The Pain of Ethnography

I occasionally field questions from my colleagues about what it is I do when I am “out in the field,” a question which is sometimes accompanied by something like a wave in the general direction of “out there.” I don’t really mind the question: it, and its presumptions, are really based on the fact that the paradigm within which I work sometimes contrasts sharply from the paradigm within which they work.

When I am engaged in ethnographic research, I am building my data from scratch. It does not exist as texts already in books, nor as texts readily collected. It exists only as a set of discrete experiences which I detail in field notes and in the accumulation of experiences into something like knowledge based on patterns and designs gleaned from those experiences. As most of my fieldworker colleagues know, accumulating experience is the key, and trying to do so while also teaching, and being a member of a functioning family, is tricky to say the least. The work proceeds slowly.

And so I am delighted when I have been in the field long enough that the individuals with whom I work, well, put me to work. That is, they assume that I am competent, and they ask me to do something, for example, swap hydraulic lines on a crawfish boat.

On Thursday afternoon, Gerard Olinger asked me to grab a pair of wrenches — he assumed I could find them but he also gave me the sizes, knowing that I would not know, nor be able to judge, what sizes were required — and swap a pair of hydraulic lines on a cylinder we had, together, moved. Asking me to do the work freed him up to do a few other things — he can do many things in the time it takes me to do one — and it also put me in a familiar spot: underneath the bench of a crawfish boat, a space I have spent some time previously in his shop. (Gerard has had me do some basic nuts and bold work before.)

Gerard’s son Paul had put the lines in, I believe, and Paul has a good fifty pounds and considerably more muscle on me. I had to really lean on the pair of wrenches to get the lines loose. When a fitting finally gave, it gave quickly and the back of my right thumb met the underside of the bench:

Ethnographic Injury # 213 (or thereabouts)

And that’s after three days of antibiotic cream and large, home-made dressings. The infection was worse than I thought: I figured the wound would have remained fairly sterile since in the moment it occurred a fairly large amount of hydraulic fluid came out of the newly-freed hose end. Apparently hydraulic oil is not sterile. (Note to self.)