Fieldwork 2010: Staging the field

Photo by Clarence Sinclair Bull

By Rachel Visscher The colour of the hat was brown, the kind of brown a nice piece of chocolate has.

Every Sunday during the church sermons the chocolate-brown hat encapsulated my head. Its shape reminded me of the hats that are often seen in old twenties’ movies. Classical, yet slightly funny on the sides, a hat worn by the heroine of a film, an intriguing woman with a pale skin and smoky eyes.

The smoky eyes I did not have. They would not have been allowed in the orthodox Dutch Reformed church around which my anthropological fieldwork revolved. The pale skin, however, I did have, as an inevitable consequence of three months of fieldwork during wintertime.

Although the twenties’ movie star hat was not in fashion in the town of my research, it was rewarded with many compliments. It made me look ‘nice’ and ‘like a real Dutch Reformed girl’, the people of the church often remarked. These comments puzzled me. How did these people perceive me, I wondered. It seemed as if simple changes in my clothes were able to move me into a different person. I became “one of them”. On the outside surely, not on the inside.

In anthropology, the fieldwork experience is often referred to as ‘going native’. The ethnographic researcher immerses him or herself into a new community, is willing to change his or her appearance and adapts to laws and customs of the local people.

During my fieldwork, I aimed to unravel the habitus and rituals of a community of orthodox Protestants. I made an effort to understand the meaning of the faith in these secular times. I learned how this required more than wearing a chocolate brown hat. Knowledge of theology, language and history were pivotal elements in order to understand the people I talked to.

The fieldwork experience is demanding. It requires openness and flexibility. It is an interesting phase a researcher goes through. It is said to be a life changing experience. I do not know if I agree. Every experience in our life seems to change us, transport us into a different part of our life, a new role, a new identity. Our identities are not fixed. They are susceptible to change. We as people seem to be in a continuous process of alteration. Dynamically we transform, in and through time, to become new people along the way.

I changed during the fieldwork experience. It took me small, almost unnoticeable steps that slowly moved me into a different “me”. A real me and yet, not the real me I had been, since all the new things that I integrated had previously been unfamiliar.

While in the field, I listened to people’s stories, prepared, dressed up. I developed and changed. In this perspective, the field itself might be seen as a theatre stage. An anthropologist works in a similar way as any actor or actress; preparing to go on stage, learning lines, dressing up, holding a specific posture. All these preparations are necessary to become the person one needs to play.

Ultimately, we all do this in our daily lives, every single day. We get up, dress up, go to work and become different persons. Every situation in life is a kind of stage that transforms us and requires us to play our parts.

The chocolate brown hat is in my cupboard these days. The people’s stories are in my head, in my heart, even in my veins. They will, however, slowly fade away when there will be a new role for me to play.

Rachel Visscher is a Master’s student in Social and Cultural Anthropology at VU University Amsterdam. She also writes plays and short stories.

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One thought on “Fieldwork 2010: Staging the field

  1. Gijs Verbossen 04/05/2010 / 22:38

    I totally picture you sitting there in that church, playing your role as researcher and community member at the same time. You wrote it up just the way I would like to be able to do it, very concise, very tangible! Take the chocolate brown hat out of the cupboard, whenever a new role is pushing memories of your research aside.

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