Absurdism as Fieldwork Methodology

by Sara Swenson

a cup of water on a table refracts the image of an open window

a cup of water on a table refracts the image of an open window

January 6, 2019

Absurdism as Fieldwork Methodology

I decided to reread Albert Camus’s essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” as a fieldwork methodology. (Here’s a pdf in translation, page numbers taken from this copy.)

Readers, rest assured that I just deleted a 450-word summary of the essay that was verging toward middle school book report. Instead, I’ll just say it’s an essay on Absurdist philosophy with some excellent one liners. The last words often spring to mind in Saigon traffic jams, or on days when my language skills have overslept without me: “The fight itself towards the summit is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy [la lutte elle-meme vers les sommets suffit a remplir un Coeur d’homme; il fault imaginer Sysyphe heureux].” It’s the original argument to “live in the process” without all the inspirational imagery of actually achieving anything.

I spent three years training for micro-ethnographic fieldwork in our department. The ethnographies that inspired me were Sarah Pinto’s Daughters of Parvati, Jeffrey Samuels’ Attracting the Heart, Sarah Lamb’s White Saris and Sweet Mangoes, and Sid Brown’s The Journey of One Buddhist Nun, among many others. These books featured personal stories of real people trying to live meaningfully in their communities, sometimes with or despite poverty, disease, or mental illness. The greatest gift in fieldwork preparation was working closely with our department Anthropologists Ann Gold and Gareth Fisher. Both scholars have based many years of research on developing close, long-term relationships with people at their research sites. When my friends in Vietnam ask when I’ll be returning after fieldwork, I answer that I am saving up to return in Summer of 2020, and hope to be back whenever I can, for as long as I can. The idea that this is not only possible, but that it’s equal parts research method and community responsibility, comes from their examples. Joanne Waghorne’s ethnographic research from a History of Religion’s perspective has also been a great encouragement for thinking through fieldwork with a different set of theories, and therefore different methodologies. After all, theories and methodologies are extensions of one another. What we do changes how we think. How we think affects what we do.

Theories are far more than the results of philosophical training. We are born into theories and live our lives according to ideas about time, family, gender, race, society, expectation, and personhood. Sometimes these ideas get pressed into us through the skin. Sometimes we internalize these ideas and desire them for our own.

When Camus wrote “The Myth of Sisyphus,” part of what he was addressing was the problem of a breakdown of internalized theories, a crisis of personal meaning. A breakdown of theories is fundamentally a crisis of methodology. What happens when we are frozen by doubt, confronted by a loss of purpose? We don’t know what to do.

In Camus’s essay, he says some people seize control of this crisis through physical suicide. Others relinquish all control through a mystic “leap” into the unknown via absolute faith (11). Camus calls this self-surrender to faith “philosophical suicide” (10). Both responses are about resolving the issue of doubt. Instead, Camus writes, “The important thing is not to be cured, but to live with one’s ailments” (13). We can live in the tension of doubt, struggling every day in full cognizance of the absurdity of continuing. Reality is like the Greek myth of Sisyphus condemned to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity. When the boulder rolls down the hill, Sisyphus follows to roll it up again. He can’t change his fate, but he can change his awareness. Camus writes, of his effort not to turn away from the absurd, “Let us insist again on this method: it is a matter of persisting” (18).

I came to Vietnam with a lot of theories about methods. I used to think a method was a tool we used to design a good study. Now I understand: I am the method. How I carry myself, where I sleep, what and when I eat – these are the practical realities that underpin and affect social relationships. What people see when they see me coming isn’t terribly within my realm of control. Even my responses don’t always translate the way I hope they will. Food poisoning really throws off my research design.

In a micro-ethnographic study, proximity and persistence are really the only factors I can control. Yes, I can show up with interview questions and a notebook. Whether or not anything happens afterward depends on whether other people choose to say hi, and why. The only way I can persist with this method is to keep leaving my apartment and hoping everyone else is feeling friendly and patient. It is a matter of persisting.

Writing fieldnotes sometimes seems like the ultimate act of the absurd. I probably have 50 pages of notes just about people’s hands, or lack of hands. For instance, an inspirational charity leader is known for his work, without arms. He upsets stereotyped images of givers and receivers. One nun I know often rests with her hands palm up on her knees. This is an open gesture. It relaxes her shoulders and puts the room at ease. She becomes a lotus, blooming. I don’t know anyone else who sits like that. What can I do with 50 pages of notes about hands? Studies of hands are hard to rationalize. I did not start out with a survey to determine which hands in the city are most representative of all hands. I didn’t measure anybody’s finger length to correlate compassion with gestational hormones. Have I learned anything at all?

The process of writing makes me let go of the vision of what I should be studying, and holds me accountable to what I did learn. In writing through notes on an unexpected funeral last weekend, I realized I hadn’t asked how various family members were related. I did, however, remember how the wife of the man who had died would not drink water before others were served. She passed the cups around the table by order of social status. Even when others insisted she drink, she refused to let grief come before her sense of manners. Maybe instead of writing a chapter about grief, I should write about cups. After all, sometimes even in grief, cups come first.

I write this mostly as a reminder to myself. The last two months of fieldwork are ticking down. There’s a lot I wish I had done differently. There’s a lot that isn’t going to get done. Would it have gotten done if I had planned better, cultivated different relationships?

Retreating down a path of rationality – toward the vision of a tidy, measured, controllable researcher project – is my version of philosophical suicide. Saying yes to the absurd, meeting the tension, following the cups… these are ways of following “The Myth of Sisyphus” as a research method.

I’ll finish with Camus, who says it better: “Methods imply metaphysics; unconsciously they disclose conclusions that they often claim not to know yet” (4). In a micro-ethnographic study, valuing relationship is both the method and the metaphysics, the way of being and doing, the smile that spreads while the rock rolls back downhill. Absurdist fieldwork is the hello wave of a thousand unmeasured fingertips.


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Sara Swenson