It was a small but extremely diverse group that we got together between September 10-16 in St John’s, the capital of Newfoundland, Canada. The participants to the course came from 5 different institutions and 7 different countries, to learn for a week more on a broad variety of topics related to what the economists and business studies people call ‘human resources’ and we in anthropology call ‘people’. Actually, Gertrude Eilmsteiner-Saxinger, one of the participants of the course, made a valuable comment in this respect – which is that at least for us the term ‘human resources’ totally lacks the agency of people who are involved in or affected by industrial activity. So maybe it’s better to call this next time ‘human agents’?
“It was excellent teaching, it was interesting topics, it was free, and it was fun” – along these lines Gertrude Eilmsteiner summed up the course – quite nice, thanks Gerti for the nice quote, and sorry if I don’t remember it as exactly as I wish
…In 2006, in the beginning of August, I was sitting in a big bus, drowning in a blue soft seat, traveling from the railway station of Pyt’-Yakh to the city of Khanty-Mansyisk, where my first fieldwork was supposed to start. Six years later, another bus, but with seats of exactly the same blue plush – what a coincidence! – moved me from Rovaniemi to Inari for my first fieldwork in a foreign country.
My Experience so far
Going to the field, I must admit I did not really know what to expect. I came with a vague idea of ‘indigenous patterns of movement’. I was not sure what particularly ask from people and what to tell them about practical application of my work, so all those things made me nervous. Well, I was also a bit scared of traveling alone for such a long period, i.e. approximately a month. But on the other hand, I was full of energy and, of course, longing for adventures and discoveries. Being over-enthusiastic and, at the same time, very naive, I underestimated the fact of my ‘alienness’: not only in terms of nationality, but also in terms of the very essence of the fieldwork in such an exotic context. Of course, designers also do fieldwork; it is a critical part of many projects; but design ethnographers usually work in teams, and mainly use prototypes to create dialog with the people under study. Also the main actors are users – actual or potential – but hardly ‘vernacular designers’ (let’s call so indigenous people and their material culture). And basically design fieldwork does not last so long.
I soon discovered that specific character of the designers’ fieldwork is to say very little about possible practical application, which in the initial stage can be difficult to formulate. While presenting something raw and yet unverified, the intention is to explain and defend what you have already done. However, it seems the first step for a design researcher is to map the ‘research surface’: to put over it a certain multidisciplinary ‘mesh’ and then specify the ‘global coordinates’ of main disciplines…
When I came to Inari, ‘the heart of Sápmi’, having just an idea of possible accommodation (at a simple tourist camping) and a couple of contacts for exact work, my ‘inner adventurer’ was strongly disappointed by the ‘level of civilization’: I noticed hotels, supermarkets, even a pizza & kebab place, instead of a tiny remote indigenous village ‘in the middle of nowhere’ (yes, I am still captivated by my romantic field experience in Russia: small Khanty villages in Western Siberia). So, I ‘landed’ at the camping, in a modest wooden cabin, though with Wi-Fi. First week was probably the hardest: I was struggling with myself, suffering from my uselessness and an unfamiliar difficulty to approach people. But what did I expect? I could almost ‘touch’ and ‘smell’ a huge amount of information around me, but I was so annoyed with inability to get it all immediately. Well, things like that never happen ‘in one go’, I tried to convince myself, and after several attacks of impatience I decided just to get to know the place. After a couple of days I find myself painting the landscape, picking up berries in the forest nearby, swimming in the Lake Inari…
But still the question is open: what do you, experienced anthropologists and fieldworkers, do in case of delay, silence and ‘nothing happens’?
Of the week two, suddenly the ice-breaking period has finished: it happened after the festival ‘Ijahis Idja’ (obviously, such events are the best for approaching people: everybody is relaxed, positive and open).
In two last weeks, I got most of the material to work with and felt much more relaxed in talking to people. And, though most of the people I met were quite serious and not easygoing, I have had the incredible feeling of being surrounded not by individuals who are putting practical matters first but by friends. Then I discovered another problem, i.e. how to get rid of this emotional attachment (and does it ever necessary?), how to come back to ‘normal life’.
And here comes another question: how you researchers can manage the issue of ‘personal involvement’ or ‘emotional link’ with people under study? There might be plenty of books about researchers’ ethics, but I would like to hear some ‘first-hand’ examples.