Inherent Difficulties in Fieldwork: What do you see? What you’re looking for, of course.
At church recently, I heard a sermon in khmer that stressed that help comes from God and that God is the source of hope. The preacher encouraged congregants to tell others about this. After the message we sang a song and then there was an announcement. The service was held in a concrete house, the worship was in a large room on the second floor which had a balcony that faced the street. After the announcement, several people got up from the congregation and went out onto the balcony at the front of the room. I kept asking the woman who sat in front of me, “What are they doing?” There was an answer but I didn’t know the word in khmer so I asked for more explanation. Something about telling others about God. I just couldn’t understand. I thought that several people were going out to the balcony to shout something like, “God is good!”–a little real-time evangelization–in response to the message for today’s service. Several of the worship leaders were inside talking and I kept waiting for something to happen outside. I thought they, too, were waiting for the big “Happy New Year!” type display. Or was it going to be a song sung to the world? Were they waiting for the music or inviting others to join in?
Finally, somehow it clicked and I realized what was going on. The people that had gone out to the balcony were the youth and they were putting on a skit or short play about inviting others to church. The balcony was serving as backstage space, while the front of the room was the stage. I ignored the conversation going on inside and focused on the outside, completely missing the main event because I was looking for something else.
This was a good reminder that one can only write about what one sees. The data is circumscribed. But, with still imperfect language skills, it’s easy to miss very important occurrences when you’re not looking for them. Because I was expecting something to happen outside I missed the beginning of the play. Realizing my mistake, I had to laugh. I will transcribe (with the help of a native Khmer speaker) and translate services and conversations because of my imperfect language skills and hopefully get more and better data through these exercises. But, as I sit and read a book about qualitative analysis about ways of analyzing the data the researcher has collected, I am reminded that all researchers‘ analyses are only as good as their data and their data is necessarily filtered through their eyes…which might be missing the main event!