Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Ethnographic Anxieties

Yikes. Le sigh. Insert other phrases to express uncertainty here.

So, my first semester of grad school I took a class on feminist research methods which purported to be teaching ethnographic research methods. I designed a research project that relied on semi-structured interviews and ‘field observations’ consisting of observing my target population, not inserting myself into the community I am researching.

This more immersed ethnography is the path I am trying to find my way on here. I am ‘doing’- attempting to do, that is- participant observation to more fully gain knowledge about my research question. To be honest, the entire process of being here has left me feeling really off balance.

For starters, I came here thinking I was going to specifically be focusing my field research on the long-term repercussions of the 1965 political violence on narratives of sexual violence today…in a nutshell, I want to know how the sexual violence of ’65 and the trauma and shame resulting from it have impacted/affected the way people view rape/sexual abuse victims today. Are victims seen as ‘sluts’, ‘rape accusers’, etc.? So much of the justifications for the political violence revolve around the idea of the gerwani- the communist women’s organization from the 60s- being partially influential in the deaths of seven military generals and then desecrating their bodies. This narrative was used to stir up popular sentiment against the communist party, which then justified widespread killing of suspected communists. As in any war, rape played a major role in terrorizing the community, emasculating the men whose wives were being raped and traumatizing the women into silence for fear of retribution. I came here thinking I was going to studying the long term fall out of these occurrences on perceptions of female victims of sexual violence today.

Well, long story short, once I got here and on the ground I realized that I really wanted to push myself to try to do actual ‘participant observation’ type of research as best as possible in the three short weeks I actually have to be asking questions, etc. This desire presented a challenge from the standpoint that I was not going to be able to really immerse myself in a given population to understand the meanings they give to particular aspects. The best way I could think of to go about my research on this topic in such a limited amount of time would be to do something similar to the work I did in Cambodia, and meet with local officials involved in the legal and media responses to rape victims. If I was here for a full year, I would find a way to immerse myself into a community of women and get to understand from their daily lives the way they navigate sexual consent, the ways in which they understand ‘society’s’ perceptions of sexual agency, and monitoring the media and legal decisions around sexual violence cases. A year, however, is a luxury I don’t have, and I really wanted to challenge myself to take a different approach and go ‘deeper’ in ethnography by spending significant (relatively speaking in three weeks) amounts of time with the people I am interested in researching.

Conveniently, the question that kept rattling around in my head for the two weeks prior to officially ‘starting’ my research (I put in quotes because I am still feeling murky on if I’ve actually started to research or if I’m just hanging out with people and getting to know them. In some ways, I think it’s both, and that’s got my black and white brain really freaked out) was one that dealt specifically with the community in which I am living for the time I am in Bali. I am here broadly studying the repercussions of the ’65 violence with Dr. Leslie Dwyer, who has brought students here for the past five years for similar courses. Members of her extended family, especially the members of the younger generation that are my age, have been extremely involved in advocacy around ’65. In addition to supporting the program administratively, they have Taman ’65 (’65 Park), a space dedicated to discussion around ’65, within their family compound.

My anxieties are specifically circling around the fact that the line between ‘new friends’ and ‘research subjects’ is very, very blurry. When I am hanging out and listening to guitar, we’re also chatting about the implications of Taman ’65 on the neighborhood politics, and how the fallout of ’65 has impacted land ownership within the family compound. Is this hanging out? Is this research? Is it exploitative to head to my homestay after our discussion and jot down field notes about what I just learned? Yes, my new pals know that I am ‘researching’ them, but it still feels very voyeuristic to be thinking of these interactions as ‘data’, much less the discomfort I feel holding our conversations up to sociological theory and putting it into neat little boxes in my brain.

Leslie says this is normal. Part of the ethnographic territory. Several feminist ethnographers touch on these issues as well. I especially like Daphne Patai’s (1991) writing questioning the ethics of third world research as Western academics.
Patai concludes that there is no ‘good’ conclusion. The best we can do is just being mindful of the power discrepancies set up in ethnographic research, especially when there are vast economic and social disparities at play. At the end of the month, I will return to the U.S. (sigh again…having too much happiness to even think of leaving) and go back to my life. My ‘subjects’, however, will continue to operate in this weird vacuum of silence around ’65, and will have to deal with whatever ramifications arise from my findings, as I will be presenting them to the community prior to my departure. This leaves me with an uneasy feeling as well.

I spoke with my partner about this a few hours ago and he brought up the good point that the only way to further thinking on a subject is to throw out your best ideas (hopefully grounded in empirical thought) and then let people critique them and further the discourse on the given subject. Thank goodness this group I am studying has the hutzpah to do this on a regular basis by talking with the community about their perspectives on ’65 and the current political, economic and social climate. Hopefully in the process of studying their courage to speak up I will gain a little more confidence to do the same.

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