Field Note #1 — Navigating the Researcher-Participant Friendship

Five weeks left until fieldwork begins. Holy moly guacamole my dudes

Things are getting real now: my flight to Quito has been booked, the IRB has approved my proposal, and I’ve started purchasing equipment—but the most exciting update is that my focal participant and I talk every day now via Messenger.  This is the girl whose life I will be documenting for two months in my ethnography of everyday life in the Ecuadorian Andes—we’re going to call her “Samara,” which is the pseudonym she picked out for herself.  Through our daily interactions online, I’ve become a part of Samara’s everyday life.  My influence as the researcher has already started, and we’re not even in the same hemisphere yet.

This recent development has brought up something for me to think about.

It is part of the anthropologist’s training to develop heightened sensitivity toward the effect she can have on someone’s life.  From a methodological standpoint, it seems perfectly reasonable to care this much, until you compare it to the interactions you have in your everyday life, as a human being and not as a researcher, and then it becomes a little absurd.  Think about it—we give very little thought to the hidden implications of our interactions with others on a day-to-day basis, or the roles we may play in someone’s life trajectory.  How exhausting would that be, if we had to constantly assess every possible way we could be affecting someone’s day, someone’s life, someone’s entire perception of their identity?

But come fieldwork season, this is my reality, 24/7.  When the circumstances of your involvement with someone is based off of a researcher-participant relationship, you have to be mindful of how you are situated and perceived by the other person at all times.  As if interpersonal relationships weren’t complicated enough already, there’s an added layer of metacognitive awareness to make you overthink and over-sweat about everything you do and say as an anthropologist.  It is the inescapable fate of ethnographic research that by merely existing in their physical or mental space, you inevitably have some sort of impact on their experience of the world. You can do very little to control the impact; you can only hope to cause as little harm as possible.

I’m writing this after a really sad realization today, about myself. 

This morning, in response to the string of messages we’ve been exchanging lately, Samara sent me a paragraph sharing details about what she likes to do on the weekends.  She’s learning how to play violin, she goes on walks in the neighborhood, she likes watching movies with her cousin—she was giving me all these vivid descriptions about what her life looks like, adding more detail to my developing image of her colorful world.  And you know what my first thought was?

“This is great data.”

And then I took a step back, and suddenly it hit me.

Here is someone genuinely interested in becoming friends with me, giving me her time of day to write a thoughtful response so that I can get to know her better—and my immediate reaction was not about how I’m getting closer to this person, or how her life compares to my own, but solely how useful her message was to my research.  When did I become the type of person who fixates on what she can get out of every interaction with someone? Since when have I had the mindset of whittling down the value of someone’s livelihood to just its relevance as data for my own selfish research interests?

This was one of those wake-up moments that hit especially hard, because I’ve spent all this time believing I was doing good, that I was better than those old bearded white guys who described people as primitive and savage—only to find that I’m still just as problematic in my own special snowflake way.  I let my academic ambitions get in the way of being able to recognize and appreciate what is supposed to just be a raw, honest, and genuine connection between this eighteen-year-old Ecuadorian girl and me, despite growing up in two separate worlds, 3,500 miles apart.  That’s a wonderful, crazy thing, and my research allows me to experience it firsthand.  And at the end of the day, human connection is the only thing I’m really interested in.  How could I have gotten so caught up on trying to be a successful researcher so as to lose sight of just being a decent human being?

With only a month remaining before data collection begins, this was not the turning point in my research that I was hoping for.  But this is where I am.  There’s guilt and there’s disappointment and it feels horrible, but it’s a necessary process.  In any relationship—be it with your research participant, your mother, your partner, or your dog—there’s nothing worse than realizing that you are turning exactly into the kind of person you promised you would never be.  But you can’t fix your behavior and make things right until you face the hard truth about yourself and come to terms with the fact that you are flawed, that you might have questionable motives, and that you’re susceptible to being a not-so-great person at times.  

I owe Samara an apology for letting myself value her contribution to my research over her friendship.  I feel as though I’ve wronged her, as though I have tainted the wholesome nature of our relationship.  She’s not just an anonymous subject out of my sample size of 100—after a year of knowing her, I am invested in my personal relationship with her, and she is more than a research participant to me.  Our lives are entangled, and I get to go through the slow, messy, and beautiful process of getting to know Samara, becoming friends with her, and navigating her world alongside her.  This bond transcends any research objective I could write about or any method I could learn from books; it is up to her and me how we choose to craft our friendship—and ultimately, our own identities as a result of our friendship.  And that’s the other half of ethnographic research I didn’t mention earlier.  Not only will you influence the community you’re studying with your anthropologist presence, but your own ways of feeling, thinking, seeing, hearing, understanding, and being, too, will be shaped by the people and places you become involved with.  Just as much as I am a part of Samara’s life, Samara is every bit a part of my life. And I can’t take that for granted.