Before heading to conduct fieldwork, a colleague advised me to buy a new device—a smartpen with an embedded digital recording and computing technology to facilitate the transcription process. At the time, this seemed an attractive alternative to traditional digital and tape recorders where one spends hours trying to locate a research participant’s quote. Eighteen months later into my fieldwork, the set remained in my drawer, neatly packed as it was first purchased. I never used it as it proved intimidating in my fieldsite.
This piece explores the methodological implications of recording devices in ethnographic research in politically charged contexts. Drawing on ongoing fieldwork in the Egyptian village of Ab’adeyet Wally Mizar, Fayoum, starting September 2011, this piece provides some vignettes where several types of recording devices—tape recorder, digital recorder and smartphones—were welcomed, challenged, refused or exchanged during interviews and participant-observation settings.
I discuss a paradox that I found during my fieldwork: using voice recording technologies are shaped by people’s concerns over protecting themselves from state policing on one hand, and aspirations for political visibility in some media on the other. Interlocutors’ reactions to recording devices fed into their imagining and expectations of the potential (mis)uses of their accounts, which was influenced by a combination of two contradictory feelings: (1) the state of being under surveillance and (2) liberating oneself from old fears through opening-up to technological tools that proved somehow efficient in bringing about change in a revolutionary context. This article explores the dynamics of the relationship between the ethnographer, the research participants and recording objects. It contributes to methodological discussions about anthropologists’ tools in the field, which may ease or complicate the situation, contribute to building a perception of the anthropologist as an ally or a traitor, hence radically influencing rapport. Furthermore, it challenges the ethics-dominant discussions of recording, which often perceive devices as undifferentiated technologies, and where debates are relegated to avoiding harm that may result from displaying recorded material to academic and nonacademic publics. Selecting a recording device raises ethical and practical considerations, and requires a sensibility hardly learned in classrooms. Through my experience, I aim to provide insight to others looking into such critical decisions.
Lost in Translation: Ethnography in Egypt
Bah’th (pl buh’uth, abh’ath) and derassa (pl derasat) are two local translations of what we call ethnography. The first is a noun that derives from the Arabic verb ba-h’a-tha, and translates into research/ to investigate, whereas the latter emerges from the verb da-ra-sa, which means to study/to learn, in the educational sense. In my fieldsite, these two terms are often accompanied with the adjective nizam (order, system, regime) and function differently.
Varying research motivations have influenced how nizam abh’ath (research regimes) are captured in rural popular imagination. For some, it stimulates state-induced fear as it shares the same origin with the noun mabaheth, the Egyptian common term for security apparatuses. For others, particularly if involving interviewing, “research” refers to the work of Islamic NGOs headed by members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi movements. They periodically conduct abh’ath with their beneficiaries to evaluate whether they are (still) in need of financial and in-kind support based on several criteria, including: (1) the number, age and health profile of children and (2) the socioeconomic profile of the household (employment status, household total income, housing conditions, migration profile and land ownership). In this context, nizam abh’ath involves negotiation; NGO officers use various methods to evaluate the socioeconomic profile of the families whereas family members submit evidence that they are (still) entitled to their support. This research regime is conducted ostensibly for charity purposes, but ultimately for power gain, particularly in electoral politics.
Meanwhile, nizam derassa becomes a statement that what we are doing is part of an educational project. The description of an anthropological project as such leads our research participants to help us pass certain tests, hence accepting—though unconvincingly—our long term presence. Through time, people with whom I worked closely were convinced that I was doing nizam derassa, a study that aims at understanding the everyday lives of rural dwellers in revolutionary times. When their acquaintances curiously asked about my presence, my hosts would explain, “She’s studying our problems.” Typically they respond “nizam abh’ath’?” I would quickly intrude: “no, nizam derassa!”
Among rural dwellers, the confusion between the two research regimes may be blurred due to the usage of certain recording technologies.
Digital Recording versus Tape Recording
In a workshop with the small farmers’ union in Cairo, Hagg Ali, a wealthy landowner, was constantly criticizing the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohamed Morsi who hailed from there. Sheikh Osman, one of my key informants in Fayoum then told me concernedly “Don’t criticize Morsi back, he is probably a security man, he is recording for us using small devices like yours, they now infiltrate all our public meetings to report to Mohamed Morsi what we do.” Sheikh Osman was referring to my digital voice recorder, which he rejected I use during our first encounters. His comment fed into my earlier observations about the unease of several research participants vis-à-vis this device and its association with state surveillance. Hagg Ahmed, one of my hosts, describes it as “too small,” hence could be recording secretly. At the beginning of my fieldwork, several families with whom I worked would jokingly tell others gossiping about politicians: “be careful, she records everything.” My description of the nature of my work as one that requires observing and documenting what happens on a daily basis only accentuated participants’ concerns of being constantly in a recorded setting. Being under surveillance is a shared feeling among rural dwellers that defined state-subject relations over the last three decades. This is not surprising given that officially Egyptian citizens were living under a state of emergency since 1981, which provides security forces the power to tap personal communication and to randomly arrest people.
In my fieldsite, members of Islamist groups and any citizen who would object state oligarchs were all targets of state security forces. Following the ousting of former President Hosni Mubarak, one perceived effect of what came to be known as the January 25th revolution was the withdrawal of security forces from the district, where the village of my research is located. What remained, however, is the state of mind that citizens are perpetually under state surveillance.
These concerns faded away as I advanced in the field. My digital recorder, however, remained intimidating for many. I hence shifted to traditional tape recorders since they are more familiar in rural and urban poor settings. As anthropologist Farha Ghannam (1999) illustrates, audio-letters, recorded via tapes, have been important connection tools between families and young migrant men working in Libya, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Ever since, interview settings became less intimidating as the visibility and familiarity of the device made the process more comfortable. Many interlocutors commented that they own one, and few took copies of their recorded accounts.
Smartphones: Technology with Uncertain Hope
Smartphones are another digital recording tool familiar to Ab’adeyet residents. According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (2012), in 2010–11, Egyptian households spent 2.5% (USD 92.5) of their annual income on telecommunication. Of this expenditure on telecommunication, more than 60% is spent on mobile phones. The number of mobile subscribers was 91 million, at a time when the population was 83 million (Ahram Online, September 2, 2012).
One favorite topic of conversation in Ab’adeyet was that of the differences between mobile devices, which exhibits savviness about the available technology and consolidates mobile devices as markers of social stature. Commonly heard questions include what are the best brands, new or second hand, from the Abdel Aziz retail street or from Saudi Arabia. Despite the similar features that mobile phones and digital recorders share, the former is not only accepted but expected to be used. Ordinary citizens in rural settings have used mobile phone to record and circulate violations. For example, widely circulated were videos documenting the rigging of election results by the former National Democratic Party (NDP), and violent confrontations between rural dwellers and police forces during forced evictions from land. As a Cairene, I was perceived as coming from the locus of technology, hence expected to use smartphones.
Following the announcement of the 2011 parliamentary elections results, I went to the house of Gamal Hassan, Freedom and Justice Party winning candidate in order to congratulate him for gaining a seat in the now-dissolved parliament, and to request an interview later. Hundreds of men were sitting in a colorful tent in front of his under-construction redbrick house. I was the only woman, let alone unveiled in a context where all Muslim women are. I deliberately left my camera at home since I thought it might raise suspicion. The moment I stepped in, my host gave me the green light to take pictures. When I told him that I left my camera at home, he replied “Don’t you have a phone? Why don’t you take photographs?” His friend reiterated “Don’t you often say that you need to document everything so that your professor let you pass the exam?”
As I shifted to using my phone as a video, audio-recording and photographing device, live documentation became widely accepted by Ab’adeyet residents, because of its familiarity and relevance in their everyday lives. However, expectations from recording took new dimensions. Part of my research has been to participate in and observe sit-ins organized by rural groups in their quest for certain entitlements. An example of such groups is the small farmers’ unions. During these events, protestors were desperately seeking media attention, particularly television. However, mainstream media hardly made it to their events. Alternatively, in light of the scale and intensity of Internet penetration in revolutionary times, some resorted to social media, in which phone-based audio-visual material recorded by myself and others became, quite coincidentally, data they used for their own ends. For them, social media is promising, yet uncertain, since their digital presence is constantly circumvented in increasingly hierarchical social media circles. Many have rightly questioned whether they will ever enjoy a space in the digital world, or they will remain, like in other mainstream media, on the margins.
In this essay, I linked research tools and technologies to broader sociopolitical and technological transformation taking place during Egypt’s unfinished revolutionary process. I conceptualized recording devices as material objects that ethnographers bring to the field, and that in their own right stimulate certain reactions—fear, ambivalence, hope, and has the potential of positioning the ethnographer as supporter, traitor and/or mediator to the alternative circles of social media and citizen journalism. By so doing, I showed that such reactions could help us understand rural subjects’ conceptualizations of change (and lack thereof) in revolutionary times.
Yassmin Ahmed is a PhD student in social anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Her research is on citizenship practices in Fayoum, Egypt. Specifically, she is examining how rural subjects conceptualize and claim their rights from the state amid both rapid political transformations and debates on military/civil and religious/secular rule.