The imagined anthropologist: interviewees' expectations and data gathering in the field
(Al Akhawayn University)
Paper short abstract:
Interviewees are constantly constructing an image of the anthropologist which affects the process of data gathering during ethnographic fieldwork. In Mali's Islamic schools, a Canadian anthropologist needs to account for specific expectations and imagined persona imposed on her by interviewees.
Paper long abstract:
This paper seeks to uncover the ways in which anthropologists must work with and take advantage of the expectations of interviewees in the process of data collection. Based on two years of field research in Islamic schools in Mali, I will present the ways in which respondents have imagined, idealized, or demonized me, the individual and the anthropologist, and how it has affected data gathering in the field. To my interviewees, "facts" about my person were salient and led to assumptions about "who" I am. These assumptions are as follows: I am white, a "toubabou" in Malian parlance. I am a woman, more precisely a girl with all that is implied by the word: young, single, and childless. I am Christian, even though I am not, in fact a believer. Atheism or agnosticism are not, however, considered valid categories. I am Canadian, and I was told it was "a good thing." Those I interviewed were generally black male Malian Muslim scholars in their 50's who have studied Islam in a university of the Arab world. When interviewing these men, stereotypes about my identity crystallized. Relationships were affected by the respondents' perceptions of me. Assumptions about the anthropologist in the field made by interviewees are inevitable and they have to be acknowledged. I argue, however that these expectations, even the outright negative ones where interviewees doubt the moral qualities, the competency and the efficiency of the researcher, can be used to further research by allowing for naive questions and "hand-holding" through research.
Anthropological utopias: debating personal, political and idealist expectations in the intersection of theory and ethnographic practice