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Methodological Notes

Methodological notes deal with technique in collecting data. If you work out a better way to keep a log than I’ve described here, don’t just use your new technique; write it up in your field notes and publish a paper about your technique so others can benefit from your experience. (See appendix E for a list of professional journals that publish articles on research methods in the social and behavioral sciences.) If you find yourself spending too much time with marginal people in the culture, make a note of it, and discuss how that came to be. You’ll discover little tricks of the trade, like the ‘‘uh-huh’’ technique discussed in chapter 8. (Remember that one? It’s where you learn how and when to grunt encouragingly to keep an interview going.) Write up notes about your discoveries. Mark all these notes with a big ‘‘M’’ at the top—M for ‘‘method.’’

Methodological notes are also about your own growth as an instrument of data collec?tion. Collecting data is always awkward when you begin a field project, but it gets easier as you become more comfortable in a new culture. During this critical period of adjustment, you should intellectualize what you’re learning about doing fieldwork by taking methodological notes.

When I first arrived in Greece in 1960, I was invited to dinner at ‘‘around 7 p.M.’’ When I arrived at around 7:15 (what I thought was a polite 15 minutes late), I was embarrassed to find that my host was still taking a bath. I should have known that he really meant ‘‘around 8 p.M.’’ when he said ‘‘around 7.’’ My methodological note for the occasion simply stated that I should not show up for dinner before 8 p.M. in the future.

Some weeks later, I figured out the general rules for timing of evening activities, including cocktails, dinner, and late-night desserts in the open squares of Athens. Robert Levine has studied the psychology of time by asking people around the world things like ‘‘How long would you wait for someone who was late for a lunch appointment?” On average, Brazilians say they’d wait 62 minutes. On average, says Levine, ‘‘Americans would need to be back at their office two minutes before” the late Brazilian lunch was just getting underway (Levine 1997:136).

When I began fieldwork with the Nahnu people of central Mexico in 1962, I was offered pulque everywhere I went. I tried to refuse politely; I couldn’t stand the stuff. But people were very insistent and seemed offended if I didn’t accept the drink. Things were particularly awkward when I showed up at someone’s house and there were other guests there. Everyone enjoyed pulque but me, and most of the time people were too poor to have beer around to offer me.

At that time, I wrote a note that people ‘‘felt obliged by custom to offer pulque to guests.’’ I was dead wrong. As I eventually learned, people were testing me to see if I was affiliated with the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), an evangelical missionary group (and nondrinkers of alcohol) that had its regional headquarters in the area where I was working.

The SIL is comprised of many excellent linguists who produce books and articles on the grammar of the nonwritten languages of the world and translations of the Bible into those languages. There was serious friction between the Indians who had converted to Protestantism and those who remained Catholic. It was important for me to disassociate myself from the SIL, so my methodological note discussed the importance of conspicuously consuming alcohol and tobacco to identify myself as an anthropologist and not as a missionary.

Nine years later, in 1971, I still couldn’t stand pulque—and I was sure that drinking out of those common gourds that were passed around was what sent me to the hospital in 1968. I started carrying a couple of six packs of beer in the car and offering it to people who offered me pulque. This worked and the methods lesson was clear: Beer kept my reputation of independence from the SIL intact and was universally accepted because beer was costly, and prestigious, compared to pulque.

Eight years later, in 1979, I read that William Partridge had a similar predicament during his work in Colombia (Kimball and Partridge 1979:55). Everywhere Partridge went, it seems, people offered him beer, even at 7:00 a.m. He needed an acceptable excuse, he said, to avoid spending all his waking hours getting drunk.

After a few months in the field, Partridge found that telling people ‘‘Estoy tomando una pastilla” (‘‘I’m taking a pill’’) did the trick. Locally, the pill referred to in this phrase was used in treating venereal disease. Everyone knew that you didn’t drink alcohol while you were taking this pill, and the excuse was perfect for adding a little virility boost to

Partridge’s reputation. Partridge used his knowledge of local culture to get out of a tough situation.

Methodological notes, then, have to do with the conduct of field inquiry itself. You will want to make methodological notes especially when you do something silly that breaks a cultural norm. If you are feeling particularly sheepish, you might want to write those feelings into your diary where no one else will see what you’ve written, but you don’t want to waste the opportunity to make a straightforward methodological note on such occasions, as well.

 
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