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Monday, August 29, 2011

Annals of Ostracism (3)—Discovered Notes

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Annals of Ostracism."
[a] Discovery  RF

I use the word “discover” in its original sense. My friend and colleague, Carol Trosset, had the misfortune (not uncommon among anthropologists, but always stressful and only pointed in places where one’s native language can be decoded) of having her fieldnotes discovered…and read…and interpreted.

As Trosset notes, this was one of the most horrible turns of fortune that could affect a fieldworker, or anyone else traveling among generally well-meaning people. I remember distinctly the day in early-1982 when I received her letter, telling me of how horribly all of this (our studies and methods, which seemed so straightforward in school) had gone wrong. Nothing could be worse, on one level, but Carol Trosset shows in this narrative and analysis precisely what can be made of seemingly impossible situations. It led her (and this is the entire point of reflexive ethnography) to deeper understandings of Welsh culture than could have been found through other means. The relationship between “head” and “heart” in Welsh culture is fascinating in its own right, but the discovered notes make it particularly resonant and analytically useful.

Carol Trosset
"Good People Are Not Objective"

A corollary of the value on emotional engagement is that intellectual detachment from other people is inappropriate and to some degree inhuman. Not only is emotional involvement with other considered desirable, but in order to demonstrate one’s humanity it is expected that emotions will be performed in some way. I had difficulty living up to these demands in my own life, and it was by violating them that I learned their cultural force. This happened when a member of one of my temporary households read my field notes while I was out of the house one afternoon. Analyzing the ensuing crisis in my relations with the community ultimately increased my understanding of three aspects of Welsh culture: attitudes toward the role of emotion in being a good person, the expectation of emotional performance, and how both of these things are situated in the Welsh social hierarchy.

Focusing on the concept of a good person, we need to ask just what people thought I had done, and how they reacted to it. My “offenses” appeared to be the following: I had said things about certain people that were less than complimentary (for example, that someone didn’t sing very well); I had written down things that people didn’t know I would write down, as they had decided (without really asking me) that I was only interested in language and music; and I had written down things about people’s private rather than their public lives (political opinions, or the fact that they had quarreled with someone). Everyone who heard about this thought that these were very bad things that I had done. It was partly because I was an outsider that it was wrong for me to criticize people in any way, though I think it would have been wrong for anyone to write down their bad thoughts as I had done. My other offenses were also enhanced by my outsider status, but were more generally considered indicative of my being a bad person. One couple tried to use this occasion to teach me the essential qualities of a good person (in Welsh terms), telling me about several highly intelligent members of the community who were widely perceived as inadequate family men. These stories were all based on the idea that the head and the heart (intellect and emotions) are separate, and that the head in unimportant, while the heart defines the person. Each example also seemed to contain the moral that people with especially well-developed intellects are more likely than others to be inadequate as people.

I was deeply disturbed by what had happened, and it took some time before the shock of the incident subsided sufficiently for me to remember to compare people’s responses with other possible attitudes according to which my actions might have been interpreted differently. One place these differences in assumptions can be found is in the incident which had, inadvertently, motivated this individual to examine my notebook. I had gone, with my hot family, to have dinner with an Oxford-educated lawyer and his English wife. The lawyer engaged me in an analytical discussion of Welsh culture, which ended unexpectedly in our joint comment that most Welsh people did not seem to be very interested in international politics. This produced a storm of protest from the others, which centered on the comment, “Of course we care about the Polish people; you have no right to say we don’t care.” (This discussion followed by a few weeks the outlawing of the Polish Solidarity trade union.) To myself and to the lawyer, “to care about” and “to be interested in” neither implied nor conflicted with each other. We had been speaking of simple academic interest: wanting to know details, to figure out how events were working and why. The others, however, assumed that we were referring to their “hearts” and criticizing them as emotional beings.

I did not do a good job of explaining my actions in the days that followed, as I was temporarily absorbed in a Welsh way of thinking. This showed itself in my inability to explain why I had taken the notes. I knew that there had been a reason that made it necessary for me to record all this information, but I genuinely couldn’t remember what it was. The reason, of course, was that as a researcher I needed to know as much as possible about my informants so that I could interpret the things they told me and the ways in which I obtained information from them. I think the reason I couldn’t remember this at the time was because, from a Welsh point of view, studying people’s thoughts and feelings is wrong in itself. I was unable to invoke anthropological methodology as a motive because the whole research enterprise no longer made sense, while I was absorbed in their ideology of personhood. The fact that I was unable to think in those otherwise familiar terms is itself further evidence that the feelings I had then about my actions closely resembled the feelings of the people around me. When I learned that my field notes had been read, and was told how angry people were now that they knew what I had really been doing, I was so shocked and distressed that I almost became ill. This emotional response was taken as evidence that I really felt bad about what had happened and had not intended to hurt anyone, and because of this some people decided to maintain their relationships with me. This aspect of the incident turned out to be a good illustration of the Welsh expectation that emotions will be performed to provide evidence of genuine feeling.[1]

[1] Carol Trosset, Welshness Performed (Tucson AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1993), 155-159.

Trosset, Carol. Welshness Performed. Tucson AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1993.

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