AAA 2011: Insights into cultural change from long-term fieldwork

by Erin B Taylor on 21/11/2011

in Anthropology

From left to right: Yarimar Bonilla, Deborah Thomas, A. Lynn Boyes, Diane Austin-Broos, Constance Sutton

Producing ethnographic accounts depends upon spending significant periods of time in the field, not only to build up a ‘thick description’ of a place and a people, but also to get a sense of the time cycles that people use to organise their lives and their social relations. Traditionally, a year has been considered the minimum period that a researcher should spend in the field, to witness a full cycle of the seasons and harvests. Anthropologists return to the same places over the years to witness the development of life cycles as their research participants grow up, have children of their own, and become elders.

In modern urban societies, neither seasons nor harvests are particularly important, but years are nevertheless marked with ritual events that are central to the practice of culture. Furthermore, life can change fast, and returning to the field over the longue durée can provide remarkable insights into just how much societies can change in a very short space of time, and how individuals are effected. In the short seven years since I have been carrying out research in the Dominican Republic, I have been stunned at just how much has improved in a country where my informants assured me that nothing would ever change. Better welfare, safer barrios, and more widespread education may have a long way to go, but they have also improved the lives of many Dominicans since I first set foot in Aeropuerto Las Américas in September 2004.

Imagine, then, what fieldwork over a few decades or even half a century could reveal. This was the topic of a session of the AAA 2011 called ‘The Caribbean and its diasporas: “Tidemarks” in long-term anthropological research.’ The presenters, Diane J. Austin-Broos (University of Sydney), A. Lynn Bolles (University of Maryland), and Constance Sutton (New York University), have well over a century of experience researching in Jamaica and Barbados. These two Caribbean islands have undergone dramatic upheavals and transformations since Constance Sutton first arrived in Barbados in the 1950s to carry out research on trade unions. Not all of these changes have been positive by any means: in Jamaica especially, the escalation of political conflict and violent crime has shattered the hopeful dreams that accompanied the nation’s independence in 1967. This session’s papers demonstrate how the engagement of long-term ethnographers with new generations of anthropologists can enrich our comprehension of cultural change.

Diane Austin-Broos’s paper revisited a case study from her 1984 book, Urban Life in Kingston, Jamaica, from a personal vantage point. Interestingly, Austin-Broos reinterprets Mr. Patt’s life in light of recent ethnographies of Jamaican, especially Huon Wardle’s ethnography of cosmopolitanism in Kingston, and Gina Ulysse’s book on female higglers. Austin-Broos applies these new accounts retrospectively to demonstrate how both hegemony and cosmopolitanism have always coexisted in the lives of ordinary Jamaicans. She states that ‘Whether it occurs in downtown Kingston or remote indigenous Australia, the state allows, and also denies, so many possibilities. Therefore, for me, marginalization stays, alongside cosmopolitanism.’ However, she argues, it is just as important to document people’s creativities and agency in the face of struggle, as it is to analyze the power structures that lock people into place and status.

Still focusing on Jamaica, but within the frame of ‘Africa at home and abroad’, A. Lynn Bolles describes her long political engagement in Jamaica since she spent two years studying female factory workers in 1978-80. She remembers writing about a new breed of economic policies at the time which had no name, but which have since been dubbed ‘structural adjustment’. Boyle’s description of a changing Jamaican political and economic landscape over the years is a telling reminder of just how much the concepts and analytical categories that we depend upon today depend upon researchers following their instincts as to what constitutes a proper object of anthropological investigation, from a humanistic perspective as much as an academic one. Hearing about how things like structural adjustment were investigated before they even had names serves as a reminder that all our concepts and objects of study are in a constant state of transformation, and that treating them as stable obfuscates our abilities to recreate our ethnographic present in sync with the passing of time.

Constance Sutton has been conducting fieldwork in Barbados for more than half a century. She was in Barbados during the 1958 island-wide wildcat strike and describes how, over the decades, her research ‘changed my life’ in three key ways: first, in teaching her about the workings of domination; second, in demonstrating the importance of transnational networks in bringing about change; and third, in forming her own personal networks. Sutton’s early years in the field were a seminal time in the advancement as Caribbean research, as the new generation of researchers such as Sutton, Sidney Mintz and Eric Wolf (in Puerto Rico) were challenging the notion that the Caribbean was not a worthy object of study because it lacked an original, indigent culture.

Rather than lamenting the loss of an imaginary authenticity, Sutton and others got on with the business of studying social structures and the political movements that aspired to transform them. In certain key ways, she found that Barbadians were more ‘modern’ than her peers back home, especially in their ideas about gender and their propensity to travel as labour migrants. Decades later, she found that the field came home to her own city of New York, as Barbadian migrants increasingly became part of her social network. Sutton was a first-hand observer of an immense cultural and academic seachange in which boundaries between field/home, researcher/researched, and informat/friend collapsed. Social media are further collapsing that distinction and bringing people from all corners of the world into contact with each other. Today, the claim that the Caribbean was not a worthy object of study because of its lack of authenticity appears naïve and unrepresentative of the way the world is today, or perhaps ever was.

This session’s topics were brought together by excellent comments two younger discussants with their own diverse and comprehensive Caribbean experiences. Yarimar Bonilla pointed to the importance of keeping an eye out for events and objects of study that do not yet have names, such as structural adjustment; the collapsing of the field that Sutton experienced, and urged these long-term ethnographers to continue to engage with the younger generation of scholars to provide a rich view of the Caribbean across history.

Deborah Thomas (who has a new book out on violence in Jamaica) pointed out that the panel’s main question, ‘What does it mean to do long-term research in one place?’ is deceptive, because in fact all of the presenters not only all did fieldwork in more than one site, but also found that their fields spread far beyond their national borders. The cumulative knowledge of these long-term studies in their broadest temporal and geographic sense is valuable in thinking about how new forms of civil society are emerging – perhaps the most important issue facing the Caribbean since Sutton first set foot in Barbados in the 1950s, and still a key problem today.

Erin B. Taylor

Erin B. Taylor

Post Doctoral Research Fellow, Instituto de Ciências Sociais, University of Lisbon at Research Fellow, Digital Ethnography Research Centre

Erin originally studied fine art, but she defected to anthropology when she realised that she was far better at deploying a pen for writing than for drawing. She is a cultural anthropologist who is currently living in Lisbon, Portugal, where she has a full-time research position at the Instituto de Ciências Sociais (ICS).

Erin B. Taylor
Erin B. Taylor

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