My own first experience of doing an ethnographic study was for my doctoral research. I studied a school-based police cadet programme in government schools in Kerala. I am fluent in the language spoken by my research participants, that is, Malayalam. I was once a school teacher, and the cadets were ‘children’, 8th and 9th graders. To top it all, I have excellent social skills (or so I thought)! Under such circumstances, hanging out with these school children was the least of my concerns when I started my fieldwork.
I was, hence, completely unprepared for the anxiety that gripped me once I set foot in Periyar High, the first of the three schools where I conducted my fieldwork. I reached Periyar High at the beginning of the school year and was warmly welcomed by the teachers. It was very comforting to sit and chat with adults in the staffroom about schooling and related issues. But as each day passed—I worried—how can I find a way to talk to the students? In desperation, I devised a ‘plan’.
During lunch breaks, I would walk out of the staff room and pace the corridor in front of the classrooms. The high school classrooms were located on the second floor of the building and the corridor looked out onto the school yard. As I paced the corridor, I was attentive of the attention that I was receiving from students seated inside the classrooms having their lunch. I would, at times, glance into the rooms and give a sweet smile! At other times, I would stand looking out at the school yard. After one or two of such desperate attempts, a group of 8th graders came up and started chatting with me. They already knew that I was a researcher visiting their school. We briefly introduced ourselves, and before we parted, they invited me to join them for the monthly lunch hosted by a Hindu temple in the neighborhood.
Hanging out, however, did not become easy for me despite that ice-breaker. A day or two after this conversation I was once again pacing the corridor, and Ajay, one of the 8th graders I had briefly met, came up to me and asked, “parajayapedan nikuvanno?” (Are you standing here to be introduced to us?). I blushed with embarrassment, gulped, and said yes. I felt embarrassed that my strategy had been so obvious to them! With time, however, I developed an easy familiarity with the students at Periyar High and over the next four months I spent every week day with them in the school, visited their homes, visited the neighbouring town with them, accompanied them for the monthly lunch at the nearby temple and joined them on field trips organised by the cadet programme.
In short, while doing an ethnography, I realised that ‘hanging out’ is an intentionally crafted experience that is vital for establishing rapport and gaining the trust of one’s research participants. The Social and Political Sciences Major of the School of Arts and Sciences at Ahmedabad University is distinctive in its emphasis on fieldwork. Come and hang out with us to know more about ‘hanging out’!
Anthropology, Ethnographic Research, project-based learning, Kerala