Confessions of an ethnographer: adapting to the new normal

21 April 2021

Ishita Patil

Narali Poornima, the coconut festival marks the beginning of the fishing season in Maharashtra. This was my first day with the Raut1 family. Sona, 23, was excited about the evening. “It will be great, there will be music and dance. You will meet my friends”, she said. Offerings of coconut, rice and flowers are made to the sea god on the full moon night of Shravan (August) month, praying for a safe and bountiful fishing season. Families gather at the coast for the festivities in their traditional attire. It was – as it always is – a grand affair. Everyone was at the coast, eating at the food stalls, enjoying the music and dance performances. I followed Sona obediently, scared to be lost in the crowd. Populated with approximately 35000 people, Satpati spreads wide along the coast with a tapering end in the sea. That night it was as if all the people joined the brightest light the village ever saw in that elongated strip before it all became dark at 9 pm.

Satpati, in Palghar district, Maharashtra, is a coastal village popular for its silver pomfret and bombay duck. The village has witnessed rapid transformations, including the development of industrial estates and infrastructure projects. Fish catch has consequently been on the decline, as has the profitability of the fishing industry. Working as a Research Associate on the project “Coastal Transformations and Fisher Well-being – synthesized perspectives from India and Europe (FisherCoast)” I was undertaking field work from August 2019 in the village. The project focuses on coastal transformation and the role of the state, market and private sector in shaping fisher wellbeing. In the months that followed, I became well acquainted with the field and the fisher community.

Enter March 2020. I was in the village closely covering and observing the Holi festival celebrations. It was huge, something I hadn’t expected to witness in the normally quiet village environment. By the end of the month, the pandemic caused a temporary halt to my field work. We believed things would calm down, allowing me to return to Satpati, but they did not. So, in an effort to avoid having the research come to a complete standstill, we decided to continue with the study through phone interviews. A task as uncomfortable for me as for the interviewees. This new approach eliminated participant observation as a part of the methodology. Further, many participants were above 35 years of age, and either didn’t own mobile devices or struggled to use them.

Midnight Holi celebrations in early March 2020.
Being There, Doing That”: Pre-pandemic participation in people’s lives

Before the pandemic, I had begun using ethnography to understand the lifestyles, practices, and issues faced by the fishing community. I focused on different generations’ gender roles and perspectives and responses towards the declining fish trends. The research plan included key informant interviews, life stories and focus group discussions with boat owners, female fish vendors, boat crew, people working as wage labourers and residents of the adivasi community.

The two fisheries’ co-operative societies in Satpati facilitated my entry in the village. Once they understood the project and its objectives, they opened doors to the society offices, fishing community and any other help I required, including finding me a family to stay with. Besides this, my identity as a Maharastrian and the surname ‘Patil’, typically belonging to the fishing caste made it easier for the community to accept me. ‘Where are you from?’ was a question directed to me every time I met someone; Mumbai would be my instant response.

It took me a few interactions and an old lady kindly directing me to “always tell us which village you are from; that’s where you belong.” After that moment, I began to tell people that I am from Alibaug but have been living in Mumbai. During another interview, 70-year Ramesh Bhoir said, “I am telling you this because you are one of us”. He said this after asking questions regarding my family – father’s occupation, my education, my native village and family involvement in fisheries, if any. It mattered to Bhoir and others in Satpati that I belonged to a fishing village and fishing caste, making me “one of them”.  The old lady’s advice proved to be invaluable, as I began to see the reason behind the question. Who the interviewer is clearly mattered.

It mattered to Bhoir and others in Satpati that I belonged to a fishing village and fishing caste, making me “one of them”.  The old lady’s advice proved to be invaluable, as I began to see the reason behind the question. Who the interviewer is clearly mattered.

At the Satpati jetty. Beginning on the fishing season in August 2019.

Interviewing women is always difficult as it is tough for them to find free time between their domestic responsibilities. The women in the fishing village include women from boat owning families, women engaged in fish drying or processing and those working in manufacturing companies, who are particularly inaccessible due to their hectic six days a week and 12 hours a day work routine. Pre-pandemic, I would visit women for in-person interviews when their husbands weren’t around. Women speak more freely when male family members are away. Because I understood that women get self-conscious when told they are going to be interviewed, I talked with them while they were engaged in their daily chores. These interviews while they worked let me observe their surroundings, facial expressions, gestures, speaking tone, and hesitation or promptness in responding. Many times, I gathered information not only from the interviewee but also from the disruptions and dialogues of some neighbor who walked in. Telephonic interviews do not permit the same richness and abundance of information.

Mobile Mediations: the drawbacks of phone interviews

Ritu, a staff member at the co-operative society, belonged to the adivasi community living on the outskirts of the village. The adivasi community is isolated from the fishing community. Before the pandemic, we met on a daily basis; she would make tea for me every time I visited the society office. Her husband also worked at the co-operative society. When I tried to interview her on the phone during the pandemic, I had to contact her on her husband’s cell phone as she did not own one. I could hear his voice directing her as we spoke. The answers to every question asked were curated by her husband and narrated by her. Ritu would cross-check, getting permission before every answer. Speaking with her on the phone with her husband around, probably listening, stripped our interviews of the ease, sincerity, and light-heartedness of our pre-pandemic conversations.

Of course, instances and issues of male censorship were not limited to phone interviews. While in the field, I visited some women who worked in companies. They belonged to families who did not own boats and dried fish for wages. Due to the decline in fish production, these women had to change their means of livelihood and work in packaging companies. As I visited them after their shifts in the late evening, their husbands were often around. I distinctly remember the men answering questions on behalf of their wives. Often, they justified this by saying that their wives were not used to speaking and thus would not be able to say much. The women were unable to speak up honestly and were restricted in talking, which means they either did not answer sensitive research questions or that their answers were influenced by the men’s opinions.

The answers to every question asked were curated by her husband and narrated by her. Ritu would cross-check, getting permission before every answer. Speaking with her on the phone with her husband around, probably listening, stripped our interviews of the ease, sincerity, and light-heartedness of our pre-pandemic conversations.

During the lockdown, I tried to resume some of the interviews. I still talk to the interviewees days before interviewing them, trying to answer and clear up their doubts but even if they hear what I say, they do not get to see me, creating an invisible boundary between us. The only people I have been able to interview during the pandemic are the ones I knew personally beforehand, but still the hesitation persists.

Jaya, 50, was one of the first women I met in Satpati. She had happily invited me to stay with her family during my field work. She was a boat owner and handled the fish business herself, as well as managing a beer shop in the village. Her husband had originally been married to Jaya’s sister. When her sister died, Jaya married him and raised their son as her own. He had been president of the co-operative society before an accident years ago forced him to retire from the fish business. After the accident, dynamics in the house changed. Jaya’s husband, previously away for fishing trips most of the time, was now always home restricting her mobility and social interactions. Evenings, her husband would be sitting at the jetty. Her son spent months away for work, while her stepson was separated from them. Under the pretext of interviews about the fish business, she would often invite me for evening tea, narrating her life story and often expressing her longing for a social life. When I called her for an interview, however, Jaya was not as chatty and I could feel the awkwardness in her short and to-the-point answers. We never really got to speak more about her role in the fish business.

Another group which has been difficult to reach during the pandemic are the elderly. Anand (name changed) is in his late 80s and has been closely associated with the Fisheries school in Satpati. He was very enthusiastic about the research and offered to share a lot of information but, like many older residents, insisted on an in-person interview. Talking on the phone was unnatural for him. As the research also includes tracing the history and course of the village and its inhabitants, the elderly become key informants. They have been spectators of the community’s highs and lows as well as experiencing the drastic changes themselves. Many of them in their lifetime assumed roles in the Gram Panchayat, Co-operative Societies and led other social movements in the village. Having observed the village for decades, they have unique insights but remain inaccessible over the phone.

Key informant interviews of government officials, present chairmen and members of co-operative societies and civil bodies are not as challenging over the phone, as long as they have the time. They are part of the local administration or represent the community and are used to talking on phones. Interviewing them did not seem like a hassle as such. And here, the gap between men and women reduces. I did not observe or experience any gender-based obstacles or hesitance during these phone interviews.

Adapting to the new normal?

It has been a year since the pandemic began, and phone interviews continue to be the medium for conducting research. They allow me to get data points –a respondents’ years of education, their age, and family members. However, I miss out on the experiences, journeys, and stories about the whys and hows of particular decisions they’ve taken. Moreover, respondents get divided based on their comfort with telephonic interviews. Some groups like government officials, co-operative society members, local leaders and people with higher education are more visible and accessible compared to women, the elderly and people belonging to lower socioeconomic backgrounds. As an ethnographic researcher, I rely on stories, participant observations, surroundings, and facial expressions to develop my understanding of the history and current situation of the community, which is hampered now. Telephonic interviews fail to maintain the continuity of the interview process. Visual cues received through the respondent’s expressions on being asked a question are lost and a disconnect between the researcher and the respondent remains. As mentioned above, phone interviews can work for some groups, if they own these devices and are comfortable with them. But among Satpati village’s 35000 people, I doubt how many I will be able to count in this category. As a result, this break may not be so ‘temporary’.

Food in the Field: Rice and fish curry with fried fish

Before the pandemic, eating local cuisine was one of the ways I participated in the daily lives of my research subjects. Rice, a variety of fish preparations, curries and the four to five daily cups of chai became a part of my field experience. In the field ‘you never say no to tea’ as denying a cup of tea can be taken as a sign of disrespect to the household, which meant I had tea with every family I visited. After seven to ten days in the field, I would often grumble about the sugary tea and only fish in my meals. But now, a year into the pandemic, my only wish is to return to field interviews, sitting with people as we sip tea and eat delicious fish meals. 

1 All the names used in this article have been anonymized to protect the identity of my interlocutors.

All the photographs in this essay have been taken by the author.

Ishita Patil is a post graduate in Public Policy from St. Xavier’s College with a background in Economics. Currently, she works at IIT-Bombay on a project titled ‘Coastal Transformation and Fisher Well-being’. Her interests lie in the field of Labour and Migration studies. Find Ishita on Twitter @IshitaPatil19

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