10: Human Experiences
By Bridget Conlon
We are now about halfway through our fieldwork phase, and I’m learning that fieldwork is not only about data collection. Spending time in the field, I have adjusted to a new kind of “normal” that is very different from what I previously thought of as “normal.” When confronted by new ideas and practices, I feel initially uncomfortable, but then I try to engage and adapt, and I find that I can enjoy experiencing the unfamiliar. We were told that fieldwork would be exhausting and uncomfortable, and it’s true. At the end of each fieldwork day after getting back to our temporary residence in Bangalapadigai, my research team and I debrief our extensive notes, we cook delicious dinners (well, they taste delicious because we’re so hungry), we clean the kitchen, and we get ready for bed. Some nights, I’m moderately delerious (one evening, I heard a cow “Moo” and I thought it was an elephant). Fieldwork days bring endless information, and at night, I have little brainpower left for analyzing my experiences. I’m simply undergoing them, processing them, and allowing them to trickle into my memory bank.
During the ride back to Keystone yesterday, I began to reflect on the glimpses into people’s lives I had gained in just the past 3 1/2 days. I thought of the shy mothers and the confident ones, the dozens of personal questions I had asked them, and the guilt I felt when a mother told us we were taking too much of her precious time. I thought of the way people look at me—a tall white American, the assumptions behind their gazes, and the way I predict their assumptions. I thought of what it means to research Irula women in their twenties while working on a research team with a young Irula woman who is about to turn twenty. I began to wonder: how is this synergy of Bridget and Maga subtly and not-so-subtly pushing both of us to evolve, giving us new perspectives on our own worlds and the worlds of others, and fueling our curiosities? It’s not all rosy—sometimes we drift into uncomfortable conversations. For instance, we learned from mothers that certain foods affect girl babies differently than they affect boy babies, so mothers are more careful about what they feed to their boy babies. While debriefing our interviews, I told Maga my own personal belief that the sex of a baby does not determine how the baby interacts with food. She disagreed with me, and rightly so. My belief blatantly opposed hers—one that has been passed on from grandmother to mother for who-knows-how-long. We have different ways of knowing, and this leads us to two very different sets of interpretations. Our next challenge will be to combine our thinking to find out what all of the information can teach us about infant and young child feeding in the Nilgiris.
During the Jeep ride away from Bangalapadigai yesterday, around the hairpin bends, through the tea plantations, past bougainvillea bushes and under Gulmohar trees, narrowly dodging monkeys and cows, past people who stare at me as I stare at them, serenated by the melodies of Tamil pop at a deafening volume, I began to wonder about the bizarre human experiences behind the hundreds of peer reviewed journal articles I have read in my undergraduate experience. I began to wonder, what else did these researchers learn besides what they wrote for World Development or the Journal of Asian and African Studies? I wonder what they learned between the interviews, focus groups, hours of observation, and GPS mapping. I wonder what they learned about themselves as human beings. Now I’m asking myself—what can I learn when I place equal importance on the “findings” that don’t belong in a research paper?