Ethnography and woman

This is kind of an experimental blog/place to write small posts whenever I can. These will be related to and outcomes of my ethnography work, related writing work, even attending conferences and so on. It’s titled ‘The Moving Elephant’ in the best sense of the phrase. As someone who moves between countries, cities and circles of people every single year, it takes me sometime to adjust to the change in pace, intuitive choices and work styles. At times when I am discomforted and even exasperated by things not moving quickly enough or the way I want them to, wise words from my father who has navigated more than 20 years of bureaucracy come to my rescue. I am taking the liberty to steal this phrase from him and inculcate more patience in general.

I am in India doing ethnographic work. Although I am not completely comfortable using the term, I am learning ethnomethodology as a mode of inquiry also. A lot of my time is spent on the road in Bengaluru talking mostly to men engaged in transport – drivers, passengers, auto drivers, shopkeepers – pretty much anyone that occupies the roadside, especially under flyovers or close to busy public spaces.

As someone who is also sort of compulsive about things (“my spot” to sit, a certain way to eat things, a certain volume and a favorite hair stylist), things can be very difficult when you move. For instance, a new threading place depending on where I take a break from field work, then briefly the shampoo that works for my hair in Irvine, then again locate the most viable dinner place in Bengaluru. In that sense, it’s about quickly establishing continuum, enough so that you can get to actual work. Last summer was very uncomfortable (in Marathahalli) because I had to spend 3 months in a hotel. There is some inertness to a hotel room that I only associate with sleeping. I can’t get around to using hotel room desks for work and I am always paranoid about hidden cameras.

Anyway, this summer, I knew that not speaking fluent Kannada will mean spending more time and effort to establish familiarity with potential interviewees. In the meanwhile I came across this lovely post which I agree with, onĀ attire and acceptance in the Indian context. Urban middle to upper class women are at the same time allowed some agency with their hair and clothes that peri-urban or rural women might have to fight for. But at the same time that means that you can never blend in, you are seen as a creature that must be tolerated and is in some sense protected by overarching media and legal discourses.

I guess I cannot un-look like someone who knows her rights, is literate, is “modern”, is the punitive Other for the men whom I am trying to shadow. For instance, while I fluently speak Gujarati, something has permanently altered in my appearance or comportment such that Gujarati shopkeepers and auto drivers just don’t reply in Gujarati to me. A friend told me of her similar experience between Kannada and Hindi. I’ve taken a male friend along, equally urban but local-language speaking. It’s both astonishing and obvious how just performing the street register of a local language can immediately make a bond. It’s not impossible for me but it takes time and even then, there are some boundaries that my male informants would never cross. I won’t go down that path but one night while returning from a field visit, I was wondering what it would be like to spend the entire night at the same traffic signal and see what happens. Even in our IRB we assured the committee that female researchers wouldn’t go alone at night. But then I remembered that it could be worse if I were physically challenged in some way.

As qualitative researchers we take ourselves to the field, it’s our bodies and the way we lend/perform them, that determines how much, how long we can gather information on things. It’s not always to our disadvantage – gender, deliberate self-fashioning through clothes and languages also opens up spaces, makes people come forth because they feel heard, or aspire to belong or want to grab the rare opportunity of class/gender transgression. It’s both beautiful and exhausting – something that wasn’t apparent to me in Mead’s accounts and others.

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