What would you do?

“What would you do,” a professor once asked, “if you’ve only got three weeks left of your fieldwork and your interlocutors aren’t responding to you?” She asked this of me and a fellow student several years ago when we were taking one of her classes. I think she was a bit frustrated at our frustration. One of the requirements for the class was a paper that added new research to and knowledge about an area of the world that has been under-studied by ethnomusicologists. For this paper, she wanted us to go as far as we could in conducting fieldwork without actually traveling anywhere. We were to use email, Facebook, Skype, phone calls, anything that would put us in direct contact with actual people. And my people weren’t picking up the phone. Or answering emails. Or responding to Facebook messages. In desperation, I turned to my professor, and she asked me the above question.

Sunrise in Hawaii

At the time, I was exceedingly exasperated with the question. “This isn’t fieldwork,” I fumed. “I’m cold calling complete strangers and expecting them to respond to my questions. I’m not living in their culture. I’m playing music with them. I don’t even get to meet them face-to-face. Why would they? Why should they?” Her suggestion of name-dropping the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa to lend credibility to my inquiry carried absolutely no weight with anyone I contacted. I was a nobody, trying to talk to people who had no incentive to talk to me. Was I supposed to call them every day? Keep emailing them after months of silence? Keep pushing? What would I do if I only had three weeks left of my fieldwork and my interlocutors weren’t responding? Is giving up an option?

Her question has come back to me often over the past year, as I’ve conducted fieldwork for my dissertation in Glasgow, Scotland and Honolulu, Hawai`i. I don’t know for certain, but I believe the unspoken subtext of that question was that these were my last three weeks after spending six months to a year doing fieldwork in one place. That gives it a real sense of urgency; time is running out! But my fieldwork has, of necessity, been done in small chunks—usually of a month or two—over a period of years. Three weeks is an incredible amount of time to get things done in when your whole trip only lasts four or eight. One’s whole concept of time, what constitutes hurrying or getting to know someone, shifts dramatically when you’ve only got a short time to begin with.

But certain elements are similar to longer fieldwork trips; for example, needing to do things on their time, not mine. When I first arrived in Scotland a year ago for a two-month fieldwork stint, I was still a nobody. I knew three people in the gamelan group I was studying. I was essentially cold calling everyone else. They had no reason to talk to me, and that was a really humbling and wonderful realization. Certainly, as ethnomusicologists, we like to do things for our interlocutors, and they may also have their own reasons or agendas for cooperating with us. But the bottom line is: they don’t have to talk to us. They don’t have to teach us anything. The fact that they do—that they take the time to show us some of the most beautiful, intriguing, challenging, and wonderful musics, ideas, and beliefs—is utterly amazing to me. I only had two months, but I couldn’t go barreling into this gamelan, demanding that people talk to me right now. It didn’t matter if time was running out for me; I still had to earn the gamelan members’ trust. I still needed to earn the right to be there.

And as uncomfortable as it still makes me, part of my fieldwork is cold calling people. On my current trip to Scotland, I’ve called and emailed—even snail-mailed—complete strangers, asking questions they have no incentive to answer. The fantastic thing is: they do!

The difficulty is: I have no idea why it’s working now but didn’t work before. I’m dealing with two completely different cultures, so perhaps in this one it’s more appropriate to contact people out of the blue. Perhaps in this one, I’m viewed more as an insider because I’m also a gamelan player; as opposed to the previous situation, where I had almost no knowledge of the music or traditions. Perhaps I’m catching the gamelan members at a good time, whereas in the previous situation, the timing was off. There are so many factors (one might even argue too many) to try to apply my particular strategies for this fieldwork project to others, but there are certain general things I’ve learned through my experiences and by keeping my professor’s question in mind.

I think the important thing to always remember is that my interlocutors are under no obligation to speak to me. If I only have three weeks left of my fieldwork and they aren’t talking to me, I have to be patient, persistent, and creative. Sending them multiple email messages or phone calls every day isn’t the answer (unless, of course, you find someone who responds to that kind of bombardment). Things have to happen on their time, and it could be that they aren’t ready to speak to me. I had one gamelan member confess that, during my last fieldwork visit, he actively avoided me because he didn’t want to be interviewed. He only let me know this, and agreed to talk with me, after we spent a long weekend moving gamelan instruments all over Glasgow and getting to know each other. I had no idea he felt this way and was rushing to talk to him on this trip because I didn’t want him to feel slighted. If I had pushed him in order to offer him the inclusion he was actively avoiding, I would only have pushed him away.

I’ve always been a shy person, much more comfortable listening to other people talk and only joining in or asking questions when I know the speakers well. When my professor first asked me her question, I worried that it implied that I was too shy, too reticent for fieldwork and, therefore, for ethnomusicology. I worried that it meant I would have to become something I’m not in order to have any chance of people talking with me. And while it’s absolutely true that fieldwork takes me out of my comfort zone (as it absolutely should), it hasn’t turned me into someone I’m not comfortable being. I’ve learned that being persistent doesn’t mean being pushy. I’ve learned to look for many different ways to get to know my interlocutors and to create opportunities for them to speak to me in ways they are most comfortable. I’ve learned that someone not talking to me now doesn’t mean they won’t talk to me eventually, but it has to be on their time.

  • Heather
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