Monday, February 02, 2009

Observing Culture: The Reward of the Wait

Studying culture through observation research is a lot like hunting, though it takes a great deal more time. Those who hunt deer or turkey must put up a stand or blind, sit in a camouflaged hole and hope something comes by. The reward of the wait is the kill.

As a missionary anthropologist studying culture, like a hunter, I seek out a target or subject in mind, in this case the Pokot of northwest Kenya. Unlike a hunter, however, I am hardly incognito as I spend my days in the village hoping to learn something significant about these nomadic and unreached people. It’s the pieces of the puzzle I am looking for which will lead me to a clearer picture of the whole as it relates to the social structure, worldview and avenues for communication to these pastoralists which live in the bush.

Here is an example of a cultural find this past week through observation research:

As I trek down a path outside the village a woman walks by with a cowbell clanging from her waist. I ask my Pokot friend what it means and he tells me she is the mother of a recently circumcised boy. By cultural law the boy is forbidden to see his mother during the period of healing (thirty days) and to avoid such a taboo the cowbell alerts him if she walks nearby. As a researcher you couldn’t organize such a discovery if you tried; such findings is almost by accident gained through the wait.

C.S. Lewis writes, “I happen to believe that you cannot study man, you can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing.” I partly agree. I do believe that is through knowing a people that you learn best about them and not through sitting in a class or reading a book. However, sometimes you need to know how to study people to know them and understand what you are observing. It is through structured cultural analysis, i.e. knowing their worldview, kinship network, web of interpersonal relationships, that allows and outsider, like myself, to really get to know people of different cultures.

Twenty years ago I lived in Pokot and got to know them well, so this past week was not merely idle curiosity and certainly not a tourist event. Most of my days in the bush was long, hot and boring and, on the surface, neither earth shattering, life changing or having great eternal benefits…yet. Being in-place, on-site is the only way one will ever gain legitimate emic insights into the society of another. Learning more about the Pokot, even if it seems insignificant, is the reward of the wait.