by Maribel Alvarez
How do we know what we know? To make sense of the world, folklorists use methods borrowed in equal measures from the humanities and social sciences. Sometimes our work feels more interpretative than scientific. But this distinction can be misleading. Whether we’re listening for the “truth” in a family anecdote, a rumor, or a song, or conducting a systematic study through observation, pattern-finding, and formal interviews, we folklorists try to interpret human behavior to gain understanding, respect, and collaboration.
The calling card of a folklorist’s trade is the ethnographic interview (from Greek, “ethno” for people and “grapho” to report or document). Ethnography is the effort to learn about people by learning from people.
The golden rule of the ethnographic method is to let people speak their truths as they authentically live them within the groups where they feel a sense of belonging. Not all points of views, actions, beliefs, or behaviors will be understood or celebrated by outsiders. Even the most disagreeable viewpoints or actions have “meaning” and “logic” to those who hold or practice them. Herein lies the broadly democratic impulse of a folklorist’s work: We listen to people on their own terms.
A common practice among folklorists is to identify someone (or several people) who can grant access to an insider experience, someone willing to be interviewed, someone willing to let a folklorist “hang out” to experience firsthand the flow of words, actions, and events within a group. Folklorists call this “participant-observation.” In the past these helpful people were called “informants;” nowadays the terms “collaborators” or “narrators” are preferred.
But how close do we need to get to a group to enhance the validity of an ethnographic account, or simply to “record culture”? It depends. There are limits and ethical considerations, of course. For example, to understand the “logic” of burglars, you wouldn’t go burglarize someone in order to have the experience. Less obvious limits—like differences in gender, class, race, language—can also interfere with our ability to access certain ethnographic truths. But not having access to everything in someone’s life does not mean a folklorist cannot render a fair and accurate account of aspects of that life.
What we do need in the field, however, is a good dose humility and integrity.
When I was doing ethnographic research of artisans of plaster statuary in the U.S.-Mexico border town of Nogales, all the artisans were men. I used to hang out for hours at their workshop, where we bantered and talked about our lives. But I knew that the men refrained from making certain jokes, using certain language, and revealing certain aspects of their lives in my presence. So, when I wrote about my research findings I didn’t presume to know about those aspects of men’s lives. The knowledge I did gain was valid—knowledge about their lives as men-folk who were artisans in a border town. So it’s not all or nothing.
As the great anthropologist Clifford Geertz once said, our work may not “explain everything,” but it can “still explain something.”