New Adventures in Tandem Ethnography

Emory University
The University of Arizona
Published October 7, 2013
Christopher Lirette
Emory University
Lindsey Feldman
The University of Arizona

The old women began arriving in the domino room of the Chauvin Library, where my dad suggested I1 go film as part of my fieldwork. I propped myself up in the corner of the room, making small talk in Cajun French even though my "project" tries to avoid nativist ideologies about Louisiana culture.2 I saw that a completely out of place person had walked in. I immediately recognized her as one of my own3—a strange feeling when one is already "home" and is certain that this person is from elsewhere.

Selfie at dawn on a trawl boat, Chauvin, Louisiana, June 2013. Photograph by Lindsey Feldman.
Selfie at dawn on a trawl boat, Chauvin, Louisiana, June 2013. Photograph by Lindsey Feldman.

A week and a half later, Lindsey and I took selfies at sunrise on a trawl boat in Lake Boudreaux. Our projects in Louisiana were radically different: she was from Tucson, Arizona, working in Louisiana as part of a government-funded anthropology initiative that has been in Louisiana for fifteen years, her dissertation will be on prisoners. I work in straight-up theory, writing about how people perform their culture and where the fantasies that govern their actions come from.

Over the next month, we4 sort of fell into a rhythm of collaborative ethnography. We began interviewing people in tandem, exploring a place that was new and strange for Lindsey and more or less familiar and invisible for me. This emerging situation began to blur the lines between our two positions as researchers, a process that is apparent in our writing about this experience, a shift from the first-person singular to the first-person dual, from the subjective (and/or objective) voice to something else: a practice of collaborative perspective.

The choice to write as "we" is a decision to both duplicate vision and to unify it, to see something less bound by our disciplines and imaginations. It is also a way to alternatively navigate the space of the anthropological field, here being Chauvin, Louisiana, a small "census-designated place" in southern Louisiana. The following is a selection of fieldnotes from June 2013.5

We went trawling on Boudreaux Canal at sunset with a married couple who claimed that they didn't need to belong to a church, didn't need a priest or a pastor, because God blessed them with every good catch and there's no place of worship like the hull of a boat.

We drove past the dock where we eventually went on our first trawl-boat ethnography extravaganza, and there was the smell of it. Somebody had left some shrimp peelings in a garbage can to ferment in the heat of Louisiana June.

We sat at a long wooden dining table in Chauvin with Christopher's grandpa so Lindsey could conduct an interview, and he served us snowballs the right way—stuffed—with cherry flavoring and condensed milk.

Trawling at dawn, route. Satellite imagery courtesy of Google Earth.
Trawling at dawn, route. Satellite imagery courtesy of Google Earth.

We want trawling in Lake Boudreaux at sunrise. One shrimper was from the days when men were shrimpers. His voice was deep and gravely enough to be heard over the boat's motors. He had an apprentice who wore a rubber bracelet with a single word: "Work." We came full of coffee thermoses because it was four in the morning. We were nervous about being too late for the launch.

Work bracelet, Chauvin, Louisiana, June 2013. Photograph by Lindsey Feldman.
Work bracelet, Chauvin, Louisiana, June 2013. Photograph by Lindsey Feldman.

We snuck out of a Cajun dance hall—overstimulated with the visible spectacle of an over-conscious culture, overburdened with the responsibility of being responsible, needing something quiet involving still water, heavy air, and cigarettes.

We found the ideal situation in which to transcribe interviews and type observations was in a room half-floored, with frozen daiquiris, and an episode of True Blood on the horizon.

We created a brief and incomplete taxonomy of sheds:

  • abandoned storage units, collapsed by storms, sometimes housing the bones of small animals;
  • rabbit coops overgrown with blackberry vines, lichen, and other muds;
  • sheds frozen in time circa 1998, filled with tackleboxes, house siding, oxygen tanks, and gigantic spiders; and
  • work areas that are walled rooms beneath raised houses, filled with industrial machines lost to history, cable boxes and plugs, and regular tools (see footnote six).
Shed, Chauvin, Louisiana, June 2013. Photograph by Lindsey Feldman.
Shed, Chauvin, Louisiana, June 2013. Photograph by Lindsey Feldman.

We dealt with Christopher's dad's junk.6

We drove east to the next bayou over to find a place to play pool, to engage in a night resembling the mundane, and found ourselves in the back of a fast food restaurant drinking Coors Light from bottles, chalking cues where we were the only customers.

We ate crawfish among Southern Baptists at Christopher's friend's engagement party, discussing ethnographies of alternative sexual communities. Everyone had gone inside, except us and the mosquitos, which swarmed us no matter how many box fans we directed towards them. We jumped a rope fence, sort of. We itched for days. We were met with only some suspicion.

We went to see Great Gatsby at an extravagantly nice movie theater in New Orleans, a disruption in the flow of down-the-bayou aesthetic, and we remarked that being served parmesan flavored popcorn by waitstaff seemed appropriate while watching that particular film.

We sat in a mansion in Houma—one that is once a year a haunted house—and ate seeds from mason jars while talking politics with a local community organizer and his tenant, another grad student doing interviews.7

Perhaps the presence of researchers in Louisiana (or any location) should be looked at as an opportunity to practice seeing with others. Our fieldnotes are not fieldnotes in that archetypal sense, though they hold the ghost of the classical fieldnote. They're punctuated by experience rather than a strict chronology. They were written from memory—specifically, memory delimited by another person. These fieldnotes are conversations.

Ghost selfie, Chauvin, Louisiana, June 2013. Photograph by Christopher Lirette.
Ghost selfie, Chauvin, Louisiana, June 2013. Photograph by Christopher Lirette.

They are conversations literally and figuratively. We talked to each other in the process of writing them, and we travelled together while doing research. And we spoke with people in Chauvin, and were part of their lives. We travelled with them too. The word conversation comes from conversatio, or "living with," which itself comes from con (with) and verso (to turn). These fieldnotes are not just observations but the relics of a time spent living together, with each other, with a place, with a people. We're exploring a method of research that might allow us as anthropologists to critically examine the people and places beyond our own imaginaries, to let them see us. It can mean letting people in on the cover up.

  • 1. The blog post starts with the voice of Christopher, since we were having a hard time beginning in a plural voice. Also, his voice has previously appeared on the Southern Spaces blog.
  • 2. For instance, the ideologies that promote a romantic Cajun nationalism where everyone speaks perfect Louisiana French and, I guess, traps nutria for a living.
  • 3. Twenty-something creative types, generally seen wearing thick-framed glasses.
  • 4. We being, for the rest of this post, Lindsey and Christopher.
  • 5. We conceive of the concept of "fieldnotes" as an archetypal form. Fieldnotes are, for anthropologists intent on following tradition, the symbols of professional identity and ethnographic authority. From the time of Bronislaw Malinowski, the father of modern anthropological fieldwork (i.e., getting out of the armchair and into the real world; see Malinowski's seminal work, Argonauts of the Western Pacific [London: George Routledge and Sons, 1932]), fieldnotes have become material markers of doing ethnography. Fieldnotes are made up of daily logs, filled with short conversations or encounters, and some proto-analysis of what was seen. Fieldnotes are also the site of thick description, which is the act of writing down, through a hyper-awareness of the place the researcher is temporarily occupying, the seemingly minute details of everyday life. This is important because, as Clifford Geertz—the first to practice and name thick descriptionexplains, we may not notice the difference between a wink or a twitch without the context that surrounds it. See Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 6.
  • 6. Actually, by junk we mean a more or less complete material history of labor, culture, and religion in Chauvin in the "long" twentieth century. He began with a family tree project that quickly became a collection of family photos, which began to amass heirlooms, furniture, machinery, and local publications dating back to the 1860s and encompassing much more than his own genealogy.
  • 7. Apparently, 2013 will be remembered as "the year grad students descended upon south Louisiana to work their ethnographies."

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