Insightful Fieldwork

Trust, Humility, and Personal Transformation

Notes from the Field, a series by the Culture & Agriculture section of AAA

Drawing on the experiences and expertise of our members, Culture and Agriculture introduces its “Notes from the Field” series. Our intent is to make space for creative, thoughtful reflections on the process of fieldwork that, while not always included in “traditional” peer-reviewed publications, are nonetheless important, unsettling, and compelling deeper understandings of people and land. Topics for this series include: the non-visual sensorium of fieldwork (i.e., the sounds, smells, and tastes of research); methods that are particularly relevant to research in the (or a) field; ethical dilemmas; the joys of fieldwork; and ethnography as a unique mode of knowledge production.

In this post, Joel Matthews explores the role of time, trust, and humility in “insightful fieldwork.”

Access into the intimate lives of research subjects is one of the most important problems anthropologists face while conducting fieldwork. Although trust is an important gateway to that intimacy, we must not allow trust to be used simply as tool. In ethical fieldwork, trust must supersede the research agenda. This can mean that some areas of research, however valuable, may be off-limits because intruding with questions or observations would be a breach of that trust.

We must not allow trust to be used simply as tool.

But building trust takes time, a commodity that researchers often have in only limited amounts. I argue here that time, trust, and personal transformation are key ingredients to insightful fieldwork in limited access contexts. The transformation of which I speak is simply the ability to see the world from the eyes of others. This paradigm shift is not only one of the greatest gifts that the discipline of cultural anthropology can offer, it has the potential to re-orient a researcher’s entire agenda. What follows is an explanation of how I gained access and trust among reticent men and secluded women in rural West Africa, and how that success is more appropriately attributed to others than to my own cleverness.

I conducted PhD research among Hausa agriculturalists of Niger in 2013. That research would not have been possible, however, without a series of events and discoveries that preceded my field study. In 1991 I was attached to a Christian NGO and, through the financial support from many interested Americans, left California for the country of Niger with my young family. My purpose was to facilitate holistic development in Niger, a country that has hovered at the very bottom of the Human Development Index. To facilitate that purpose, we moved to a small village near the town of Maradi. This turned out to be a very fortuitous decision.

Though I knew that sustainable and equitable development had to be built upon good relationships, I failed to realize how important friendships and trust were to getting anything done in rural Africa. Before moving to Africa, I had been convinced by the Diffusion of Innovations thesis that proper decisions were made by a process of laying out objectives, examining alternatives, choosing among opportunity costs, and designing an action plan that maximized the utility of that decision. However, as I worked with rural Africans over the years I began to question the universality of that decision-making model. I eventually discovered that the Hausa farmers I was working with made decisions in an entirely different way. Although the farmers did utilize an evidence-based approach to testing ideas, it was relationality and consensus, rather than knowledge and logic, that were the cornerstones of their decision-making model. Diffusion of Innovations was not a universal model after all.

The author’s daughter with neighbors, 2003. Joel Matthews

This discovery essentially re-wrote my sustainable development playbook. I realized that building and sustaining relationships were keys to the good life, and hence development for the community where I lived. This clashed with neoliberal assumptions that development is primarily about economic growth. I began to see the failure of various modernization projects among the Hausa as a mismatch of decision-making models and core values, rather than a rejection of technology and progress. This discovery reoriented my research agenda.

In my case, all of the insights I gained resulted from the decision my wife and I made to live in a small rural village rather than on an expatriate station in town. We found an old abandoned mission house in a village that provided a legitimate space to raise our children. As they began to play with the neighbors, they learned the Hausa language. Within a few years they could be found, more often than not, playing, eating, and being disciplined by women who ran neighboring homes. Although time and trust allowed me access men’s communities, it was our children being raised by village households that allowed me access to secluded communities of Muslim women.

When I returned to the village to conduct field research in 2013, I asked the chief for permission to interview his subjects. He looked at me and said, “Joel, you don’t need my permission. You raised your children here. You are now one of us. Go wherever you like and talk to whomever you wish” Later he brought me to his compound and invited me to talk to his wives, whom he had gathered for that purpose. The only reason they were willing to talk to me, though, was because they knew and loved my children.

The point of my reflections is this: We all come to field research with unexamined assumptions and a limited ability to engage with our research subjects. We know that we harbor incorrect assumptions, but it is not clear what they are or with what they should be replaced. A paradigm shift seems to be required for researchers to identify and replace those assumptions with something that more closely represents the realities that our subjects inhabit. That paradigm shift takes an investment in relationships, and that investment takes a good deal of time, trust, and vulnerability. I am not suggesting that every researcher seeking access to closed communities should move to that community and raise children there before conducting research. But, I know of no more effective way to challenge unexamined assumptions and to gain trust than to spend the time it takes to build relationships. The lifelong friendships that ensue are worth at least as much as the research itself.

Joel Matthews is a professor of Engineering Technology at Diablo Valley College.

Cite as: Matthews, Joel. 2017. “Insightful Fieldwork.” Anthropology News website, November 6, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.652

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