FFSS99, Workshop III
Group leaders: Barbro Klein (Sweden), Ulrika Wolf-Knuts (Finland)
Visiting group leaders: Ülo Valk (Estonia), Ríonach úi Ogáin (Ireland)
Report by the group leaders & Pasi Enges (Finland), Laura Jiga (Romania), Hanne Pico Larsen (Denmark), Jonathan Roper (U.K.), Marilena Papachristophorou (Greece), Fredrik Skott (Sweden), Ergo-Hart Västrik (Estonia) and Susanne Österlund (Finland)
Fieldwork and archiving are in many ways the core of our discipline, folkloristics. The processes of folkloristic fieldwork, textualisation and archiving are very much interrelated and are perhaps best understood if seen as parts of one and the same process. As fieldworking and archiving folklorists it is crucial for us that we are aware of our own role in this process. At any stage of the journey from fieldwork to the archive we are interacting with, influencing and analysing our material. It is vital to take into consideration ethical, political, and wider social implications concerning this very process.
We took into consideration that the issues related to the folklore archives have not been extensively addressed and folklorists worldwide lack information about the profiles of folklore archives in other countries. The workshop strove to advance critical discussion about the present day archiving and fieldwork conventions as well as to explore different experiences on fieldwork and archiving .
Before the workshop we received an e-mail from Ulrika Wolf- Knuts which formed our first expectations of the workshop. Two central points of departure for the workshop discussion were formulated on the spot by Barbro Klein: (1) Folklore archives are highly contestable ideological and political sites; (2) Documentation of folklore is an analytical act. Thus one of the objectives set out in this workshop was to practise reflexive thinking at every step of the way, bearing in mind the ethical and political connotations of these activities. By sharing our experiences and observations with each other we also had plenty of opportunities to approach the themes from different angles.
The workshop participants and group leaders came from eight European countries: Denmark, England, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Romania and Sweden, representing different cultural and economic backgrounds although limited to Europe. The tradition-archive-related experiences of the participants also varied to a great extent. These included central national folklore archives, such as the Hellenic Folklore Research Centre, Academy of Athens (Marilena Papachristophorou); the Nordic Museum, Stockholm (Barbro Klein); the National Archive of Folklore in the Institute of Folklore and Ethnography, the Academy of Romania, Bucharest (Laura Jiga); the Estonian Folklore Archives in the Estonian Literary Museum, Tartu (Ergo-Hart Västrik); the Folklore Archives of the Department of Irish Folklore, University College Dublin (Ríonach úi Ogáin). Other participants are connected with regional and topical archives such as the Ostrobothnian Archives of Traditional Culture, Vasa (Hanna Pico Larsen), the Dialect, Onomastic and Folklore Archive in Gothenburg (Fredrik Skott), the Sound Archive of Folkloristics and Comparative Religion, University of Turku (Pasi Enges), the Folklore Archive at the Department of Comparative Religion and Folkloristics, Åbo Akademi University (Ulrika Wolf-Knuts), the Åland Islands’ Emigrant Institute, Mariehamn (Susanne Österlund). In addition one participant is creating a personal database for charms (Jonathan Roper, based at the National Centre for English Cultural Tradition). Thus the participants represented a wide variety of archives.
We began the course by presenting our own folklore archives and archive experiences as well as visiting the folklore archives in the University of Turku and the Åbo Akademi University. Our task for the course was to decide upon a theme for an interview, to plan the interview, and then to conduct it while making a minidisc or tape recording, then to write our fieldnotes, to transcribe five minutes of the interview, before considering how the material could be indexed and archived, as well as the question of how it could (or could not) be put on the Internet. We were also asked to keep a totally private diary, so as to follow our thoughts, observations and feelings throughout the whole duration of the summer school. In the workshop we shared our reflections about our own and the other members’ work.
Most of us had already settled for a theme for our fieldwork prior to the Summer School. Among the chosen topics were “fear”, “occupational folklore”, “childhood memories” and “immigration”. Due to the shortage of time and the foreign milieu and associated language problems, preselected informants were offered by the FFSS99 organisers (Fredrik, Ergo, Susanne and Laura), but some of the workshop participants (Hanne, Marilena and Jonathan) also arranged their own interviewees, in some cases a fellow hotel guest or a fellow delegate.
Several of the members of our group found the interview situation unnatural and forced due to having to do the interview in a foreign language, not knowing anything about the informant beforehand, or due to lack of time for the interview in some cases. In those cases in which we selected our own informants, there was more time, although perhaps still not enough. However, this also made us consider if there indeed is such a thing as a “natural” interview context. But even if all interviews may be artificial, those of us who were able to set our own parameters (i.e. choice of informants, location of interview, length and subject of interview, etc.) were happier. Our interview situations varied a great deal from each other and provided us with many examples of how flexibility is a virtue in our field. Our workshop samples of interviews provided examples of different types of interview situations: some of us (Marilena and Hanne) had informants who took over the interview because of the message they wanted to communicate. Others (Ergo and Fredrik) interviewed people with an “economical” approach to answering. We had misunderstandings, and some difficulties in getting the interview off the ground. However, we also recorded many spontaneous examples of folklore genres and even a skilled talker breaking into performance.
We can never 100% predict what an interview or fieldwork situation will be like. As we noticed in our material, not even the best intentions from both the interviewer and the interviewee will guarantee a “successful” result. But sometimes it is beneficial if our intentions are not successful. One of our group participants, Jonathan, had intended to collect occupational folklore (which the man he interviewed knew very little of), but he let the interviewee follow his own thread of discussing his schooldays, and thus received much richer data. This led to a discussion as to what a successful interview is.
When writing fieldnotes or fieldwork diaries the folklorist has to make many choices, taking ethical and scientific aspects into consideration. One of the first and last questions is: should the fieldnotes be archived and accessible, or archived with restrictions, or perhaps completely private? No matter what the decision might be, fieldnotes are an integral part of the fieldwork. Fieldnotes should try to address all aspects of the fieldwork that in some way can or will influence the outcome and understanding of our work, no matter how minor the details seem. Sometimes the fieldnotes (our observations in writing) may give us a greater understanding of what is going on than our taped interview would. Furthermore, as we record our own expectations, feelings and interactions with our informants, the fieldnotes can also become a way for us to better analyse our own role in the interview situation. Writing and archiving fieldnotes, therefore, also involves exposure of the self of the fieldworker. Perhaps some of the fieldnotes told us more about the FFSS99 participants themselves than about our informants. An important stage of the workshop came when we shared these notes with each other.
Many of the participants in the workshop had earlier been writing fieldnotes in a rather superficial way. As a part of the workshop we were instructed to write fieldnotes in a new way: we had as many variants of how to write fieldnotes as we had participants. For ethical reasons, all of us felt we could not give out all the information connected with the interview situation. How much of our own and our informant’s life and person are we prepared to lay open to readers in an archive? Often there is no easy answer: things we might find innocent enough might offend our informant, but also the other way around: things we might find problematic our informant might be perfectly at ease with. Our generation is aware of issues focusing on individuals, such as protecting intimacy, confidentiality, etc., and may be oversensitive about them.
The session in which we discussed our fieldnotes could be considered to be a turning point, as we came to see that we as folklorists create our own source of data, as Bente Alver (1990) reminds us. Therefore the topic of “fieldnotes” generated a lot of important discussion, and many of us feel we have learned just how important it is (both for us and future users of the material) to write fieldnotes fully and well, if our data is to be fully understood when we are not there.
It is also evident that fieldnotes are themselves an example of a genre, and can be studied as such when we choose to study fieldwork and fieldworkers. For example, some of us went straight to the computer room after the interviews and typed out the notes immediately, while others of us made notes at that time with pencil and paper, only typing something up later. The question of how long after the fieldwork we write our diaries is an important one involving the balancing of such concerns as the need for a period of time for reflecting on and distancing oneself from the material in a professional manner, with the danger of forgetting (or altering) important details as time passes. Perhaps one solution could be to write both as soon as possible after the fieldwork event, and then to repeat, for example after two weeks, writing the fieldnotes. Then again, there is the question of when fieldwork actually begins and when it ends.
In fieldwork, writing fieldnotes is a means of training us to closely observe phenomena. Fieldnotes are particularly necessary in making supposedly objective and self-sufficient documentation, such as photographs, understandable.
All the members of the group had different ways of solving the problems of transcription. It was very useful to see when we shared our recordings and transcriptions that even our short five-minute excerpts could contain so much information, and this provoked a lot of discussion. Because the method we used for our fieldwork here in Turku was the interview, which consisted solely of speech, we did not discuss the situations when the transcribed material would be only part of a genre, for instance in song or ritual.
Each participant in the workshop used different methods and conventions in transcriptions. Sharing these transcriptions gave us important insights. We also discussed varieties of ethnopoetic transcription, which were fairly new to most of us. Paying close attention to pauses and stresses, pitch and tone in speech can reveal new layers in the interview. During the discussion we focussed on the act of listening. Practising varieties of transcription methods trained us to listen – an important skill for a folklorist, not only during the fieldwork. On the other hand, many of us felt that the tape itself is more important than the transcribed text.
However, in our discussions it was also stressed how different people would hear the text differently and have different purposes for the transcribed material, and thus could produce widely differing transcriptions. One possibility is phonetic transcription. Laura Jiga, who has been trained in phonetic transcription, showed us a short example of that method. No matter what system one might chose, we all agreed that the main goal is to create audible texts. The decision to use one or another way of transcribing depends also on the purpose of the work. Transcribing is an analytical act and one of our conclusions was that it is difficult to solely rely on any transcription in the absence of the tape.
Archiving issues loomed large throughout the course. At the beginning of our workshop we went on guided tours of the departmental archives of the folklore departments of Turku University by Tiina Mahlamäki, and also of Åbo Akademi University. The fieldwork exercise itself immediately gave rise to questions concerning archiving, as most of us had agreed to deposit the material in the TKU archive. The participants in the group were using recording equipment lent out by the TKU archive. The focus of our discussions was the ethical aspects of archiving. What should we deposit in an archive? The dilemma was not easy to solve. When we as folklorists preserve cultural “testimonia”, we participate in the construction of history. However, what we collect now may not be what future generations may be most interested in. By the same token, we cannot consider the interviewed persons as mere objects, who are going to be exposed on shelves for present and future use.
Those of us who had obtained intimate information during our interviews were also more reluctant to deposit the tapes, and fieldnotes, in the TKU archive. Those of us who felt this were most concerned that the information on tape and in the fieldnotes was highly personal for both the informant and the collector himself.
Since the material cannot be considered neutral, the central question is who should decide if it is to be archived or not. In practice, the collector is often the only one responsible for deciding whether the material should be deposited or not. A desirable solution might be to gain the informant’s consent before and after the interview, for the depositing of both the recording and the collector’s fieldnotes. This solution is, for institutional reasons, not always possible. These issues could be addressed by recommendations and, possibly, legislation, which could give some kind of guarantee to both parties. On the one hand, it is necessary to defend the privacy of the informants and their lifeworld, and on the other hand, one must protect information in the archives from arbitrary commercial use and other types of misuse.
These questions are, to be sure, intimately connected to the political history of each country. In most cases (but by no means every case) the institutions themselves have their own internal regulations, which specify the conditions of access to the material and specific degrees of secrecy. These questions were also aired during the discussion with the Ethics workshop.
We felt that the indexing and the digitalisation of the archived material was connected with the purposes of the archive itself. Ergo pointed to the in-between situation of the traditional archive – caught between having to protect information on the one hand and being accessible and “attractive” for users on the other. It is also necessary to associate the archive’s policies with the retrieval system: this can be a means to chanel access to or away from the information the archived material contains.
We also discussed the TKU collcard at length, after having tried them out. The task proved to be difficult for outsiders who are not aware of the specific aims of this archive. We came to feel that the sections on the collcard were typical of one particular paradigm of folklore studies. Most of our concerns touched on the data concerning the identity of informants and ask whether we should give full access to this personal information. How do we describe the informant’s education? Should we have fields for sensitive information such as religious affiliation, and thus provide a direct route to information that could potentially be misused? With regards to the issue keywords, we appreciate the retrieval possibilities they allow. Yet it can be difficult to choose them. One solution is to put in as many keywords as possible. We thought it may also be relevant to ask informants to specify the keywords in their interviews. However, through indices and keywords we also put labels and thus limitations on the access to the material.
Our exercise raised a lot of issues and questions, which, for the most part, did not have one simple answer. Having a group with participants from different countries with different fieldwork and archive experience has been eye-opening. Learning about other folklorists’ problems and backgrounds, seeing differences and, perhaps even more, similarities, has certainly been valuable for all of us, although we realise that this variety of experiences must be limited by its Eurocentricity. Participants from outside Europe would have brought other perspectives. For example, in our meeting with the Ethics workshop Sadhana Naithani pointed out that some of the most important collections of Indian materials are housed in London.
Some conclusions of our discussions and fieldwork experience can be summarised as follows:
- Fieldwork, textualisation and archiving are links of the same analytical process, continually involving selection.
- Throughout this linked analytical process we have a duty to reflect on our own role and to take responsibility for the effect of our research on our informants, without sacrificing professionalism. Professionalism involves such factors as honesty, distance, risk-taking and responsibility.
- We all felt that the course taught us the importance of flexibility of methods. This necessitates familiarity with a variety of research, textualisation and archiving methods.
- In our discussions we often came back to the question of the availability of resources as a political issue.
- Interviews are one but only one method of fieldwork, but what is a good interview?
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(FFN 19, March 2000: 21-24)