Doing anthropological fieldwork ‘at home’

A month or so ago I posted some thoughts about what it’s really like to be an anthropologist. Not long after that I was asked to talk to a group of Y12 students (high school students in their penultimate year who had come to Victoria University to learn about future study options) about doing anthropological fieldwork. That talk did a much better job of capturing what for me is one of the most rewarding (and challenging) parts of being an anthropologist: doing fieldwork.

I studied Hip-Hop Culture in Aotearoa for my Masters degree in social anthropology, which involved doing fieldwork ‘at home.’ I had long been a fan of Aotearoa Hip-Hop (I used to co-host the Hip-Hop show on Massey University’s student radio station Radio Control) and became interested in understanding how and why Hip-Hop in New Zealand was different to Hip-Hop overseas, particularly the United States. My thesis was based on three years of ethnographic fieldwork (2000-2002) where I explored what Hip-Hop meant to those actively involved in producing and performing Hip-Hop in Aotearoa.

My fieldwork involved a lot of listening and observation. I went to events (b-boy and MC battles, graffiti showcases, gigs, Aotearoa Hip-Hop Summits), used a technique called participant-observation (sometimes known as ‘deep hanging out’ with a purpose) where I would participate in as well as observe what was going on, took fieldnotes and photos, interviewed members of the Hip-Hop community, and tried to immerse myself in all things Hip-Hop.

Lorena doing fieldwork at the 2001 Aotearoa Hip-Hop Summit
Lorena doing fieldwork at the 2001 Aotearoa Hip-Hop Summit in Auckland

People often smile when I tell them my fieldwork involved going to gigs or watching spraycans while people created graffiti art (making jokes like “I bet that was hard work”). However, this kind of fieldwork is not as easy as it sounds. Daniel Simons’ video The Monkey Business Illusion is a great example of how we often miss a lot of what happens around us:

Being a participant-observer at a gig, for example, means taking in everything going on around you, in a situation where you can’t always stop to write down fieldnotes (because it’s dark, you’re dancing with everyone else, or it would look weird to pull out a notebook in the middle of someone’s performance). I would arrive early to see how the performance space was set up, what the performers did before the event, who got there early, who stood where, what everyone was wearing, whether people did different things based on age or gender. I would observe what audience members did when the gig started, who rushed to the front and who stayed down the back of the room, how the performers interacted with the crowd and each other, and so on. At the same time I would be participating as an audience member myself, hanging out with my friends, research participants, and enjoying the performance. I would also usually stay late to see what happened at the end of a gig and talk with the performers once they’d come off stage. After the gig I would head home (if there wasn’t an after-party to go to) and write up my fieldnotes, which would take anywhere between 2-4 hours.

An important part of doing anthropological fieldwork involves building relationships based on trust. As I tell anthropology students at Victoria University, we can’t just turn up somewhere and say “Hello, I’m your anthropologist and I’m here to study you.” I initially found it difficult to find people willing to do interviews with me and was challenged about what I was doing. For example, a b-girl I approached for an interview responded by asking why I wanted to write about b-girling when I wasn’t a b-girl myself. People were concerned about how I was going to use the knowledge I gained (their knowledge, that they were sharing with me) and how I was going to represent them in my thesis. These discussions, along with the Principles of Professional Responsibility and Ethical Conduct I follow (which state that an anthropologist’s paramount responsibility is to her research participants), were an important part of my research process. At events I made sure to only observe and write fieldnotes related to my participants (when they were performing or in the audience) when they knew I was doing so, and with their permission. Establishing relationships takes time and is vital for anthropological fieldwork. People need to trust us and what we will do with the knowledge and time they so generously give to us, and we need to earn that trust in building relationships with our participants.

This is only a small part of the techniques, challenges and rewards that are involved in doing anthropological fieldwork. I have also conducted fieldwork in India and Papua New Guinea, where I worked with small, grassroots organisations running community development initiatives in urban slums and settlements. Doing fieldwork overseas involves a different set of challenges, but I will leave that for another blog post.

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