Cultural Anthropology – story of my research process

What is it like, to research cultural anthropology? – I had not afforded myself a moment to ponder about this, until a middle-school student asked me. I was blabbering on about “worldviews” and how the “east and the west” are merely our constructs, when his curious question could hold no more.

My immediate reaction was: “It’s fun! You get to hear all sorts of stories!” And that is precisely what connects me with my vocation. Storytelling! Cultural anthropology is much more than that – it is countless hours of idling in the sun, talking to people, sometimes getting lost as you look for a place, or realizing that certain ruins exist no more that you read about in a book published in the 1900s. But on a much deeper level, it is a pursuit of making sense of the world around you.

My work took me to India for four months in 2019, and I got back with a notebook full of field jottings, and a heart full of stories and imaginarium that the western coast of India led me into. I realized that people all over the world hold their stories dear to themselves. At the end, when the material things and people emerge and perish, one holds on to the stories. Most of the stories are a part of aural culture, and get entrenched in daily life as easily as sugar dissolving in water.

  1. Audio Recordings

For my field-work, I decided to combine the visits to places of history and striking a conversation with the locals there. While I am navigating my way through the words and penned thoughts of the medieval period in India, the narratives of people today are of as much importance. I started off with recording short narratives about the villages, the sea and the local deities. I did not venture into video-recording yet, as that would deter the people from speaking out. However, that would be my next step as I get to the field. I had mentioned a theoretical backdrop to this seemingly random recordings in my talk at the Deccan College, Pune; in September 2019. The multi-vocality of data that I reiterated in my post, is what I was looking for.

This multi-dimensional data is a product of post-processual praxis in anthropology. For intangible cultural data such as the oral narratives, one true narrative is a problematic domain. The spectrum of narratives and content overlap is our best window into the world of knowing. In my attempt to collect oral narratives and stories about the local landscape, I attempted to nip the problems of past ethnographic researches in the bud – in the sense, not cherry picking my respondents to have a fairly uniform set of response.

In certain cases, I chose to record the conversation on paper, without recording it. It was mostly for people who were not comfortable of being recorded or at a community festival where the deafening sound of drums, etc drowned all the voices. I have now realized that the background noise can be cut in softwares for audio-recording. So next time on field, that will be my trusted friend. I had running notes in my field-book whether or not I was audio recording. The first thoughts in my mind deserve a place on paper so that I can return back to those. And as I was typing up my field report, these running notes came in handy.

2. Making contacts and rely loops

I observed a major flaw of going in cold, in the field. I had very few local contacts to begin with, and in some villages along the west coast of India, I was put in touch with a certain section of the society. That resulted in respondents from that section of the society pouring in to tell me their stories, but other sections of the society remained aloof. I was treated as an honourable guest and had an invisible hat of the researcher on my head. In some cases, the servants and house-help at the host’s place ended up echoing what the patriarch of the house said. Moving ahead, I might want to start my conversations with the locals by random conversations at a tea stall, or with a female tiller I cross in the fields… I cannot assure of 100% success rate with this strategy, as it has it’s own lacunae.

The primary visit to the villages along the western coast of India helped me tap into the network of local people. I was reading about the social life, impending issues and the like, sitting miles away from the coast. It was a whole different experience stepping into people’s houses and discussing their perception of their village and the land over a glass of buttermilk. In exchange of their help and hospitality, I tried to help out with their daily tasks. No, I did not milk the cow or run the tractor in the field, yet, but helped their child with her homework, etc. This was a crucial part in breaking down the barrier of “researcher” and “researched”. The field of anthropology has long suffered from this dichotomy, and I am trying to mitigate these boundaries in some sense.

3. Transcription

Lo, behold! This is by far the most taxing aspect of work. My wonderful colleague on field, who is a linguist herself, had no qualms to jot down the transcription, break it into parts, translate, highlight and color code relevant sections and so on. I, on the other hand, took about a month after my field-work, listening to the recordings, and making transcriptions. I followed the five-step method for my audio transcripts:

a) Writing out the recorded content in original language (Marathi). Numbering the conversations/narratives. I use the acronym of the village and initial letter of the district as the mainframe label. For instance, Dapoli town from Ratnagiri district will carry the label – Rdap_123(2). The number stands for the number of conversation/narrative recorded, and the digit in parenthesis stands for number of members participating in the recording.

b) Identifying the main narrator and supporting narrators. Or, in case of discussion setting, identifying and color coding each member.

c) Dividing the content in three categories viz. i] Social and small talk, ii] Narratives on local religion and land, iii] Narratives on economy and religion. These three broad categories will help me to look for further analytical points in the response

d) Translating various sections to English

e) Making a mind map to organize the information based on the transcript

Why all this? Simple answer: for better and efficient retrieval. After I go back to these recordings, this classification will help me look for the exact aspect I am hoping to find, in a discussion from a particular village. Spoken word is sublime. There is a very good chance that the content gets obfuscated or partially lost, if not recorded meticulously. The intent and tone are also important markers in recording the narratives. Group members throw in a sarcastic comment, or a joke as they discuss, and if not noted promptly, it may be interpreted differently as it should.

4. Photo-documentation

I did not photograph as much as other researchers on field. Partially, because I did not want to distract the people I was talking to, or did not want to affect their ritual performances with a lens hovering above them. I have, some photographs though – which I think is a necessary part of documentation. I have begun sketching, rather than photographing, as I found that to be less-invasive. Sketching however, takes time, and you end up losing some details later when you try and complete the sketches.

5. Stitching the story

This is where cultural anthropology is put to the real test. I like to begin as a blank canvas going in the field, rather than armed with a predetermined hypothesis. And now, I am sitting with sheets and penned notes laid out, waiting for my story of the field-work to emerge.

I hope this snapshot of my process in the field of cultural anthropology will open new doors for conversation. I would love to know your thoughts and comments.


Published by Kalemighty

Penned thoughts from South Asian culture. Follow for thoughts on Archaeology, Anthropology, and Pedagogy

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