read the rest of this entry on the WHY WE POST blog
This fieldnote has also been posted on the WHY WE POST blog at University College London
For the first year of my fieldwork, I lived in Alto Hospicio, Chile, a city considered marginal and home to the working poor (as the US class system would call them). I spent the year chatting with neighbors in my large apartment building, kicking balls back to children playing in the street, shopping at the local markets and grocery stores, buying completo hot dogs from food vendors, walking along the dusty streets, and taking the public bus to and from Iquique. Now, for my last few months of fieldwork, I am living in Iquique, the larger port city, just 10 km down the 600 m high hill that creates a barrier between the two cities.
read the rest of this entry on the WHY WE POST blog
As I recover from my latest South America induced “stomach thing” I’m reminded how caught up the body becomes in ethnographic research.
Research on the Body
This was explicit in my research on lucha libre. The final chapter of my PhD dissertation carries the subtitle, Embodied Autoethnography. My body was a key form of data collection in that research. Following scholars such as Paul Stoller (1997), Heather Levi (2008), and Loic Wacquant (2004), using the body in research, often in painful and trying ways, gives insight into the corporeal understandings of the individuals with whom we do research. Indeed, incorporating my own body, and merging the “intelligible and the sensible” (Stoller 1997:xv), seemed especially important in wrestling, given Barthes’s contention that it is “in the body of the wrestler that we find the first key to the contest” (2000:17).
I write in my methods chapter
At times I felt alienated from a body that just would not cooperate…My body felt fragmented during these moments... Rather than my body feeling like a unified whole, I experienced it as fragmented; hands and legs working independently, rather than together in a fluid motion. My mind became slightly detached from my body parts, and only upon being able to do the llaves without thinking did I finally feel my mind and all the body parts were completely reunited. When I quickly and easily executed a llave correctly, it just felt “natural.” I was not overly aware of where my hands and legs were placed or at what moment I twisted my back.
Both my feelings of inadequacy and conversely authenticity were connected to my body. When my body “functioned,” I barely noticed it. When it did not naturally move the way I wished, whether in training, performances, or standing in the background in television promotions, I was aware of it as a fragmented entity. As Wacquant writes of boxing, “To say that pugilism is a body-centered universe is an understatement” (1995:66). A boxer or wrestler “is” their body (Oates 1987:5). And because wrestlers are portraying characters and telling stories through their bodies, this is even more true. It is the body that can either betray or grant authenticity to the wrestler.
Body and (Environmental) Health
But even in less explicitly body-centered research, the body is always a tool through which ethnographic research is conducted. The body is by definition (within currently paradigmatic constraints of time and space) where the researcher is. Usually in ethnographic research, this is in “the field.” Though this field may be close or far from home, things like the sickness I was experiencing until yesterday, undoubtedly affect research. Every time I’ve had a “stomach thing” in South America, I’ve learned a bit more about myself and about my research. From parasites, to what I swear must have been Typhoid, to this more recent “regular old diarrhea” one learns about public restrooms (which countries generally have toilet paper and which don’t, which ones you have to pay for and which you don’t) and where to find them (you’d think the giant fancy department stores would, but at least the supermarkets, malls, and movie theaters usually do). One learns about the way one is treated when they feel sick. Some places people are sympathetic. Some they are not. Some insist that you should see a doctor and take medicine. Others believe a bit of soup or tea should make everything better. Some charge you for everything. Others do not. Some places require prescriptions. Others do not.
I remember during a particularly long and bad bout of something in Bolivia, almost exactly 3 years ago (I remember because it was during Oruro’s carnaval), I had a persistent flu-like sickness. I remember complaining to a friend in New York via google chat. “Just take a nice hot bath” she told me. I didn’t respond because that suggestion annoyed me. There were so many levels of my life that she just wasn’t understanding. My “shower” at the time was an electric shower head positioned over a drain in the center of the bathroom floor. A bath was not going to happen. Hot was also not so likely to happen. Electric showerheads come in a variety of qualities. The good ones are good. Nice hot water comes out and lasts at least 5 minutes so you can actually wash everything you’d like to. But even these never seem to be powerful enough to heat the whole bathroom, so you’re still left shivering. And then there are the bad ones—ones like that which occupied my bathroom at this time. They electrocute you when you turn them off. Or sometimes start spewing sparks. Sometimes they only get luke-warm. Sometimes they just decide not to produce any warm water at all. And that might actually be preferable to the ones that purposefully trick you with about twenty seconds of warm water—just enough time to lather the shampoo in your hair—before they go cold for good. And others tease you with two-second alterations between pleasantly hot and scream-inducing cold. All this in a place that’s average annual temperature is 46 F.
Temperature itself perhaps deserves it’s own section, but I’ll be brief. One learns what it is to never stop shivering. One learns from cold showers in some places, and endlessly sweaty nights in others. One forgets what rain feels like on the face, and gets excited for the once or twice yearly sprinkle in the middle of the Atacama. Other anthropologists learn to arrange alternative transportation in case of cloud burst. Sunscreen before I walk out the door has become a way of life. I could go on, but I’ll leave it at that.
Health and bodily comfort are often the subjects of anthropological research, but I’m not sure we as often consider the health and comfort of the anthropologist in a serious way. Perhaps anthropologists fear this will be misconstrued as complaining. Most anthropologists experience such bodily discomfort, and to make too big a deal of it might put them off by downplaying their own experiences. But I think paying attention to these issues actually tells us quite a bit about our research.
You Are What You Eat
Art from Hawk Krall
Embarrassingly, food is probably the thing that for me has the biggest emotional impact. On one hand because we as humans (at least in almost every place I’ve ever visited) associate so much comfort, nostalgia, and pleasure with food. Most people in the world eat every day. And those with the resources to do so, usually try to make this into a pleasureful event.
Sometimes it works out and you really love the food in the field site (ie salteñas). Other times it’s not go great, but you are in a cosmopolitan place with restaurants or supermarkets that provide sufficient options when you miss something special. Other times this isn’t the case (what I would give for sour cream or soft goat cheese…). But moreso than the availability of “special food treats,” the daily routine of eating can be a slow form of torture. Chilean food is such a case. For various reasons, I have spent most of my time here living with families, and this allows me less freedom in terms of my eating habits than I would like. Most days I’m somewhat obligated to eat a breakfast of bread, a lunch of some sort of refined grain (pasta or rice, and of course bread on the side) and some sort of fried meat (chicken, fish, pork, or beef). A few sliced tomatoes on the side is about as much vegetable as one gets. Most sauces come with chopped up hot dogs. Dinner also consists of bread with cheese and processed sandwich meat. Snacks are usually fried potatoes covered with meat, onions and fried eggs.
I’d much prefer a nice salad with a bit of couscous. If given the choice, I’d go for never eating bread again over eating it at every meal. But for me, the frustration is not just about the taste. It’s about the way my body feels. I am bloated and lethargic constantly. After lunch, I can barely stay awake. More often than not I take a nap in the hot afternoon. And this is the really embarrassing part—I hate what it does to my appearance. As much as I try to exercise (something deserving of it’s own post), it is difficult, and that combined with the near impossibility of finding ways to eat healthy things (I mean, most restaurants don’t even serve water. Choices are artificially flavored juices or soft drinks), I develop a bit of a body issue. After a few weeks, my clothes fit tighter. I notice my cheeks being puffier. And yes, it’s vain, but I think to myself at times, “is fieldwork worth the weight gain?”
Of course, this tells me something about the field—a place where calling someone “gordito” is much more a term of endearment than anything else. I’m constantly told I’m anorexic (and believe me, by most US health standards, I’m slightly overweight). Perceptions of health are different here, as are perceptions of taste (if it’s not overly salty or sugary to my palate, it’s ‘tasteless,’ if it’s got a bit of kick to me, it’s unfathomably spicy). And at the worst of times, these incongruences of food ideology affect my mentality to the point of feeling trapped and depressed.
Conclusion: Why Even Internet Research is Never Disembodied
I am not the first to suggest that these issues are important to ethnography. More than 20 years ago, Lock described the body as a mediator between the self and the world, suggesting this should be central to anthropology (1993:133). But now doing research on “online” activity one might think the body has less of an impact. Yet I argue that what makes this research truly ethnographic is precisely the way that the body comes to bear on it. Knowing what I know, eating northern Chilean food day in and out, I understand a bit more the ways that body image and naming practices like “gordo” and “flaca” function. Thus the particular styles of selfies and Facebook nicknames make more sense to me. I find deeper meaning in Instagram pictures of food. And representations of normativity make more sense.
In the end, most days, it is worth it. All the sunburns, dog bites, rabies shots, altitude sickness, hangovers, earthquakes…and the $15 hour long massages, beach trips, and delicious salteñas and completos. But ethnographic research is always a balance. One has to remember who they are, because often (at least for me), losing myself in the field results in pretty seriously negative emotional states. And sometimes, a girl just wants a freaking arugula salad!
For more on embodied research, see my archives on the Body.
2008 The World of Lucha Libre: Secrets, Revelations, and Mexican National Identity. Durham: Duke University Press.
1993 Cultivating the Body: Anthropology and Epistemologies of Bodily Practice and Knoweldge. Annual Review of Anthropology 22:133-155.
1997 Sensuous Scholarship. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press.
1995 Pugs at Work: Bodily Capital and Bodily Labour Among Professional Boxers. Body and Society 1(1):65-93.