Tuesday, February 28, 2012


This is something that I've been thinking a lot about lately. It came up in the closing Panel Discussion I attended at the Inquiry Conference last Friday, and relates to the many articles I read from Self, Sex, and Gender in Cross-cultural Fieldwork, not to mention some ethical tie-ins with IRB approval. I've been wondering: how should I present myself to others in the field? There are two levels to this, the decision to represent myself in a certain way, and then how to assure that I'm successfully doing so.

I think this is trickier because of the cross-cultural context. I have a working social knowledge about professionalism and very specific ideas about my role as a researcher from my own culture's point of view. But does the role of a scholarly researcher have a place in this other culture? And what about professional comportment? Even if professionalism is a similar concept in another culture, there may be slightly different ways to signal it. I'm assuming that there is a difference on these points, but where can I find out more about how I will be seen while in the field? I will probably not be able to communicate fully and clearly my ideas on professionalism, the importance of anthropological field research, etc, to my informants. But I at least want to try to make myself distinct from ecotourists and other Westerners, right? What will be my role in the community and my impact on it, from their point of view?

Part of the reason I'm concerned about this is just the desire to do the right thing and satisfy the demands (as much as I can) of both cultures, but there are practical considerations as well as the abstract ideal. For example, I want to understand and define my role in another community in order to form relationships with informants, and I hope those relationships will provide me with data. I also sincerely want to form human connections, but I shouldn't completely overlook the fact that I want something from them. (Thanks to Ashley for pointing this out in lecture.) This brings up the concept of reciprocity, which was mentioned in class and on one of the IRB forms we reviewed for class as well. I would like to practice appropriate reciprocity and will bear that in mind when I'm in the field, but it still seems vague to me and I wish I had someone to tell me exactly what to do and when to do so.

Here's a concrete example of my reason for questioning professionalism: in a short documentary* I watched the other day, there is footage of an anthropologist landing in a remote area and greeting the people of an isolated Amazonian tribe he works with. He is a head and shoulders taller than these people and looks like a typical gangly white anthropologist man, and greets the unclothed Amazonians (on film, by the way, how/why is there footage of this?) warmly, touching their heads and hugging them. The way he touches their heads seems jarringly condescending to me, though in all likelihood it's a proper greeting and a may be a sign of respect in their culture. His close physical contact with them defies my sensibilities of professional behavior and makes me cringe slightly, to be honest. But probably he knows what he's doing and is doing it well. To my understanding of social situations in different cultures, his behavior isn't beyond normal, it's just my idea of work and science being separate from sociality, and my expectation of professionalism, that creates this contradiction for me. If he were to act like a stereotypical clinical or corporate professional would in our culture, he would probably seem like an alien. (I think I chose “alien” here for connotations of sterility and cold logic in our culture based on common portrayals of extraterrestrials.) On the other hand, he does exhibit behavior here that's “alien” or at least possibly inappropriate based on my cultural frames.

So how do I go from noticing this conundrum to solving it? Perhaps I shouldn't overstate the issue. I tend to think that Spanish cultural views of professionalism aren't too far off from American ones, and maybe Ecuadorean culture is close enough to Spanish on that point to gloss over the difference. Going even a step further, Quechua indigenous peoples have had contact with Spaniards and other Westerners for several hundred years, and consider themselves to be more civilized that other indigenous peoples like the Achuar (their perception, according to Dr. Nuckolls in lecture). It's apparent here that I would be stretching it to assume that there are no cultural differences about these things, but maybe I don't need to stress about it too much either. Just remember that I'm working with other human beings, not aliens, and be willing to readjust my frames and behavior when I realize that the situation calls for it. It's hard to live with an answer like that, but for now I'll pretend like I think it's somewhat conclusive.

*The film is called Amazon and was directed by Kieth Merrill in 1997 for IMAX, and narrated by Oscar winner Linda Hunt (she played Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously). It's a terrible documentary though, I'm afraid it creates stereotypes about the exotic Amazon jungle and "primitive Natives" rather than serving a true educational purpose. Actual quote from the script about the many isolated and/or undiscovered tribes deep in the Amazon: "with no sense of time beyond tomorrow, they live in hiding, cradled in an everlasting present." (In context this refers both to tribes that have had some contact with us before fleeing and those which have yet to be contacted or located.) Bit of a generalized assumption about other cultures' perception of time? I think so.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Inquiry Conference 2012 Part I

On Wednesday I attended the Keynote Lecture for this year's Inquiry Conference, delivered by Ralph Brown. It was entitled "Exposing Yourself: Why we need more and better world citizens and how serious international exposure facilitates this." This title sounded perfect to me, not just because I have loved the idea of being a 'citizen of the world' ever since my romantic high school days as an International Baccalaureate student, but also because I am feeling conflicted about the true value of going into the field to do research so I would love to hear some logical validation of my choice.

Brown gave a great overview of the effect of the observer on observed phenomena, the connections between language and culture, and how our perceptions are influenced by our backgrounds and experiences. I have to say though, I didn't really find the answers I was looking for. I think this is because the bulk of his argument was directed toward an entirely different person from me. Brown talked about the LDS cultural view (and this goes for lots of US citizens, not just Mormons) that the world is a "scary" or an "evil" place, and that we're much safer and happier here in the states, especially in a suburb, than anyone else in the world, so there is little to no reason to venture out and expose ourselves to the kind of danger (not to mention dirt and germ-ridden poverty) that exists in other countries.

I've heard this view in a lot of ways over the years, for example as a teenager when I would talk about how much I loved Indian culture and heard in response, "well, go ahead and go over there, you'll be pretty grateful when you get back." How much more ethnocentric can you get? Or one that I hear now if I talk about wanting to live in a large city which goes, "but what about your children?" That's right, there are no children in cities. Or at least none who aren't traumatized or in gangs, none who turn out to be decent adults? I don't even know. I do understand where these views come from and I want to say I can empathize, but ultimately it's not at all the way that I think about the world.

So when Brown addressed the fear of international travel, of having "bad things" happen to us as the thing that keeps us from going, and argued that the world is actually a wonderful place according to our shared religious beliefs, he was preaching to the choir. I'm already converted to international travel. But I still have a bit of nagging doubt, I still have fears that hold me back. Brown debunked the fear of having something 'newsworthy' happen to us with a statistical example, but I'm more afraid (in general) that I'm not going to live up to my own expectations, and (in terms of travel) that I'm not in it for the right reasons.

Brown mentioned briefly the idea of our perceptions as lenses, the fact that he views the world from the perspective of a bald white middle-aged male, while I for example view the world as a young white female American raised with means*, LDS values and an Air Force pilot for a father. But I'm all too aware of my own subjectivity already, in fact I think that was one of the main things I learned in the field last summer: I will never know what it is like to have been born into a different culture. And this matters to me especially because of my personality type I'm sure, my desire to understand others (evidence in the 3rd paragraph of this very entry) and also to be logical and right. Unfortunately this level of self-awareness isn't solving my problem just yet. And Brown didn't even begin to help me figure out what to do about the impossibility of objective research. I can think of a few responses to this issue (one from Language Shock which I will hopefully discuss in another post), but nothing truly satisfying.

I worry that I'm being self-centered and Western-minded to even think that the role of "researcher" is a legitimate pursuit, rather than just another word for a tourist or a xenophile. Maybe I just secretly wish to fulfill the Indiana Jones fantasies that I tell myself I don't have, or maybe I'm just a creep for wanting to know about other people's lives and cultures. Even if field research is a valuable activity, as I believe it is whenever I'm reading one of so many fascinating articles and books about linguistic and anthropological findings from the field, I have a few major problems to contend with. Like how is it justifiable to travel on a jet plane to a region with massive oil contamination? What if I see the world as more good than evil only because of my coddled upbringing? To tell the truth I wouldn't even argue whether there is more good or bad, joy or pain in the world. I don't see it as a measurable research question, which makes me doubt Brown's assertion just as I'm skeptical of his newsreel statistical analysis.

I want to at least believe that the good in the world is worth seeking after, that there is truth to be found and shared, and that the human relationships formed and the knowledge shared through international travel is worth the effort. But I'm still a little doubtful. And anyway what's the deal with the concept of truth when I just saw a Baskin Robbins sign proclaiming, "Ice cream makes you smarter"? I know I have pretty rigid expectations of truth and integrity, but a little example like this really makes me doubt the capacity of humankind. So for now I'm in a quandary. I'll try to keep thinking on this.

*On the word choice of "means." I wouldn't exactly say our family is part of the so-called 1%, but on a worldwide level we're probably pretty close. America's middle class doesn't like to think we are rich, but I never really wanted for anything as a kid. Just sayin'.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

First thoughts on Linguaculture

As I watched Liann Seiter's Inquiry Conference presentation (available here) "Where's my Babelfish?" I was reminded so much of my own survey issues from last summer, and I really enjoyed it because it provides good evidence for the importance of language (and therefore linguistics) in doing ethnographic/sociological/anthropological work.

With my survey, something that seemed to be a simple question from my cultural framework (and educational background) suddenly turned into a nonsensical question when phrased in another language. Actually in my case it was even a nonsensical way to ask a question, since neither hypothetical questions nor metalinguistic comparisons usually occur in the context of the linguaculture where I was trying to use them. I think the concept of linguaculture (Friedrich 1989), or Agar's languaculture (1994) are two ways of thinking about this connection between language and culture; more on their views later though. For now I want to say, it seems to me that part of the answer to Seiter's question lies in the difficulty she had translating her surveys.

Seiter was in the field in India conducting sociological research on attitudes about emerging adulthood, specifically the qualities or attributes that people consider necessary for qualification as a mature adult. She wanted to study the development from young adulthood into mature adulthood (mature in the sense of fully developed, responsible, capable--or at least those are the attributes that I perceive), with a distinction between adolescence and young or emergent adulthood. In other words, she was not necessarily referring to the difference between being a teenager and an adult, but rather the difference between physical and emotional maturity. I think this was the idea anyway; the presentation was more about the survey translation than her research question itself so I may be a little off. She used various events and personality traits in order to measure which attributes were considered a part of this process and how necessary each was. For example, one question was about the use of alcohol as a component of maturity; drinking is something that in American culture is often a signifier of adulthood, especially the 21st birthday and being legally allowed to drink alcohol.

What she found was that when her survey was translated into Tamil and then back-translated into English, her questions had become influenced by the cultural and perhaps even the personal values of the translators. So in the example about alcohol use, this neutral description was translated as an addiction to alcohol. The same thing happened with smoking cigarettes: instead of being listed simply as an action or behavior, in the translation it became an addiction to smoking, a term with qualitative connotation instead of just a description. These examples may have been an issue of the personal values of the translator, an LDS man who Seiter mentioned also translated “shoplifting” as “stealing articles from church.” If prevailing cultural perceptions in the LDS community about substance use apply here, I would think he probably views any drug use as tied to addiction and substance abuse. It is even possible that this is an Indian cultural perception and not just a Mormon one, but I'm speaking from my own knowledge here.

Another major problem that Seiter addresses in the translation of her survey was the lack of terminology for the categories that she wanted to discuss. She had trouble with the term mature adult because it seemed to connote “elderly” to the survey-takers, as it sometimes does in English when used euphemistically. She found another term for female adult that specifically referred to a girl who has had her first period and is therefore an adult in the sense of being sexually mature, qualified for marriage and capable of reproduction, but she couldn't find a good term for anything in between these two. I think that this lack of terminology might point to the answers she's looking for. I don't know the nuances of Tamil and can't say I'm an expert on the culture she was studying (India's got so many cultures..), but my guess is that these people view life stages in a completely different way than we do.

If I had to make a tentative preliminary guess, I think it's possible that the “qualifications” for adulthood for a female have to do with sexual development, and that true maturity or wisdom are by and large considered to be the province of more aged folks. In other words, people probably don't think in terms of child/adolescent/young adult/mature adult/etc etc, but have a different way of dividing up life stages, maybe childhood/reproductive stage/elderly wisdom, or something like that. Furthermore, it's probably much different for males, but may be similarly related to reproduction through the qualifications of marriage and the ability to financially support a household--or wait, is that Mormons again? Maybe I shouldn't venture a guess for the male version of this, I plead ignorance.

In any case, this “translation” issue definitely seems to be rooted in a cultural perspective, something which for me strengthens the ties between Linguistic and Anthropological investigations further. And not only those two, but among the social sciences in general (and likely other disciplines as well), which is both a daunting and an exciting prospect for me as I hope to learn more about all of these things.

I also recently read the pertinent "Does Your Language Shape How You Think?", an article for the New York Times by Guy Deutscher, author of Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, which has of course been added to my already lengthy reading list.

I think my field research this summer will be greatly affected by the ties between language and culture, in ways that I'm not fully prepared for or even aware of yet. To prepare for this challenge, I think I will work on my Kichwa language competency and knowledge of Runa culture, and will probably work in a more qualitative way this time around than I did before. Hopefully with enough qualitative information and hard recordings to refer back to, I will be able to gain some insight into linguaculture and be able to use it to my advantage in my linguistic analysis as well.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Interviewing thoughts

I'm having trouble finding a thought that's both focused and fully developed for today's journal, so I just want to bring up a few thoughts/questions that came up for me from the assigned readings instead. Hopefully thinking and writing about the readings will help me retain the information better as well; I have been reading so much lately that I am very frustrated at the idea of all the information that I know just isn't sticking in my brain and assimilating with the rest of my knowledge.

For class today we were assigned to read “Interviewing: Unstructured and Semistructured” by Bernard and “Asking Descriptive Questions” by Spradley. I'm so glad that we're reading about interviewing now, because I keep thinking about how my interviewing methods held me back in such a big way last summer when I was trying to conduct linguistic research. Most of the advice from these readings is geared toward ethnographic research, but they seem largely applicable to linguistic questions as well. I also like that Bernard makes reference to Spradley's “grand tour” question type at one point, and was glad to be able to read more about it after the abbreviated mention in Bernard's article (chapter).

Last summer, I interviewed many people that I spent more than just 15 minutes with, but the interviews themselves were fairly structured (which fell apart more than I wanted it to), very focused, and only took a few minutes each time to conduct. I think the longest interview was about half an hour, and that was when Dr. Nuckolls was first helping me to put together the survey and we asked a speaker of Napo Kichwa to help us word things to make sense in Napo since they were written with the Pastaza dialect in mind.

At first when I read about the hours and hours necessary to build rapport and get good ethnographic interviews, my reaction was to think that I should focus on working faster than that so that I can talk to more people fewer times and get more quantitative information. Now that I think of it though, trying so hard to quantify the information I gathered may have been exactly my mistake last time. I was asking forced-choice questions in an attempt to elicit manageable numerical data, but this didn't actually provide me with very much information at all. And the problem wasn't only that my sample was so small, it was that the Kichwa speakers weren't used to thinking in the dichotomy of grammatically “correct” vs “incorrect,” or in this case what would be a “better” way to say something. They all wanted to give an answer like “it depends,” which of course made more sense even though I didn't know what to do with that information. Some speakers gave me a good explanation of ideophone usage as a way to make a sentence more descriptive, yet still were hesitant to say they preferred to speak this way. This kind of reminds me of when I was taught to write in school using no “be” verbs and as many descriptive adjectives as possible. If I hadn't been taught about this descriptive difference and why it was “better” though, would I really think consciously about trying to be more descriptive in order to be more accurate? I don't think that the amount of formal education was the only factor influencing the speakers' answers, but it seemed to play a role in how they interpreted my questions and whether they could tell what I was asking about.

Ah, so much more to be said here. Hopefully I can flesh out my planned interviewing methods for the coming summer soon. And hopefully I can find a way to practice interviewing people in Spanish for practice, as that seemed like some of the best advice from these readings that I can implement right away!

Friday, February 10, 2012

a few more annotated sources

-Agar, Michael. Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Conversation. New York: William Morrow, 1994. Print.

This book contains the chapter "Culture Blends" which was assigned reading for IAS 360 a few weeks ago. I liked Agar's writing style and his insights so much that I decided to take a look at the rest of the book and picked it up from the library soon after we talked about it in class. This source was written for a more general audience than most academic articles and has a light, casual tone (which is a nice break for me right now) but also contains lots of ideas about the interaction between language and culture. Agar discusses many previous linguists and anthropologists in order to build the argument that he is working towards, and draws especially from the idea of "linguaculture" (which he calls languaculture instead) developed by Friedrich. His purpose is to teach strategies for understanding and successfully interacting with other cultures. He proposes that we can do this by building frames, focusing on "rich points" where we can tell that another culture is different from our own, and through anthropology's ever useful tools of a holistic, comparative perspective combined with lots of fieldwork. I'm not finished reading this yet but it has already helped me gain a better understanding of the history of the development of my field(s) of interest, and has sparked several ideas that I would like to explore in learning journals in the future.

-Conoway, Mary Ellen. "The Pretense of the Neutral Researcher." Self, Sex, and Gender in Cross-cultural Fieldwork. Ed. Tony Larry. Whitehead and Mary Ellen Conaway. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1986. 52-63. Print.

In this article, Conoway argues that the ideal objective researcher does not exist, and therefore it is much more useful to become aware of the biases and perspectives that we have as researchers than to pretend that they don't exist. It has been difficult to admit these biases in the past within the field of anthropological research because it would seem to undermine the credibility of the research being performed, but Conoway describes how awareness and a thorough study of how the "self" of the researcher interacts with the research is a much better way to deal with the situation.

-Jackson, Jean. "On Trying to Be an Amazon." Self, Sex, and Gender in Cross-cultural Fieldwork. Ed. Tony Larry. Whitehead and Mary Ellen. Conaway. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1986. 263-73. Print.

In this article, Jean Jackson looks at her experience doing field work in the Amazon among the Tukanoan people. She relates how she initially tried to ignore her gender as a factor that would influence her research, and eventually came to understand gender roles better in her own culture as well as the one she studied by becoming more aware of this element. I think this article is important to my attempt to study in the field because I will need to be aware of my background and point of view in order to better be able to understand the perspectives of others while conducting research in the field. I also like that Jackson talks about her self-perception and the perception that her companions back in the states had of her while she was in the field because of the way she portrayed herself. This made me think of my own self-image in regards to studying an indigenous language in the Amazon and the way that I present myself both to the people I am with there and those who are here.

Meta Journal

I've been having trouble keeping up with learning journal assignments, so I'm going to take a look at my thought process and see if I can't work toward a solution. I've been reading and thinking a lot lately, but it's been difficult to translate that into writing. Part of why I have such a hard time producing writing comes from the questions, do I even have something worth saying? What can I contribute in terms of thought (and then written expression) that will actually be worthwhile? What makes my point of view or analysis unique or compelling or even true? As a self-identified generally quiet person, I try to keep my mouth shut unless I know what I'm talking about and have something to add to the conversation. This is a viable strategy most of the time in my native language, although I would like to work on being more eloquent and charming and engaging and all that anyway. However I have already seen clearly that this approach holds me back when learning foreign languages.

The only way to solidify grammatical knowledge, verb conjugations, even to automatize formulaic greetings, ultimately any form of expression in a foreign language, is to practice. It especially helps if you communicate about real issues that you are invested in and even better if it's with native speakers who can give you good input in return. I remember the first few times we had discussions in French class that I actually cared about; we were just getting to the level of ability where we were able to express coherent thoughts and opinions and when the topics that came up were ones I felt strongly about and even disagreed with some of my classmates on, it was such good motivation to try to communicate clearly. The desire to express my thoughts on those issues helped make the expression happen, and even though it was imperfect the process helped to improve my abilities.

An important aspect of practicing language and improving is letting go of the fear of embarrassment; it has been shown that language learners who are more gregarious learn faster and are able to communicate better than us quiet ones, even if they make more mistakes in the beginning. (I should put some studies here to back it up but I just remember reading about it in lots of different places.) Knowing this, I worked on this skill in a way that resulted in an interesting language experience for me. I pushed my boundary of "waiting until I have it right" and made a fool of myself, but in the best way. What happened was that during an interview with Kichwa speakers a kitten walked into the room and as we were petting it and playing with it, I wanted to express the idea "what an adorable/delightful kitten." So I said mishki misi, "sweet cat." Unfortunately the word I chose for "sweet" only carries the meaning when associated with food and doesn't extend to people the way I would use it in English or in Arabic. I realized right after I said it that this metaphorical connection probably wasn't the same in Kichwa, and this was confirmed when the whole room burst out laughing at my mistake and repeating it. "What a delicious kitten," I had basically said. Even the word delicious extends metaphorically to the cuteness of babies sometimes in English, so it would almost be more accurate to say that it sounded like I had literally been contemplating eating the kitten. That's the image that my sentence created, anyway.

The point is that as embarrassing as that mistake was, it was possibly the best thing I could have done. It was funny, and making an inadvertent joke like that brought me closer to the Runa people I was with. It lightened the atmosphere and changed some of the awkwardness of trying to do a formal interview (probably something to do with the power dynamics as well, making it clear that I was a learner and not just a know-it-all scholar/native speaker of English). I realized that I didn't even have to let everyone know that I understood what I had just done wrong because being able to laugh at myself about it showed a conviviality that they appreciated.

So unless I let go of my fear of making mistakes in speaking other languages, I will never be as adept as I hope to be and that will hold me back from communicating with people in meaningful ways, which is a much higher goal than being right all of the time. In the same way, my writing will only become worthwhile in the way that I want it to be if I put in the hours of practice and revision and more practice to make it better. This conflicts with my instinct to write a few words and strive for conciseness. Just being careful about what I write when I do write is not enough: spending time thinking and writing and putting my thoughts into words will help me develop them so that my ideas will actually become better. Using concrete words to express my ideas will not only force me to improve my analysis, it will make it possible for others to understand my ideas and react and contribute in return. Letting others read my writing has the additional advantage that some may be able to help me to form these thoughts even more clearly.

To return to my self-doubt from earlier, the answer is that I can't create anything worth contributing without this practice. And it's probable that I will never come up with anything truly compelling and worthwhile until I write lots of junk, and I don't need to be too embarrassed at my poor writing skills (and posting them online, publicly!) because I can see them as evidence of improvement instead of evidence of my incompetence. So instead of feeling weighed down by the task of writing and the visible trail of my shortcomings, I'm going to be excited about how all of this writing experience is preparing me to live up to my future aspirations (published papers, more academic work, yada yada). Right now in the present, and not despite but precisely because they are imperfect, just like my decision to say mishki misi.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

oil in ecuador

A few weeks ago we were asked to research historical and/or current events in our field study area. I decided to look at the issue of oil extraction in the rainforest. I'm sorry to say that I was almost entirely ignorant on this subject before going there last year, and picked up only the faintest understanding of the situation while I was there. One thing that makes it difficult to get into this for me is that the situation is obviously complex, and it's difficult to dedicate time learning about a chaotic, real-world issue that I know I will likely never understand. It has taken me so long learn about this, to sift through the information and think it over, and I still feel wildly uninformed.

When I went to look for more information about this topic I first encountered two types of sources: one was news articles like this from the BBC and this from the WSJ, mainly aimed at describing the state of the legal battle between Chevron and Ecuador wherein Ecuador claims billions of dollars in damages and wants Chevron to clean up toxic waste that was left by Texaco (recently acquired by Chevron) between 1972 and 1992. It turns out that an Ecuadorean court and a US court both agreed with the plaintiffs, but Chevron has vowed to keep fighting. That's interesting for some legal and expository info, but what is really going on? I mean in the rainforest, not just in the judicial system.

The second type of source I found was the websites of the ChevronTóxico campaign (along with other sites like AmazonWatch) and the Chevron company website's page about the controversy. Here I can see that both sides have a very obvious bias, yet my instinct is definitely to side with the environmental and health concerns of indigenous people as portrayed in videos like this one: Carmen Zambrano es una de las 30.000 afecta[da]s por Chevron-Texaco en Ecuador. (The film medium brings a new element into the discussion as well, which I will try to come back to in a minute.)

They seem to have ample evidence of the negative effects of toxic pollution in the area, but what of Chevron's claim that Texaco already spent time and money to clean up the area and that the evidence against them was fabricated? For example, I found this opinion piece from the Miami Herald cited on Chevron's website. The article looks at ties between documentary filmmakers and political activists involved in the issues they report on in order to condemn the filmmakers. But the documentarians have to have some sort of connections to the issue in order to be aware of its existence and/or gain access to film people about it, right? (I already have problems with documentaries as research, obviously I prefer a more academic method, perspective, and presentation--film's just too strong--but anyway.) The article specifically mentions Crude*, a documentary about the situation in Ecuador whose director has strong ties to the lawyers on Ecuador's side of the case. There is also an allegation that the lawyers were filmed in situations of "startling legal misconduct" and now Chevron is demanding more of the raw footage from the film to be used as evidence against those lawyers.

Speaking of film, I also had a little bit of a suspicious reaction to this ChevronTexaco PSA, a commercial that is more than a little over the top but the same heavy-handedness helped me become aware of the strong emotional arguments and images that are being used to convince me of Chevron's sins.

So just for a moment I want to do a thought experiment and try to see Chevron's side. Are corporations like people (as Mitt Romney and others would claim)? Probably not, but there are people within the corporation who really believe the story that they are presenting to the world. They really feel embattled as a result of all this bad press and they probably truly believe that they have done their best, or at least fulfilled their obligations in handling the cleanup. I think it would be very difficult for a company to act ethically and also to be competitive in the industry. Ethical action would require so much foresight, by just the right people within the organization, and it would be difficult to understand the ramifications of contamination that's happening on another continent and in a rural area. But there are communities in the rainforest, and if they have been effected it should not make a difference that no one at Chevron knows these people personally.

I think that the representatives of the Chevron company honestly are not so blind as to believe everything they say, but based on the strength of the accusations against them I can see why they make such strong statements in return. So as terrible the decision is (can I still vacillate and say may be?), I can see why the corporation is choosing to act in this manner.

Another headache-inducing element to the problem is that both sides are using science as their argument for contamination/lack thereof, with Chevron representatives looking straight into the camera talking about "NO evidence" and the Amazon Watch website citing "overwhelming proof." Not much I can do about that, I'm not an environmental scientist and I don't have access to the studies to examine them anyway.

So now that I've looked into it a little bit more I realize another part of why this is so overwhelming to me that I haven't taken the time to educate myself more about it before. In fact I don't keep up with world events or political occurrences very carefully these days either. It's not just that thinking and reading about these things is emotionally painful, although that's an unpleasant side effect as well. (Especially when watching video footage that effectively manipulates emotions..) It's because I have a hard time knowing what to do with this knowledge. I feel helpless. It's hard enough in this case to decide that I agree with one side or the other, but then what? Just knowing that indigenous amazonian peoples are suffering because of this pollution doesn't fix it, and honestly neither would Chevron paying them lots of money. Is it my responsibility to sign a petition to tell Chevron how I feel? Or to become a lawyer so that I can be more active in defending cases like this? Honestly I couldn't, but it's a valid crusade for some.

I still have no clear answer as to which side is right, because it's entirely likely that there is some exaggeration on both sides though I can see why each feels the need to make their arguments outside my frame of what constitutes fair play or "truth." I can see how this is entirely a reflection of my own personality and thought process as well, being completely concerned with objectivity, relating to each perspective, etc etc and it can be a really paralyzing way to go about thinking.

And now I should tie this back into my field work. This issue is pertinent because a threat to any indigenous people is also a threat to their culture, their way of life and all of the knowledge that exists in their worldview and which can't be found anywhere else. Again, knowledge which can't be found anywhere else. I stress this because the idea of losing knowledge and culture and human diversity is about more than individual people passing away or (more commonly) changing lifestyles, knowledge is a resource for all of humanity just like the medicinal plants of the rainforest that these people know so much about. So the issue of oil exploitation, contamination, mining (a more neutral word) in Ecuador is relevant to my field study because it helps me build the case of endangerment, which is a common argument for the importance of studying indigenous/minority languages and one I wholeheartedly agree with.

And as for what to do with this knowledge in terms of my field work, this is probably easier to figure out than what to do with it in general. Now I am aware of indigenous attitudes about the situation I am already in on a conversation that I might hear a lot while in the field. I am aware of an issue that may be causing people to move out of the forest, that may be affecting the health and survival of their families and that may affect their ideas about Americans and Corporations in very direct ways. A little bit of empathy for their situation, and maybe even some shared anger, could go a long way in the right social situation. (And don't get me wrong, for all of my tepid-ness about declaring an opinion here I can still feel plenty of outrage on the subject so it wouldn't be insincere.)

*Trailer for Crude. By the way the indigenous lady singing in the trailer is not singing in Quechua but is probably Achuar or Jivaro and the singing style is similar to Runa ladies, which I think is interesting. Evidence of area-based rather than language-based cultural similarities.

PS one last interesting article that raises a whole host of others issue for me- like what about Ecuador's oil as a natural resource that the country (and its people) needs? When I was there the price of gas was artificially low due to government subsidies, and it seemed to be a real help to the economy (plus as students, we didn't mind how cheap it was to travel by bus or taxi). So how and why is the state supposed to go about resisting the urge to make use of its resources? And since the issue affects matters of biodiversity that are relevant to the planet as a whole, what responsibility do other people and countries have in this issue?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Participant Observation

The instructions for this assignment weren't all that clear, but here are some descriptive notes from today when I participated in the BYU Young Single Adults 205th Ward's "break the fast" activity* (Spradley 41):

The activity was held in one of the meeting halls of the church building on 200 N 900 W in Provo, Utah. (Place, Spradley 40.) There were about 40 people from the ward in attendance, including the bishop and the first and second counselors and their wives (these are ward leaders about 30 years older than the rest of the attendees who were mainly in their 20s). (Actors, Spradley 41.) The room has a divider in the middle which can be opened or closed depending on the amount of space required, with a raised pulpit on the South side of the room and a chalkboard and stacks of folding chairs on the North side, where the entrance is located. Although the regular church service is oriented toward the pulpit, the center of attention for this event was on the North side, where two long tables were connected and the food was placed, buffet-style. The activity began at 4pm with a short spiritual thought and a prayer each given by a member who had previously been selected by a leader, and then the females in the room were invited to serve themselves first. As a participant in the fast, I was listless and couldn't think straight by the time 4 o'clock finally came around, and I think others were feeling the same way because the opening message and prayer were both very succinct. Having been born into this religion/culture, I know from previous experience that the prayer was formulaic although the person giving it (a woman, probably a student) presumably chose the words herself. I didn't write down her exact words but the familiar phrases included "We thank thee for this food," and "please help it to nourish and strengthen us this day," and the prayer also included a word of an acknowledgment of the fast and our intention as a group to now break it with this food, as well as thanks for those who prepared and brought the food. The framework phrases at the beginning and end were those which are formally prescribed by the religion, namely "Our Dear Heavenly Father," and "We say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen."

The food consisted of two large pots of potato soup (made from a pre-made mix), several bowls of bread, a large salad bowl, a plate of sliced pears, a plate of sliced oranges, a container of steamed broccoli (the pears and broccoli were both in short supply compared to the size of the group), a plate of celery and other vegetables with peanut butter on the side, and about 5 or 6 large plastic bottles of soda including root beer and sprite at the end of the table. There was no water served, which I noticed because I'm not a fan of soda, but I did not notice if any of the drinks were lemonade or juice because I'm not a fan of those either. The utensils provided at the front of the table (Eastward, before the bread and soup) were a few paper bowls and some more Styrofoam ones, some metal spoons and just a few plastic ones, and napkins. At the far end next to the drinks were Styrofoam cups as well. On a smaller table just southwest of this were the desserts: two small bowls filled with brownies (they were cut smaller than usual and had become clumped together) and a cookie sheet with Pillsbury (or similar) cinnamon rolls. Most people served themselves using two bowls, one for soup and one for salad/fruit/veggies/bread/dessert, since there were no plates. This added to a certain feeling at the gathering of 'making do,' an informal atmosphere perhaps typical of a church-organized event.

People sat in groups at circular tables spread throughout the room, perhaps 8 tables total. The leaders and their wives were not joined at their table by the younger people, though one or two of them circulated in the room to make conversation with the younger crowd. People chose tables based on who they came to the activity with and/or who they were friends with, for the most part. My companions and I sat at a table with two other people we don't know very well and made conversation like everyone else in the room. When people finished eating (quickly), some went to get more food, dessert (or more dessert) and some people moved to a different table to make conversation. I didn't get a chance to listen to the conversations at other tables but where I was seated we established that we are all students at BYU (some ward members attend UVU or another university or work full time), discussed our areas of study and why we chose them, and continued to talk about foreign language learning and other school-related topics. The two girls I came with left the table to talk to other people after they finished eating, and a few minutes later another boy (man? male? kid? this word choice always stumps me) came over to converse and one of the other table members joined a conversation one table over. So I spoke to him and the other girl who I was slightly acquainted with, the topic of conversation still being foreign languages for the most part. I probably would have remained less actively involved had the conversation been moving smoothly on its own, but to be honest it was clear that people came to the event for free food and the social atmosphere was a little bit strained. To use a word that seems to define the social culture of my age group more and more these days, I might say the whole gathering was a little bit on the border of "awkward," made up more of polite conversation than the excited and lively type.

A few minutes after eating, most people left. I don't know if this is relevant to the particular activity, but it stood out to me when the boy I was talking to asked how long a friend of mine had been my roommate-- she moved out of the house just last month-- and commented that he was interested to know because we share a lot of the same mannerisms. I already know this because both of us tend to adopt other people's mannerisms and we're fond of each other so it's natural for us, but I think it is an interesting social element to have a third party comment on it, especially since she was not in attendance. Shortly thereafter my friends wanted to leave as well, so we parted ways.

When we left almost all of the food was gone and some people were standing and talking. The trash can was full but there was no clear place for the metal spoons and I saw one girl take hers to the adjoining kitchen and leave it in the sink. Someone who helped to organize the event will probably take out the trash themselves and clean the spoons, wherever the rest ended up. I wish I had been able to stay to observe the very end of this activity because those who stayed to help clean up or who collected their serving dishes before going home would indicate themselves as being part of the organization, which would have provided me with a more complete description of the event.

In any case there it is, a social situation I participated in and attempted to observe simultaneously. I didn't write down notes at the time although I brought a notebook because I felt a little uncomfortable at making myself conspicuous, and probably also because of the sluggishness I felt from participating in the fast. It was surprisingly difficult to play the role of participant and observer at the same time considering that this was an activity very familiar to me; I think that aspect both helped and hindered me as it made it easier to assimilate new information with previous knowledge but also drew me into the role of participant through conversation, which distracted me from making mental notes and observing other groups of people.

*More background info- members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints usually fast for two meals on the first Sunday of each month, that is to say, it is a practice that many members follow but the choice is considered personal and though encouraged it is not mandated. So the leaders of the congregation organize a meal--provided by ward funds [I think] with contributions of desserts and sides made by particular members--so that the members can gather to eat their first meal of the day as a group. (Actors.) Not everyone in the ward (ie congregation) attends this activity but all are invited.

Source: Spradley, James P. "Locating a Social Situation" and "Participant Observation." Participant Observation. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980. 39-62. Print.