Academic journal article Folklore

Working with Tradition: Towards a Partnership Model of Fieldwork

Academic journal article Folklore

Working with Tradition: Towards a Partnership Model of Fieldwork

Article excerpt


This paper explores the interaction between fieldworker and "tradition bearer" over an extended period of time, in the context of an ethnographic study of singing traditions in the southern Pennines of England. Using examples, it examines the negative as well as the positive aspects of the exchange, with particular emphasis on mutuality and reciprocity. It charts the development of key relationships and the ways in which they have come to maturity and achieved equilibrium. Careful thought is given to the role of the fieldworker in respect of active/ passive, interventionist/non-interventionist stances. Aspects of performance, commercialisation, networking, promotion, and media relations are discussed. Following a consideration of ethical and moral issues, including exploitation and advocacy, the paper suggests a working model of partnership as a way forward for future productive field-based research into traditional expressive arts.


In 1969 I took my first steps as a young fieldworker in folklore exploring the world of traditional singing that I encountered on my doorstep in the neighbourhood of Sheffield. [1] It was my intention at that time to remain detached from the subject of my research in order to observe as objectively as possible the phenomenon I was recording, but such a neutral stance became untenable when I first encountered the local tradition of carol singing. [2] It is in the nature of this largely pub-based tradition that everyone present participates. As an incomer, I was at first gently quizzed concerning my background, then explicitly encouraged to join in, and even supplied with a set of words to enable me to do so. In such a situation it would have been churlish to have remained aloof. I decided that the best way to establish my credentials was to demonstrate a willingness to sing, and to learn the words and the tunes. [3] Such overt recruiting tactics on the part of the singers, who so clearly expected an active response from the incomer, seeking both approval and aesthetic endorsement, put significant demands on the fieldworker. [4] It is the meeting of such demands that this paper will consider.

The notion of "reciprocity" is fundamental to the relationship between the fieldworker and the so-called "informant" or "subject." Theoretical understandings of the concept in terms of power relations have been evolving among anthropologists since the development of the discipline (see, for example, Sahlins 1972,185-275). Roger Sanjek, in his paper about fieldwork practices and relations between researchers and their field of work, discusses, "the ethnographic present as gift," by which he implies the gift of ethnography to the discipline of anthropology (1991, 619-21). This he interprets in terms of reliability, validity, and truth. In this paper I want to take a different tack--to explore what it is that helps to build a healthy relationship between the fieldworker and his or her associate, and that ensures an ethical approach to fieldwork.

The interpretation of reciprocity that is expressed in transactional terms is the giving of inducements or rewards by the researcher (Goldstein 1964, 160-73; Jackson 1987, 267-9; Myers 1992, 36). I have considerable misgivings about this approach, which bears the hallmarks of paternalism, such that, at the crudest level, the "culture" of the "subject" may become the object of trade, and may be misappropriated and exploited. The present research is firmly set in the "home" world (Stoeltje 1999, 160-1), where reciprocity is manifested through implicit obligation, and at times by negotiation. I see it as a process that develops hand-in-hand with the building of relationships and growth of mutual trust over an extended period of time (Georges and Jones 1980). Humanity and friendship become paramount and the researcher and his or her associates, partners, or consultants [5] build relationships that are both interactive and balanced (Hood 1971, 222; Titon 1995, 288). …

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