My love affair with anthropology!
I spent 3 years studying a population via the use of anthropological field methods. Here, I want to talk particularly about the struggles I faced in the process, and the advantages of being a native in the culture I studied.
I studied the Gujarati community in Gujarat, India - known for its migratory nature. This description is about a pilot project where I lived near a village, and observed and interacted with the community - - and obviously took notes, that you see here. This research took place in 2005, after which I returned to the US to complete the second leg of the project.
This article would help any anthropologist who is planning to take on a cross-cultural study, where research in a foreign land is involved. Look out for my next piece on 'negotiations with self' later this month.
Advantages of being a Diasporic Native'
Before I began my research, I thought of all the issues that I might face (things that would influence me and that I might influence, consciously or unconsciously) during the interviews. Being an insider to the Gujarati community, I anticipated that I would be at an advantage when I conducted these fifty USbased nation-wide interviews. For instance, as a member of the Gujarati community, I was already aware of some "basic rules, forms of etiquette, important values, as well as some explanations of why things are done or what happens if they are not done" (Edgerton & Langness, 1974).
In addition to being a community member, I believed that I was also at an advantage as a researcher because instead of concentrating primarily on, as Spencer describes, Malinowski's "master-pieces of description". I believed in focusing on something that Edgerton and Langness suggested: the daunting task to not only observe what was different, but ask the question to members of the community - Why is it different?"
Fieldwork in Gujarat, India
In an attempt to explain why and who holds on certain beliefs about religion, marriage, or education, I felt that my fieldwork needed to include learning about people's histories, not just from expatriate Gujarati participants in the US, but also from indigenous Gujaratis in Gujarat, India. In the initial stages of my research, I felt the need to visit India to explore the Gujarati culture and then extend that explanation by searching for a more general understanding of diasporic Gujaratis in the US. It is for this reason that I
spent a few preparatory months doing in-depth interviews and participant observation in Gujarat, India in the Summer of 2005.
When in Gujarat, I spent the first month developing an elaborate interview protocol with the help of anthropologist, Dr. Arbind Sinha at Mudra Institute of Communication, in Gujarat. Once the interview protocol was complete, it had to be sent to Wayne State University's Human Investigation Committee, along with an attested informed consent form (in English and in Gujarati), for approval. This was a tedious process, but I managed to get all the paperwork through successfully, and in time.
Once this process was complete, and the documentation was approved, I divided my time between my grandparents' comfortable home in urban Ahmedabad and an educational facility in Shela village, forty-five minutes from Ahmedabad where a "shower around lizards" was common practice. I had the opportunity to interview 15 respondents in all (from the city as well the village). When in the town, I was often invited to lunch or for a cup of tea in the afternoon and had the chance to conduct an interview at this time.
Similarly, I met some respondents through my grandparents' chauffer who introduced me to his friends, wives of many of those I eventually interviewed. He introduced me as "the girl from America who wanted to ask questions about Gujarati people". The places in Ahmedabad city where he took me felt unfamiliar
and almost foreign to me. Belonging to a business family like mine, meant that one would have all the luxuries; one traveled by a chauffer-driven car and never really got to see the real India.
I believe that my contact-person took me to places that I would have never had the opportunity to visit if it was not for the nature of this research. For instance, homes that I visited belonged to the following people: security guard, sweeper, milkman, vessel-cleaner/maid, chauffer, and tailor. While I interviewed few well-to-do women from higher castes (for a comparative picture), most of the women were from lower castes such as Bharwad, Rabari and Darbar. Most of the respondents were uneducated, married off at a young age, stayed at home and covered their heads and faces when strangers approached.
To this section of people, I was a complete outsider, unfamiliar with the cultural code and the traditional rules of the sub-cultures. In addition to my driver's connections, I had the chance to interview villagers when I lived at a hostel facility in Shela village. I walked around the village as a daily routine and spent time observing women as they went about their daily chores: filling pots at the lake, washing clothes, cooking "rotlas on a saghadi" (pitas on a traditional Indian stove), eating, sweeping (the facility where
I stayed), feeding the cows, bathing their children et cetera. If they consented to an interview, I conducted one.
Thus, through these different contexts and connections, a fascinating sample developed. Overall, in this whole data collection process, I had the opportunity to interact with and interview a cross-section of people: respondents of all ages, lower and higher castes and sub-castes, economic and social groups.
Interviews were not audio or video recorded. I took notes as the respondent talked, and eventually analyzed the data thematically. While conducting research that investigated communication patterns of
Gujaratis in the USA, I believe that some of my insider knowledge and connections was an added bonus.
Although this experience in Gujarat helped me realize the importance of being a part of the community I was studying, it also helped me recognize that many of my respondents in Gujarat, India saw see me
as a "foreign-return" or a rich person from Bombay. In other words, an Outsider.
Much to my surprise however, I soon discovered that there were some definite advantages of being an outsider. Since my respondents saw me as an outsider, it gave me a good excuse of "asking too many questions" (Dewalt & Dewalt, 2002). With being an outsider of some sorts, came "observation, participation, and therefore awareness" (Kluckholn, 1941 in Daymon & Holloway, 2003). At play were also two other things that I brought to the field: "double consciousness" (DuBois, 1994 in Mutua & Swadener, 2004; Stoeltje, Fox and Obrys, 1999) and "multiple selves" (Jankie in Mutua & Swadener, 2004).
Both "double consciousness" as well as the "multiple selves" that I brought to the field helped me shape relations and language as well as interpret knowledge effectively. In this context, during this experience in Gujarat, I identified with my study population in several ways: As a student who explored Gujarati communication patterns; as an insider and yet an outsider; as a Gujarati woman from urban India, (now in the USA); as a native researcher who struggled to draw the line (between being a researcher and an activist); as a trained filmmaker who made socially-relevant films, and as an unmarried Gujarati woman
who planned to have children someday.
After this experience with the Gujarati community in India, I reached a point in my research process as well as at a personal level where I could not only interrogate myself, but also introspect: My position as an insider, and yet an outsider to the Gujarati community and the negotiations that came with studying
my own kind.
In many ways, this experience provided me with the insight of what was to come in later months (during my research on diasporic Gujaratis in the USA). No doubt, it informed my interview protocol for the big study in the USA. A simple thematic analysis of the data collected indicated aspects that I needed to
consider before I began the US-based research. One such aspect was the indepth understanding of Gujarati sub-cultures. I realized that I had to learn more about the differences in Gujarati sub-castes to understand the tensions between different Gujarati sub-cultures, notions of conservativeness and modernity; value and differences in socialized roles.
For this insight, I managed to find (with great difficulty), two bound volumes of the Gujarat State Gazetteer, as well information on all possible Gujarati sub-castes nation-wide. This information was extremely
useful to prepare and shape the final interview protocol for my research interviews. Another such aspect was language. When in Gujarat, I had to sit with my grandfather and adapt my Gujarati consent form as well as my interview protocol to Gujarati. This was essential because many of my respondents in Gujarat did not know English.
While I hoped that this would not be the case in the USA, I decided that I had to prepare a Gujarati-language interview protocol, just in case I faced such a problem in the USA. Finally, the interviewing experience in Gujarat was a great practice session. I practiced interviewing and framing questions in Gujarati, making mental notes and jotting down ideas during fieldwork. I also learned to listen, observe and to be objective. All of these experiences helped me better prepare for the final interviews in the USA.