Uncertainty in the Field: A Chilean Archipelago
"The isolation that characterises Puerto Edén, a tiny fishing village in the heart of the Western Patagonian archipelago where the last Kawésqar nomads live, is not purely geographical. Outsiders are greeted with a mixture of intrigue and distrust; as emissaries from another world. My fieldwork with the Kawésqar community - the last representatives of a canoe-faring, nomadic, hunter-gatherer people - was magnificently enriching, but it was also subject to constant conditions of uncertainty.
My MSc dissertation sought to investigate the crossovers of landscape, identity and the trope of ‘uncertainty’ in the traditional lifestyle. This task required me to conduct interviews with members of the Kawésqar community situated in Puerto Edén. I was assisted in my fieldwork by my (same-sex) partner, though being a small and traditional community, we decided not to present ourselves as partners unless we were specifically asked (which never occurred).
One of the primary difficulties of my investigation was the very ‘uncertainty’ that surrounded my own ability to foreplan. Edén’s isolation renders it with sparse access to the internet and landline phones, and I was unable to contact any of my potential interviewees in the village before my arrival. The result was that, even when arriving in the village, I wasn’t completely sure how I was going to be received.
Good preparation boosts one’s confidence that one is able to navigate any unfortunate situations, should they arise. I had already lived for two years in Chile, so I was comfortable with the language and culture, as (naturally) was my Chilean partner. I was confident, therefore, that in such a small village, somebody would open their doors to us. I also took the initiative in meeting up with one of the elder’s sons in the city beforehand, knowing that family ties are especially strong in this part of the world. Their mother was expecting us when we arrived, and opened her house for us to leave our bags as we searched for a place to stay – which we eventually found through a contact of another mutual acquaintance of mine. Being familiar with the local culture is a key part of being prepared.
I was not so prepared for the particularities that Puerto Edén presented, however. There was a general distrust of outsiders and anything broadly resembling a ‘project’ or ‘investigation’. I was refused interviews by two of the elders, who asserted that I was going to write a book about their knowledge, sell it for huge profits, and never give anything back. The more I insisted that I was a student writing a thesis, the more acutely aware I became of the unfamiliarity of that concept to them.
I navigated this breakdown of understanding with other elders by chopping endless amounts of firewood, buying extra fruit to gift them (a sought-after, imported good in Edén) and cooking them British meals, such as a shepherd’s pie. Such involvement not only allowed me to earn their trust, it also gave me the opportunity to spend more time with them and understand their day-to-day lives in more detail.
In those interviews I did manage to undertake, I was often left frustrated by the clear contradictions between different interviewees, and even between separate interviews with the same people. For example, one interviewee mentioned that a particular individual was ‘not Kawésqar’, five minutes before developing a thought that ended in them telling me he was ‘a complete Kawésqar’! As is often the case during fieldwork, one is forced to confront the inadequacies in the original research question in context of what you find ‘on the ground’. These constant contradictions surrounded my original ideas with a great amount of doubt, and often left me anxious and feeling like I needed to spend time alone to try and clarify my thoughts.
Whilst I was unable to contact my supervisor to talk such difficulties over (I only managed to access the internet on a couple of occasions during my stay) the opportunity to retreat to my cabin, where I could discuss things with my partner, was really important. Whilst some of anthropology’s figureheads have been criticised for not ‘fully integrating’ with their subjects (think of Malinowski’s little white tent among the Trobrianders’ huts, or Evans-Pritchard’s caravan of belongings on the flats of Nuerland) fieldwork is emotionally and intellectually draining. It’s important to have somewhere and someone with whom you can talk through any frustrations or anxieties you have, whilst not compromising your relationship with your subjects.
It’s also important to appreciate that, during interview-based fieldwork, what happens ‘off-the-record’ is often far more telling than that which is said on tape. It wasn’t until I began to transcribe my interviews upon arriving home that I began to see the spoken contradictions in light of experiential observations. Whilst some people had recommended that I transcribed some of my recordings whist in the field, I often found that I was too exhausted and needed to switch off from my study by the time I got back to my cabin in the afternoons. On the other hand, had my stay been longer, I feel like it would have been advantageous to spend half an hour each morning transcribing.
A successful fieldworker, in my experience, must be open to uncertainty. Stress and anxiety rarely result in an enjoyable experience, nor do they make up for inadequate preparation. Yet however much you prepare for such an experience, you can never be fully in control of what will happen. Embracing uncertainty may be unnatural, but it allows you the flexibility and attentiveness necessary to appreciate the sudden joys and surprises that such experiences can present."
Charlie Tokeley, MSc in Social Anthropology 2017