Difference and Sameness

As with most of the posts, this is not an entirely formed thought -- but I've been considering the particular challenges to fieldwork when one is conducting research at home. I spent this afternoon and yesterday with one of the main mothers I've been working with. I've interviewed her twice, been to her home both times, and gotten to know her as a leader of the mothers' group. Though our conversation the last two days faltered often, a few things became clear, mainly the ways in which we were very different, and how that difference may make it hard for me to develop sustainable relationships here in the field, ones that take on their own continuity without the enormous amount of labor I feel that I've encountered thus far. As I think about reducing fieldwork in LA due to the move north, I'm trying to evaluate, as well, why things did not go as well as I had hoped. I tend to internalize and take responsibility for outcomes -- often excessively (and one might even call narcissistically). But when I am the means through which fieldwork "occurs," it's hard not to feel that I've somehow damaged the experiment.

What has happened multiple times in my fieldwork, with various people, is a heightened sense of how much I am not like the people I work with. If I were in another country, that difference might be presumed or taken for granted. But I think being an American, complicates the relationship and the expectation. It's not that I am surprised that fellow Americans are from entirely different cultures than mine (this is why I am intrigued and compelled to study America and its cultural phenomena), but I find it hard to navigate these differences. While conducting research with these other Americans, it's awkward to make clear how my research works. I think that often in foreign places, participants may chalk up their lack of understanding to cultural differences, but that lack of transparency is harder to ignore when you're working in your own country.

A couple of weeks ago, at the mothers' group meeting, we played a game that required you to find people who matched certain categories on the game card. At the end, one mom read off the categories, and if you had been part of that category -- you raised your hand (basically, a form of bingo, but with descriptors rather than letters and numbers). One of the squares identified someone who "reads more than 5 books a month". I raised my hand, but was the only person to do so. A number of the mothers muttered -- well, I read parts of 5 books a month, or, how about kids' books? I read more than 5 kids' books a month. I qualified my book-consumption by pointing out I was a student, but somehow I think I ended up making the mothers feel bad and threatened. There's lots of stuff like this that happen in the course of fieldwork, where my education, or my interests or my lack of having children, somehow stands out in particular ways.

In Morocco, these differences usually were interpreted as misfortunes -- everyone was quite concerned that at 26 I was unmarried. The Moroccan women were eager to help me, as I was clearly in a disadvantaged position. When I admitted to not practicing Judaism, a number of the women I knew worked very hard to help illuminate me and explain to me why I might have not found the connection. So I'm trying to figure out what it is about my role as a researcher in the groups I find myself in here that doesn't allow for a level of openness or eagerness to learn "more" about the lives of the people I'm getting to know. There must be a good way to translate the naive, eager researcher from a place in which I am an obvious outsider, to a place where I'm a less obvious outsider, yet somehow more obviously different.

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