Ethnographic writing. How intimidating these words together can be. I guess that a way of making it more meaningful is to make it my own. That’s why I will first share a piece of the notes I wrote about my extraordinary experience in the Volkenkunde museum last Sunday; then, I will give the floor to my ethnographic self.
‘15th September 2019.
After some intensive minutes in the Indonesian world -of the museum-, I was heading exit when I started seeing a great number of bizarre people leaving the place as well. This got me all curious. Staying at the gates and observing in further detail the scene, I heard a woman asking her fellows ‘’Are you going as well to the ceremony?’’. Indeed, they were all going in the same direction. Like a good research learner, I didn’t hesitate a second; I followed the crowd.
Going around the museum building, I found some people wearing white and red clothes that looked familiar to me. ‘That must be a coincidence’ I said to myself. Once we arrived at our destination, a group of mixed people started to play the drum and sing in such a way that it took me back to the Amazonian rainforest. Mind and heart opened, I let the energy flow run inside me, as I used to do two months ago.
When the ceremony was finished, I approached one of the participant men. His name was Eric, and he confirmed my assumptions. Indeed, they belonged to the native Lokono/Arawak community of Suriname, who inhabit the French Guiana as well. It was with his neighbours that I had lived for a month during my European Volunteering service. I couldn’t stop thinking of it as a huge lucky coincidence. ‘’Or maybe, it was a matter of serendipity’’ popped up in my mind, remembering one of the next class’ texts.
This experience had taken me far away in time and space. But I am here in Leiden and yet living the Native People’s movement in a completely different stage and moment. Could I be a “neo-nomad researcher” (Rivoal and Salazar 2013, 181) breaking the traditional limits of the ethnographic method?´
I am now observing my words and videos. I was on the researcher buzz, no doubts. Following the individual behaviour of the singer, the group dynamic within which I participated, their colourful clothes, the music and the short interview with Eric and his attitude (towards myself). I was somehow analysing and comparing the celebration of a similar event in places and contexts as different as the Netherlands and the French Guiana are. I remember posing myself the question later that day of whether we can arrive at a specific objective knowledge led by our own subjective linking of coincidences
What I did not observe was how I was intervening in the experience. I could be a participant to be researched about, couldn’t I? As such, I will try to follow James Clifford and George Marcus (1986) as quoted by (Berry 2017, 3) to identify my “own subject position explicitly and reflexively within the account of the research instead of relying on a third-person perspective to create an illusion of objectivity and impartiality”.
I began thinking about the enormous role that my recent experience background played in the way I perceived the event. I was focused primarily on their physical characteristics and traditional dress trying to find out the community they belonged to. I continued analysing the instruments they used to play music and the melody which came out of them. Then, I reflected on the way the rest of the people – us – were dancing and participating in the ceremony. After, I observed the role of the spokesman and singer in the event. I was aware that my ultimate aim was to make parallelism to recognise the differences and similarities with my past experiences. When we finished the ceremony, my first idea was to interview a woman from the community. As I couldn’t, I ended up approaching Eric. Indeed, I can acknowledge that in this process of analysis, I had left a lot of substantial information that I did not pay attention to due to my close experience background (and bias).
This process of reflexivity seeking “to be aware of one’s own habitual patterns of thought, world view and interpretations and to step back from these so that one is able to observe one’s internal dialogue” (Berry 2017, 5) leads to me to another essential element: the sensorial experience. Being this sensitivity a core element in my daily life, it does not surprise me that it played a major role here too. When the drums’ rhythm started to play, my senses opened to get the most of it. It was as easy as to follow a pattern I had already developed.
Finally, I should reflect on my own way of storytelling. Apparently, I decided to write an adventures diary. Why choosing such a literature form? Once again, my subjectivity takes the lead. Basically, I would say that my weakness for stories and novels combined with a kind of adventurous perception of reality was the perfect cocktail for telling such a story.
Et voilà. Could this self-reflection be an academic approach appropriate to me?
Coming back to the beginning, whether this is an ethnographic blog post is the question that remains. Nevertheless, what I can say is that once this door has been opened, I will not easily let it close again.
(Berry 2017, 3)
James Clifford and George Marcus (1986)
Rivoal and Salazar 2013, 181