Building rapport with research

Posted in anthropology, Labrador, research on March 19th, 2011 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

Labrador flag

I returned from my travels at the end of February. It has taken me almost the entire month of March to readjust to the life of a student (as well as to non-freezing temperatures), but I finally feel ready to share a little bit about my experience and the post-return processing I’ve been doing. Not many graduate students get the opportunity to do research in their second year of work, if they ever get such a chance. While to some, it might seem useless to go to a place where I don’t want to focus my dissertation, I learned many valuable lessons about research in general. This is a tremendous insight for me to have, because it’s one of those aspects of being in academia that no one ever really tells you about. All the methods classes and mini-ethnographies in the world can’t actually place you in a funded, rigorous research setting in which the work has real impact on multiple levels.

The project I worked on in Canada is a social networks analysis of people’s connections to one another. In the two weeks I was there, I did nearly 50 interviews with people from all walks of life, some with lots to say and some with nothing to say. Spending 30 minutes in a room with a stranger who you, as researcher, have decided has something to say is an incredibly useful skill to develop. Many of the people we interviewed were a bit flabbergasted that anyone, especially a bunch of New Yorkers, would care at all about what they had to say. And some of them didn’t really have much to say. Here is the value in doing such a huge number of interviews: while there certainly are people who don’t share a lot of information, more people, who might shy away from interviews because they think their opinion is insignificant, actually have a lot to say if you can figure out how to get them to open up. We call it “building rapport” in anthropology, and it’s one of those things that you develop in a context like this one. Our interviews used the same form each time, but the best interviews weren’t from the people whose answers filled in the boxes best. They were the ones who told me a little about themselves, and then I picked up on something to get them to open up. Then, you’re  just having a conversation.

Those conversations are the spaces in which your ideas about a place develop. Doing research for someone else’s project, I don’t get much say in the direction of the work. But some of my better interviews showed me that sometimes, asking the same structured questions over and over aren’t actually going to get you anywhere, even if that’s “the project.” Part of doing research is allowing the research to do itself: why force someone to tell you who they drink with when what they really want to tell you is how they stopped drinking, got out of their bad relationship, and are now bringing up their daughter and taking care of their mother? Sometimes, it’s better to know how to maneuver a question to get someone to talk rather than how to utter a series of words so that you get an answer. That is when you actually learn something. And no one ever tells you that in class.

sunset over the Churchill River

While developing interviewing skills was a big part of the trip, simply being in a small town as a researcher is itself an experience. Going to the grocery store and seeing people you interviewed is itself a unique part of research. Setting aside your critical mind to go skiing or explore the country a little is also part of research, even if you’re in a place you already know. And for someone like me, who wants to do research in the place she came from, this could prove to be particularly interesting. How are things there going to seem different when I’m looking at them through the eyes of a researcher? What kind of relationships will I build with people there?

It’s important to note that I struggled with adopting the researcher’s eyes. No matter how “postcolonial” anthropology may think itself, the work that we do is still skewed by our interests, and we impose those interests where we do research. The questions we ask out interlocutors are informed by our biases, and learning how to ask questions better once you’re sitting across a table from someone doesn’t change the fact that the questions often don’t make sense to them and they way they live. Questions about traditions and customs are second nature to anthropologists, but when was the last time we thought of our lives in those terms? I enjoyed working as a researcher, and I’m looking forward to doing more of it in the future, but I’m also still coming to terms with what that means. I hope that most young anthropologists think about this process, though: we can’t just put on our researcher suits and churn out knowledge. Becoming a good researcher is a complex process, and it takes a lot of self-inquiry. I can’t say that one project has gotten me there, but I think I’m off to a good start.

Labrador Networks Project

Posted in Labrador on February 15th, 2011 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

As I mentioned before, I’m currently in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador, Canada until the end of the month. I’m working on a research project about people’s social networks here, and I’ve taken over the blog for the project for the time being. You can check it out here. It’s even got a link to some photos of the frozen north! Enjoy, and stay tuned for some big news in the next few months…!

Northern Lights

Posted in anthropology, Labrador on January 11th, 2011 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

The new year started with sad news, that of the death of Judy Bonds, one of West Virginia’s most respected, famed, and generous activists. Unfortunately I was never lucky enough to meet Judy, but her spirit and dedication permeate the movement against mountaintop removal in Appalachia – her memory will be a guiding light for the years to come.

There are a few West Virginia-based issues I’m thinking of writing about in the coming weeks, but for now, my energy has been focused north. Just about as north as you can imagine, really…

This semester, I have the great opportunity to travel with Professor Kirk Dombrowski (who I’ve worked with at John Jay College for about a year and a half) to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, the “hub” of Labrador, Canada, where he’s doing a research project in the town of about 8,000 people. Last spring, Kirk was in Nain, the northernmost town of Labrador, doing a study of social networks among a mostly Inuit population. In Goose Bay, we’ll be doing a similar study where we discuss different types of social networks – food sharing, traditional knowledge, kinship, alcohol co-use, housing, etc. – that people have in a bigger town with a much more mixed population (Innu, Inuit, Inuit Metis, white, etc.). I’ve been generating background research about the region for the entire time I’ve been working with Kirk, and now I’m in the process of analyzing the kinship data from the Nain project. Now I’ll be adding data from Goose Bay and hopefully expanding this network study.

I’ll be doing interviews with folks in Goose Bay for two weeks in February, which is not only a great chance to stretch my researcher wings but also to experience a really remote and misunderstood place. I say this because anthropologists have been dealing with Native American groups for nearly two centuries, and it’s only really maybe in the past two decades that we’ve really been able to portray them in a way that reflects the impact of white settlers on their populations. Because of relocations and land claims, most native groups in the US and Canada have been uprooted and squeezed onto small tracts of land with government-run schools and minimal job opportunities – rates of unemployment, alcoholism, domestic violence, and suicide are all quite high. Furthermore, extraction companies are recently attempting to come up with new land use agreements with native groups and the Canadian government that will allow them to mine for resources like uranium and nickel, providing some jobs but greatly impacting land and environment. By looking at people’s social networks, we’re hoping to try to understand a community based on the way that they see and use it, not the way that the Canadian Government has decided it should work.

While I doubt I will have much time for blogging while I’m there, I will definitely put a write-up of the experience here when I return. In the meantime, I highly suggest reading Anastasia Shkilnyk’s A Poison Stronger Than Love, which is about the Canadian Ojibwa and is an amazing book depicting the changes this group faced and the truly hideous things that happened to them again and again.

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