Reciprocity in Fieldwork

by Jim Griffith

The relationship between folklorist and informant is, by its very nature, reciprocal. To start off, I don’t really like the word “informant” for the person who gives information to folklorists and other social scientists. Not only is it impersonal, but it is too close to “informer,” which has heavy negative associations. But “informant” is in common usage, so we will go with it. In an interview I get information, and the informant gets something in exchange. It is my job to make the exchange a positive one for all concerned.

As I have mentioned before, the folklorist’s stock in trade is respect, shown initially by the desire to learn more about the informant‘s traditions. To follow up, at the very least I can write a thank you note. Some projects even print and distribute certificates to participants. If the interview results in a program or production, I keep in touch, give progress reports, send an invitation to the program or a copy of the article, and otherwise keep the relationship going. After all, I might want to work again with that person or in that community, but, more importantly, it is The Right Thing To Do.

These relationships can expand to whole families, and can last a long time. I have attended many informants’ family celebrations, even funerals, in my day, and this show of respect has been welcomed by family members, with the reciprocity continuing through the years. For example, I was first introduced to Matilde Santa Cruz in the 1970s, as someone who made tortillas at home for her friends and neighbors. With a team from KUAT at the University of Arizona I planned and taped a short segment on tortilla making, interviewing Matilda under her backyard ramada. As she stretched and toasted large flour tortillas on a metal comal over a wood fire, Matilde told us, “I learned from my grandmother and my mother, and I have taught my daughter. It is a chain that will never be broken.” This brilliant summation of what we folklorists are about resonated with me. Later, when I organized an exhibit at the UA Art Museum its title was “The Unbroken Chain, Traditional Arts of Tucson’s Mexican-American Community.”

The relationship did not stop there. Doña Matilde and her family members became regular demonstrators at the annual folklife festival, Tucson Meet Yourself. They gave tortilla-making lessons to all comers (including our grandchildren). Then when her health took a serious downturn, the festival staff rallied to her support. Once fully recovered, Matilde invited the festival staff to a thank-you party, featuring her wonderful cooking and music by a neighborhood Norteño band. We see the relationship continuing to expand and prosper, as the band is now invited to play for our events. This unbroken chain continues!

The benefits to the informant from such reciprocal relationships can take many forms. Most obviously, the folklorist might be able to put an artist into a better position to sell a product, give concerts, or offer demonstrations at a public occasion. Beyond the potential monetary rewards of this increased exposure, seeing one’s work celebrated and honored by the mainstream society—including by some who might hold more financial or political capital than the artist–can go far toward validating the entire tradition, both within and beyond the artist’s immediate community. One woman told me that after hearing my lecture on folk traditions she realized that those “silly things her mother used to sing” were really “beautiful Norwegian folk songs.” Attention from a folklorist can also encourage the younger generation to value and carry on the traditions. It is suggestive that many of the well-known singing families on both sides of the Atlantic have been visited by a folklorist at least once in each generation.

The reciprocal relationship can be seen as the beginning of enhanced communication between communities. Early in my career, someone had explained to me that, “You can invite the Indians, but they won’t show up.” When we were hoping to include Yaqui musicians and dancers in a National Folk Festival my friend Richard Morales, himself a keen observer of both his own and other cultural traditions, offered to introduce me to the ceremonial group. Richard insisted that any discussion had to be conducted on Yaqui terms, on Yaqui turf. This meant visiting with the group leader for social conversation and a cigarette before moving on to the invitation to participate. He was adamant that negotiations with Yaquis were not done over the phone. So, I went to Yaqui turf and lit the cigarette and after a series of meetings, a group of Yaqui musicians and dancers traveled to Wolf Trap Park outside of Washington, D.C. that summer to perform. We followed a similar procedure to secure Yaqui participation in Tucson Meet Yourself. Today, decades later, the relationship between folklorist and informant is still strong, with deep mutual trust on both sides being handed down through generations. Now the invitations to participate are both offered and accepted over the phone. Years of experience and observation have convinced me that personal relationships are the surest bridge between “outsiders” and “insiders” of folk communities.

There, I have said it. Our work as folklorists should be a two-way street, with good feelings and benefits all around. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming suction pumps for information, benefiting ourselves but leaving the other party dry, empty, and perhaps unhappy.

“Big Jim” Griffith is a folklorist, founder of Tucson Meet Yourself, and 2011 NEA National Heritage Fellow. His most recent book is Saints, Statues, and Stories: A Folklorist Looks At The Religious Art of Sonora (University of Arizona Press, 2019).

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