In her second post Dr Noreen Mirza reflects on the challenges of being a ‘native anthropologist’.
It seemed a common assumption among the people I came across that studying my own society would be an easy task because of my familiarity in terms of language, customs and values. Many were also under the impression that people are more accommodating, open and trusting towards those who share a common background. These assumptions were greatly misleading. The fact of the matter was, in my case at least, that being a native anthropologist meant people were reticent about divulging information because of the fear of confidential information being leaked, leading to gossip in the community.
I began fieldwork in October 2012 in South Manchester which involved following the lives of a core group of twelve women over a period of fourteen months. These women became the participants in my study. Initially I had interviewed approximately 80 women, including friends and family of my participants, as well as other women who could not commit to participating because of longer periods of time involved.
Participating in my research gave the women an opportunity to express their views and concerns about issues such as prejudice and inequality, and to share their experiences of being middle-class British-Pakistanis in Manchester.
Through my observations and conversations, I discovered what was important to them. They had different histories and were from diverse backgrounds. The experiences they shared with me made for rich and unique contributions to my study. Being a second-generation British-Pakistani, I felt that there was very little literature or representation in the media about independent British-Pakistani women or positive representation of their cultural and religious heritage. There seemed to be a plethora of literature on working-class Pakistanis in Britain, covering socio-economic problems and issues of cultural identity. But what about those British-Pakistanis whose parents built a future for their children, enabling them to go onto university and establish successful careers? I wanted to find out more about their identity, in particular the relationship between race and class.
Being a native anthropologist was more challenging than I anticipated and at times a rather exhausting experience. For instance, the women I was studying assumed that I had an implicit understanding about our shared culture and expected me to read between the lines. It took a while for them to realise that I needed them to be explicit in their answers no matter how blatantly obvious it seemed to a person of the same cultural and religious background. I had to explain to them the risk of misconstruing information through implied understand and assumptions and make them realise the need for accuracy in research.
I had to have patience and perseverance to earn the trust and friendship of my participants. Luckily this was not in vein; after a lot of hard work I was able to get the women in my study to open up to me. Eventually I earned their trust and the women began to see me more as a friend than a researcher. Although the boundaries between us became blurred because we shared the same faith, ethnicity and social class, I retained a sense of professionalism by being careful when expressing my own opinions on matters which conflicted with those of my participants.
Another hurdle of being a native anthropologist was having to comply with cultural obligations and sanctions that would not have been applicable to an outsider. A female non-South Asian researcher would not have been expected to know or comply with certain gender codes of conduct, but as a British-Pakistani woman I was. For example, it was not culturally appropriate for me to spend time with men I did not know, particularly married men and especially the husbands of my participants; this would have run the risk of gossip. I was therefore faced with restrictions, but challenging these gendered cultural norms would have jeopardised my relationships with participants.
Despite all of this, my experiences as a native anthropologist showed me the diversity among people with whom I shared the same ethnic and religious background. I was constantly learning something new about the women, such as the multiple ways of expressing one’s faith and performing one’s cultural identity. It became unsurprising that, at times, during my fieldwork, I felt like an outsider both because of my own understanding of Islam and because my own experiences of being a second-generation British-Pakistani in Manchester were different from those of many of the women with whom I spent time.
Arab women in the field: studying your own society. Altorki and Fawzi El-Solh (1989)
The multicultural riddle: rethinking, national, ethnic and religious identities. Gerd Baumann (1999)
Pakistani diasporas: culture, conflict, and change. Virinder Kalra