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.