Far away, so close: Some notes on participant observation during fieldwork in Nepal and England by Mike Wilmore

Far away, so close: Some notes on participant observation during fieldwork in Nepal and England

Mike Wilmore, UCL

Participant observation has been the subject of intense debate amongst anthropologists in recent years, but it continues to be the methodological foundation of research within our discipline. Little thought has been given, however, to the extent to which a researcher’s participation in a social milieu can be properly assessed. I examine this issue in the light of two periods of participatory research in contrasting social environments, that of academic archaeology in the UK and a rapidly modernising, urban community in Nepal. I argue that participation is not simply a matter of ‘acting like’ or ‘doing things like’ people of another society. Instead, a researcher’s participation is a concomitant of his or her own changing socio-political position, and must be compared with the diversity of subject positions within the host society if the character of this participation is to be properly understood.

Less than a year after returning to the UK from doing PhD research in Nepal I agreed to take part in another research project. I had lived for a year in Tansen, a small town in the foothills of the Himalayas, studying the work of a local cable television project and the wider sociology of the urban community. Then in the spring of 1997 I was asked by a couple of senior academics in my anthropology department to join them in Cornwall where they were running an archaeological project investigating the remains of a Bronze Age village on the edge of Bodmin Moor. They thought it would be interesting to add a sociological element to their research and asked me if I would like to act as ‘project sociologist’. They were quite vague about what this would involve so I was given a free rein to decide my own research interests. I knew that it would be crazy to take on this extra burden whilst trying to complete my thesis, but I also knew that I would be crazy not to accept. The opportunity to work with academics who I admired, the lure of publication, and the chance to get involved in something archaeological (having studied archaeology for my first degree) all convinced me to say yes.

This paper compares my anthropological fieldwork in these two places, but not at the level of the obvious differences between the cultural contexts within which I worked, because these differences are self-evident. Rather, the aim is to compare my experiences during these two bouts of fieldwork in order to understand some of the deficiencies or biases within the conduct of each which have influenced both the collection and interpretation of my ethnographic data. Each period of fieldwork and research was separated in time and space, and their comparison here implies this separation. During the course of my research, however, I have come to reject the common-sense notion that these areas of work can be kept apart despite the obvious differences in the cultural context of each site. I expected to learn from my experience in Nepal when I did fieldwork in England, but I was surprised and sometimes even shocked to find that this later experience forced me to think again about the adequacy of my fieldwork in Nepal, and what it meant to work as a participant observer in particular. The locations of my fieldwork may be physically separated, but in the context of my own experience they are inseparably mixed and I now find it impossible to think of them in isolation from each other.

A few days after arriving at the caravan site in Cornwall, where the archaeologists and students were accommodated when not working on the moor, I prepared a meal for everyone. This small group (never more than about a dozen in number although the people themselves changed as participants came and went) were my informants, so I thought that it would be good to exchange ideas about the project in general and my own research in particular. Significantly, the three senior academics who were directing the project were absent, having returned to London to attend examination boards. The gathering did not go well. I was already aware of some tensions within the group having had access to diaries written by project participants in the previous two years. But now I was confronted by these tensions directly as several of the participants expressed their feelings about some of the absent directors and about the purposes of some of their research, including my own work. My diary records my reaction to this confrontation:

Thursday 29th May 1997
I felt sick, physically nauseous, after the meeting. Why? Because it's uncomfortable to arrive and be a part of a project that has obvious problems? I never felt like this in Nepal, but there I'd also come to observe a project that is flawed. Either I didn't notice this at the time (clearly not the case as my field notes show) or I was distanced from the antagonism and anxiety that was a factor in the local media project's existence. Of course I was distanced. The colour of my skin and the return ticket in my pocket meant that I could and did wave good-bye. Here that's not possible. I'm sick with worry for the future that I'll be part of. The imminent future (when the directors return) and the distant future (my career). I'm only slightly cheered by the fact that I could write an interesting paper critiquing ethnographic practice on the basis of comparing these two bouts of fieldwork. I slept fitfully and woke in the middle of the night and very early next morning.

This diary entry provides a precise date for the moment when my thoughts consciously turned towards the question of how my experience of these two bouts of fieldwork compared. It also provides a clue to the basis upon which such a comparison should be made - the distance that stood between myself as researcher and my informants within the community that I was studying. It marks the moment when participant observation became a reality rather than an abstract methodological ideal during my research career. I started to question what I had done in Nepal. The proposal for my PhD research, various interim reports, and the methodology section in the introductory chapter of my thesis all said that I had used ethnographic techniques based upon participant observation to collect data in Nepal. A file containing several hundred pages of typed fieldnotes attested to this fact. Now I suddenly doubted the validity of the information in those notes. They undoubtedly told me something about life and society in Tansen, but upon what was that information based? Certainly observation, but participation? I began to suspect not.

Almost a month later, after several more painful moments of confrontation with some of my informants I returned to these questions in my diary:

Thursday 26th June 1997
Off site early means that I'm able to interview Bruce whilst Tara and Ben are out swimming. Again this experience teaches me a lot, not only about what Bruce thinks about archaeology, but about taking a long term view of people’s relationship with me and through me the project that I'm doing. Thinking about how this fieldwork has been different to that in Nepal I believe now that this is the crucial distinction. Whereas last year I felt that during the entire 12 months I had a fairly stable and constant relationship with my informants and friends, this time round the situation is different. My initial reactions to people have been confounded. In fact as today has shown I've had to recognise serious misjudgements almost by the hour. Realising this suddenly makes me incredibly nervous about showing this diary to people. Normally these inconsistencies in attitude and opinion are hidden from view. I'm sure that I'm inclined to collect 'facts' in ways that partially reflect how I feel about people at certain times.

This is the crucial point about the importance of self-reflexivity in ethnographic research. We may be interested in the personality, feelings or psychological state of the researcher for many reasons but they are of little or no importance in the assessment of the epistemological validity of the data collected by the ethnographer. Rather this reflexivity relies upon our understanding of the social and political position of the ethnographer in relation to the various members of the community which he or she is studying, and an understanding of how these relationships change during the course of research. This is what participation entails in relation to ethnographic research, and my experiences in Cornwall, where I was quite obviously enmeshed within a hierarchically organised, academic project forced me to reassess the nature of my own experience as a participant observer in Nepal.

I always felt some sense of distance between myself and my informants in Nepal, but only very rarely was the obvious basis of this distance made as explicitly as it was during the following encounter:

Wednesday 12th June 1996
I went to the Agricultural Development Bank for a very brief visit with the manager to arrange a subsequent interview with him. This was done under the watchful eye of a young and relatively smartly dressed man who described himself as the manager's peon, although he is unlike any of the peons that I've ever encountered in a Nepali office. He was more like the office junior. On the way downstairs he invited me into his office, crowded with old documents and with hardly any room for the desk behind which he sat (how many peons have a desk, I wondered?). What started out as a pleasant chat about work at the bank and my time here in Tansen then took a nasty turn as he became increasingly agitated and pulled out a letter which he insisted I read. This was written in faltering English and basically consisted in a diatribe against Westerners and especially the fact that the imbalance in the value of currencies means that Westerners can arrive in Nepal and live very well whereas the reverse is not true. Effectively foreigners can come to Nepal, but Nepalis can't go abroad. Now all this is valid and I was totally sympathetic to the argument he presented, but he then became quite abusive in his tone and at one point I thought that I would simply have to stand up and leave. But I persisted in trying to speak to him in Nepali, although he insisted in speaking English throughout, and eventually he calmed down enough for me to make my excuses and leave politely. Rather bizarrely he shook my hand as I left and said that he hoped that I would soon return! Not bloody likely, I thought and left feeling very shaken indeed. In fact I felt quite depressed about the whole experience for several days after this and didn't get very much work done. Instead I just counted off the days until we were due to go to Kathmandu for a short break.

I remembered this event as I reconsidered my fieldwork. I’d obviously felt anxious at the time, but post-Bodmin I began to worry that all my fieldwork in Nepal had been something of a sham: observation by an outsider who, in the short time he had spent in the town, could never have participated in its life in any meaningful way. So what then was my experience of life there like, and did I ever come close to true participant observation? I think the answer to this question is positive, but the nature of my participation has only become obvious to me in retrospect.

Tansen, like most towns, is built upon trade and during my time there I found that one of the few things I could offer in trade was my ability to speak English. I had no qualifications as a teacher, but at various times during the year I taught classes at a local computer and language institute, with a group from an untouchable organisation, and sometimes on a person-to-person basis. Many people seemed eager to learn English and I was able to barter my native-born command of what one friend and pupil called "sweet words" for knowledge of their local community. I hoped it was a fair exchange, but I often seemed to learn more than my pupils.

This was especially the case with one of the older students, Dev Rana, the head of Redd Barna (the Norwegian Save the Children Fund) in Palpa, the district of which Tansen was the headquarters. I first met Dev at the language institute and we agreed to carry on our conversations outside of school hours. Dev’s English was already very good because two years prior to coming to Palpa he had studied ‘development administration’ at a Canadian university, studies paid for by Redd Barna and the university. He had recently arrived in Tansen to work as senior co-ordinator for the INGO’s work in the east of the district. Prior to this he had been Redd Barna’s co-ordinator at one of their project sites in the east of Palpa. Like the majority of those in the area where he worked, Dev was himself a member of the Magar ethnic group, although he came originally from another district to the north and was clearly from an entirely different class.

Apart from often expressing sentiments about the general problems of development in Nepal, Dev’s comments were perhaps most revealing of both his own attitudes and of the actual practical dynamic of development work when he discussed the specific characteristics of the areas in which Redd Barna worked in Palpa district. In response to a question about why these areas of Palpa were chosen as the project sites, he said that every one was an isolated and backward area. He mentioned the continuing use of swidden/slash & burn agriculture as a key indicator of this backwardness. He added that the most appropriate word for these areas is that they are "kachar" [lit. rubbish], meaning backward and undeveloped. There was, he said, a lack of toilets in these areas, the pigs roam free and are not caged, the children are not sent to school, and the adults are ignorant of politics. He elaborated this last point by saying in English that"they have very indigenous knowledge", meaning, I believe, that they were not aware of matters outside of their own communities. Clearly he was using the word ‘indigenous’ in a negative, even pejorative, way.

During his time at Jhirubas, Dev initiated a meeting for the local administrative chairmen in the project area. The project office was also being built on land donated to Redd Barna by a wealthy ex-British Army sergeant. To honour this man, Dev employed a painter from Tansen to travel to the project area to create a mural portrait of the sergeant and his wife. He showed me a photograph of this portrait from among a set of pictures in several albums. He wanted to use the photos to back up his characterisation of the area and pointed out how dirty the living conditions were, with women washing pots near the animals and open cooking fires in the round houses of the villages. In contrast to all this the new project office, rectangular with decorated awning, window frames and garden, was very different. There were also pictures of another two wall murals in the project office, one of Ram, a Hindu deity, and the other of the Buddha. He said that he had these painted because the villagers had no particular religious sensibilities and so required some reminder of spiritual values when they came into the meeting room of the project office.

At our next meeting Dev continued this discussion and noted that the eastern area of Palpa has a unique indigenous religion, which is neither Hindu nor Buddhist. This indigenous religion, however, was being eroded through the use of Brahmin priests during festivals. They exploit the people, he said, by demanding gifts for doing these services. He connected this observation to a recent letter in a local newspaper that complained that government officials came to villages and expected lavish hospitality, but when the villagers went to town to see the officials they denied all knowledge of them. He said that religion was at the root of all these problems. The caste system might be related in the ancient Vedic scriptures, but Dev asked if there was any "scientific" proof that this social system was inviolable. There was none, he added, answering his own rhetorical question.

My conversations with Dev illustrate that the development discourse in Nepal is by no means without its contradictions when expressed in the words and actions of those whose task it is to put development into practice. Dev’s description of some of the problems of development in Nepal reflects the fact that no single cultural model can encompass the variety of possible situations encountered by one actor in the course of his or her life’s work, and the reactions that they might have to those situations. Religion, which serves in one social context (Dev’s relationship to the Magar villagers of the project area) to represent the possibility of at least a spiritual redemption from a ‘rubbish’ (kachar) life becomes, in another context, (Dev’s relationship as a Magar man to the high caste elite of the town) a frustrating limit to the possibilities for action. Nested dichotomies of ethnicity, residence, religion, and morality intersected to produce a profound feeling of personal ambivalence towards his work.

This ambivalence was by no means limited to Dev or even to Nepalis working in the development sector. Foreign nationals working for several organisations in Tansen often expressed similar sentiments.

The complexity of the social situation in which they work is recognised by these people, but so is the fact that in order for their work to function and become meaningful within the transnational context of INGO administration such complexities have to be reduced to a commodified (that is, exchangeable) form. As a Western anthropologist I was by no means exempt from these contradictions. Mention of my trade of English teaching for information points to the fact that my own experience of modernity in Tansen involved the conceptualisation of my presence in the town and, therefore, (self?) identification in terms of development (helping Nepalis become more like Westerners) through the commodification of culture (‘selling’ my own language). Many of the research techniques and modes of presentation that I use in my research (quantitative survey, interviews with experts, etc.) would be familiar to development workers and their clients, our mutual subjects - the people of Tansen and Palpa. It is hardly surprising that I was frequently mistaken for a development worker during my time in Nepal, because their work and my own work was very similar, and because it was carried out in a form that was destined to be objectified and given over to others for assessment (as a PhD in my case, and as development project reports in theirs). I have become increasingly aware of how this had an effect upon the ‘facts’ I collected during my research and their subsequent analysis. Equally, I have become more sensitive to how the act of representation carried out by the local cable television organisation that I had gone to study was involved in acts of objectification, and the construction of images of ‘culture’ that were implicated in the complex articulation of power in Tansen.

Power in relation to individuals such as Dev Rana, organisations like the local television station and anthropologists working at home or abroad is articulated within a series of nested dichotomies that are hierarchically structured according to one order of priority in some instances, but altered or even reversed in others. Individuals do not, therefore, simply represent either a culture or even a distinct fraction within a culture. Rather their subjectivity is structured from a distinctive position. We must be aware, therefore, that our own positioned subjectivity is liable to place limits upon our understanding that may be difficult to discern, but that it is out of a recognition of these limits that the true nature of our participation during ethnographic fieldwork becomes apparent to us.

Recognising that positioned subjectivity has a crucial role to play during fieldwork does not mean that anthropological analysis is tainted with bias and therefore scientifically invalid; on the contrary, this may be what makes valid analysis possible in the first place. I cannot claim any special empathic understanding of the experiences of those who live in Tansen or worked on the Bodmin excavation team. Rather, I have been searching for what Pierre Bourdieu describes as "a properly sociological reflexivity," a reflexivity that focuses attention upon the position of the researcher in relation to the object of his or her study, and the means through which the very process of analysis serves to create the objectified subject itself.

The validity of one’s analysis rests not upon the ability to detach oneself from that which is observed in a position of lofty objectivity, nor is it obtained through the fiction of total empathy. Rather it comes about through recognising that the problems and answers we have sought in a particular social situation are structured by the part we ourselves play in that situation. So my own interest in the contradictions inherent in the experience of modernity in Tansen as represented in the work of the television organisation is predicated upon the fact that as a Western researcher in Tansen these contradictions have also played a key part in my own experience of that community. My understanding of this point was only made possible for me because of the need to reflect upon an experience of fieldwork in England which contained such a high degree of participation that observation alone was totally impossible.

About the author

Mike Wilmore holds degrees in archaeology and social anthropology. He is currently writing a PhD thesis about Nepalese media. He is an external student of the University of London, and will have a paper based on his research into archaeological fieldwork practice published in the coming year. He teaches at University College London and with the Open University.

Anthropology Matters Journal ISSN: 17586453 Publisher: Anthropology Matters url: www.anthropologymatters.com