Notes from the field #1: Combining historical and anthropological approaches to interviews

I have just started fieldwork on a project collaborating with historians. The project is partly about the history of two shipyards, one (Uljanik) in Pula, Croatia and the other in Gdynia, near Gdansk in Poland. This collaboration is interesting as I previously trained to postgraduate level as a historian of science but have since worked as an anthropologist, completing several years of fieldwork, writing, and reflections on that experience. The idea of spending more than a couple of days working in an archive, rather than interacting with people doing fieldwork, makes me feel queasy!

This collaboration has consisted of interviews by myself and a historian colleague, interviewing people involved in the Uljanik shipyard or more widely, state and other institutions involved in managing the privatization process in Croatia. I have guided the flow of the interview, speaking throughout due to my fluency in Croatian, whilst my historian colleague has carefully prepared by writing down questions in German to ask. I have then translated the questions before the interviews. During the interviews, he has listened (with a good passive understanding of Croatian), and occasionally interjected in German/English with extra questions. On one level, I have therefore been put in the position of a “helper” or “translator” in the field, while I have also been able to freely ask questions which interest me, and it has been a way of “kickstarting” my fieldwork.

In some of the interviews the language dynamic has been challenging, particularly when the language has switched to English, which prompted some interviewees to continue speaking in English and disrupted the flow of the interview. Some people have been keen to speak English as a kind of cosmopolitan badge, emphasizing that they feel comfortable in an English-speaking work environment, whilst others interviewed have spoken Croatian throughout.

I have noticed clear differences in anthropological and historical approaches to the interviews and the interview encounter itself. As an anthropologist, I am interested in how the relationship is established (however brief). I  am also interested in the interviewer-interviewee dynamics and how the interview might form a starting point for later encounters and meetings where the fieldwork might further develop, and  – in my specific political anthropological approach – how features of the political context (positionality, power hierarchies, center-periphery relationships, enmeshment in particular state contexts) impact on what is said, what is left unspoken, and what material is gathered.

My impression is that for the historians with whom I am working, who are interested in organizational concepts and higher level aspects of the shipyard under study, the interview dynamics and relationship are interesting in so far as they contribute to a successful interview or not, and that success is measured in terms of gathering the required information, data, narratives and perspectives during the interview. This dynamic might play out differently with different researcher personalities and with different historical backgrounds (e.g. I suspect history from below approaches to be closer to my anthropological approach).

Issues concerning positionality and everyday micro-level features of the political context, either fade into the background or are ignored completely. To give one example, all project presentations have been conducted in English, and this has not been discussed as problematic or discussed (to date) in terms of the public it might attract, but rather accepted as the lingua franca and as, apart from German, the only language available to all researchers presenting. When doing earlier research projects in Croatia in Serbia, interlocutors in the field often emphasized the connotations which accompanied Western academic researchers only speaking in English. In the interview situation, the historians have been more interested in gaining precise details on specific historical events and ideas about change. e.g. What was the precise function of the Jadranbrod organization in socialism and today? What models of privatization did the state bodies administrating the privatizations employ? With this approach, the interviewee is not left to articulate particular narratives which they want to describe in that moment, but she is guided towards precise details and asked for viewpoints on specific issues.

One feeling I associate with a more anthropological approach is a commitment to letting situations unfold, letting people reveal themselves and information as and how they wish in that moment. I remember how in earlier projects, I sometimes found this commitment frustrating. To those unfamiliar, it might come across as a kind of “passivity”, or in its extreme, even a laissez-faire laziness in contrast to an active search for particular details, which for a historian will then be able to enrich or “triangulate” other observations made. This dynamic was particularly interesting in an interview today with an active syndicalist. The syndicalist kept talking about the present day situation, and events unfolding in the shipyard, whilst the list of questions kept pushing the discussion back to the 80s and 90s. I had a stronger interest in letting the discussion unfold, and enjoyed the switch to talking about the present, whilst the historian I am working with had a much stronger interest in keeping the discussion more focused, and on covering all the questions relating to these past events.

It will be interesting to compare these “starting” observations with interviews conducted at the end of fieldwork, once I have a much clearer understanding of the field and of my position in it, and finally – I particularly welcome any comments on these observations!

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