Thursday, July 23, 2009

Participant-Observation Reconsidered

I want to pick up on the thought I ended my last blog post with: where does the research end, and where does my life begin?

This question has come up in my blog posts before. I struggled with it when I returned to Morocco this past January, and found that I was now personally part of the daily life I tended to write about. It blurred the lines between observation and participation,* and I found that I had to re-think the tone and purpose of this blog. Months later I am much more comfortably settled here, but the issue remains; the question still sits there in the back of my mind, pressing ever so subtly against my brain’s centers for speech and reflection.

A friend of mine recently questioned the possibility of balancing work and private life in one of her blog posts. Sharing both her own experiences and those of some she knows, she wrote about the importance (and difficulty) of setting limits and making sure that work does not swallow up your private life. She emphasized how crucial it is that you guard the time you have for relaxation, for rejuvenation, and all other things that sustain your mind and body – but how easy it is to forget about these necessities when a deadline approaches. Her story made me think about my own situation in a new way, and I wondered if my ‘issue’ might simply be solved by being a better guard at the border between ‘work’ and ‘private life’.

The thing is, I’ve never thought of my research as ‘work’. In San Diego, ‘work’ was my teaching job. The development of my research proposal and everything that involved, that was me. Sure, it was difficult at times, there were externally imposed deadlines to keep, and I had moments of utter frustration – but that project was my creation, constructed through a smelting together of the questions, ideas, and geographical regions that I have had a passion for as long as I can remember. Developing that research project felt as much like work as playing the piano, or writing in my journals. And it still feels that way – perhaps even more so, now that I am ‘in the field’, as anthropologists are wont to say. I ‘work’ at the NIMAR, but my research? That’s me.

In reality, of course, that research is my work – it’s the foundation for my career, I’m being paid to do it, and it’s what I (hopefully) will be making my money from for a long time to come. And I am utterly fine with the fact that in that sense, the border between my ‘work’ and my ‘private life’ is a large and undefined gray zone. This is the nature of academia, where people personally identify with the research they do to such an extent that it becomes an inseparable part of them (sometimes to an unhealthy extent, perhaps), and it suits me. I’m a workaholic by nature. This may or may not always be good for my health, but at least I have a ‘job’ where I set the hours as well as the pace – and where I can thus take a break for an hour at any time I choose, to eat a healthy meal, go running, relax with a book or movie… or buy furniture for a new Moroccan apartment.

So my issue isn’t this. It is not the porosity of the border between work and personal life that bothers me. I don’t mind the fact that I sit behind my desk at home working on ideas for my project until late at night, or that an hour’s relaxation at a café in the city suddenly becomes fodder for observation when I engage in an interesting conversation with a Moroccan friend.**

What I do mind – and this is what the issue comes down to – is that the gray zone of work/personal life creates a constant sense of role confusion. The question that I began this post with (where does the research end and my life begin?) ultimately comes down to this more fundamental question: am I, and is my personality, an involved part of my daily life and the relationships I build, or not?

We’ve accepted the fact that one cannot ever be fully ‘objective’, and that all anthropologists observe and interpret from their own personally and culturally constructed vantage point. We even refer to our primary method of data collection as ‘participant observation’, the idea being that you cannot truly come to ‘know’ how something works unless you yourself participate in the act. But despite all this acceptance of subjectivity, the goal remains to preserve at least a kind of neutrality in your engagement with the field. This neutrality is necessary, I think, to ensure that informants will feel free to share their personal opinions with you, a stranger, without concern for judgment – but it still sets the participating and subjective anthropologist apart from members of the community in which he or she is conducting research.

In other words, an anthropologist behaves differently than an ordinary ‘participant’. And being in Morocco full-time, where any situation can turn into an opportunity for data collection, I am confused sometimes as to whether I should act as the anthropologist, or as a ‘person’. Let me illustrate.

Earlier this week I had a brief exchange with another student during our French class. Having just heard me mention that I did research on psychiatry, the young man asked me what I thought were the main differences between psychiatry in Morocco, and that in France or the United States. I responded by telling him that that was exactly what I intended to find out. He took this as cue to share with me his own opinion on the matter. The difference was, he explained to me, that there is no market for psychiatry in Morocco, because individual sufferers are able to solve their problems within and by virtue of their familial support network. Westerners on the other hand, who live individual lives cut off from any form of social support, will need a professional to help them solve their problems.

I reacted as an anthropologist. I told him that was an ‘interesting viewpoint’ and would have asked him how exactly that “soulagement” (relief) within the family circle worked, had monsieur Aziz not changed the subject and reminded us that we were in a class with twenty other students.

But the exchange left me frustrated. As monsieur Aziz talked, I reflected: had I not felt the need to react in an anthropologically correct manner, had I decided to engage as a regular student in the class (which I am, after all), I would have responded so differently. I would have reminded him to bear in mind that the ‘western world’ is not so radically different from Morocco on this count: we are not as extremely individualistic as some like to think, and for that matter, I don’t think the average Moroccan network of family support is as soft and springy as it is sometimes made to seem. Plus, what about the other side of collectivism: that sometimes suffocating form of social control, the fact that people are judged on the basis of their behavior, the fact that people are afraid that one black sheep will taint the entire family’s reputation? Couldn’t those issues lead to a whole new range of psychological troubles from which we lone cowboys of the West are blissfully spared?

When I act as an anthropologist, I leave myself and my opinions out of the interaction. My goal is to learn what Moroccans think, and any clearly voiced disagreement on my part would certainly not encourage them to freely share their thoughts with me. However, personal relationships are impossible to build on this kind of mental distance – you can’t forge a personal relationship (not a satisfying one, at least), if your personality is completely left out of the equation.

At my primary research site, it is clear what kind of situation I am in, and which role I am to play. But what confuses and sometimes frustrates me are these other contexts of social interaction. As I’ve said, any situation is potentially an opportunity for data collection. But does that mean that I am always supposed to be the (subjectively) neutral anthropologist? If I take a French class in Morocco, am I supposed to behave like an ethnographer and swallow my personal disagreements because I happen to be in Morocco? Or do I let myself be just-another-student – and if so, what do I do when a topic of interest to my project comes up?

For that matter, who am I supposed to be when I interact with the Moroccans I meet at the NIMAR? Like that female researcher working on gender issues. Do I try to be her friend, and hope to finally establish my first real friendship with a Moroccan woman, or is she someone who could help me in my research?

Then again, establishing a ‘real’ friendship with a Moroccan woman – the kind of friendship based on personal connections and openness – may not be as easy as I’d like it to be anyway. I’ve written before about the issues many of us foreign women have in connecting to our Moroccan counterparts. We seek personal connections, only to find out that there often isn’t a lot of room for our personalities in these relationships. Pleasant exchanges and meetings for tea go a long way in keeping loneliness at bay, but the true sense of mutual understanding that I sometimes crave is hard to find.

Seeing as there is no point trying to change this situation, perhaps the best thing to do is see this as an answer to my issue of confusion. To consider the guarding of certain opinions as my standard modus operandi, and thus free myself from worry about overstepping boundaries, falling out of character, and misjudging situations.

If there are any anthropologists among the few who read this blog, I’d love to know whether you’ve felt this same issue – and if so, how you dealt with it.

* I’ll get into the notion of ‘participant-observation’ a little later on, so hold that thought.
** My project concerns the institution of mental healthcare, but that does not mean that my ‘work’ ends at the hospital doors. Since I am interested in how these practices of mental healthcare relate to and are affected by larger socio-economic dynamics that dominate Moroccan society, any given setting or conversation provides me with data, in a sense.


Evelyn aka Jackie said...

First off, it means a great deal that you would summarize my blog entry! That's a real honor, Charlotte. :0)

Now to the gist. You have touched on a real dilemma in anthropological fieldwork! I have never had the pleasure of fieldwork outside of the US, but even with participant observation in the communities that I work, it's very difficult to turn off and turn on.

To stay on is mentally exhausting--at our best, we can only do it for a few hours at a time and then we need to huddle back at home or in private to collect our thoughts and come back to the "true" us.

I see it's very difficult to know when to be on and when to be off when one's living one's fieldwork as you are.

I've experienced that difficulty of lines of friendship as well. I wish I could remember exactly where I heard about this, but some anthropologists just have to delineate between work friends and real friends. It's hard though! I think this is when you have to mentally challenge yourself to turn off so you can simply enjoy being your "real" self.

I challenge you to try this! Simply relax with someone you'd love to be friends with and vow not to take mental or physical notes and just simply be present in the moment, enjoying every part of your new friendship without thought of whether this is an anthropologically rich experience for your research.

I'll be reading to find out how this works for you! :0)

ModernTanguera said...

I think that this can happen to some extent with any job, not just anthropology. I work with two women who are around my age, and we all interact in a very friendly way. We gossip about our personal lives, we go out for happy hour, etc. One of them is even coming out to try tango this weekend. But whereas the other two women are very much friends (with no limits), I am friendly but keep them at a personal distance (withholding some personal information and opinions, keeping a separate social life, etc). Likewise, I don't try to bring all of my friends to work events or classes, even though there is some dance crossover.

I think it is important at some point to decide where to draw the line. Some people may be best as work relationships--close, friendly, socializing, but not a friendship. With others, you may have to consciously decide to try to develop a friendship. That may mean letting go of possible research opportunities with them, accepting that you may miss out on some extra information but acknowledging that in this case the friendship is more important to you. Because your fieldwork doesn't clearly draw a line between the work environment and your personal life the way that mine does, it will certainly take a more conscious effort to draw that line for yourself. I think, though, that it can be done.

Charlotte said...

Thank you both for your comments! You bring up similar points - that the idea (or solution) may be to simply decide, at the outset, what kind of relationship you intend to have with a person, and thus avoid the gray area from the outset. You're probably right - and Evelyn aka Jackie, I'll take you up on that challenge...

Evelyn aka Jackie said...

Woohoo, Charlotte! I can't wait to hear more. :0) I meant to add yesterday that when taking my afternoon walk, I reimagined you sitting in French class with your classmate discussing psychology in Morocco vs. the US. I considered how interesting it may have been if you had pushed back at him at like really wanted to. Participant observation can be too one-sided at times, but pushing back and having a discussion or debate with an informant can elicit some rich content! So next time, just jump right in and have that conversation that you're dying to have! And who know what interesting stuff you'll get from it?!

Christine said...

I’ve been reading your blog for a couple months now. I am an anth and linguistics student at UC Berkeley and I love Morocco so your blog is an enjoyable read for me—not to mention your gifted writing style!!

I read this post and could really relate, I remember talking to one of my professors about similar feelings. After a year and a half “hanging out” (my term for participant observation) with the same people boundaries can become blurred--are they friends?Not friends? Can they be? Will they be? My “big thing” was the guilt over holding back my “real self” while asking so much reflection and candor of my informants (some of which became friends) It’s only possible to put yourself aside for so long. When can I just be me!! Well, that was really just the beginning of the issues that came up. My wonderful professor smiled and handed me a copy of Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco by Paul Rabinow. He writes about his “struggles to figure out how to observe and participate” and I found it a very interesting read; you might too. I am willing to send you a copy if you want. It obviously has no answers, but was a good start for the realization that I wasn’t alone; this is just par for the course, as some say. Oh fieldwork….

Here’s a passage I had highlighted…maybe you’ll find it interesting.

“Once one accepts a definition of anthropology as consisting of participant observation, as I had, then one’s course of action is really governed by these oxymoronic terms; the tension between them defines the space of anthropology. Observation, however, is the governing term in the pair, since it situates the anthropologists’ activities. However much one moves in the direction of participation, it is always the case that one is still both an outsider and an observer. That one is an outsider is incessantly apparent. The cloud of official approval always hung over me, despite my attempts to ignore it. My gestures were wrong, my language was off, my questions were strange, and interpersonal malaise was all too frequently the dominant mood, even after many months when some of the grossest differences had been bridged by repetition and habit. No matter how far “participation” may push the anthropologist in the direction of Not-Otherness, the context is still ultimately dictated by “observation” and externality. In the dialectic between the poles of observation and participation, participation changes the anthropologist and leads him to new observation, whereupon new observation changes how he participates. But this dialectic spiral is governed in its motion by the starting point, which is observation.” (p79-80)

Congratulations on the progress you’re making and I look forward to reading your continuing adventures.

Charlotte said...

Hi Christine,
Thank you so much for your comment! It's so good to hear that someone else has dealt with the same thing. Thanks also for the Rabinow citation! I actually read that book years ago. I do remember that I liked it, but I didn't remember how aptly he sums up this limbo that anthropologists are in - between observing and participating. This quote is helpful, and actually does clarify a lot without trying to resolve the dilemma. I will definitely have to re-read this book! Thanks again, and good luck with your own work, too!