Today, I spent a few minutes after lunch thinking about my career. While writing a chapter of my own dissertation, I got distracted by a visit from someone I knew, and then got completely distracted by that person’s question about me and my life in the past ten years. Suddenly, I realized that everything that I was writing at the time was about me. True, I was writing about my informants, and their lives (at least that was what I had been telling myself) but merely what I had been writing about so far is nothing but the impressions of my informants that I have. The more I thought about how I came to get to know them, and how I came to justify what I knew, and how much I knew, about them, the more I felt that I didn’t know anything about them. In short, it’s an identity crisis, but not in the strictest sense of the term. I wasn’t uncertain or confused about my own sense of identity, but I was uncertain about who I was, in relation to the people with whom I had gotten to know over the years doing my research here in Shanghai — my identity to them. For sure, who my informants thought I was affected how they would like to present themselves to me. In that case, how much could I take what they have told me at face value? In other words, I wasn’t sure whether I was writing about them, or that I was writing about myself.
Originally trained as an architect and urban designer, I have decided — precisely 5 years ago — to embark on a long and tiring journey in getting a PhD in a field that would eventually make me an “anthropologist.” What does being an anthropologist mean anyway? It is a bit sad that I still don’t know that even today. As I am arriving at the end of my PhD education, I feel inclined, more then ever in fact, to reflect upon why someone with a decent professional career in architecture and urban design like myself would to go back to school and spend more than half a decade studying something remotely related to my previous training. What is anthropology anyway? And how might it help me to become a better architect, urban designer, writer, and, more than anything else, cosmopolitan citizen of the society wherever that be.
Back to writing. My primary supervisor always tell all of us his students to begin a writing process with the most powerful story that we have from the field that could think of (possibly, even suggested, with a glass of wine in hand and that is precisely what I am doing right now). From there, without looking at the field notes, books, or any external references: simply let the ethnographic stories tells its the story, and lead the writing.
His argument here is that the best depository of ethnographic knowledge ain’t the field notes that most of us spend so much time (often every day before going to bed) writing, “but right here in our head,” said he. This is the most important lesson on ethnographic writing that I have learned from anyone since it’s both unconventional and provocative. Although this advice seems to undermine the importance of ethnographic field notes, which many anthropologists hold dear, it brings home the point about what exactly we anthropologists do best — being qualitatively nuanced about the sensitivity of the situation that we would like to describe ethnographically. To be sure, there is no way we’d know that what we write in the field notes is true. In fact, we only kid ourselves to think that we “must always rely on our field notes,” which are nothing more than a subjective record of our own personal experience, or the “impression” of our experience subjectively projected onto someone else who we often call “informants.” Then, once that projection is there, and you are ready to recall it to the very last detailed information, don’t stop writing until you actually — and physically — drop.
Then, obviously, go to bed, and the next day come back to look at what you have written. My secondary supervisor also once shared with me similar stories: to begin from the single most powerful ethnographic moment that I could possibly remember (although he didn’t say whether or not I could look at my field notes although I always assume that it’s not a big deal to him whether or not I’d look at the field notes since, quite often, “the single most powerful” ethnographic moment is something one can easily recall anyway), and then let the relevant theories come into play later once the ethnography has been meticulously laid out. I have been taking these two advises to heart. So far I have not even looked at a page of my field notes.
Writing in this way — the way that this blog post is being written, in fact — can also be called the “stream of consciousness” style. Spearheaded and popularized by many modern literary figures (such as James Joyce, with whose writing style I have been having a love-hate relationship), the essence of the stream of consciousness literary style, at least in anthropology, is the depiction of an ethnographic encounter in a continuous flow. It is usually performed uninterrupted by the writer during a continuous writing period and zone. The objective here is to try to not letting anything, e.g., objective or conventional description, interrupt the flow of the flowing ideas.