Tuesday, July 26, 2011

11th Hour Switcheroo

The past five days have been a total whirlwind, simultaneously exhilarating, terrifying, confusing, and fun.

The background: I came to Bali because of the opportunity to test drive the ethnographic methods I learned in the classroom over the past year. I got to spend some time doing this in Cambodia, but walked away from that experience feeling strongly that to even attempt to 'do' this bizarre, wonderful, confusing thing called ethnography I would really, really have to spend some time with my research subjects and gain more intimate knowledge of the social world around them to be able to garner quality data and have enough context to be able to analyze it with any level of assurance. It's not about being able to claim that you 'know' something about a given social phenomena, so much as what Donna Haraway (1988) calls "situated knowledges"- given X and Y context, I can say that this and that hold true. I wanted to have the chance to be able to attempt to situate myself in a given context and give this whole ethnography thing a whirl. I knew coming in that five weeks really isn't enough to do this in a very rigorous way, but I knew that being able to conduct my research under my mentor would give me some good lessons on how to operate once I go into the field research portion of my PhD.

In the many months of prep leading up to this field experience, I knew for certain that I wanted to study gender-based violence in Bali. I wanted to know what reverberations were still happening as a result of the 1965 mass violence against the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), what ways poverty and 'development' were shaping discourses related to women's empowerment, and understand the legal culture of gender-based violence intervention. I wasn't sure what my research question would center on exactly, but had the above questions framing my thinking as I got on the plane. Within the first 10 days I was here, however, I kept getting this gut feeling that I should pursue trying to understand why a certain group of activists were working to gain recognition of the '65 mass violence. This is politically dangerous work, with great risk of personal harm. Home visits from the police and military intelligence, government officials questioning your family, and an overarching silence on behalf of the population. Most speech about the incidents are indirect, happening within family compounds and whispers and gossips, information passed down to children about missing generations of grandpas. To approach the violence through a systematic, social science type inquiry is exceedingly rare, and I wanted to find out what the driving factors were motivating the activists with whom I was in contact. So I went down that rabbit hole, and things quickly got more murky and more politically complicated.

For starters, I am conducting research along with six other grad students. We all have different topics, but several of us are working with the same group of informants- this activist group- but about different questions. I thought early on that it would be ok, since we were all asking such disparate questions, but by last Wednesday I felt like I was going in circles. Too many cooks in the kitchen. I was talking with Leslie and Degung about the quandary, and said had I realized earlier on I would have switched directions and pursued the gender-based violence path I had originally intended following. "So switch it!!!!" was the enthusiastic response they both gave me.

Ummm...ok. I had learned a bit about an extremely progressive domestic violence law from one of the visiting scholars, an attorney who heads up Legal Aid in Bali. Leslie, Degung and I dialogued out what research questions would shed light on deeper issues of gender dynamics out in regards to this law using the population I had access to as informants in the short time I had remaining here: the pragmatic meets the theoretical.

So, here I am, five days, four interviews, two ad hoc focus groups, and much internet browsing of legal documents later, exhausted, slightly strung out, and presenting on my 'research'- in quotes because at this point I feel like I just have talked to people without really doing any analysis on the data- tonight to the community I have been living in for the past month. Holy short deadline Batman.

While this hasn’t been the easiest thing I have ever done and I think I should have my head examined for switching at such a late date, I think that my circuitous field experience is actually fairly emblematic of field research in general. As grad students we put together these beautiful, painstakingly constructed research proposals, pleading with departments and funding agencies for money to carry out the research, and then plunk ourselves into our chosen site. And then the "oh crap, what the hell am I doing?" reality of the fact that you are sleeping under a mosquito net in someone's home who you don't speak the same langauge as and tomorrow you are getting on a motorbike with someone you have only met once to go interview their aunt about her feelings about something quite painful hits you. You go back to square one, look over your funding proposal and say, ‘oh yeah, that's what I was going to ask’, then show up at said aunties house and realize that you are distractedly concerned about if she boiled the water for the World Health Organization travel advisory recommended five minutes, and, come to think of it, you are a little sleepy too and can't quite remember just why you decided you had the brains and balls to carry this out in the first place.

Going in circles of self-doubt seems to be just as much a part of research as is the actual interviews, field notes, participant observations (read: smoking a lot of clove cigarettes and learning to play the Beatles "Here Comes the Sun" on a ukulele), coding, processing, and analyzing are. Part of learning to ‘do’ research is learning to manage the highs of a great meeting where your brain is firing between what the person just told you and Foucault’s theories of panoptic schema with the despair of staring at your field notes and realizing that you can’t possibly turn what’s on the page and swirling in your head into a book because you are just too stupid and unqualified and everyone hates you and the jig is up and you should go get a job at Wendy’s because clearly the only person who thinks you are smart is your dog and that’s only because you feed her on a regular basis and she eats cat poop so what does she really know anyway.

I’m completely thrilled that I took the chance and switched last minute, I feel like I have at least come to a place of being comfortable living with the discomfort of walking between these two extremes. More on the actual emergent themes that have come up through my interviews in the next few posts.

Next step: Finishing PowerPoint prep, then 5pm presentation to the community. Current time: 1:46pm.

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