The Researcher’s Tale: Reflections on Making Ethnography out of Adventures

By Tabea Becker-Bertau • MSc Social and Cultural Anthropology

It was a beef dish. Shining, yellow potatoes and small pieces of meat were swimming in a brownish sauce. It tasted ok – maybe a bit overcooked.
That was what I had when, for the first time in six years, I ate meat.

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The ethnographer at work. The one pictured here is Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim who used ethnographic fieldwork as a disguise for his secret military mission in China – for sure another interesting story to tell.1

This May and June I conducted fieldwork for my graduate dissertation on Turkish migrants in Germany and their homeland political activism. I approached this topic on a local level in the industrial town of Krefeld where I met young, German-born activists of Turkish descent campaigning for the currently ruling Turkish party AKP. I accompanied them to homeland-related political events and – with the help of in-depth interviews – tried to find out more about their personal attachment to Turkey. My time in the field coincided with Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. All of my interlocutors were observing Muslims which meant that for 30 days they would not eat or drink from dawn until sunset. Although tired from fasting, Merve and Emel2, two young women in their early twenties, had agreed to be interviewed on the third day of Ramadan. I came to see them at Merve’s place. Emel arrived shortly after me and the three of us went to sit in the garden. Merve brought some water but none of us drank. I had already switched off the recorder and we had started chatting about upcoming events when Merve’s older sister Memnune arrived home from work. She was shocked: ‘Merve! Why didn’t you serve our guest any food? Didn’t I tell you to do so?’ Memnune rushed into the kitchen and came back with a tray laden with fruits, chocolate – and the above-mentioned beef dish. That was how I found myself eating – politely – what I was offered while three hungry women watched my every bite. That was how I ended up finishing a bowl of overcooked beef with potatoes although I had been a vegetarian for six years.

The story of my change in diet for the sake of good relations in the field will probably stay with me for a long time. It is a funny story to be shared with friends. But is it of any importance to my research? Does it hold any anthropological value?

Anthropology can be considered the discipline of storytelling. Detailed ethnographic accounts shall offer insights into a whole life world, they shall render experiences that differ from our own tangible and intelligible. Furthermore, anthropologists use ethnography to support new theoretical approaches and to bring their material to life so that it will be remembered by their readers, colleagues and students. This is why Carole McGranahan (2015), Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado, has argued that we need to appreciate storytelling not only as a multifunctional tool in anthropology but as valuable in itself. What McGranahan is referring to here are the tales that we are told in the field or the stories that we watch unfold in front of our eyes. But what about the stories that happen to ourselves? What about the researcher’s adventure?

In their guide on How to Read Ethnography, Paloma Gay y Blasco and Huon Wardle (2007) stress that researchers’ own feelings and presumptions can be contrasted with the practices and beliefs of their interlocutors. As a result, ideas that we take for generally valid truths are revealed as not as universal as we thought them to be. In my case, it might have been more interesting had I rejected the meat. That day, I was acting according to my own ideas of what was culturally expected from me in this Turkish migrant community. I assumed that – especially in the holy month of Ramadan – I was to value the hospitality I was greeted with at all costs, even if this meant acting against my own values. But maybe I was wrong. Maybe the girls would have appreciated my vegetarianism over my adequate behaviour as their guest. Maybe one of them would have admitted to being a vegetarian herself. In that case, the story could have revealed that our cultural differences are smaller than Germans (including myself) believe them to be.

However, such a deliberate challenging of expectations as described in the scenario above is quite rare. More common are stories of unwanted mistakes. Gay y Blasco and Wardle consider these tales important for establishing the authority of the researcher: Ethnography shall follow the journey of anthropologists gradually learning from their mistakes and growing accustomed to the society that surrounds them. This ultimately legitimates their claim to talk about what they saw in the field, they become experts. The wish to claim this insider’s authority might explain why Jenny B. White (2002:87) includes her own role in the description of women’s lives in an Istanbul neighbourhood:

The day was stiflingly hot. Füsün wasn’t feeling well and was stretched out on one of the couches in the parlor, fanning herself with a newspaper [….] Three women, relatives come to ask about [Füsün’s son’s] wedding arrangements, sat on the other sofa […]. I made tea and served it […] As Füsün’s friend, I took over the role of serving the guests since she was ill.

The excerpt leaves no doubt that the ethnographer has learned how to behave in the field. She has even taken on the role of a close friend!

But there is more to White’s description than the claim of expertise, there is a personal triumph in her lines. Whereas I, during my short-term stay in the field, remained the absolute guest, eating when served, White, probably over a period of years, became a host serving tea in the house of her friend. The stories that we tell about ourselves are more than assertions of arduously acquired insider knowledge, they are more than a means to challenge established stereotypes. They do not always serve such a clear academic purpose but tell our personal adventures of serving tea in Istanbul or eating meat in Krefeld. They are part of the anthropological initiation rite, i.e. the first stay in the field, and – told and retold – they become ‘anthropological folklore’ (Gay y Blasco and Wardle 2007: 149). Our stories are an essential part of becoming and being an anthropologist and, maybe even more than other stories from the field, we should value them in themselves. Yet, it remains questionable how much of our own myths and legends belongs in academic writing, even in this discipline of storytelling.

1http://horsethatleaps.com/ethnographer/

2The names have been changed.


References

Gay y Blasco, Paloma and Huon Wardle. 2007. How to Read Ethnography. Routledge: London and New York.

Carole McGranahan. 2015. ‘Anthropology as Theoretical Storytelling.’ Savage Minds. https://savageminds.org/2015/10/19/anthropology-as-theoretical-storytelling/

White, Jenny B. 2002. Islamist Mobilization in Turkey. A Story in Vernacular Politics. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

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