I am trying to do 'open' research. By this I mean that the process of how I get the data, as well as some of the data itself, is made available to others via the world wide web as I collect it. I also welcome the participation of other researchers and make a concerted effort to share my goals with informants. This does not mean there is no discretion and no information that is secret. Rather, information which is sure to eventually find its way into publication is made available in a rougher format. My research also involves thinking about how information technologies, particularly the internet and the world wide web, can be integrated in a serious and helpful way in extended ethnographic research. Finally, I attempt to maximise my use of electronic media to aid in data collection and storage in such a way that access to this data is simplified.
I set up a skeletal web site before leaving England and maintained it directly from the village. I used the www in interviews with individuals here and kept track of their reactions. I also videotaped events, interviews, songs and stories and played them back to individuals to get more information. Similarly, I recorded conversations, interviews, stories and songs in order both to improve my language skills and solicit additional information. Although in some ways I remain in my 'own world' to a greater extent than some anthropologists would approve, it has thus far proven its usefulness in several ways. It has increased feedback with external academics and non-academics, facilitated greater understanding of my role in the village and allowed me to be less selective in data collection and less systematic about data storage on a daily basis.
The ongoing web site is essentially a collection of text documents with some audio/video material. I have made available edited field notes. I write a header indicating the date, time of day, place and persons for every field note entry and an abstract for almost ever entry. The field notes file that I make available however is intentionally not a personal diary (though personal comments slip in). My real personal diary is not for publication and indeed will probably never be. To compensate for that I write a weekly update which resembles a personal diary in which I include how I feel about much of what happens in addition to a brief summary of the highlights of the week. I have tried to write monthly reports focusing on the ways I do research and some of the major topics. I have included a section in the web site for recorded music and some photographs as well as local writing (sadly local writing has not been tremendously forthcoming). As the research progressed I have found that there are things that simply did not fit into any of my preconceived categories and so they are simply linked to the front page in a list with particular themes. These include things like kinship terms, census information and photos.
Reflexivity and Open Ethnography
Increased feedback from outside the
In my preparation for field work I intended to be rather brief in my analysis of religion. I had long conversations with anthropologists in England who had worked in Islamic societies and thought this reasonable. Paul Stirling's Turkish study does not dwell in detail on the religious aspect of the village and I had hoped that I too might be able to bypass religion. I knew it was a factor and I intended to examine it as a background feature but had no intention of long religious conversations. Speaking to Dr. Werth and Dr. Alvi made me realise the extent to which religious relationships are an expression of the things I am very much interested in. The division in the village between Wahabis and Barelvis (a division within the Sunni community) can be mapped onto material and political divisions within the village. I am fascinated by the local politics and alliances of the area. Thanks to the encouragement and patience of outside anthropologists, I forced myself to look more deeply into areas of social life that I initially considered irrelevant to these issues, but which I now think are central to them 4. Moreover, Pakistan is not Turkey and what Paul Stirling found relevant in Turkey is not an absolute guide for me working 50 years on in South Asia.
A more recent dialogue with a sociologist caused me to reexamine my questionnaire. The criticisms he had of how I conducted the questionnaire and what purpose it served have helped clarify what I hope to get out of it. This sociologist is someone I have never met but he kindly took the time to contact me about our common points of interest (and common problems). Others might make similar sorts of comments once I get back to England but by then it will be too late to change the way things are done. In the end I did not end up changing the questionnaire, but I was forced to clarify and justify my methods.
Sharing my data with non-academics has proven equally fruitful. Villagers are curious about why a gora (a generic term for white men) has come to live in their village for one year. They are used to visitors but not used to visitors who stay for such a long time nor one from a European university. How to explain what I am doing and what I am investigating has not proven easy. In the beginning I tended to tell them what I was researching at the moment (agricultural techniques, Islamic ritual, marriage selection etc). They would then give me all the information I could cope with on that subject. I tried telling them that I was interested in every aspect of their lives and then they tried to include me in things they thought were the most important. I found this less satisfying since often what one person thinks is terribly important is quite boring. On one occasion I waited in the heat for a man to return home so I could then watch an ox turn a Persian wheel for several hours because I was assured this was the critical and fundamental aspect to Punjabi agriculture. It was indeed very picturesque and great fun once it started but I found the time devoted to benefit gained ratio a little on the dissatisfying side.
feedback within the village.
Over all I believe villagers are very proud to have an anthropologist in their village and are very pleased to have a web site devoted to them. A better understanding of why I am in the village has tended to make people more helpful. They understand that I am human and that while I get bored and tired of some things they do, I am thoroughly enjoying my stay here. It is very important to villagers that I be happy and enjoy myself. I tell them this regularly but seeing it on the web site has somehow made it more real for them. A small number of men have taken it upon themselves to make sure that I get to see everything of importance in the life of a north Punjabi villager and my notes have helped them to identify where the gaps in my education are.
Lest I give the wrong impression, it is only a minority interested in reading my notes, updates or reports. Most people are not very interested in hearing lengthy descriptions of what I am researching. Once I have told people that I am studying aspects of their lives then that's enough for them and they change the subject. So I have not magically found myself in a village of amateur anthropologists who have a passion for looking at social organisation and relations.
The local man who I would say is something of an amateur anthropologist and who follows my web site the most closely is Malik Amiruddin. He is not actually a villager. He is married to a woman from the village but is a Gujar from the nearby city of Taxila. His interest in computers and the www predates my arrival by some time. His first reaction when it all became live was that it seemed very detailed but that all the interesting bits were cut out. He tried to persuade me to let him have access to the complete unedited notes. I have no doubt that I can trust him but as a principle I refused. His own family scandals would surely not be news to him but I must honour my assurances of confidentiality and I am not up to re-editing my notes to eliminate all non-Malik references. He has been very helpful in the areas that he finds the most interesting: Gujars and Gujarism, agriculture, cousin disputes. When he reads a comment on one of these topics that he finds skewed or inadequate I invariably end up having a long and instructive conversation about it. Most recently we spent an evening discussing the history of a neighbouring caste (which is somewhat disputed). He provided a valuable alternative history. He is always willing to speak, so I could get these stories from him without the web site. However, the presence of the web reports makes him feel more included in the research and hence a more active informant. Not everyone who reads the reports has something to say about them. Sometimes they merely correct small details ('So and so is not 65-- he's only 57,' etc). Sometimes they read the first few sentences and then take away the paper copy I give them to read later and we never discuss it. In spite of the lack of comment from some people, sharing the reports with my informants who can read English is one way of offering them the chance to have a more active input if they choose.
Using electronic media for data
collection-- tools for feedback
WWW in Interviews
I let this activity slide after the first few weeks because I found I was mostly getting the same requests over and over from the same people. After people had seen their village on the web they wanted to search for luxury goods: perfume, cars, jewellery, watches. Then they wanted to see what information was available on illicit sites: alcohol, guns, women. The latter category is tricky because everyone who wanted to do these searches was also adamant that I not do illicit searches with anyone else. In particular, I was asked to never search illicit subjects for unmarried men. Unmarried men were deemed too immature and irresponsible to handle the abundance of pornography available on the web. I should add here that no one was very interested in these illicit sites once they saw them. I was unwilling to distribute my credit card number, even for a 'free trial' of any of these sites, so what we got was of rather low interest, even to men from a very gender segregated society. Over the following months I no longer initiated web searches with people (though I continued to show them my own web site and others that I thought would be of interest to them). Gradually men have begun taking an interest in searching the www again. This may be due to some recent Pakistani visitors returning from the States who actively use the www. I have done several searches on specific topics (watch prices, specific make and model of car, international news of Benazir Bhutto's conviction). The landlord's family, for the most part, find the internet very interesting but have thus far not shown any interest in surfing the net themselves. The non-landlord villagers are very curious but only for short periods of time. The one topic that received numerous requests for internet information was the recent Kashmir crisis. Many people in the village do not trust the information they receive from the television news reports-- especially as it is often contradicted in the Urdu daily papers. News from The Times and other British newspapers was deemed to be significantly more credible than locally available news.
So while I have not found these www interviews to have been the most productive or valuable use of time in terms of data collection I have found that they provided an excuse for people to come and spend time with me in the very early days when my language skills were grossly inadequate (whereas today they are merely inadequate). It was an immediate way to share some of what I do with people so they could see how some of the data from my research will be used. I will probably never know if it helped to put them more at ease with me or provided more of a barrier in the beginning. At this point I feel comfortable with the villagers I work with most closely and do not think that any mistakes I made in the early weeks have had any lasting impact on our relationship.
Audio/Video recording playback.
Audio recordings of songs and stories are useful for several
reasons. They provide me with examples of natural language to try and help me improve my
language skills. Although I can easily get Urdu language tapes and even Eastern Punjabi
language tapes, I have yet to come across a Potohari Punjabi language tape. By recording
these stories I hear typical phrases and accents that I can then try and imitate to help
make myself better understood. Furthermore, these recordings have helped me to learn more
about such things as the role of shrines and holy men in the area. People come to my room
and request particular stories that they know I have recorded. Whether they know the story
in advance or not they enjoy listening to the stories repeatedly. While we listen I ask
them about the stories. One of the questions I have frequently asked about the stories
regarding Holy men is whether people believe literally in the story. Interestingly, the
breakdown of people who believe word for word in the story does not correspond to whether
or not someone is literate/educated or not.
Dangers and drawbacks to ongoing
A final danger is that perhaps I spend too much time preparing and processing data when I should be collecting/producing more data. I have a simple and a complex answer to this question. The simple one is that I simply cannot cope with 16 hours a day of collecting/producing data. The more complex one is still not so difficult. The break from getting new data has proven invaluable to me. Going over the recent data helps to keep me focused on what is most interesting to me. Going back through all my notes from time to time helps remind me of the things I thought were fascinating at one point and now hardly notice. I am better equipped now to go after particular information than I was in the first few weeks/months. At that time I allowed myself to be guided almost entirely by my hosts and followed their lives as a passive observer/participant. With only a short time left in the field I control my time more strictly and focus on things that I see are missing in my notes. The extra time devoted to making my notes accessible to others has rendered them more accessible to myself as well. The weekly updates, for all their superficial 'lightness', help me anchor events so I can look for them in my notes when I am ready for that topic. The monthly reports have not proven as useful since I have found them to be far more time consuming and demanding of greater thought. As I have said, I try to avoid over analysing at this stage and the monthly reports I find demand slightly more analysis than I am ready for just yet. The way I have gotten around this is quite simple - I do not do the analysis that the monthly reports require. I have opted for more superficial and consequently less beneficial reports in the hopes that I may be able to use these as prompts for papers in the future.
The risks imagined have thus far not materialised. My physical safety has not been put in jeopardy as a result of anything I have put on the web site nor by the fact that I share information with a wide variety of people. People do not seem to suddenly go quiet on certain topics because they realise I know too much about a family squabble or a bad reputation. Quite the contrary. Once people learn I know a little about a subject they seem eager to fill me in with their version. The time devoted to the computer has not eaten up all my available time and forced me into being a desk bound anthropologist. It has allowed me to devote more time to being with people without worrying about organising my notes since that is done semi-automatically.
The exchange of information I have enjoyed with individuals I already knew, as well as with individuals I have never met, has enriched my research. I can honestly say that the research I am doing would not have been the same without the input of so many individuals. I have not always agreed with them by any means but they have helped me to shift my focus and see things from a different point of view.
I was pleased at the opportunity to advertise a bit about ongoing open ethnography because I would like to see something like what I am doing become the norm in anthropology where it is possible. The ongoing part of setting and maintaining a web site is more of a hassle than I would like but I expect it to get far simpler in the near future. Doing this from a remote jungle with no telephone lines poses more problems as the cost and technologies necessary begin to get prohibitive. In many parts of South Asia, however, computers and internet access arecommonplace. The village I live in does not have a single computer apart from my own but it has several residents who have studied computer operations and are familiar with what I am doing. There are two internet service providers in Taxila (that I know of) and the number in Islamabad and Rawalpindi are expanding every month. I would very much like to follow someone else's progress and enter into some sort of dialogue with other people in the field. Many of the problems that we face will certainly be different but ways of coming up with solutions are as important as actual solutions themselves. If I can follow other people's rationale for why and how they decided on a course of action then it may suggest new ways of looking at my own problems.
All in all, in spite of the added headache and the intrusion into what many anthropologists consider a 'sacred' time, I have no regrets at choosing to disseminate the information while still in the field. The benefit from the added input has contributed enormously to my ability to integrate and move in the direction that is most interesting to me.
2. These and other research projects are accessible from http://lucy.ukc.ac.uk
3. Apologies to my village friends who are very sincere about their religion and would never agree with this analysis. Nevertheless I cannot help but make this association at this point based on what I have seen and heard.
4. Funerals may be an area I am open to criticism for having neglected. There is something very morbid about a video or still camera intruding into people's most private moments after they have lost a loved one and I have made the decision that since this is not a primary focus of my thesis I will not do this. If it were a primary part of my thesis then I would probably do it as I know that obtaining the permission of family members is often relatively easy. However, people focus on what they find the most interesting and significant aspects of a group rather than merely on those things they have access too.