Saturday, March 26, 2016

On being an interloper

As part of my coursework in college as an undergrad I created a couple of ethnographies after doing participant observation in a couple of different communities in my life. I chose to focus on communities that I was already at least tangentially a part of rather than trying to integrate into a new community or two into my already somewhat busy social/personal life. This felt Ideal to me, as I could kill two birds with one stone, though in retrospect maybe this was ultimately a bad idea as I already felt somewhat alienated from these groups, trying to focus on collecting information and observing with a detached eye only exacerbated the alienation. At least, I think so? This is a rough line of questioning.

I already didn't really feel like I belonged to the individual groups in question for a bunch of other reason. I was too young, I was not well established as a New Orleanian with just a few years of presence under my belt, in a larger sense I didn't really have anything to offer folks. When later I ended up cutting ties after an abortive attempt at demanding accountability I realized too that the folks I'd been hanging out with just had largely different priorities in the world socially and politically. In short, I just really, really, didn't belong.
Which is fine as heck for participant-observation work. There's a lot of opinion written and I think a general consensus that a well-done ethnography requires the author to have at some point achieved "acceptance" within the group; the breakthrough comes when the elders put you through some rite of passage or finally share with you some sacred knowledge. To me this just sounds like a narrative convenience. The stories of your encounters with the tribe build and build to a climax of acceptance and you just coast along from there into a doctoral degree. It's easy, it's intuitive, it fits an individualist narrative. I don't think it's accurate at all. In fact I don't think there really needs to be any amount of acceptance to produce good and useful work and I think that what acceptance you do receive should be thoroughly examined as its own individual social event. Folks in the tribe may never "truly" accept you, but the whole concept itself needs to be examined in its own context. What would have acceptance meant for me within my communities? Folks start calling me to show up versus me just showing up? Folks put some amount of responsibility on me to organize gatherings? Better interviews that were more probing? I think most of my interviews went great personally.

I think part of the issue is that no matter what I did in american culture writ large I'm already an interloper. My politics are incredibly radical, even if the bubble I've built insulates me from that. I'm very gay, but not even in the right kind of acceptable gay way, more in the total disregard for social conventions kinda way. My personal background is highly unusual. Many of my personal habits are basically anti-social. I put a lot of work into passing as a reasonable human being when there's money on the line but if I'm not getting paid I honestly can't bother and I can't really jive with people who do bother. While the groups I did study were on some level or other unusual within America, they were only unusual on one or two vectors and over the course of my research I found again and again that folks involved were actually fairly conservative. Many aspired to be weirder and sought the sort of authenticity that's ascribed to folks outside the norm, but their attempts were basically superficial.

I think ultimately the largest issue is that I just couldn't relate to the folks in the groups, nor could those folks really relate to me. They didn't have the temperament or shared experience or really even the time to do so. A lot of it was probably ageism. Some of it was probably politics. Some of it is just trapped in that modern individualist alienation from others around you. From my perspective I guess this was ultimately helpful, if only in teaching me what sort of things I want to avoid in life. I keep finding out later too that folks were somewhat more invested in my presences than they appeared at first glance. Maybe I could go back, but what would that mean? I came on my own volition (well if we're being honest I showed up because that's where my love was at the time), turned my participation into an advantage for me, and quit when I found that my principles were clashing with my participation. Would I be returning because I'm desperate for human connection? Would I be returning to search for some glimmer of something that looks like emotional fulfillment? Am I returning out of academic curiosity for the growth and shaping of the group? I guess the worst thing might be confrontations with folks I feel like I individually affronted and maybe it's worth going back if only to try and achieve some personal emotional closure. Maybe the time away will have graduated myself from interloper to invested party.

No comments:

Post a Comment