Suddenly non-vegetarian: Dilemmas in anthropological fieldwork

I thought I had prepared for my PhD fieldwork in India and Papua New Guinea. I’d taken language lessons, made initial contacts, researched cultural traditions, read the Lonely Planet guides to each place, tried to anticipate what culture shock might be like, and decided to ‘expect the unexpected’. What I hadn’t fully considered, however, was what I would eat in the field.

Being vegetarian was no problem on my trips to Kolkata (India) where vegetarianism is normal for many. It was easy to find suitable street food and restaurants when I was out and my (Muslim) research participants usually included a vegetarian dish in their meals. I even found vegetarian options at weddings I attended (which was a relief, as it is considered rude not to eat at a wedding and I wanted to be a good guest).

On my first trip to Lae (Papua New Guinea) however, I suddenly became non-vegetarian. I’d met with a village women’s literacy group and, after touring their facilities and meeting the women involved, we shared a meal. Pride of place at the meal was a pig the women had slaughtered and cooked. As a guest, I was offered my plate of food first. All eyes were on me as I accepted it and sat down to eat. I had seconds to decide whether to decline the pork and risk offending my hosts, or whether to eat what was on the plate in front of me. I ate it. I was quite unwell afterwards (not having eaten meat in some years) but preferred this to the discomfort I thought I would have caused by refusing the meal cooked for me.

Everyone has different reasons for becoming vegetarian. Mine involved the treatment of animals in the commercial meat industry in New Zealand, and the fact that I don’t like the taste of red meat. I remember quickly thinking ‘it’s okay, they’ve raised and killed this pig themselves’ and ‘this doesn’t look too bad’ before I ate it. For the rest of my fieldwork in PNG I ate meat when it was offered to me and, over time, became non-vegetarian at home as well (for a whole host of different reasons, and I still dislike red meat).

Recently, conversations I’ve had with colleagues suggest that suddenly becoming non-vegetarian is actually quite common. David Sutton (1997) has written about being a vegetarian anthropologist but I haven’t found much written by anthropologists who faced food-related dilemmas during fieldwork and changed their dietary practices (by either becoming non-vegetarian or vegetarian), temporarily or permanently. Is this because it is considered ‘normal’ or expected for anthropologists to follow the cultural practices of those we work with?

I am curious to find out whether others have crossed the vegetarian/non-vegetarian divide while doing fieldwork. Did you become non-vegetarian, vegetarian, vegan? Why? Have you maintained it? I would love to hear about your experiences!

Parenting, AAA 2013, and being an anthropologist

Last month I went to the AAA 2013 meeting in Chicago. This was the first time I’d attended an international conference with my family in tow (20-month-old toddler and amazing husband). My husband looked after our daughter during the day but her presence gave me the opportunity to reflect on how being a parent of a young child has changed my experience of conferences, and possibly my future research directions.

I had a great time at the AAA 2013 and live-tweeted from about half of the panels I attended. I didn’t enjoy all of the papers I heard (mainly because I find it boring to listen to people reading articles or excerpts of thesis chapters – there’s an art to this and not everyone has mastered it) but I did appreciate the opportunity to hear some excellent speakers and meet people doing interesting and exciting research.

One of the first things I noticed was the number of children aged three or under with caregivers (mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunties, uncles) at the conference. I’m sure this is due to my heightened sensitivity as a first-time parent but it was great to see toddlers playing on stairs, younger babies in frontpacks, and kids sleeping or just taking it all in from the vantage point of a stroller while their parents gave presentations. What I didn’t see, though, was a parent’s room at the conference venue. Was there one? Could there be in future? What did anthro-parents with toddlers do at changing and feeding times if they didn’t stay at one of the conference hotels (like we did)?

Networking was also a different experience this time around. The 19-hour time difference between Wellington (NZ) and Chicago meant my daughter had a hard time settling, which ruled out any evening social events for me. However, explaining why I wasn’t going to be at a dinner did open up a space for people to talk about their own kids and how they handled going to conferences when their children were young. Plus I got to meet some lovely caregivers looking after toddlers whose parents (usually mothers) were giving presentations, people I would not have felt confident introducing myself to at previous meetings.

I noticed a divide in opinion about whether or not I would continue fieldwork in Papua New Guinea now that I’m a parent. This is something I have been thinking seriously about as I start to develop a new research project addressing vulnerable urban spaces in India and PNG. While no-one questions that I will continue to work in India, PNG is a different story (mainly due to reports of crime, security, and violence). Attending the AAA was good for meeting other anthropologists working in Melanesia and discussing the issues involved in taking children/family on fieldwork trips to PNG. Back at home I’ve continued these conversations with other anthropologists. I would love (and plan) to continue to work in PNG but being a mum is likely to shape future research directions.

I’m curious to hear from others about whether/how being a parent affects your future research plans. Have you done fieldwork with family in tow? Left them behind? Decided against a fieldsite due to safety concerns? I would love to hear about your experiences!

A template for writing fieldnotes

For my PhD I carried out ethnographic fieldwork in different locations: bastis (slums) in the twin cities of Howrah and Kolkata (India), and urban and peri-urban settlements in the city of Lae (Papua New Guinea). I knew from earlier visits that these different settings would mean that I was in for very different fieldwork experiences. I also knew I was unlikely to have much control over events. However, I could take steps to standardise my data collection and notetaking processes as much as possible. In the early stages of my research I decided to create a fieldwork template with that goal in mind.

After reading what others had to say about ethnographic fieldnotes (including A Thrice-Told Tale by Margery Wolf [1992], Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology edited by Roger Sanjek, [1990], and Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes edited by Robert Merson, Rachel Fretz and Linda Shaw [1995]), I created a fieldnote template (originally in MS Word; now I use Pages) with the following sections:

[filename]
[TITLE]
[DATE]
In these sections I insert the filename of each document as a header, give each fieldnote a short title, and record the date.

[DESCRIPTION OF ACTIVITY]
This is for describing what happened during the day as accurately as I can. I take a ‘who, what, when, where, why, how’ approach and try to stick to ‘facts’ to create a verbal snapshot of what happened. This includes noting direct quotes and snippets of conversations, text messages, filenames of voice recordings, and what photos I took.

I am aware that all fieldnotes are constructed, and what we choose to take notes about are influenced by a range of factors, so in this section I try to minimise that. My aim is to keep description separate from analytical work for as long as possible while recognising that these snapshots are just that; a glimpse of a point in time from a particular perspective, through a particular lens.

[REFLECTIONS]
I reflect on the day’s experiences, writing about how I might have influenced events, what went wrong (and what I could do differently next time), and how I feel about the process.

[EMERGING QUESTIONS/ANALYSES]
Here I note questions I might ask, potential lines of inquiry, and theories that might be useful. This is where I start to do some analytical work.

[FUTURE ACTION]
This is a ‘to-do’ list of actions. I usually include a timeframe alongside each point.

How it works for me
I usually type my fieldnotes at the end of each day and use this template alongside handwritten notebooks, which I carry when I am out and about. I find that people often want to look at (and correct!) what I’m writing in notebooks so I use them to record people’s names, questions I want to ask, specific times of events, and for participants to write notes about what they think I should pay attention to.

I draw on all of the above sources, as well as photographs, emails, voice recordings (and their transcriptions), and my memories, when I write. I find the description section of my template is extremely useful for providing the context for photographs, recordings and transcriptions, and as a point of comparison for my memories, which change over time .

I have not (yet) started using digital media in my fieldnotes, although I am interested in how this works. I have been following EthnographyMatters since Tricia Wang’s post Writing Live Fieldnotes: Towards a More Open Ethnography about ‘live fieldnoting’ on Instagram. A recent issue of Popular Anthropology Magazine (Vol 4, No 1, 2013) has a section dedicated to blogging fieldnotes.

I am always keen to hear about how others take fieldnotes. What is your process? What are your thoughts on ‘live fieldnoting’ or blogging from the field?