by Catherine Soriano Luna
A good field researcher is relatively flexible and plans for the inevitable change of plans. You still try to accomplish what you planned for – particularly when funding is attached. However, ethnographic fieldwork is not bench laboratory work. There is no real control, no do-overs, and your study subjects talk back. This past summer I went to the field expecting to explore indicators of climate change, even though I wrote my research questions to be open to the possibility of discovering other sorts of environmental change indicators. And while I did get to ask a few questions about responses to climate change, most local residents wanted to talk about elephants. So I did. It was a risk to go off “script”, but given the stakes for my friends and others living in this place, a risk I think worth taking.
I think this seemingly abrupt change of plans initially made Jordan, my graduate assistant, uncomfortable. However, as I said there was some flexibility built into my research plan. When anthropologists go to the field to work with people, that means we work with them where they are. Pushing and pursuing questions that have no relevance makes immediate research difficult, and future research darn near impossible. This is something they don’t tell you in school (and why pilot studies are so important). The ongoing human-elephant conflict at my field site in Mozambique has entered a new phase, and as such, definitely constitutes a major environmental change to the social-ecological system. Jordan finally got it when during one of her malaria interviews a woman told her that folks in the community wouldn’t even be speaking to her if I weren’t present. They knew me and I was asking relevant questions (despite my anxiety that this wasn’t going to pan out). Right now, their focus and attention was on the elephants raiding their agricultural fields not malaria. The health clinic in Salamanga provides free treatment for malaria so this wasn’t really an issue. Not having food to eat was an issue.
This fall seven anthropology students are working with Jordan and I to code our summer interviews, field notes, and digital images. I can’t take them to the field with me and given the elephant issue that might not be wise anyway. However, they can learn how to use basic ethnographic tools and we are getting a serious lot of data organized in preparation for full analysis. They will also help with some of the analysis, but the primary goal is to provide some hands on training on what it is that anthropologists actually do. One of the first products we will produce is a report on the state of the human-elephant conflict in Matutuine District based on the data we collected this summer. This will be sent to various Mozambican government agencies and the local communities. Report writing is an important part of applied anthropology. I would also like to put together a short piece for Mozambican newspapers, and maybe something on living with charismatic megafauna for American newspapers. Elephants are one of the coolest animals ever, but they are also incredibly destructive if they are running loose in your maize and cassava fields.
We had a lot of visual data this summer – mine and some from local photographers who are participating in a PhotoVoice project documenting local changes to the environment. Yesterday I used some of this data to put together a short video for my ANTH 222 course (Introduction to Ecological and Evolutionary Anthropology). We are currently talking about biotic and abiotic factors and processes that influence evolution and shape landscapes. Given that every term students ask me to talk more about my research, I thought the human-elephant conflict a good example. Competition for food, water, & space resources, population growth, keystone species, fire, shifting climatic factors, national & international laws, cooperation, etc. I’ve posted it below. Please note there are some graphic depictions of animal butchering if you are squeamish.
by Rebecca Alberda
This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend my very first academic conference – The 74th Annual Society for Applied Anthropology Conference – to be exact. If you didn’t read that in Cesar Flickerman’s voice, then you probably won’t get my humor, consider this your warning. Okay, so we weren’t fighting to the death in the Hunger Games, but it was pretty dang nerve-wracking – also, some anthropologists are pretty in your face about how *their* research is much more legitimate than yours… I’m just saying. In addition to it being my first conference, it was also my first opportunity to present at such a venue. Now, I could tell you all about how my first conference experience went, but really it’s just a boring story about watching anthropologists ignore one another while they frantically finished their power points before their allotted presentation time. And while I had the opportunity to reconnect with undergraduate friends and professors, make new connections, and network, I really just took the time to observe the “native anthropologist” in their “natural habitat,” and I don’t really have the space for an ethnography on that.
Instead, what I would much rather talk about are some glimpses into the experiences I had in Albuquerque, with the people of Albuquerque (ABQ). Anyone who is an anthropologist can chat up a fellow anthropologist (though meeting my anthropological idol had to be the most awkward experience of my life, I guess that’s what I get for cornering him in the gift shop…), but interacting with the locals, taking in the sites – that’s where the real magic happens.
While in ABQ another member of my cohort and I stayed at a Casita owned by a local couple, rather than get a hotel room. It was the best decision we could have possibly made (not to mention much cheaper). Not only was this couple extremely welcoming, there were also extremely engaged with the history (both recent and ancient) of the area, and weren’t afraid to have anthropological discussions with us. They were both originally from the New England area, so it was fun to have the East Coast transplant perspective on the area as well. If I ever visit ABQ again, I will definitely be staying with them.
Another local that we (my cohort friend and I) encountered was a tram operator. One of the many things to do in the area is to ride the Tram up to Sandia Peak in Cibola National Forest. The views were absolutely breathtaking, and while I have included images, they do not do the area justice. This tram operator told us many stories, including one of a plane that had crashed into the side of the Mountain in 1950 (we saw debris), killing everyone onboard. The FAA blamed the pilot for years, not wanting to take the blame themselves, but after quite an uproar, finally did so five years later. She also told us about tightrope walkers and unicyclists that ride up and tightrope the mountain. When visiting new places, tour guides are really your best source of local knowledge and fun stories.
The final local I will mention is one of the owners of a family owned gift shop chain (there are 5 stores in total). After accusing me of being too quiet while browsing, I mentioned that I was looking for a gift for my nephews, and asked how much the suckers with scorpions in them were, saying, “I love them but they are little jerks, so they kind or deserve it.” To this he bent over laughing and said, “Wow, your quite frank, aren’t you?” This had broken the ice and we chatted for quite some time. He told me all about the scorpion farms in CA that breed scorpions strictly for suckers and glass case trinkets, what the weather is like in ABQ, and he even gave be a box of salt water taffy for free (much to his amusement at my disbelief that he would do such a thing). I asked if he liked living in ABQ and he said he did, that he had tried leaving about five times, but somehow he always came back. Chuckling, he said, “They call it the Land of Enchantment, but it’s more like The Land of Entrapment.”
This is a sentiment uttered by almost every local that I spoke with, not really in those words, but they say once the ghosts of the desert whisper to your soul, you can never truly leave. Well, I still hate the desert – I need water and greenery – but there is no denying the beauty and generosity of both the land and the people that make up the landscape of Albuquerque, New Mexico.