evening lime, and he called back. Granted, he couldn’t text right then, but still it felt rather dramatic. I’m not sure if it freaked him out (sounded like it did!), or if he was just curious. But if part of my research is on the way that gender, music, and HIV are connected, there are few better places to investigate gender relations than at a bar.

But how and when do I “come out” as a researcher who is actually doing research right that second!!!!? I mean, all of my friends, acquaintances, etc. know that I am here doing research and that my research is on the connections between music and HIV/AIDS in Trinidad. Full stop. People are always curious why I’m here so that is one of the first questions I am typically asked.

But there is a difference between knowing I am a researcher who is reading books, going to shows, and doing formal-ish interviews, and knowing that I am a researcher who is writing and thinking about my interactions with you right that second. I’m reminded of Laurie Anderson’s “Language is a Virus” from her magnum opus, United States I-IV

Well I was talking to a friend
And I was saying: I wanted you.
And I was looking for you.
But I couldn't find you.
I couldn't find you.
And he said: Hey!
Are you talking to me?
Or are you just practicing
For one of those performances of yours?

Do I need to buy a hat that I put on when I’m “researching”? How can I be genuine in my relationships with others while still doing my research? I am – and have been – living this project on and off since 2006, so of course the concerns and goals of my work are leaking over into my personal life (and vice versa). But if I am only documenting and writing up publicly observable behavior and not spilling secrets and dishing dirt, do I need to feel all ethically challenged?

Thoughts, fellow ethnographers?

And now for some pictures!!!! The city of San Fernando at night, the cornbread I took to our little Thanksgiving celebration, and central Trinidad from the vantage point of the church on Mount St. Benedict, near the University of the West Indies.

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