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Culture Shock

Even among fieldworkers who have a pleasant experience during their initial contact period (and many do), almost all report experiencing some form of depression and shock soon thereafter—usually within a few weeks. (The term ‘‘culture shock,’’ by the way, was introduced in 1960 by an anthropologist, Kalervo Oberg.) One kind of shock comes as the novelty of the field site wears off and there is this nasty feeling that research has to get done. Some researchers (especially those on their first field trip) may also experience feelings of anxiety about their ability to collect good data.

A good response at this stage is to do highly task-oriented work: making maps, taking censuses, doing household inventories, collecting genealogies, and so on. Another useful response is to make clinical, methodological field notes about your feelings and responses in doing participant observation fieldwork.

Another kind of shock is to the culture itself. Culture shock is an uncomfortable stress response and must be taken very seriously. In extreme cases of culture shock, nothing seems right. You may find yourself very upset at a lack of clean toilet facilities, or people’s eating habits, or their child-rearing practices. The prospect of having to put up with the local food for a year or more may become frightening. You find yourself focusing on little annoyances—something as simple as the fact that light switches go side to side rather than up and down may upset you.

This last example is not fanciful, by the way. It happened to a colleague of mine. When I first went to work with the Nahnu in 1962, men would greet me by sticking out their right hand. When I tried to grab their hand and shake it, they deftly slid their hand to my right so that the back of their right hand touched the back of my right hand. I became infuriated that men didn’t shake hands the way “they’re supposed to.’’ You may find yourself blaming everyone in the culture, or the culture itself, for the fact that your informants don’t keep appointments for interviews or don’t keep them ‘‘on time.’’

Culture shock commonly involves a feeling that people really don’t want you around (which may, in fact, be the case). You feel lonely and wish you could find someone with whom to speak your native language. Even with a spouse in the field, the strain of using another language day after day and concentrating hard so that you can collect data in that language can be emotionally wearing.

A common personal problem in field research is not being able to get any privacy. Many people across the world find the Anglo-Saxon notion of privacy grotesque. When we first went out to the island of Kalymnos in Greece in 1964, Carole and I rented quarters with a family. The idea was that we’d be better able to learn about family dynamics that way. Women of the household were annoyed and hurt when my wife asked for a little time to be alone. When I came home at the end of each day’s work, I could never just go to my family’s room, shut the door, and talk to Carole about my day, or hers, or our new baby’s. If I didn’t share everything with the family we lived with during waking hours, they felt rejected.

After about 2 months of this, we had to move out and find a house of our own. My access to data about intimate family dynamics was curtailed. But it was worth it because I felt that I’d have had to abort the whole trip if I had to continue living in what my wife and I felt was a glass bowl all the time. As it turns out, there is no word for the concept of privacy in Greek. The closest gloss translates as ‘‘being alone,’’ and connotes loneliness.

I suspect that this problem is common to all English-speaking researchers who work in developing countries. Here’s what M. N. Srinivas, himself from India, wrote about his work in the rural village of Ramapura, near Mysore:

I was never left alone. I had to fight hard even to get two or three hours absolutely to myself in a week or two. My favorite recreation was walking to the nearby village of Kere where I had some old friends, or to Hogur which had a weekly market. But my friends in Ramapura wanted to accompany me on my walks. They were puzzled by my liking for solitary walks. Why should one walk when one could catch a bus, or ride on bicycles with friends. I had to plan and plot to give them the slip to go out by myself.

On my return, however, I was certain to be asked why I had not taken them with me. They would have put off their work and joined me. (They meant it.) I suffered from social claustrophobia as long as I was in the village and sometimes the feeling became so intense that I just had to get out. (1979:23)

Culture shock subsides as researchers settle in to the business of gathering data on a daily basis, but it doesn’t go away because the sources of annoyance don’t go away.

Unless you are one of the very rare people who truly go native in another culture, you will cope with culture shock, not eliminate it. You will remain conscious of things annoying you, but you won’t feel like they are crippling your ability to work. Like Srinivas, when things get too intense, you’ll have the good sense to leave the field site for a bit rather than try to stick it out (Further Reading: culture shock). [1] [2] [3]

of dangerous information and a sense of urgency about protecting informants’ identities. You may find yourself going back over your field notes, looking for places that you might have lapsed and identified an informant, and making appropriate changes. You may worry about those copies of field notes you have already sent home and even become a little worried about how well you can trust your major professor to maintain the privacy of those notes.

This is the stage of fieldwork when you hear anthropologists start talking about ‘‘their’’ village, and how people are, at last, ‘‘letting them in’’ to the secrets of the culture. The feeling has its counterpart among all long-term participant observers. It often spurs researchers to collect more and more data; to accept every invitation, by every informant, to every event; to fill the days with observation and to fill the nights with writing up field notes. Days off become unthinkable, and the sense of discovery becomes more and more intense.

This is the time to take a real break.

  • [1] Discovering the Obvious
  • [2] In the next phase of participant observation, researchers settle into collecting data ona more or less systematic basis (see Kirk and Miller 1986). This is sometimes accompaniedby an interesting personal response—a sense of discovery, where you feel as if informantsare finally letting you in on the ‘‘good stuff’’ about their culture. Much of this ‘‘goodstuff’’ will later turn out to be commonplace. You may ‘‘discover,’’ for example, thatwomen have more power in the community than meets the eye or that there are twosystems for dispute settlement—one embodied in formal law and one that works throughinformal mechanisms.
  • [3] Sometimes, a concomitant to this feeling of discovery is a feeling of being in control
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