Saturday, July 9, 2011

Entering the Community

I would like to preface this post with the fact that I started writing it in my second week and I am posting it now at the end of my seventh week. In some ways I am glad that it took me so long to post it because I think it might have more application for me today and there is a good chance that I could do a re-write for week 14 and it would be just as applicable. So here it goes, enjoy.
How many times did we talk about entering the community during the prep class? Countless. How valuable has it been to me? Priceless. Am I perfect at it? Not even close. I have now been in Chavadi Pudur for almost 3 weeks*. The majority of my time the first couple of weeks was spent trying not to panic along with successfully enter the community and host family. To start with nearly everyone in Chavadi Pudur calls me Maggie because I am incapable of pronouncing my full name in a way that can be understood or rather pronounced. I shortened it to Maggie and my frustration of trying to pronounce my own name has been solved (it also helps that Maggi is a popular brand of noodles here).
My days have been spent trying to build relationships in Chavaid Pudur. Frankly, this is just hard. I am working on all those skills such as being observant, listening, and going way outside my comfort zone. I feel a lot like Chang trying to get into the study group (had to throw in a reference to Community somewhere). He works so hard, obnoxiously so, in order to become a part of the group. My goals and timeline for the field were such that I was sure to set aside most of my time for entering the community. Interviews were only to interrupt this process because I have to get my information from somewhere right? I have attended community events, sat for hours on end with strangers, worked in the plastic industry, been laughed at daily by the children and adults alike in the village, swept the veranda and courtyard, practiced the alphabet with Appa, and carried in buckets of water alongside the neighborhood women from the pump at 6:00 am in the steady rainfall. All of these efforts and may more have been done in a small hope of becoming a part of the family and community.
So nearly 8 weeks later what has been my payoff for all of my hard work? Well I am still laughed at on a daily basis, people still stare, and I am still lacking a translator to name a few. However, I have also been fed more food then I thought was possible to eat, I am more commonly referred to as auntie then maggie, and I have had amazing conversations with the host family as well as others while helping to prepare meals or studying Tamil. I think of these examples and many others and have to ask myself what was my goal when I thought of entering the community? Was it simply to find a translator and get my 45 interviews? No, I don't think this was ever my goal. Instead it was to build relationships. I am building those relationships. I might not be doing it perfectly, but I will continue to work at. After all relationships and friendships aren't built in one afternoon of shared biscuits. In the mean time if everyone wants to offer up a prayer to whichever Deity of their choice that my efforts may lead to a translator it would be very much appreciated.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Social Situations and Context

Earlier this semester I was asked to come up with at least 20 social situations. Three or maybe even four weeks ago I was asked to come up with a mini ethnography topic I could study in preparation for going to the field. Then I was asked to do multiple methods practice such as interviewing and participant observations. This culminated with last week’s assignment of simply trying to get in the way. Not just blocking people from walking down the sidewalk, but actively trying to create social situations or speech acts. After all of this our discussion in class was focused on the skills of being able to understand social situations and context.

I spent most of the last month trying to avoid the assignment or at the very least letting it slide to the bottom of my very long to do list. This was to my great detriment. I have been thinking over social situations, context, and even the skills necessary to understand what is going on around me. I have been wondering what social situations I am likely to be placed in while in the field. I am likely to be waiting at a bus stop with members of the community of all ages, sitting on verandas with elderly and young children, eating meals with my host family, participating in interviews, and even participating in religious services to name a few of my predicted situations.

Context, wow, context can be any and everything right? What might be some of the context that I will encounter while in the field? Maybe it will be an informant that no longer wants to participate because they are clearly busy with to many other things, but don’t want to be rude. It could be me being laughed at while trying to buy bread or a bus ticket; it could in fact be almost anything? The best part is I might not know the context until it is over. If I am lucky I will be able to pick-up on it during the situation and mitigate what is happening.

I have been giving a lot of thought to what skills will help me with recognition and mitigating situations. Some skills may include being observant, easy going, out going, willing to make mistakes, willing to ask questions, conscious of others feelings, and teachable to name a few that came to mind. I recognize that there are a lot of skills that I could use development in. One that I think I can use the most work developing is being descriptive with note taking. I can be really descriptive in some things and not acknowledge others. Looking from old notes I am pretty good at describing the weather (physical environment, sounds, smells, and even people. I am not nearly as good at describing an event as a whole. Along with being able to recall things enough to write good notes I need to practice being aware of them in the first place. I will never be able to grasp everything all at once, but I can practice trying to focus on those things that I tend to forget.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Fast/Slow, Now/Later

I am someone who likes to go as quickly as possible, or as slowly as possible. I either pay attention to every minor detail, or no details at all. I want things now, or I could wait for years. I may be hungry, but I would choose not to make food. I will walk half an hour to save a dollar, but then I won't walk down the stairs to pick something up. The first field visit I had was in Ghana nearly four years ago. At the time we would pick our highs and lows for the day or week. I remember mine often being one in the same. My high would be the trotro ride where I would indulge in plantain chips and fanyogo. While my low would be the exact same trotro ride that took 3 hours in stifling heat with a crying baby on my lap and a goat under my legs. I share these personal character traits and brief experience to illustrate my often fluctuating motivation and strong ability to be selective in my attitude to a situation or task.

I mentioned in my previous post about attending the Inquiry Conference. There is another topic from the conference that I wanted to devote more time to thinking about. This was the idea of motivation. This topic came out in several presentations that I was able to watch. It was most commonly associated with being able to recognize our own motivations and biases in cross-cultural interactions and research. I have been thinking through how this relates to my project on multiple levels.

What are my motivations for going on a field study to Chavadi Pudur, India? I had life changing experiences on my previous studies. I am excited to have another experience. I am especially interested in being able to be participate in another culture that I am not familiar with. Everything that I have read about Tamil culture only makes me want to visit more. I love learning about people and cultures. I think the best ways to do this is to be within the culture making mistakes and being open to new perspectives and ideas. I think it is equally important to be able to admit that part of me is just ready for a new adventure.

Learning/study as a motivation. I am highly motivated by the opportunity to be able to learn more about the aging process including perceptions and experiences. I am fascinated by the aging process, and because of my experiences with individual who have grown older I want to learn all that I can about it.

I believe it is also crucial to acknowledge similar themed biases in order to have ethical and accurate data. If I am going to Chavadi to prove that aging is one way or another I guarantee that as a researcher I will be able to support it. I think that any research with enough of a bias recognized or not is capable of doing this. This is a concern that I have had for a while. I want to learn what is happening not determine what I may already perceive to be the case. I hope that by being aware of this I will be able to mitigate my biases with appropriate methods. Particularly, through the choosing of interview questions and making sure that my field notes are descriptive.

Recognizing motivations and biases will help in all of my preparations and through out the field. Taking the time to think through my motivations and painfully acknowledging them will likely make the subtle difference between my perception of my experience as being a high, low, or in most cases both. Which will make all the difference in the world.


This last week was the annual Inquiry Conference. I spent a significant amount of my week listening to different presenters from across many disciplines discuss countless topics based on their cross-cultural research experiences. While fighting off strong feelings of nostalgia of student and projects past I was reminded of how important and exciting the process of inquiry is. As one keynote speaker similarly put it, inquiry is the finding of dots of knowledge/experience and then connecting those dots. Watching students present on their experiences with inquiry was fascinating to me. Each one had their own points of interest and process of learning. In many ways for me it was like plugging in a dying battery to be recharged.

One of my favorite topics throughout the conference was on collaboration. Collaboration between faculty, students, and the members of the community that we as students visit. This may include our top informants, host families, neighbors, or the person that we talk to while waiting for the bus. When I interact with these individuals it is not just me becoming educated or gaining knowledge. Sharing and collaboration are taking place. Am I being a good collaborator? How am I sharing my knowledge? How am I treating these groups of people? What are my intentions for treating them that way? Am I going above and beyond with some people and ignoring others simply because I want something from them? What is appropriate? Can I ever 'repay' what I am given?

These are some of the thoughts that I have had about the ideas of collaboration and inquiry. In my project specifically how will I be a good collaborator? I think recognizing and being honest with my motives is a great place to start.

Friday, February 25, 2011

My Great Confusion with Language and Terminology Part 1

A concern of mine for some time now has been deciding what language, specifically the terminology that I should be using for my project. What terms am I currently using? What is appropriate within a Tamil context? Is someone elderly, old, aged, older person, grey generation, over 60, over 70, old-old, young-old? What do all of these terms mean? What is there context? If I ask an informant to describe someone for me that is Old what is the response going to be? What about if I ask for them to describe someone over the age of 60 (determined year from the Indian government that someone is considered old), what if I ask them all the things that describe someone who is aging, who is a grandparent? I can’t for the life of me come up with one term that should be used. It gets even more confusing when I think of having that term translated from English to Tamil.
In the book No Aging in India, the author brought up the following point. “Most of the literature in English and Hindi on old age in contemporary India is organized around an imminent “problem of aging”… the language of gerontology is alarmist, almost apocalyptic.” (Cohen, pg. 89, 1989) This is something that I have noticed since I originally started looking up literature on Aging. Most of the articles and books start out with this negative approach. This is especially true about many of the introductions and the terms that gerontologist use. It is often brought to attention that an aging population is a problem. The terms that are used may be saying one thing, but mean another. I say I am studying the aged, but really what does that mean?
I do not want to add to the negative approach, language, and stereotype. I do not want to approach my research as a problem, because, I do not believe an aging population is an inherent problem. I think it is a unique population set that is growing worldwide. I am interested in how others perceive of the aging population and how they perceive of themselves. I am going to continue to research and think of ways to describe the individuals I am focusing on. This unfortunately will probably take me the entire time I am in the field and beyond to discover. In the mean time being aware of the language I am currently using will be a great place to start.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Aging Process: second to second, experience to experience

Studying the aging process sometimes makes me hyper aware of time and the way that we fill that time. How am I using my time today? What about my time this year? This can be time in reference to the very measurable second by second or more abstract frame of a human lifetime. Most humans outline our lifetimes in stages or phases. The human life is often viewed as a process. My question that I have been thinking about over the last weekend is, does this process have to end on a downwards spiral? On Saturday I was able to watch a wonderful Icelandic film at the International Cinema. The movie, Children of Nature, was directed by Fridrik Fridriksson in 1991. The film is the story of an older man, his friend, and the adventure they go on to return home.

The first scene that I would like to share takes place when the older man is being moved into an old persons home, (this is what it is referred to in the movie). It is the man, his adult daughter and the director of the facility. The director is introducing him to the home. While this is taking place a young girl is serving them tea. She turns to the daughter and asks, “does he take sugar or cream.” Later in the movie two police officials are discussing the disappearance of the older couple. The response is to the effect of, “Look no further than the boiler room they are old after all.” The last scene that I want to describe takes place at the end of the couples journey at the longtime home of the best friend. There is a beautiful compilation of flashbacks of her growing up, working, laughing, and raising a family in the same home. It shows everyday life experiences as they were for decades.

Besides being an overall moving film, I do actually have a point to my ramblings. In the first scene I described the perception of the elderly was that they were incapable of caring for themselves or deciding. The man either did not know what he liked, or would not be able to understand the question and respond properly. The man clearly was capable of answering, and was instead marginalized. It was much the same result in the second scene described. I would like to counteract this with the experience and perception of the couple themselves. During the flashbacks the audience sees time proceed without hindrance. It was not a matter of seconds or years it was the lived experience of the aging process. It reminded me in 45 seconds (time again) why I want to study aging. The reason I care about what I am learning. I love learning about the aging process, because I love learning about the individuals experience with aging. One person in their late eighties has already had nearly four times the life experiences I have. Think of that knowledge!

While in the field I hope to learn what the perceptions and experiences of aging are in Tamil Nadu, India. The film embodied many of the issues that I will be studying while in the field. It showed negative perceptions of aging at their worst, and the sheer beauty of what the aging process can be. I am excited to be going to the field to be able to study these aspects of the aging experience. I want to make sure while I am in the field that I am not finding things just because I am expecting them. I don’t want to look only for negative stereotypes and examples because I am sure if I do this I will find them. Instead, I want to try and have my work reflect most accurately what those perceptions and experiences are. One of the best ways for this to happen will likely be through making sure that I have great descriptive questions.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Thoughts on Methods

Methods have been on my mind a lot the last couple of weeks. This is partially because I was supposed to be doing an interviewing practice. Mostly, it is because I am trying to decide which methods make the most since for what I am interested in understanding about aging and answering my research question. Where do I want the focus to be? What do I have the capability to accomplish? What are the best methods for learning one’s perception of aging and the aged? In short, what makes the most sense?

At this point I want my focus to be on 3 separate generational groups’ perceptions and experiences of aging and the aged. This seems slightly overwhelming when I think of translating that into domain analysis activities, structured, semi structured, and unstructured interviewing for an appropriate sample size of 3 key age groupings 18-24, 35-50, 65. While trying to accomplish all of this within a 3 month period, in a location I have never been to, and for which I don’t speak the language fluently. When I write this I feel like I am a mixture of overly ambitious, crazy, and a poor researcher. I wonder if there is anyway to accomplish even a fraction of what I am hoping to in my minds perfect version of field work.

As of right now here is an outline of what my methods would look like for each generation.
65yr+ (also referred to as the old old, aged, and elderly)- I want to take a phenomenological approach to their experiences of aging. I would have 5-7 individuals that I am visiting multiple times. These visits would include a free listing activity, and several unstructured or semi-structured interviews. What has been their lived experience of aging?
35yr-50yr- I am thinking that I want to do at least 20 individuals from this age group. (My main concern is that this is not enough to be a significant sample size, and at the same time more than I will be capable of doing when combined with the other two age groups). With these individuals I am thinking that I will do a free listing activity and one semi-structured interview or maybe a 5-10 question structured interview.
18yr-24yr- This age grouping will also have at least 20 individuals. I will do the same free listing or interviewing with them that I do with the middle age group.

This was a first outlining of my methods. I am hoping that as I continue to work on fleshing out these ideas I will be able to make them more manageable and the most effective for gaining a further understanding of the perceptions and experiences of aging in Tamil Nadu, India.