Thursday, 24 November 2016

On the Chance Remark

Fieldwork is, of course, the best thing about folklore. This is where you get to engage with people about the folklore they share, perform and practice, where you get to see and hear about it at first hand. Fieldwork can be beguiling: all that time in the field, recording and documenting, listening and probing, then demands more time in the study with careful and accurate transcription and annotation even before you get down any kind of description and analysis.

Fieldwork is also the most complicated part of folklore, because it involves the folklorist in a network of relationships that have attendant responsibilities. The key point here is that we are investigating other people’s lives. We are not taking things from them, we are inviting them to share their lives with us, and we should be celebrating that sharing. It is a collaborative process, not an acquisitive one.

The history of folklore and its fieldwork has left us with a rather difficult terminological legacy: I am reluctant to use the term ‘collector’ because it sounds so appropriative, but in some areas of research it is still a current term that – for many of the individuals involved – does not have the negative connotations I fearfully read in it. The field of song research, particularly, is torn between documenting the songs themselves as artefacts and how the songs and their singing fit into the lives of the singers. Shortly before my first foray into the field (long before I began any academic study of Folklore) I had the good fortune to speak to the late Simon Evans (a fine oral historian, researcher of musical traditions and documenter of Gypsy life in the south east of England). I spoke to Simon a few times over the ensuing period, as our interests coincided geographically as well as by subject. In that first conversation he gave me the best advice any fieldworker could possibly be given. He warned me not to focus on the songs to the exclusion of everything else: ‘These aren’t just songs’, he insisted, ‘they’re part of people’s lives’.

Simon Evans

Closely related to the transformation of other people’s culture into artefacts is the idea that the fieldworker, no matter their relationship with their informant, is simply a detached and dispassionate observer. It is all too easy to detach our analysis from the context of fieldwork and documentation. Where an ‘artefact’ can be presented separated from its context (and the early song collectors [sic] talked about ‘rescuing’ songs, as if singers and singing were somehow secondary), fieldworkers investigating other areas can be suckered into the notion that their questions haven’t shaped the responses they hear or that their interpretation does not reveal anything of their own biases and positions. Under the guise of dispassion they can end up objectifying what they are observing.

Greater reflexivity does enable fieldworkers to identify, and work with, some of these problems. In particular it enables us to recognise how we are interacting with the items of collectanea we are documenting. Perhaps a larger problem, one not so easily recognised, much less addressed, is that of the informants’ role in shaping the direction of our research.

Under a model of rather objectified collectanea, the fieldworker goes into the field looking for artefact x or cultural practice y. Examples of x or y are then gathered together and the fieldworker interprets the whole. Reduced to this format, the limitations in such an approach are clear. (Like all over-simplified models, this one doesn’t actually point to the realities of field documentation even among researchers who may have thought it an appropriate theoretical starting point). One thing it doesn’t take into account is what else an informant may tell the fieldworker, which may shape how the fieldworker continues to investigate, or the directions in which the fieldworker takes subsequent investigation. The ‘objectification model’ (for want of another term) removes the fieldworker from the same world context as the informant: obviously cultural differences remain (otherwise why would we be investigating?), but the suggestion that fieldworker and informant live in separate global contexts seems a lingering throwback to Victorian notions of folklore as ‘primitive survivals’ in the modern world.

I have been thinking again about these questions since learning of the sudden death of Toby Freeman a couple of weeks ago. Toby was a friend, first, who later made a contribution to my research as an informant. I met him at Sharps Folk Club, and knew him initially through a shared love of traditional music. He was charming, very good company, a witty and cultured man who had worked in television production. A keen sailor, he had a thunderous bass voice and a good way with an anecdote. It was only as I sat and processed news of his death that I realised how fundamentally important he had been in shaping the direction of my doctoral research.

Toby Freeman

I had applied for a funded PhD position at the University of Hertfordshire investigating contemporary ghost belief. For the application I had revisited earlier field notes and identified ghost narratives I had been told previously but had hitherto found no way of examining or discussing. Herts were looking for someone who would be prepared to undertake fieldwork in some way. It was a perfect match, and I was offered the post.

I immediately started rushing off telling everyone I knew. Inevitably I ended up at Sharps, and it’s difficult to overemphasise the importance of that night to the next years of my research.

For one thing, I told a good friend Jim about my position. His response was a dramatic and eerie story from his own experience. (I have discussed this story and its narration in my Contemporary Legend article – despite the issue date, this journal was actually published in 2010). A couple of weeks ago later Jim returned to the subject and made a number of comments that fired my thinking on belief and experience. The groundwork had already been laid, however, by Toby’s comment that first night I announced my news. (Nine years ago next month, I see from my field notes).

I told him, first, that I’d secured a funded PhD place. He boomed appreciatively, and asked what the subject area was. ‘Contemporary belief in ghosts’, I told him. His eyes lit up, and he said ‘That’s so interesting – I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’ve seen at least one, and possibly two’.

Like Jim, Toby came back to this in subsequent weeks, filling in personal accounts and thoughts on the subject on three occasions. (Both men are documented, anonymously, in my thesis). Toby’s narratives and contemplations, like Jim’s, are there (anonymised) in my thesis, but his initial comment stuck with me. As with Jim’s story, reported in the Contemporary Legend article, the elegance and artistry of the comment was noteworthy: I have learned a lot about traditional narrative arts from listening to singers talking, but they are not alone in being able to shape an elegant epigram. (One of my informants told me, cleverly, ‘There’s nothing on earth would make me believe in god …’)

More important, for the research I was about to undertake, was the way Toby shaped his comment about belief. This was no easy, reductive explanation, and his comment was not one that assumed an easy, reductive relationship between belief and experience. Toby was an educated man, but while this may have had an impact on his expression his magnanimous and generous thinking here was by no means atypical generally. His comment opened up emic ways of looking at my subject that were quite widespread and needed to be taken on board and engaged with in my fieldwork and in my analysis.

In my writing I have always aimed to reflect appropriately and accurately my informants’ thoughts, beliefs and practices, but at the same time I should be crediting how far they have also led me in certain directions. I don’t know that I ever acknowledged to Toby how much his comment had helped define an investigative direction I had not yet begun to formulate. I'm sorry, and sorry not to have had one more pint, one more song, with him. What’s important is that we not only reflect what we set out to document from our informants, but that we pay tribute to our endlessly creative and thoughtful informants for what they bring that we were not expecting. And that, after all, brings me back to where I started: that is what is so wonderful about fieldwork.

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