Out Standing in Your Field

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Brandi Janssen


Research Among Iowa Farmers

We are told, during methods seminars in graduate school, that some level of marginality is beneficial for the anthropologist in the field.  Too much “insider status” impedes our ability to learn social processes naturally, because we already know them. This poses a challenge for the growing numbers of us who do our dissertation fieldwork domestically, sometimes right in our own backyards.  While there is a hefty literature on conducting ethnographic fieldwork, information on becoming the “other” in your own society is scarce.

For the past four years, I have been interviewing and working with direct market farmers in Iowa.  In particular, I have been interested in how producers learn their craft and adjust to new markets, especially with the recent growth in farmers markets, CSA, and the “local food movement.”  I grew up on a farm in Missouri and have lived in Iowa for most of the past 15 years.  How, then, was I to feel like an “outsider” among this group of people who looked an awful lot like me?  As is often the case, my informants provided the answer.

Early in my fieldwork I explained my project to a producer I hoped to interview.  When I said I was in the anthropology department at the University of Iowa, there was a long pause.  “The University of Iowa?” he eventually repeated back to me, as though to make sure I had not misspoken.  Iowa farmers are quite used to interacting with university personnel.  However, the vast majority of those come from Iowa State, the land grant university.  The University of Iowa, according to most locals, is the liberal arts institution.  You don’t go to Iowa City for agronomy, agricultural economics or animal sciences:  Iowa City is for the writers and philosophers.

I’m certainly not the first scholar, or anthropologist, from our University to think about farming in Iowa (Chibnik 1987; Thu and Durrenberger 1998).  Some have even been warned about admitting their affiliation with any institution, lest farmers think they are “radical environmentalists” (University of Iowa) or agribusiness job scouts (Iowa State) (Ziegenhorn 1996).  For some producers, my association with the liberal arts school benefited me.  One farmer would not agree to an interview without assurances from mutual friends that I was not associated with extension. For others, my association with the University was clearly indicative of a less “serious” approach to agriculture.  In either case, most farmers saw my academic affiliation as an oddity.

My point here is twofold:  one, there is room for more ethnographic methods in US agriculture.  Anthropologists have long addressed local knowledge and small-scale agricultural processes in the Global South.  These categories are also relevant in the US and Europe, and as more and more ethnographers engage with them, we collectively broaden and develop the dialogue about food production and land use.  Agricultural Economists and Rural Sociologists, largely from land grant institutions, have historically conducted the bulk of social research about US agriculture.  The surprise expressed by my informants, no strangers to academics in the cornfields, about my methods and institution tells me that anthropologists have more work to do.

Secondly, my concern about not being enough of an outsider among my informants was largely unfounded.  As ethnographers, we automatically “other” ourselves simply by choosing to study a particular group.  Often during interviews, farmers would pause, mid-sentence, and ask if they were boring me or if I really wanted to know about how they took into account the flood plain when building a new structure on their farm.  Whether or not we look or talk like our informants, or whether we share a collective upbringing, is less relevant than our interest in their way of life.  It is this desire for the details, often seen as vaguely odd by our informants, that ultimately makes us outsiders.  That being said, students could still benefit from more attention to the growing reality of doing fieldwork near home.  In the interest of a truly holistic discipline, we have to include the familiar as well as the strange.

Our column welcomes all materials of interest to C&A members. Please direct inquiries and ideas to Susanna Donaldson at susanna-donaldson@uiowa.edu or Joan Mencher at joanmencher@gmail.com.

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