During the first semester of the master Social and Cultural Anthropology, you are working on the development of a research proposal. After four intense months of reading, writing, re-reading and re-writing, you leave to the field. Then, for a three-month period of time, you are doing fieldwork and the distant words you have read throughout the first few months of the master, are now becoming personified in the stories and lives of your informants. You start to build relationships with these informants, some superficial and formal, others profound and sometimes even evolving into special friendships. After three months have passed, you have to leave the field again. The friends you have made stay behind, but with a suitcase full of data you carry their stories and lives with you.
These stories are fixed: in your notebook, in your photo’s, in your video’s, in your voice-recorder, and most of all in your mind and heart. Returning from the field, you face three more intense months in which you have to translate the reality of your informants back into words again. Solving the ethnographic puzzle leads to the final result of this master: a complete master-thesis. After a full academic year of toiling, floundering and doubt, you hand in your thesis and ultimately receive a grade that reflects the quality of your work. For many of us, this is where the thesis-era ends. For me, however, this was not the case.
This summer I went back to Kampala (Uganda), the city that I got to know so well during my three months of fieldwork. I had the chance to meet informants and friends again and was able to show my parents around in the city where I had spent much time. The stories that I had put to words in my thesis now got a human face again. A special benefit of returning to the field, was the fact that I could personally hand my thesis to my informants. One copy of my thesis was for Charles (20), my key-informant and dear friend. I was nervous when I handed him the piece, because I expected that Charles would read every word of it.
Throughout the process of writing I had felt the pressure and moral obligation towards my informants to represent their story in the best possible way. Letting Charles read my thesis was thus the ultimate test. Within one day, Charles said he had read the whole piece and during our conversations, I noticed he knew every detail of my work. Several times he would mention something that he had read in my thesis, for example with regard to a quotation of one of his friends: “Oh, Elvis! I didn’t know he was a comedian like that! I have been laughing all day about his stories!” Then, Charles shared his final judgement of my thesis: “You have presented a very real story. This is how it is.”
The academic approval of your work is a great compliment and an indispensable one. Succeeding academically in the end rewards us with a master diploma and perhaps even opens doors for future careers. The highest reward for writing a thesis, however, does not come from the academic world; it is not based on succeeding to combine theory and practice or to successfully use certain concepts. The highest reward is not receiving a high grade or even graduating. As anthropologists, our job is to understand cultures from within and to represent stories, processes, meanings, beliefs and practices from the ‘native’s point of view’.
The only group of people that can actually judge whether you have succeeded in presenting this ‘native’s point of view’, are these ‘natives’, your informants, themselves. The ultimate appreciation of your work in my opinion therefore comes from the recognition of your informants. The fact that Charles took the time to actually read my whole thesis and moreover, that he recognized himself in the conclusions that I had drawn, claiming that I had represented ‘a true story’, made last year’s hard work more than worthwhile.
Renske den Uil is an alumna of the master Social and Cultural Anthropology at the VU. Currently, she is the project coordinator of ‘Musicians of the World’, a platform (still under construction) for music and idealism initiated by Merlijn Twaalfhoven. The aim of this platform is to increase the positive impact of music around the globe, by inspiring musicians to become active in existing idealistic music projects and by facilitating and supporting musicians who want to start an initiative of their own.