Saturday, 6 July 2013

SIEF Congress and questions confronting fieldworkers

I'm just back from Tartu, where I had a brilliant and exhausting time at the SIEF Congress. (I took this picture of the university building on my 'phone because I was so overwhelmed by its scale and elegance).
 I'd had to miss the 2011 SIEF Congress in Lisbon because I was busy writing up my thesis. The last one I'd attended was Derry in 2008, so it was very nice to meet up again with some old friends and admired colleagues I hadn't seen since then: one or two even remembered me. I was particularly happy to run into Barbro Klein, whom I had only met once before, at an Anglo-Scottish Young Folklorists Conference in Edinburgh in 2005. (The picture below was taken at that event by Gunnella Þorgeirsdóttir).

One reason the Congress was so exhausting was the sheer volume of papers and discussion. I couldn't possibly summarise the event as a whole, but I found one recurring topic of discussion particularly interesting. It's possible I identified it because it's always been of interest to me, but it cropped up in a number of panels and sessions.

It was first flagged in a panel on archives and their use. Discussing making archive material available to a broader public, Kelly Fitzgerald of University College Dublin raised a question that was left hanging somewhat: what are the implications of this for fieldworkers? She was questioning above all what this meant for the training of future fieldworkers. I found this highly thought-provoking: are we in danger of trying to structure incoming field collections, and thus shaping field collection itself, in line with future output? How are archives to deal with the slightly random and unpredictable character of fieldwork? How are fieldworkers to deal with it?

This was followed a day later by a stimulating panel discussion on the role and responsibilities of the fieldworker in politically controversial and ethically contested situations. John Helsloot had given a brilliant opening presentation dealing with the concerns raised by Zwarte Piet (see, for example, the Zwarte Piet is Racisme campaign). Michael Herzfeld had contributed some interesting comments on the responsibility of the fieldworker both to express disagreement with participants and to engage politically on their behalf where necessary.

It was disappointing, then, to find that position expressed in a rather more conservative way in Michael Herzfeld's subsequent keynote address. Herzfeld's warning against prostration before arguments alleging evolutionary inevitability ('things are changing and there's nothing you can do about it') is sound enough, and is a useful corrective to a progressive positivism that was certainly voiced during the Congress, but in the absence of an articulated alternative there is a danger that this just leads us back to an uncritical nostalgia for what already exists. Some speakers in the floor discussion highlighted this in relation to the examples he had advanced.

The critical response brought out, too, that this nostalgia had led to a misreading of the evidence. Where Herzfeld read the lack of sociability with other customers in chain coffee shops as a destruction of social exchange, other speakers pointed to it as demonstrating new forms of social interaction. People on their mobiles and using social media on their laptops aren't failing to be sociable just because they're not being sociable with the staff and other customers of the coffee shop they're using as a venue. That may not be ideal, or even to be celebrated, but ethnologists, folklorists and anthropologists have a duty to understand how such new forms of social interaction work for our informants and participants. Otherwise any political engagement on their behalf is likely to be misjudged.

These are not easy questions, and I enjoyed the opportunity to think about them in the company of some really excellent scholars. I hope that I can bring them to bear in some useful way on my own work.

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