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Jumping Into the Field at the Deep End

As four recent books reveal, befuddling and even dangerous ethnographic research can be an engrossing read.

Dashes to safety over the Siberian steppes, fearful run-ins with colonial occupiers in West Papua, brushes with the shadowy camorra of Naples. Graduate students in mathematics, nuclear physics, or divinity don’t have to contend with the likes of those.

For ethnographers, danger often seems to accompany sticking one’s beak in—taking the side of subjects whose lifestyles, and lives, are threatened. Of course, in anthropology and other social-science disciplines, the ruling view has been that such partisanship is suspect, although it’s been a less-discussed concern that such partisanship risks losing scholars in action.

In his new book, The Art of Making Do in Naples, just out from the University of Minnesota Press, Jason Pine describes the uncertainties and risks he faced while studying a form of music in the Italian city called neomelodica. It is particularly popular among poorer residents, and flourishes in a world of street performance, improvised recording studios, pirate television, wedding gigs, and often the social events of crime bosses. The last of those take performers into the loosely organized crime syndicates that are collectively known as the camorra.

Individuals within camorra circles can be decidedly unpleasant. But the musicians court them because, after all, they themselves are marginalized figures in a city so rife with unemployment that many people do what they can to “make do.”

To win enough acceptance that he can conduct his research, Pine, now an assistant professor of anthropology and media, society, and the arts at SUNY-Purchase, offered his services as a filmmaker intent on documenting the neomelodica scene. He found that its was not only quasi-legal, but baffling. To explore it, Pine ran with the musicians as they assisted the social needs of the camorra as a reality of making a living, just as they needed to skirt official law. He discovered that, for the musicians, one way to deal with those anxious realities was to build into their art a good measure of irony: Neomelodica is an art of “performing performing” in that “the performers were not truly operating until they exposed to people the artifice of their performances,” he writes.

But for Pine, the young ethnographer, that obliqueness posed a disorienting challenge: “The people I got to know on the neomelodica scene rarely, if ever, presented that world to me in any way compatible with the conventions of ethnographic realism.” In fact, he discovered, the performers were as aware as any poststructuralist ethnographer of how to parse out and recombine the “signs” of cultural worlds.

“They performed the oppressed Neapolitan with expert irony,” aided by an artfulness as subtle and creative as their musical performances, he writes.

That extended to what they would reveal to him about their relations with the dangerous world of the camorra. Many people on the neomelodica scene clearly had organized-crime connections, but when Pine asked about that, “I couldn’t get a clear answer,” he writes. He learned, even, that knowing the answer was probably no wiser than providing it: “Specific knowledge is not only dangerous but difficult to come by, for a great deal of the camorra’s force comes from its production of indeterminacy.”

Pine, little by little, became involved with them—whoever “they” were. As he pressed on with a documentary film he hoped to make, he writes, “I envisioned a reflexive documentary about my efforts to track the art of making do on the neomelodica music scene, a melodramatic spectacle that gradually engulfs me.”

The threat of violence that Pine faced was far greater for Rane Willerslev, as he recounted in On the Run in Siberia, another Minnesota book out this spring. There, Willerslev, now a professor of anthropology and director of the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo, described his research into the Yukhagir indigenous people of Siberia. Their hunter-gatherer, animist way of life has fallen into disarray due to corrupt officials and mafiosi who have forced them into urban servitude marked by massive alcoholism and suicide rates. Still bringing them some respite, however, is their trade in fur from the sable, moose, and other animals that fare better than humans in the harsh conditions of the Siberian wilderness.

Willerslev’s book is a riveting account of his time living among, studying, and then assisting the Yukhagir in the mid-1990s when, as a young anthropologist, he idealistically attempted to organize the hunters into a fair-trade fur cooperative. Mafia middlemen to the region’s corrupt, exploitative, state-run fur corporation responded with dire threats, and the anthropologist ended up on the run, deep into the wilderness where he almost died from starvation and exposure. He survived only by relying on what he had learned of traditional Yukhagir hunting techniques and even their animistic relations with the land.

Before the new ethnographic memoir, Willerslev wrote of his fieldwork in a 2007 monograph from the University of California Press, Soul Hunting: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukhagirs.

Also looking back at her early-career research is E.J. Levy, in Amazons: A Love Story (University of Missouri Press), published in June. Levy, now an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Missouri at Columbia and a fiction writer, writes about a rainforest-research trip she took while at Yale University. Completely ill-equipped, she ventured to a remote jungle region of Brazil. Among the painful experiences that ensued were encounters with such deadly jungle creatures as snakes and crocodiles, and rape.

The rape, she says, resulted from her lack of awareness about where dating in a strange culture could lead. She portrays a young woman as insecure and emotionally needy as many graduate students are. “Is it rape if you let it happen, if you simply fail to identify with the girl in the mirror, if you believe that being wanted by any man, even a man who hates a girl like you, your rapist, is more important than what you want,the only thing that gives you value, his wanting you?”

Less overtly threatening was Eben Kirksey‘s time observing and standing alongside leaders of the West Papuan independence movement. His Freedom in Entangled Worlds: West Papua and the Architecture of Global Power (Duke University Press), released in March, tells of an unusual form of resistance among the people of the western half of New Guinea, a brutal place since Indonesia enforced its expansionist claims with a 1969 fiat of annexation. Indonesia’s suppression of protest has resulted in slaughters, bombing raids, executions, and “disappearances.”

But when he first went to West Papua in 1998, Kirksey, a visiting assistant professor and research fellow in interdisciplinary science studies at the City University of New York Graduate Center, found an unusual scenario. Rather than resorting to an armed uprising, leaders of the Papuan independence movement had adopted a strategy of limited collaboration with the Indonesians and multinational corporations. The West Papuans, having realized that all-out resistance would lead to more violence, decided that ceding many natural resources would be their wisest course. “Risking an alliance with the enemy served as a medium for avoiding endless conflicts with the invaders,” Kirksey writes.

After spending time with independence figures, and even time at the jungle camp of a renowned guerrilla fighter, Kirksey documented some striking dimensions to the West Papuans’ rationale, such as giving up many of their resources as a form of messianic humanitarianism.

He found some explanation of that approach in indigenous parables. Also driving the conciliations, he discovered, was that his research subjects conceived of him as a messiah-like emissary sent to help them come to terms with such powers as an oil company in London and personnel of the U.S. Congress and State Department, even as murders of activists and villagers continued.

He agreed to do that, attracting scrutiny from the FBI. Yet, he writes, all he was doing was helping to represent his subjects’ ancient ethos of sharing in free exchange: “I found my friends praying for me, for the United States, and for the “higher rulers of humanity” at the United Nations so that we would learn to genuinely embrace the principles of human rights—to see things to which we had been blind in the past.”

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