Fieldwork, Participant-observation, and other intellectual excursions
Other social anthropologists contributing to this volume have already discussed some of the pros and cons of fieldwork and participant-observation (e.g. Hubert, Medina). I wish here only to underscore those points my colleagues have not themselves stressed.
My first point has to be that much of what I learnt about food habits while in the village, I learnt because I was living there for an extended period (just under two years), have kept on going back at least annually, and have consistently tried as much as possible to participate in the tasks of the community: especially assisting both my smallholder-landlord (pruning vines, harvesting grapes, ‘milking’ [to use the local term] olive trees, stacking bales, etc.) and the age-set to which I am attached (preparing meals, joining in their entry to the annual fancy-dress competition, etc.) As some locals explicitly told me, by learning-through-doing I had shown a degree of openness which they respected and so, as far as I can judge, won for myself a certain level of acceptance. This continuing experience has also provided me with a diversity of overlapping contexts within which to attempt to understand what I have come to know about village ways and attitudes. As Malinowski pointed out decades ago, long-term fieldwork allows anthropologists to recognize some of the gaps between local rhetorics and realities; in my case, it has enabled me to ask locals how they try to reconcile the rift between the two. Also, because the main focus on my work was not directly on food, much of what I learnt was by observation and serendipity: unexpected events happening in front of me during the long course of my fieldwork, which I would then ask the locals to explicate.
It is important to underline that I was not so much gradually gaining an idea of their way of life as collectively constructing with them a certain interpretation of the village. Clifford (1980) has spoken of the fieldwork encounter between anthropologist and key pundits as less a work of translation and more a joint production of an intercultural text. In other words, an anthropologist and his/her informants produce a series of questions and answers in which the interloper attempts to comprehend what his/her hosts are doing and why, while the locals are trying to understand the aims of their visitor and respond accordingly. In the process, both the questions and answers of the participants in this ongoing discussion become ever more refined, and the intersubjectivity they are creating that much more extensive and subtle. The result, according to Clifford, is not a definitive ethnography but a book which should be assessed as the complicit manufacture by the parties involved of a historically contingent intercultural text. On this reading, anthropologists do not simply discover ‘what is going on in the village’ but painstakingly help put together a collection of ‘partial truths’.
Clifford’s approach is itself all too obviously partial. It forgets the other conversations an ethnographer participates in before production of his/her ethnography: dialogues with colleagues and other academics, all of which help in the formulation of the partial truths. But Clifford’s key point should still be well-taken. Anthropologists do not deal in hard-edge facts which, like tins on a supermarket shelf, can be pulled down by a customer and rearranged as suits. The statements ethnographers fabricate are much more grounded, a fact they have to stress to some of their readers, who might otherwise be easily mislead.
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A final point. Anthropologists cannot prescribe exactly which food-related dimensions promoters of local identity may wish to focus on. They may stress particular foods, combinations of foods, particular prohibitions, styles of cooking, particular tastes or textures, structures and timing of meals, size of portions, table manners, and so on. It is up to the fieldworker to find out exactly which are being used to drive the vehicle of identity.
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