CASCA/IUAES2017 Conference in Ottawa
This panel considers the theoretical and methodological conundrums ethnographers face when using the self as a research site, especially the tension between being immersed in a mindful bodily practice and reflecting analytically on the experience—"being in the moment" and "being in their heads."
Researchers interested in the sensory awareness, bodily competence, and mindfulness honed by regular participation in practices such as dance, martial arts, yoga, and meditation often take up what Sarah Pink calls a sensory apprenticeship. They undertake to learn the specialized skills and modes of attunement of their interlocutors using their own bodies, opening themselves to sensorial, embodied, and affective ways of knowing that otherwise elude visual observation. However, these practices encourage and even require that practitioners be wholly "present," to maintain an undivided attention to the activity at hand. Consequently, ethnographers must grapple with the theoretical and methodological conundrums between "being in the moment" and "being in their heads." While most apparent in anthropological research on the senses and embodiment, this question of divided attention is relevant even for those ethnographers whose research does not deal explicitly with the body.
This panel considers this particular challenge of using the self as a research site. Far from seeking to bridge the gap between immersive experience and ethnography, we ask instead if the gap might serve as a generative space, one that expands general anthropological understandings and explores perennial methodological concerns. How do ethnographers negotiate such tensions? That is, what tactics might they use to balance the need to be "present" and the work of observation? How can the gaps that arise alert us to new or unexpected research opportunities? How might this moving in and out of the mindful body be reflected in ethnographic writing?
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.
U Thlien: from folklore to reality… even anthropologists can be cursed!
Among the Khasis of India, the belief in witchcraft is widespread. U Thlien- a snake demon demanding blood sacrifice-is actual and part of everyday life. As a newcomer, the anthropologist may at first think he is safe from curses and black magic. But his illusions are rapidly shattered when all the signs are pointing to the fact that he has been cursed. What to do? To whom should he reach for healing? How should we interpret this phenomenon?
The Khasis live in North East India. Beliefs in witchcraft and black magic are still widespread, even in urban settings. Among these, U Thlien is the most ancient and feared practice. According to the legend, some Khasi clans worship at night a demon-like snake. In order to satisfy the snake, the worshippers must feed him human blood. In return, the snake blesses them with wealth and prosperity. Some curses can only affect Khasi people, but anthropologist can and will be cursed. How to react to such an event? How can we heal from such a curse? In this paper, I will analyze how the body of the anthropologist can be cursed and healed despite his outsider status and I will be putting forward new ways of approaching witchcraft.
Listening: ethnographic methods for the study of silence and contemplation
Research adaptations of contemplative practices prompt the ethnographer to develop intersubjective fieldwork and “deep listening” techniques to assist in the understanding of people living in the silence and stillness of American Christian monasteries.
Years of ethnographic research in silent environments among American Christian monks has taught me to listen in ways beyond the aural. To grasp what was happening at silent field sites, I asked the same questions of myself, the anthropologist, that I did of contemplative Christians: How do human beings attune themselves to the subtle, ambiguous, and invisible? Are there ways of training ourselves to listen, see, and sense more acutely that will allow us to learn about the inner worlds of others? My approach was to become one non-monastic student among many who closely followed monastic teachers of contemplative Christianity so that I might learn through profound emulation. In addition to more standard methodologies, I engaged in an intensive version of participant-observation, what I call "intersubjective fieldwork," a form of watching and listening not unlike the very attunement practices which Christian contemplatives themselves practiced. Yet full immersion did not require me to put aside my critical mind. Monastic teachers of contemplative practices did not promote euphoric abandonment, what Rappaport called "radical identification of self and other," but instead instructed novices to foster an "awakened self" through sensorial awareness and a layered perception which paradoxically entwined detachment (a capacity for emotionally neutral observation) and the phenomenological fusion of self and other. Modifying such techniques for ethnographic enquiry requires intensive practice and long-term study, but assists one in learning to combine the intensive participation and critical observation that allows one to listen to silent communities.
The formation of joint intentionality in the act of walking together
How is joint intentionality formed when people walk together? Drawing on my fieldwork in South Africa and the action theory of M. Gilbert, I explore how joint intentionality arises via Participant Observation and how a shift from mere observation to participation can be put into predication.
"Walking together" has various connotations. It can be an act of mobility, a matter of security, a creation of private space in public or a ritual of commuting. On the basis of my fieldwork in Grahamstown, South Africa, I will investigate and compare the peculiarities of different acts of walking together that are habitual to the people I walked with, but not (yet) to me, the researcher. In this, the goal is to discover how joint intentionality comes into being through Participant Observation: What happens when the mere observer becomes a participant and how do these shifts differ, depending on the way a specific shared action is practiced? I argue that although anthropological methods and methodologies have repeatedly been scrutinised, challenged and refined in different ways, their phenomenological presuppositions are still more frequently taken for granted than questioned in their premises, conditions and functions. Drawing on the work of Michael Jackson, Tim Ingold and philosophical action theorist Margaret Gilbert, I aim to explore a plural subject theory with the explanatory power to illuminate how common practical knowledge can be built in ethnographic fieldwork. I depart from the premise that conducting ethnographic fieldwork is an act of bodily engagement, which is still in need of theoretical investigation. The overall objective of this paper is to investigate the conditions under which joint intentionality can emerge in a habitual shared action like walking together and how the shift from mere observation to participation can be put into predication.
Kinetographizing the Alevi semah
The paper discusses the use of the Kinetography Laban as part of a transnational ethnographic research on the semah of the Alevis. It questions limits and possibilities of epistemological categories and fieldwork methodologies that aim at approaching human movement.
A sonic and kinetic practice, the semah is enacted during Alevi rituals as well as in presentational setting during which the Alevis explain their ethno-religious movement to outsiders. In the context of the semahs, music and bodily movement are nourished with strong emotional investment. Additionally, the minority status of the Alevis -in Turkey as well as in the diaspora- and the burning memory of several episodes of violence contribute in charging the semahs as a symbol of political resistance.
As part of my research about transnational and contemporary adaptations of these practices for the stage, I engaged in the participation to semah activities by joining in their learning and public performing. More than music, it became for me imperative to concentrate on the kinetic components, as these seemed to have remained almost silent in Alevi studies. For this I asked my self how could I address best the movements on paper, searching for possibilities of ethnographizing that could not only speak about movement, but also speak through and with it.
Finally I committed to the learning of the Kinetography Laban, a movement notation systems that finds application in the performing arts and in the social sciences. Notating some of the semahs' bodily and group movements enabled me to document and analyse my experience, grasping choreo-morphological elements and conveying them in suitable standards of movement description. Moreover, better competences in movement analysis allowed me to take a distance from, while at the same time fully engage with, several bodymind 'postures' that I acquired during fieldwork.
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.