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Maintaining Naivete

Try also to develop your skill at being a novice—at being someone who genuinely wants to learn a new culture. This may mean working hard at suspending judgment about some things. David Fetterman made a trip across the Sinai Desert with a group of Bedouins. One of the Bedouins, says Fetterman,

shared his jacket with me to protect me from the heat. I thanked him, of course, because I appreciated the gesture and did not want to insult him. But I smelled like a camel for the rest of the day in the dry desert heat. I thought I didn’t need the jacket. ... I later learned that without his jacket I would have suffered from sunstroke. . . . An inexperienced traveler does not always notice when the temperature climbs above 130 degrees Fahrenheit. By slowing down the evaporation rate, the jacket helped me retain water. (1989:33)

Maintaining your naivete will come naturally in a culture that’s unfamiliar to you, but it’s a bit harder to do in your own culture. Most of what you do ‘‘naturally’’ is so automatic that you don’t know how to intellectualize it.

If you are like many middle-class Americans, your eating habits can be characterized by the word ‘‘grazing’’—that is, eating small amounts of food at many, irregular times during the course of a typical day, rather than sitting down for meals at fixed times. Would you have used that kind of word to describe your own eating behavior? Other members of your own culture are often better informants than you are about that culture, and if you really let people teach you, they will.

If you look carefully, though, you’ll be surprised at how heterogeneous your culture is and how many parts of it you really know nothing about. Find some part of your own culture that you don’t control—an occupational culture, like long-haul trucking, or a hobby culture, like amateur radio—and try to learn it. That’s what you did as a child. This time, try to intellectualize the experience. Take notes on what you learn about how to learn, on what it’s like being a novice, and how you think you can best take advantage of the learner’s role. Your imagination will suggest a lot of other nooks and crannies of our culture that you can explore as a thoroughly untutored novice.

When Not to Be Naive

The role of naive novice is not always the best one to play. Humility is inappropriate when you are dealing with a culture whose members stand a lot to lose by your incompetence. Michael Agar (1973, 1980a) did field research on the life of heroine addicts in New York City. His informants made it plain that Agar’s ignorance of their lives wasn’t cute or interesting to them.

Even with the best of intentions, Agar could have given his informants away to the police by just by being stupid. Under such circumstances, you shouldn’t expect your informants to take you under their wing and teach you how to appreciate their customs. Agar had to learn a lot, and very quickly, to gain credibility with his informants.

There are situations where your expertise is just what’s required to build rapport with people. Anthropologists have typed documents for illiterate people in the field and have used other skills (from coaching basketball to dispensing antibiotics) to help people and to gain their confidence and respect. If you are studying highly educated people, you may have to prove that you know a fair amount about research methods before they will deal with you. Agar (1980b:58) once studied an alternative lifestyle commune and was asked by a biochemist who was living there: ‘‘Who are you going to use as a control group?’’ In my study of ocean scientists (Bernard 1974), several informants asked me what computer programs I was going to use to do a factor analysis of my data.

 
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