Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Encounters With Hostility

As an anthropologist, my interest is people. Some may even say that my business is people. And truly, I want to talk to others (most of the time), and have them explain their world to me. I want to see things as they see them. Unfortunately, it's not quite as simple as walking up to someone and saying, "Hello, my name is Krystal. I'm an anthropologist. I see you're eating an orange. I don't like oranges. Why do you?"

At least not all of the time. Interactions are dynamic. Any number of factors can color the situation—the social context, the person's mood, your clothing, etc. can all alter the interaction and the person's willingness to relate to you. Any number of things can put someone off. My earliest forays into fieldwork were frustrating until I accepted that while you can do everything in your power to make an encounter or interview go smoothly, it can still go wrong. There are just too many factors beyond your control. If your informant has a stomach ache, she may be shorter with you than she might otherwise be, causing you to think that she is unhappy or uncomfortable with you and the situation. Think about how this could color your relationship: She may in fact be embarrassed at how she is treating you, but unable to correct it, and you, the anthropologist, thinking you have offended her in some way, may leave her out of the ethnographic record for fear of imposing on her.

Things can and will go wrong. I thought at this point in my life I had truly accepted this lesson, and then I started writing this blog and had an encounter that showed me that this is a lesson we can learn over and over again.

My earliest forays into fieldwork had me working with a adult immigrants of West Indian descent I quickly learned to say I was a student collecting information or a researcher. I was never anything as fancy as an "anthropologist"—primarily because none of my would-be informants knew what that meant. They were convinced that I was in league with immigration officials and would have them deported. Interviews would be canceled when I called to confirm the appointment after informants had time to think about the meeting. I could feel the tension on their end just as they could likely feel my discomfort. Some would be hostile if I bumped into them on the street, keeping their responses to my greetings curt or avoiding me entirely. What could I possibly want to talk to any of them for? I was an American-educated girl who spoke with no trace of her native accent. I couldn't be there to help them, or even harmless for that matter. I survived the process though, and I did it by simply getting over it. I learned to see myself through the eyes of my "other" and how to break the ice gradually, how to restrain my energy and how to wait. Essentially, working with this group helped me build up a pretty extensive toolbox of disarming techniques that I have relied on time and time again to get different people to talk to me—until that it, I crossed paths with her.
I use photos in my posts to help place my reader in the context of my words. You can't be there, unfortunately, readers, so I try and help you see what I have seen. Maybe you'll have a different analysis—which would be exciting! In any case, I'm careful in my photo-taking though I don't ask permission unless it's a sensitive issue. And I try and leave identifying characteristics, such as addresses, names, etc. out of the photo. If I'm caught in the act of photographing a subject, I always introduce myself and talk a little about the work I'm doing. (E.g., "You have a great bag! I'm looking at the different types of bags people are using to transport items for a piece I'm writing for my blog.") And for the most part, people open up. Some want to know more. Some just want to know what I'm doing. And some could care less once they know I'm harmless, and we part ways without causing too much stress to each other.

A few weeks ago, I went to take some pictures of a street near my home at dusk for this blog. I walked about 20 feet from my driveway to a T-intersection and began to take some shots. I was standing in the street, probably 3 feet from the curb trying to get the last glimmers of sunlight through some impressive trees. Presently, a woman emerged from one of the houses midway up the block, and got into her car. She sat there, and I continued to take photos. She was not in my shot, and even if she was there was no way you could see her in her car from where I was positioned.

Suddenly, the car's lights came on and the engine roared to life. The car sped to my location, causing my to beat a hasty retreat back to the sidewalk. The car and driver stopped suddenly at the spot where I had been standing. She looked at me. I waved. Though we don't know each other personally, this woman is my neighbor. She lives up the block from me—surely she has seen me before just as I have seen her. She didn't wave back. Instead she growled, "What are you doing?" Still friendly and upbeat, I said "Well, I'm a writer. I'm just trying to get some shots of the street for my blog." For whatever reason, I think she chose not to hear me. "Why don't you go take your pictures somewhere else?" "I'm taking a picture of this tree. It isn't anywhere near you or your home." "I wonder what the police would think if I called them and told them about your little photo shoot," she continued. At this point, I was a little shocked. This was my block, and as far as I was concerned I had a right to take photos there. I was not however going to point out my house to someone who was clearly being hostile. I was livid. I had done nothing wrong, but I held on to my composure and tried to channel everything I had learned from my initial attempts at fieldwork. Thinking that she thought she was the subject of the photographs, I tried an apology. "I'm sorry if I disturbed you," I said, trying to dispel her hostility. "I'm taking pictures of the street. You aren't in any of them." I tried my explanation again.

"Apology not accepted!" she snapped and gunned her engine. I stepped off the curb back onto the street, now convinced that this was woman was not going to bully me. "It's not a crime," I said, "to take photos of my street." "Yeah, well we'll see what the police have to say!" "So call them! I've done nothing wrong. I'll wait right here." At that point she put the car in reverse and backed up to her house with a fair amount of speed. I refused to leave the scene. I continued to take photos even though the shot had long disappeared. When I finally returned to the house, I was furious. S suggested that I should have pointed out our house as it might have calmed her down. I felt that she had already decided not to hear me, so that it wouldn't have made a difference—and I don't think I wanted her knowing where I lived anyway.

I don't know this woman personally. Perhaps I should have apologized and put the camera away. I think I expected more from her—as both a neighbor and as a resident of the community, which reveals something of my own bias, I know. In this instance, my tools failed me—reminding me that my toolbox is not concrete. But it also confirmed my ability to see myself in the eyes of my "other" because believe it or not, I can understand her: A perceived stranger standing on the street in pajamas near dusk is weird! I get it. We're all worried about anything out of the ordinary. The problem is that this anxiety clouds people ability to hear. If she had been anything but bent on being angry and telling me to get off of her street, she would have seen me what I was: a young woman who has walked by her home on many a summer night, in her pajamas, trying to take pictures of a row of trees. In her mind, she was probably doing her block a favor, but it still left me angry.

I've played this scenario over in my mind a few times, trying to understand what caused her reaction: What was it in my manner that put her off? Was it the fact that I was in my pajamas? Was it the color of my skin? Was it my glasses? Does she have contempt for writers? Has she never heard of a blog? Why didn't she recognize me?

But I also have questions for myself: Why did I expect her not to care that I was taking photos? Why did I instinctively identify myself as a writer to her? Why did I expect her to recognize me? And why didn't I hold on to that lesson: things can and will go wrong when interacting with others?

I wanted to share this story to show that ethnographic work isn't predefined.The social context colors all of our interactions and it's not something that can be easily read. She could have been having a bad day, perhaps her home had been recently broken into, or it could have been something darker that any of these explanations. I haven't seen her since in person though I have seen her driving by in her car from time to time. I was tempted to follow-up with her, but thought it best to let it go. I am interested in hearing your take on this encounter—as well as any of your own difficult encounters with your "others." What particular techniques do you have in your toolbox? Share below.

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