Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Where has my stuff been? Mapping consumption with beginning Cultural Anthro students

Being an anthropologist who works primarily in digital, urban, and North American and European contexts, one thing I like to emphasize in my classes is that one doesn't necessarily have to go to the other side of the world to do anthropology - culture can be found anywhere there are people. I also like doing interactive activities; it's great seeing students learn through their own experience! In my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class, during the week we go over world-systems theory, I like to illustrate this by starting with some of our most familiar objects - the clothes, school supplies, and electronics we have with us on a daily basis. When I've done this activity in the past, I've just had students look up the relevant information online and present it to the class. This time - partly due to the fact that I have become somewhat obsessed with mapping over the course of my fieldwork and data analysis, and partly inspired by the amazing Digital Humanities SoCal meeting I attended a few weeks ago - I decided to make it a little more interactive and a little more visual. I projected the map with a few examples on the screen, and the students were given the following instructions: 1. Find an object you have with you. 2. Answer the following (using the Internet on your laptop or smartphone, or one of your classmates', for parts 1 and 2) to find out the following: - Where was it made? - Where was it designed, or where is the company headquarters? - Where did you buy it? 3. Put these on the map, using a red marker for the first, a yellow marker for the second, and a blue marker for the third. Here's what we came up with (for interactive version, see the link above):
It helped spark an interesting discussion - through a very relatable medium - about where our things come from, the places we are indirectly related to through our things, and the relations among core, periphery, and semi-periphery. Has anyone done anything similar? Has it worked/not worked? Let me know!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Field Notes: Careful, you might end up in my dissertation.*

*(Disclaimer: Don't worry - if I mention you in my dissertation, you'll know about it. I'm following research-ethics protocols...you'll have to sign an informed-consent form. :)

Back in Poland after a too-brief (two weeks) trip back home to the States for the holidays. I got back New Year's Day, and have been slightly panicked about the progress of my research thus far ever since.
I'm a bit embarrassed to admit this (although I'm sure I wouldn't be the first fieldworker to do so), but I spent the first few months of my fieldwork not knowing exactly what I was doing, or even being quite sure whether I was collecting any data. (Of course, everything one does in "the field" is somehow relevant, but it doesn't always feel like that as it's happening.) In addition to making research contacts, traveling, setting up interviews, and going about daily life, I've been taking photos of just about everything (at least in public places), collecting museum publications, familiarizing myself with the Polish-language literature on museums, memory/history, and national identity (this kind of "library fieldwork" is an interesting process in itself, to be discussed in some future post) and scribbling down field notes - or something resembling them - when I can.
Methodology, and methodological training, in cultural anthropology are notoriously vague - although perhaps necessarily so. For one thing, field sites and research situations are incredibly diverse, so while it's possible to train students in the basics of fieldwork - how to conduct interviews, a basic understanding of what "participant observation" means, etc. - generalizable methods are difficult to teach. For another, a major part of anthropological research, particularly for those of us doing fieldwork outside the culture we grew up in, involves getting to know systems of knowledge that may not necessarily correspond with our own worldviews and assumptions about what "research" and "knowledge" are, and about what counts as important. For this reason our research plans can only take us so far; part of fieldwork is realizing the limitations of our own cultural constructs, and letting the direction of our projects be shaped by what we encounter in our field sites.
Still, these realizations are only so helpful when one's train of thought begins to run something like, "I've been here three months and I've barely gotten any data yet! What if I get home at the end of this year and realize I don't have anything I can use? Is that even possible? What am I even doing with my life, anyway?!?"
In an effort to keep on track - to give my research some direction outside of the interviews and other research activities that are part of my formal research plan, and to remind myself that, even during the times that I'm not actively engaged in formal research activities, I am indeed learning something - I've started keeping a fieldwork log, as recommended in the excellent research methods book Research Methods in Anthropology, by H. Russell Bernard. I write down what I'm planning to do each day, research-wise, on one side of a notebook page (whether it's looking up a particular thing, contacting a particular person, going to a meeting or event related to my research, or otherwise). On the other side of the page, I write down what I actually did that day, including things I've learned or observed that relate to my project, or anything unusual, confusing, or that I'd like to learn more about. So far, it's been helpful, both as a sort of to-do list and in helping me keep track of what I'm learning
Any anthropologists/other fieldworkers reading this? If so, what are your methods for writing up field notes? How do you understand "fieldwork," and how do you deal with the ambiguity of what it means to do this kind of research?
After this week is our mid-semester break, and I'll be spending the first part of said break conducting research interviews in various cities in Poland. Do następnego razu (until next time)!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

On “Fieldwork,” “Science,” and Meaning: Reflections on Two Months (and counting) in Poland

(Originally written for the departmental newsletter, but re-posted here.)


For a little over two months, I’ve been living in Poznań, a city in west-central Poland, conducting fieldwork on the presentation of national identity in new, multi-mediated museums – and the viewpoints of the museum workers and volunteers on this – here and in several other cities in Poland. Poznań is the fifth largest city in Poland, with a population of about 556,000, and according to legend, may or may not be the site of the founding of the Polish state.
Most of what I’ve been doing so far has involved meeting people here (by means of my admittedly limited Polish language skills – fortunately, many people here speak English fluently, and my Polish is improving!) and navigating life in Poland (including the unpredictable public transit system, which, like much of urban Poland, is under construction in preparation for the Euro 2012 soccer matches in June). Formal “research” has been a bit slower in getting started, and this has perhaps been the most surprising thing to me about fieldwork so far. On one hand, to an anthropologist, everything – from shopping in the grocery store to conducting formal interviews and surveys – is in a certain sense “research,” because by doing it, we learn more about the culture in which we are immersed. In practice, it’s a bit more complicated, as I discovered while trying to refine my formal research plan for my project. Where do we draw the line between life and fieldwork? When does a friend become a research informant, and vice versa? When do we step back from just being and pull out our field notebooks or voice recorders?
As social and cultural anthropologists, our most important research instruments are our empathy, our curiosity and openness, and our humanity in general; our research results and theories develop less out of rigorous lab tests than out of unpredictable, and often serendipitous, interactions with fellow humans. Anthropology is, as a quote often attributed to anthropologist Alfred Kroeber puts it, “the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities.” Indeed, I envision what we do as scientific. We come into the field with our “hypotheses” – not only our formal predictions about what our fieldwork will yield based on data gathered from previous experience and reading, but our own culturally conditioned assumptions, biases, and perspectives – and have these tested and, more often than not, challenged, through our life experience in the field. Our “experiments” are the stuff of everyday interaction – the stories, conversations, insights, and inevitable silly questions and “communicative blunders” (Briggs 1986) that come about not only through the formal research activities specified in our project descriptions, but through simply living. We work according to ethical standards and commonly accepted, time-tested fieldwork methods – although when one’s research concerns people, who are both research participants and interlocutors, the practice of research is often as much a matter of bricolage (Lévi-Strauss 1966) – specifically, of constructing meaning and insight out of available cultural materials – than of rigidly following a defined plan. And the significance of our research? In the best-case scenario, a genuine deepening of intercultural and intersubjective understanding – a recognition of not only the differences, but the commonalities, between ourselves and our culture and that of our research informants, and a development of theoretical understandings about human behavior and the world that cross and transcend cultural boundaries. In a time when politicians in the U.S. and other countries frequently discount the merits of humanistic disciplines – some using “anthropology” as a metaphor for a useless education (Savage Minds 2011) – this is, I believe, the necessary insight and importance our humanistic, and scientific, discipline can offer.
My question about how to draw the line between “life” and “fieldwork” raises a further insight for me: Formal fieldwork is, in a way, a sort of magnified, reflexive version of the processes we go through in encountering, and making meaning out of, any social and cultural environment in which we find ourselves. Fieldwork is, it seems, less a matter of drawing a strict line between life and research than of reflecting on, and finding the meaning in, what we encounter. As I still have at least ten months left here in Poland, I’ll keep you posted on my adventures, and on what I learn from them.


Briggs, Charles.
1986 Learning How to Ask: A Sociolinguistic Appraisal of the Role of the Interview in Social Science Research. New York: Cambridge.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude.
1968. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Savage Minds.
2011. “Governor of Florida: We don’t need no anthropologists.” Accessed 4 December 2011 from here.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The triumphant return of the famous and brilliant Research Blog™!

(Okay, so in reality it’s neither famous nor particularly brilliant. But it has in fact returned.)
First, a brief update on what I’ve been doing for the past year, research-wise. I put together a more or less concrete project (specifically, I’ll be interviewing museum and cultural center employees/volunteers in several different Polish cities), finished writing up my proposal and position papers, passed my qualifying exam as of May 18 of this year, and just last week, received the go-ahead from the Institutional Review Board to start collecting data (although I still need to translate my forms into Polish). Progress!
Unfortunately I have not yet managed to secure funding for my project, beyond a departmental grant. Faced with the choice between putting off fieldwork despite having finished all my other requirements, leaving grad school after 4 years due to lack of funding, and doing the fieldwork one way or another, I chose option #3, which meant more student loans than I want to think about. Hopefully it’ll pay off, and in the meantime, I’m continuing to apply and re-apply for grants. Wish me luck, and send me any successful-grant-writing tips you may have!
As of today I’ve been back in Poland (this time in Poznan) for one month, one week, and three days. I’ve been mostly getting used to everyday life here, taking classes, and meeting people, and just got back from an amazing trip to Bialystok and the Podlasie area in eastern Poland, where we visited a variety of Catholic and Orthodox churches and Tatar Muslim mosques, other historic and cultural sites, and the Bialowieza Forest (oldest original forest in Europe!). My Polish is (slowly) improving, although I still have a way to go before I’ll be anywhere near fluent. I’m working on an article that’s due at the end of this month (I’ll probably post a summary/brief sketch of what I’m planning to submit on here within the next few days). I’m also going to a conference in Warsaw on memory in Central and Eastern Europe in a few weeks (I’m not presenting, but still should be interesting). And hopefully I should be able to start interviews and meetings in the next few weeks.
Off to get some reading done! Further updates coming soon.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Mapping Pre-fieldwork

Since returning from Poland and trying to figure out exactly what all this information I've collected (pictures, brochures, notes, etc.) means and what to do with it - in particular, how to turn it into a project with clear-cut questions and goals - one thing I've been really struck by is the role of place (and materiality more broadly) to memory, and the complex relationship of these to digital media. Media and globalization allow people to more easily and quickly communicate with other people, and learn about places, events, and cultural phenomena, around the world. On one hand, this contributes to a sense of "placelessness" and mobility - the idea that individuals can physically move around and yet remain connected to familiar people, information, and social networks, or the idea that, as with Second Life, one can actually create and build contexts for interaction, apart from existing physical-world contexts. (Coming of Age in Second Life is a good recent ethnography that deals with this topic fairly extensively.)
On the other, technology is also being used as another means of associating meaning with physical-world locations and objects. (I'm very aware of this every time I attempt to find my way around San Diego, which is quite difficult without the use of my GPS.) This is, of course, continuous with much older technologies - e.g., maps, walking routes - but digital media allows for more interactive content, such as associating text, photos, videos, etc. with locations on maps, or even in the physical world - such as with QR Codes. I'd seen these around, but hadn't really paid attention or known what they were until I saw them attached to some of the historical sites in Łódź.
With regard to some of my own data, I've been playing around with ZeeMaps, which is a Web site that lets you add your own info tags and media content to Google maps. Organizing photos and information by place - e.g., tagging particular cafes, street corners, etc. - rather than by name, description, or album, like I would if I were labeling them on, for instance, Facebook, has proved an interesting sort of experiment in thinking about how memory is organized via digital media. Here's an as-yet-unfinished map of some of the places I visited during my trip this summer, some with photos and brief descriptions.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Krakow Part 2, Łódź, and Warsaw (again)

After 19 hours of flying and hanging out in airports, I'm back in San Diego (and, after a day and a half, more or less over the jet lag)...still in the process of adjusting back to while trying to be moderately productive. Now to work on going back through all my notes and pictures and figuring out what I can come up with in terms of useful things for a fieldwork proposal.
I've been ridiculously busy (or possibly just lazy), and therefore haven't written on here in a while, so here's a (not-so) brief recap of my last week and a half in Poland. The second half of class went pretty well. I continued working on Polish grammar (although I'm still by no means fluent, especially when I'm speaking and can't think of the proper word endings on the spot, I think I understand it a little better now!) Now that I'm back home and no longer surrounded by native Polish speakers, it'll be somewhat more difficult to get speaking and reading practice, so I need to be disciplined about keeping up with studying. Our guide for some of the sightseeing tours around Krakow, an American guy living there who taught himself Polish while and before moving there, suggested reading some of the Polish newspapers online as a good way of getting language practice. I also picked up a few books (Polish-language graphic novels at Centrum Komiksu in Warsaw, and English-Polish bilingual poetry books published by Wydawnictwo Literackie) that will help me practice, as well as a few CDs of Polish bands. Yay for "fun reading" that also counts as research. In any case, though, I think I'll definitely need to take a few more language classes either before or when I actually get there for my fieldwork.
Other than that, during my second week in Krakow, I visited the Ethnographic Museum (Muzeum Etnograficzne). The slogan posted above the front door (in English and Polish) is "My Museum - A Museum About Me," which seems to reflect the museum's focus on the ethnography of Poland specifically (at least as far as I could tell from the exhibits that were up when I visited). The first floor had rooms for visitors to walk through and model buildings, representing typical houses and rooms from the late 19th and early 20th century in Krakow and the Podhale region. (There was also an exhibit called "Islam Orientation Ornament," featuring Islamic art from the Middle East and Africa, which required an additional ticket - given that I got there about 45 minutes before closing, I unfortunately didn't have time to check this one out.) In addition to houses, they had exhibitions of a fulling mill, a school, a potter's oven, and an oil mill. The rooms were either labeled "reconstruction" or "arrangement," but I wasn't sure if this implied anything about whether the objects were original or not, or whether this just referred to how the curators had arranged the objects. The second floor had an exhibit on life in rural Poland, with an extensive collection of objects ranging from newspapers to children's toys to kitchen utensils; it also, like the Warsaw ethnographic museum, included a section on annual rituals in Poland. I talked with a few of the tour guides, who told me that I had been the only English-speaking visitor there all day (although apparently they get French tourists fairly often). On the museum's top floor, there was an "object study" featuring chests from different Polish regions and different time periods, with information (in the form of a Polish/English bilingual brochure) about where they came from and what they were used for (mostly, in the case of the ones displayed, for dowries).
Later in the week, we took a tour of Nowa Huta (the "New Steelworks"), a district of Krakow that was originally planned as an ideal socialist city. It's well known as one of the most famous examples of socialist realist architecture, and during the 1980s, it became an important place for demonstrations and protests by the Solidarity movement. Near there is the Wanda Mound (Kopiec Wandy), which according to legend is the burial place of an 8th-century Polish princess. (Evidently this has never been verified by archaeologists.)
There's also an interesting public-art project going on in Krakow called Chopin in the City. The composer Frédéric Chopin is an important cultural/national figure in Poland (the airport in Warsaw is even named after him!) The project, according to the Web site, places public-art projects around the city (for instance, a walk-in dome made up of speakers playing Chopin's music, set up outside the Galeria Krakowska mall) to use "non-standard actions and modern technologies" to bring Chopin's music into public spaces in new ways. Pretty cool.
I left Krakow on Saturday and spent a few days in Łódź, which is between Krakow and Warsaw, and is basically a former industrial city in the process of re-inventing itself as a cultural and technological center. It's known as a center of Polish cinematography, with a famous film school and cinematography museum. Łódź also has the Manufaktura, a former factory complex that has been converted into a shopping and entertainment center with stores, restaurants, bars, clubs, a movie theater, a science museum, and even outdoor volleyball and bungee jumping. It's also an interesting place culturally speaking - they have the Festival of the Dialogue of Four Cultures, which showcases the town's multi-cultural history (of Polish, Jewish, German, and Russian residents). (Unfortunately, the festival wasn't taking place while I was there.)
The hostel I stayed in, Flamingo Hostel, was really nice - it had only been open for about a year, and so everything was fairly new (and apparently, not many people know it exists - I only had one roommate in a 6-person room for all three nights!) However, it appeared to be actively under construction while I was staying there. The first night, I attempted to take a shower in our bathroom, which featured a bathtub with a shower head and no curtain. When I woke up the next day, we had a shower curtain and a holder for the shower head, which was definitely not there the night before. Weird.
For my last night in Poland, I headed back to Warsaw and once again stayed at the Oki Doki Hostel, where I had been for my first few days there. I'd definitely recommend it to anyone planning to visit Warsaw - both the guests and the staff are very helpful and friendly, and they have tons of maps, brochures, etc. with suggestions of things to do around Warsaw. I headed out to the Stare Miasto (Old Town), then promptly got caught in a rainstorm and spent an hour or so hiding from the weather in a nearby Pizza Hut (the ever-so-traditionally-Polish dining establishment). After walking around Warsaw and Stare Miasto for a bit, I headed back to the hostel, where I attempted (with moderate success, I think) to speak Polish with some of the other people working/staying there. My flight was at 7 a.m. (again, for future reference, not the most pleasant time to be at the airport, but probably significantly cheaper than scheduling it later)...so I had to wake up at 4 a.m. and head to the airport. After 19 hours altogether of flights and layovers (first from Warsaw to Brussels, then from Brussels to Atlanta [during which my suitcase somehow lost its retractable handle in transit], then finally from Atlanta to San Diego), I finally got back home.
All in all, a great (and hopefully productive) trip. I picked up a ton of notes, photos, brochures, etc. that will hopefully help me write this dissertation proposal...so far I've got a few vague ideas about technology, memory, and the mapping of public space, tourism and the publicizing of culture and history/memory, and the relationships between public and private, and individual and collective, memory. Now to actually sit down and start writing...

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Wandering in Kraków and Zakopane

...and the adventures continue. I'm beginning to be marginally less confused by Polish grammar, although I still can't get the case endings (and, quite frequently, the verb conjugations) right, especially when I'm speaking and don't have time to think about it. Yesterday I went to Zakopane with some other people from the language school. We went hiking on one of the trails, which turned out to be pretty difficult (although amazingly beautiful). I eventually did make it to the little restaurant area at the top of the trail, although about 10 minutes after everyone else in my group got there. (Evidently I am ridiculously out of shape, although I already knew that.) Even so, I got some great pictures of the forest and rivers, and talked with some Polish kids on the way up. (Their English was much better than my Polish, although I guessed they were probably only about 12 or 13 years old...interesting commentary on the American education system's [lack of] emphasis on language learning, relative to that of the rest of the world.) After getting lunch at the restaurant there, we hiked back down (it was going to rain, so we couldn't spend much time up there). The views from the top of the trail were amazing. We could see the forests, and the tops of the mountains, for what looked like miles around (I'm pretty sure some of them had snow on them, even at this time of year). I've got some pictures and videos which I have not yet uploaded to my computer, but which I'll post on here and Facebook when I do that.
After the hike, we headed down into the town of Zakopane, which is kind of a resort town that's well-known especially for skiing and winter tourism. The main street was incredibly crowded, and a bunch of us spent the hour we had in town sitting at a cafe and talking. It's apparently also a culturally distinctive region in that the Górale live there. We headed back to Kraków around 5 p.m., then got some dinner at a vegetarian restaurant downtown which I forget the name of at the moment.
I spent this morning doing work on my computer at my host family's place, then decided that if I was going to have to do work, I should at least do it outside where I might actually meet some people. So I grabbed a zapiekanka for lunch, headed to a cafe in the city center, worked a bit more, and have spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around in Kazimierz, Kraków's historically Jewish area, which is full of really interesting old buildings and museums (including the Old Synagogue, which is a division of the Kraków Historical Museum).
I'm currently using the free wi-fi at Czajownia, a tea place just outside the aforementioned museum. It's semi-expensive, but the atmosphere is pretty interesting - they have a huge selection of tea (their menu is literally about 30 pages long), with extensive descriptions of each one, how it's made, where it comes from, and other random information (one was described as something like "ideal for drinking while reading the Russian classics," another as something like "perfect for after a walk alone in the park at twilight"). I'm also looking up travel information - I haven't yet decided where would be best to spend my last four days in Poland after my class finishes, both in terms of seeing interesting things and in terms of transportation logistics. (My plane leaves from Warsaw at 7 a.m. on Aug. 4, and so I need to be back there in time. Rather than booking a hostel room for a few hours, or taking one of the night trains which I hear are not exactly the safest or most pleasant, I figure that, unless I end up back in Warsaw for those four days, I'll just head back there by train or bus late in the day on the 3rd and spend the night in the airport...probably should have thought of that when I booked the tickets.)
And now I am off to find dinner and probably do some further wandering around Kazimierz and the Rynek Główny (super-touristy and usually very crowded city center area, which has got some pretty cool street performers and booths selling random things, as well as a statue of Adam Mickiewicz [Poland's national poet] and a church with a trumpeter who plays every hour to announce the hour). Do zobaczenia!