More on fieldwork

I have been thinking a bit about fieldwork methodologies (see my post on CDFM and the places where we can do fieldwork, such as London). It turns out I am not alone in this. In a recent discussion with David Nathan, Geoff Haig made the following points (thanks Geoff for allowing me to quote from your email exchange):

The dominant paradigm for field-work / documentation still seems to be based on something like an “exotic village”-setting, where the fieldworker comes from outside into a very different culture, adapts, observes as much as possible “in situ” what is going on, and then leaves. But there is a vast potential for documentation among diaspora communities, that is, communities who have more or less permanently left (or been forced to leave) their traditional settlements for (mostly) urban environments in the west; such communities may well attempt to preserve their language/culture in the new environment. This kind of context actually demands a rather different approach from the investigator, because the respective roles of the investigator and the community are quite different – but it also opens up a host of quite interesting perspectives on how documentation can be done. One can of course bemoan the lack of “pristine authenticity” of such contexts, but with migration on a global scale increasing steadily, it seems to me that much language/cultural documentation in the future is simply going to have to take such mixed contexts seriously, and develop its methodology accordingly.

Some commentators are dead opposed to this view. Perhaps the most vocal is Sasha Aikhenvald.

In the introduction (.doc file) to a recent STUF volume, she distinguishes between ‘immersion fieldwork’ (good) and ‘interview fieldwork’ (bad). Immersion fieldwork:

involves observing the language as it is used, becoming a member of a community, and often being adopted into the kinship system. One records texts, working one’s way through them, and at the same time learns to speak the language and observes how it is used by native speakers – ideally – of all age, and social, groups.

Interview fieldwork, by contrast, is working with rememberers (partial speakers) of moribund languages where participant observation is not possible and thus is only capable of generating partial language descriptions.
A stark contrast, but is the world of language documentation quite so black-and-white or cut-and-dried? Can’t we imagine other models, or even combinations of them? I think that a rather more subtle approach to theorising linguistic research and fieldwork methodologies is called for, as Geoff also said.
Aikhenvald claims that CDFM is the only way to do ‘immersion fieldwork’, and paints a crippled alternative:

some researchers opt to concentrate on interview fieldwork with a few speakers conveniently placed in a city or in a township. A grammar of a language spoken by a few million people which is based on the work with one consultant in an urban environment could be interesting, but is unlikely to be comprehensive and fully reliable … Working with immigrant communities – if a language is well spoken in a home country – is also hardly advisable: many grammatical features are extremely prone to contact induced change and are likely to shift under the impact of introducing new – and losing old – cultural practices. Opting to study Burmese, Hmong, or Serbian – each spoken in their home countries – within the comfort zone of Greater Melbourne, London or Los Angeles may be good for understanding the subtle influence of the Anglophone environment on a smaller language. But it is bound to give a skewed picture of the language’s structure.

Umm, hang on. Isn’t this a bit of a straw man argument? There are clearly other options that linguists can and do adopt in working on languages in a migration setting, like working with multiple speakers, participating in educational or cultural activities carried out in the language in the diaspora (London has dozens of these events going on throughout the year), or drawing upon local community connections with the home country speaker communities. It also seriously underestimates the strength of language maintenance among some immigrant communities. As for language contact, that even happens in places like the Amazon, so we need to be aware of it and take it into account wherever we do fieldwork and documentation, even for CDFM.
So yes, you can catch the subway (or tube) to the field and find yourself immersed in a minority language context where rich linguistic work can be undertaken. Let’s recognise and validate this in our discussions of language documentation methodologies.

10 thoughts on “More on fieldwork”

  1. Alas there will always be people who like to beat their chests. Unfortunately there are also wannabe CDFMers who will beat their chests on others’ behalf as this recent Funknet posting shows
    CDFM is alive and well. The real problem with fieldwork in the city is that there just aren’t enough vines to swing from.

  2. Hmmm, I think it would be nice if this debate (which is interesting and important) could take place without swinging the other way and being snide about ‘CDFMers’ swinging from vines.

  3. While Geoff Haig makes an interesting claim I’d be interested to see if the figures back it up. I suspect that the truly dominant paradigm in ‘fieldwork’ is to study some aspect of your own language, with those that actually do study a lesser-known (exotic?) language being in the minority, worldwide.

  4. Is the point also about the pseudo-CDFMers (or maybe we should call it the CDinNYFMers)? That is, the fieldworkers who travel to (say) Africa, live in a hotel in the capital, interview the hotel staff about cool stuff in their languages, and then go back to University X and dine out on the tales of their CDFM experiences? That of course says something about the status of CDFM within the field, that people feel the need to cast urban fieldwork as though it were the same thing. There’s an argument for not studying rural cultures when speakers of those languages no longer practise that type of culture (and when it’s still possible to go to places where the culture is still practised). Of course, that isn’t an argument against urban fieldwork, it’s an argument in favour of picking a field site that’s appropriate to what is being studied.

  5. The only point I’d like to make is that I reckon CDFM (is there any need for such a loaded, potenitally derogative term?) gives researchers a better chance to pass on benefits to language communities where it’s needed most.
    And then you’ve got an opportunity to help improve the quality of life/education in such places which in turn makes living there less Crocodile Dundee-esque.

  6. wamut, I deliberately chose ‘Crocodile Dundee’ because he is a caricature, created by Paul Hogan to exaggerate for comedic effect – it is precisely the exaggerated, ‘heroic’ rhetoric of some field linguists which I was highlighting. It is perfectly possible to carry out field research in remote communities without doing the whole CD bit.
    As for doing good and improving the quality of life/education in remote locations, let’s not forget the tremendous work that our colleagues do who work with refugees and displaced people in urban areas. Without wanting to lessen the respect I feel for people like yourself in any way, I have seen some of the conditions that powerless people live under in cities around the globe and I would judge that work with them can be no less beneficial. The delivery of education, health information etc. in their own languages is also important in those environments, and I would hesitate to use terms modified by ‘more’ or ‘most’.

  7. Hmm I think we are muddying the waters of the original debate about what it is to document the language of diaspora groups vs non-diaspora groups by throwing in the concept of the commando linguist.
    Yes the commando linguist is annoying.
    But what does it mean to document a language of a people who are under heavy cultural and linguistic influence – both in a city and in a village. It does make a difference, and you need to be able to separate out the contact phenomena (which are very interesting in themselves). You can assume that some of these processes are going on with people who have moved to urban centres. Of course this also goes for endangered languages in the classic field setting as well. How many grammars are based on a few remaining speakers, and therefore what is really being documented? There must be all sorts of contact and language death processes hidden away in these grammars.

  8. I take your point re: refugees/displaced people. That wasn’t really what came to my mind when I was thinking about urban-based fieldwork on minority languages. Instead, I was thinking more about what happens occasionally here when speakers of endangered languages who live in remote communities go to urban areas to work with linguists. My impression of this is that the benefits to the language communities are less apparent. Sure, this method can be great for further documentation of a language, but it can also be just to satisfy a theoretical point of curiosity to the linguist and have little direct application for the maintenance/revitalisation/educational needs of the language and language community. And the linguist’s work is less transparent to the language community. Maybe this is okay, but it’s not really my thing and I wonder too if it’s not just my personal opinion but also backed up by current thinking in best ethical practice. (The ethical guidelines by AIATSIS and FATSIL are pretty good).
    And regarding the CD attitude, I don’t think I’ve seen much of that either – maybe you find it more with linguists setting off for the Amazon, PNG highlands or remote Africa? But still, I don’t know if we need to start using terms that might be interpreted as name-calling.
    I think essentially, linguists are no different to any other section of the population… you get dickheads and you get good people – some are out in the field and some are working in cities… but as long as we all have a sense of our ethics and responsibilities then let’s just all get on with working with these excellent people who share with us their wonderful languages.

  9. This strikes me as a strange debate. The choice between working with migrant communities vs. in-situ is mostly one of resources and expedience. Are there any linguists who would actually PREFER to work with a migrant community rather than studying the language in its original environment? The point is that its often impossible for field linguists to make it to all of the language areas that they are interested in. Without any other recourse, would anyone, including Aikhenvald, seriously oppose the idea of trying to figure out a language outside of its original geographical domain? I think her opposition only holds water for second-generation speakers in a migrant context. For instance, I know that if someone did fieldwork on my parents language using me as an informant, the data would not be very representative of the larger speech community, despite my using the language almost everyday.

  10. “Are there any linguists who would actually PREFER to work with a migrant community rather than studying the language in its original environment? ”
    I can imagine reasons for thinking it a Good Thing. Older speakers in the diaspora can preserve ways of talking that disappear in the society they left. This is especially true of oral arts. And on the other hand, what happens to languages in contact is also interesting, and may lead to different ways of looking at the grammar. Finally, the diaspora may contain younger speakers who, when they encounter interest in their language and arts, may be inspired to document these – and who have the skills and resources to do so.

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