“REVISITING FIELDWORK: ON BECOMING A FEMINIST ETHNOGRAPHER”
Written by Carolyn I. Sobritchea,PhD Professor and Former Dean, Asian Center, UP Diliman.
In Selected Readings on Health and Feminist Research: A Sourcebook, Sylvia Guererro (ed). QC: UP Center for Women’s Studies, 2002. 362 Pages.
(About the Author: Professor Sobritchea completed her A.B. Anthropology (1968), M.A. in Asian Studies, (1973) and Ph.D. in Anthropology (l987) from the University of the Philippines. She was a recipient of the , University of the Philippines (1987) She was a recipient of the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Enrichment Studies in Anthropology, State University of New York (SUNY) from 1979-1980.)
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BE A FILIPINO WOMAN ANTHROPOLOGIST?
As a student of anthropology in the late sixties and early seventies, I learned that fieldwork was the most important qualification for becoming a genuine anthropologist. Our professors, most of whom were trained in the tradition of American social science, impressed on the young minds of students the research standards of doing “thick descriptions” of community life, taking a holistic view ‘of social events and being sensitive to people’s perspectives and points of view. With my passion for traveling and learning about other people’s culture, I spent many years after graduation from college, doing fieldwork in several communities around the country. I served as research assistant of a male senior anthropologist documenting “folk” medical beliefs and practices; doing ethnographies of fishing and farming economies as well as studies of socialization patterns in urbanizing communities.
Ethnography as a research method has been heavily influenced by the theoretical school of structural-functionalism and the positivist norms of social inquiry. Like other positivist methods of social science research, ethnography of the old genre puts high premium on objectivity, emotional detachment, and unqualified respect for community traditions. As such, I learned how to live in a community without being emotionally affected by problems of poverty, domestic violence or abuse by corrupt public officials. I wrote ethnographic texts without any mention of these problems because they were outside of what I believed then as the typical way of life.
The functionalist framework influences a researcher in a way that she or he focuses on elements of culture that promote the viability of social structures.
Thus, issues like militarization, incest rape, the high incidence of infant mortality, did not often appear in early ethnographies of Filipino communities since they were viewed as culturally destabilizing elements.
I struggled then to write composite and heavily synthetic constructions of community life, Sensitivity to people’s perspectives and thick data were lost since a good field report was one that highlighted the dominant and common or typical culture. It took many years of self-reflections and engagement with feminist theories before I understood the politics of research and report writing. Most importantly, I had to understand how the process of constructing the typical culture was a process of muting voices and making invisible the experiences of many kinds of people, especially women, living different lives within the same community.
I had to come to terms with my own subjectivities and how these influenced my interpretations of community life.
HOW DOES ONE BECOME A FEMINIST ANTHROPOLOGIST?
A researcher cannot definitely shift paradigm and reinvent herself overnight. -I always say this to my students every time they are faced with the dilemma of how to put into practice the philosophies of post positivism. Although one may be intellectually and theoretically equipped with feminist perspectives and principles in ethnography, being able to apply them is a different matter. The realities of fieldwork and the hold of old paradigms and research techniques often combine to make the process of becoming a feminist anthropologist an often tortuous and long -perhaps, a life time-journey.
My first conscious effort to infuse my brand of anthropology with some dosage of feminism occurred during my dissertation research (Sobritchea, 1987).
I tried to explore, through community research, how the ideologies of female domesticity and female nature are inscribed in various cultural locations or discursive sites. I looked into articulations of values and norms, notions of self and identity as well as constructions of traditions surrounding socialization and social structures. It was indeed a very difficult first step into becoming a feminist anthropologist. Without a feminist mentor, I completed my research using approaches and techniques that did not do justice to my topic and the women whose lives I earnestly wanted to understand. It was mostly me (in a detached third person writing style) in the text and very little of the voices of my research partners. But the research was different from all my previous works because I defined culture, this time, as part of the social infrastructure that legitimizes class and gender inequality. Culture has the capacity to both maintain and destabilize social structures.
DOING GENDER RESEARCH IN A FISHING VILLAGE IN BOHOL
Sometime in the early nineties, I joined a group of Filipino and Japanese anthropologists (Ushijima and Zayas, eds., 1994) which undertook in-depth ethnographies of maritime cultures in Western and central Visayas. The research project aimed to generate an extensive body of knowledge about various aspects of maritime cultures-traditional fishing technologies and social organizations, impacts of modern technologies and other outside influences on maritime communities, religious discourses, and others. My first contribution to the project was a gender analysis of fishing culture and an assessment of the impact of economic changes on gender roles and status. For this research, I spent several weeks every summer, from 1991to 1993 doing fieldwork in a coastal village in Loay, Bohol. I had the luxury of staying in the house of feminist sisters Lina and Yvette Reyes. They introduced me to the village residents, helped me collect documents from government offices and local libraries and accompanied me in many of my observation tours as well as small group interviews. Una and Yvette also made sure that we had fun in the evenings when there was little writing to do. They organized parties with women friends that became occasions for sharing of life stories and problem solving.
The Research Area
The village where intensive fieldwork was conducted is a coastal community. At the time of fieldwork the community had 185 households and a total population all 1,047 (NSO, 1990). Its demographic profile was very similar to that of the entire municipality with an almost equal number of men and women and a similarly big number of children. More than one-third of all households subsisted on fishing while the rest engaged in forming and livestock raising. A handful of professionals and college graduates worked in government offices or engaged in private practice. There were no large scale industries in the village then except for the mining of silica in its northern border.
The village has a land area of around 50 hectares. In the early nineties, most of lands were covered with agricultural crops and swamps filled with mangroves and palm trees. It was divided into four political sub-units or sitios which closely corresponded to the lour areas-the settlements close to the shoreline in the south, the notional rood that passes through the center of the village from west to east, the Loay-Loboc river in the east and the uplands in the north.
The houses of the fisherfolk were generally located near the sea and mouth of the Loay-Loboc river. They were mode of wooden materials, mostly palm leaves for roofs and bamboo for the walls and floors. Compared to other village residents, the fishing households were very poor, The overage doily catch of two kilos and additional income derived from nipa thatching, a common source of income of women, were hardly sufficient to meet subsistence requirements, The most common health problems were parasitism, respiratory ailments and skin diseases. Fifteen percent of young children suffered from third and second degree malnutrition.
Many families, nonetheless, enjoyed the financial assistance of immediate relatives who worked in the cities and abroad. Of the 55 fishing households, 20 had their own non-motorized fishing boots.
The others leased the boot of a neighbor or relative, giving between one-third to one-half of the harvest to the boat owner. Five families had bigger boots used for commercial gill net fishing. Each employed five to ten wage workers.
GENDER ANALYSIS IN ETHNOGRAPHY
I was fully aware at the onset of my fieldwork of the gender biases of previous studies on fishing cultures and economies. I wanted to transcend such biases in this project. This meant paying close attention to women’s work that was ignored in earlier ethnographies because fishing was stereotyped as a male domain.
It also entailed being sensitive to the heterogeneity of local economies and the multiplicity of sources of income in traditionally fishing or farming communities.
Framing the Context of a Gender Analysis of a Maritime Economy
The literature on fishing economies (e.g . Firth, 1984; Chapman, 1987) suggests well-defined patterns of work distribution between men and women. Although eany ethnographies (Nieuwenhuys, 1989) tended to highlight mole roles in fishing, women are known to be active in fish trading and such production activities as gleaning and reef fishing with the use of baskets, traps, nets and lines. Too, women are mainly responsible for the reproduction and maintenance of fishing households. Firth (1984:145) claims, in fact, that “in all rural regions women perform roles of great economic significance which often foil to be appreciated and do not find their way into the standard calculations of GNP and allied quantities.”
In her study of women’s fishing roles in Oceania, Chapman (1987) notes that the most important type of fishing In which almost all women in the region participate actively is reef gleaning. They are also extensively involved in a wide variety of fishing activities, using equipment other than just their bare hands or a simple probe to catch fish in the reef. Compared 10 male fishers, however, “women’s fishing is much more restricted spatially … being mainly confined to the reef flats and lagoon, and rarely occurring in the deep-water zone beyond the reef” (1987:270). They use simple technology (i.e., Small nets, basket traps, Simple hook and line) and are less restricted in fishing by taboos and religious observances. In the Philippines, Pomeroy (1987) notes the significant role of women in managing fishing households and providing supplementary income from off-fishing production activities. Women perform most of the domestic chores and contribute to unpaid production won: by helping repair fish nets and weave fish baskets or prepare food brought on fishing trips by their spouses (Jocano, 1976; Israel,1991).
I took great care not to over generalize by assuming right away the great diversity in which lives are lived and events are interpreted by people in the context of their subjectivities. Since the thrust of my research was the gender division of productive work and resources, I took-the feminist conception of work to include both paid and unpaid, domestic and nondomestic activities, and formal as well as informal (i.e., intermittent) sources of income of both women and men.
My assessment of the impacts of economic changes on the community included other dimensions of social life particularly effects on gender relations and women’s status. This allowed me to make the important connections, for instance, between economic changes and women’s health, between shifts in occupational patterns and incidence of wife abuse.
Since my stay in the village could last only for a few weeks each summer, I had to employ different techniques of data collection to ensure the richness and reliability of information. For the gender analysis of reproductive, productive and community management roles, 1conducted a survey of selected households with the use of a simple interview schedule. I tried, as much as possible, to interview both male and female members of the households, including the children if they were around during my house visits. 1 conducted several key informant interviews for information on various aspects of community life-the political situation in the village, organization of fishing, economic issues, health problems and others. These data collection techniques were supplemented by collection of documents and published materials, community mapping and participatory scanning of community resources.
With the help of my friend Yvette, I organized several small focus group discussions to talk about specific topics and issues related to the research project.
These activities occurred during periods most convenient to the residents and in places where they regularly converged. I remember vividly the long and spirited discussions that took place along the seashore while waiting for the arrival of fishing boats in the afternoon. Or the lively “daldalan or sayawan” (‘·talking and dancing”) sessions that Lina and her friend Ofie organized for our women friends.
Some of these sessions actually included gender sensitization exercises where we and some friends from KALAYAAN. a feminist organization based in Manila, talked about the politics of gender relations and women’s rights.
NEGOTIATING THE POLITICAL DIMENSIONS OF PERSONAL ISSUES
My stay in the village was most challenging when I started to listen to and document the life stories of ten village women. 1 originally conceived of the life story interviews as source of information and theoretical insights on women’s perceptions of changes in the community and their effects on people’s lives. But what came out from the conversations and discussions was more than what I expected to hear. The one-on-one and group Story telling sessions touched on very private matters and often “too painful experiences” like wife battery, incest rape, abortion and marital infidelity.
After the stories were told, most of the ten women changed their minds and requested me not to “put the interviews” in my report. 1 had to respect their decision even if it meant losing the opportunity to argue for the inclusion of “private matters” in research reports that had to do with economics and politics. Only two, Dina and Manang, agreed to be quoted in the paper they knew 1was to write eventually. But they also cautioned me “not to write many things about them.”
My Reconstruction of Manang’s Life Story in 1993
Monang is a middle-aged woman with nine children. Since her marriage more than 30 years ago, she has suffered regularly from the physical battering and sexual abuse of her husband. In the lengthy narration of her life story are numerous episodes of how she succumbed and struggled against such abuses. She describes her husband as a very temperamental, jealous and cruel person. He often spent most of his time and meager income on drinking, which gave him an excuse to beat and abuse her.
After the birth of the third child, Manang decided ta udo something about (her) life.” Before this, she would occasionally join her husband in his fishing trips or peddle the catch around the village.
When it became more and more difficult for her to sustain the daily needs of her children and as her husband become increasingly temperamental and “violent,” Manang started to look for more regular sources of income. In those days, there were very few jobs available to women. Nevertheless, she found seasonal and pari-time jobs. At one time, Manang worked as a farm laborer. At another time, she went into thatching roof shingles made of a local palm called nipa, performed household chores for affluent families in the village, sold lottery tickets and performed many other odd jobs.
Having her own money to spend for the children and herself made marital life more bearable. She no longer depended on her husband’s earnings and found less need to relate with him.
At the time of this project, Manong was still being beaten by her husband. However, she claimed then that “it (the beating) no longer occurred as often as it used to, since he knew that she could leave him any time. “In fact, Manang was then making plans to go to Manila and live with a daughter.
As I followed their wish not to include many details of their stories in my ethnographic report,. I also asked permission to discuss their problems with my KALAYAAN friends. At this time, KALAYAAN had a project with UNFPA for the publication of a feminist manual on women’s health and reproductive rights. The project members decided right away to go to Loay and conduct gender seminars and participatory needs assessment workshops. Lina and Yvette who both come from the village, became the lead persons in organizing our women research partners into a self·help group. For several years, the group became the KALAYAAN chapter in Bohol. The Manila connection, however, weakened when the project ended and KALAYAAN went through its own pains of ~growing up and growing old.”
One of the norms of traditional ethnography is to be a passive onlooker or participant in the affairs of the community being studied. If one chooses to intervene at all, it should come after. not while data collection and fieldwork are going on. A feminist ethnographer, however, must challenge this perspective. She must ensure that the research process and results benefit not just herself but also the community residents, particularly her research partners, without a feminist consciousness, I would have left the village complete with my ethnographic data.
I would have moved on with my life getting a few articles published and being promoted to a higher academic rank. And the women who shared their stories would have moved on with their lives as well. They would have continued to suffer from the abuses of their spouses, from lack of self esteem or lack of knowledge about other career or life options.
1 am not certain that the research project and gender sensitivity workshops that went with the Story telling sessions or my advocacy work with the village officials, eventually got the women out of their abusive relationships. But I take comfort in the fact that we tried, in modest ways, to inspire our women friends from Loay to fight for their rights and welfare.
INTERPRETING WOMEN’S STORIES FROM A FEMINIST STANDPOINT
The most difficult pan of doing ethnography is writing the text. Here is where the theoretical orientation of a researcher becomes important. What perspective should one use to organize and interpret the data? Having validated the significant role of women in fishing economies, my next agenda was to include in my ethnography of fishing economy. discussions of health matters, particularly domestic violence and other forms of abuses against women. This was my way of challenging traditional discourses in economic anthropology.
I had two options on how to locate the stories of Dina and Manang in my writing. I could have opted to interpret their life situation as proof of how the deterioration of the fishing economy had adversely affected family relations. I could have highlighted the positive relationship between class and gender inequality.
However. the gender sensitivity sessions we had with them also affected me in many ways. I saw how in the process of narrating their painful experiences, our Loay women friends also talked at length of their many, little strategies of coping and resisting. They highlighted the opportunities that came their way and their everyday successes in grappling with problems of income, food, abuse, unemployment, in-law relations and others.
Eventually, I decided that Dina and Manang’s cause would be better served if 1 focused not on how they submitted to abuse and patriarchal norms, but how they challenged these in every way possible. In a short article 1wrote about this fieldwork for the Review of Women’s Studies (I993:39), I emphasized that “both men and women actively participate in the on-going creation of the social world. While prevailing social Structures limit the possibilities of challenging male dominance, new developments also provide opportunities for little forms of resistance.”
REFLECTIONS ON THESE REFLECTIONS
I end this essay with a note thai being a feminist researcher is not as important as becoming one. In fact, the real danger lies when one can confidently say she or he is indeed a feminist researcher. There is not one way of producing emancipatory knowledge. What may be an appropriate way of doing feminist research today will not be acceptable tomorrow. The process of becoming a feminist researcher must therefore continue; it has to be reconceptualized as new challenges and new feminist analyses are born.
Chapman. Margaret. 1987. “Women’s Fishing in Oceania.” Human Ecology. 15(3):267-87. Ember. Carol R. and M. Ember.
Firth, Raymond. 1984. “Roles of Women and Men in a Fishing Economy: Tikopia Compared with Kerala.” ln Gunda. B. (ed.), The Fishing Culture of the World. Budapest: Akademia Kiado.
Shulamil. Reinharz. 1992. Feminist Methods in Social Research. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sobritchea. Carolyn. 1987. “Gender Inequality and Its Supporting Ideologies: A Community Study of Cultural Rationalizations of Women’s Low Status.” Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of the Philippines, 233 pp.
______________. 1992. “Women’s Production and Domestic Roles in a Sea Fishing Community in Central Visayas, Philippines.” Vakara: Studies in Ethnology. Volume 17.
______________. 1993. “An Anthropological Study of Economic Change, Gender and Power in a Visayan Fishing Community,” Review of Women’s Studies. Vol. III, No.2.
______________. 1994. “Gender Roles and Economic Change in a Fishing Community.” In Ushijima and Zayas (eds.), Fishers of the Vvisayas: Visayan Maritime Anthropological Studies. Quezon City: College of Social Science and Philosophy. University of the Philippines.
Ushijima. Iwao and Cynthia N. Zayas. 1994. Fishers of the Visayas: Visayan Maritime Anthropological Studies. Quezon City: College of Social Science and Philosophy. University of the Philippines.