Expression, Ecology, Identity

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Labor, Beauty & Sustainable Community: Needlecraft Among Latter-Day Saint Women

This is an abstract for a project I've been working on in CLST 315, Qualitative Field Research Methods with Dr. Paul Faulstich.

In this ethnographic study of knitting/crochet and sewing groups in the Las Flores ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in La Verne, California, I explore the communal practice of hand-making goods as it impacts participants’ relationships to material culture and consumption. In particular, I examine the differences between the needlecrafters’ engagement with the products they make and their perception of goods obtained commercially, where production is performed by invisible others. I investigate the mythic significance of needlecraft, approaching the activity as a cultural practice that signifies a set of values and assumptions about the self in relation to the material environment. Observation of and interviews yield data on three major themes: perceptions of labor, definitions of the beauty and value of material products, and the bearing that needlecraft practice has on community/human relationships. The data I gather from participants is analyzed against theoretical proposals about the importance of hand-crafted products in the shift toward a more ecologically and economically sustainable culture. I conclude that, while participants to do not frame their activities as revolutionary, creating hand-made goods in this group setting offers important points of entry for reconsidering destructive assumptions about labor, beauty and community that currently prevail in mainstream material culture and in standard patterns of consumption.

I am grateful for the way my Visual Research Methods and Qualitative Field Research methods classes have informed each other this semester, especially on this project. Even though the methods in I used were not specifically visual or digital, I found myself thinking often about theorists and discussions from Visual Research methods as I pursued this study. I began this ethnography still trying to figure out what ethnography was, exactly. That process continues, but there are some things I have learned that have made a big impact on my understanding of this work.

Initially, I felt a lot of discomfort about the ethnographic process because the inherent violence of the gaze felt very real to me. Our VRM class read some of Frances Fanon's writing about what it is to be seen as an "object," one who is the product of someone else's gaze, one who is not allowed to emanate meaning but only receives the meaning imposed by others. I did not want to perpetuate that practice by imposing my gaze on anyone in that way. I tried to mediate this by choosing a field site in a community of which I was already a part - LDS women - so that I would not be asking my consultants to be seen without also being included in the gaze by association. I thought, at the time, that simply having a connection to the community myself meant that it was more allowable for me to speak about it. Still enormously uncomfortable both with the process of seeing and being seen, I began work on the project.

Then things began to change. I was introduced - through my professors' own work and through that of others, like Jean Rouch, who pushed the boundaries of the traditional ethnography - to a way of working that was intentionally self-reflexive and collaborative. At first, I had believed that my authority to tell the stories of my consultants came from the connections we shared. I saw my job as giving voice to those stories on the participants' behalf as responsibly as possible. I thought "good ethnography" meant letting participants speak for themselves, and so was uncomfortable introducing my own interpretations of the group's activities or theoretical questions/observations into the narrative. However, I came to realize that it was as undesirable as it was it impossible to avoid my own perspective. Further, I began to see that a theoretical framework was crucial to explaining the significance and larger cultural implications that I saw in the activities of my consultants.

Instead of thinking of the study as a monologue that I was helping to facilitate, I began to understand it as a conversation: one that involved the voices of participants in the study, my own voice, and the voices of other theorists. Together, these voices would contribute to a shared narrative. Moreover, that narrative was not fixed but ongoing: readers of my study would also bring their interpretations to it. Donna Haraway's work on feminist ethnography helped me to understood that, just as the result of the study were necessarily collaborative, so too would be determining the meaning of those results.

I remember a conversation in my VRM class in which we were discussing the concept of performing one's identity. Dr. Juhasz noted that we each do this all the time, in all of our actions and interactions. None of us, she said, wants to be understood as a stereotype; we do not want our identities to be a projection of the assumptions and labels of others. Performing one's identity on one's own terms manifests and reinforces one's own ideas about the self. It can even help to change perceptions of others about oneself. This helped me understand my ethnography as a potential site of power. Originally, I saw it only as a place where the stories of my consultants and myself would be made vulnerable by becoming objects of the gaze of others. And, I suppose that is still true, in a sense. But, now I also see the study as a locus of authority as a collective, interactive performance of our identities. It is a vehicle to that we can use to share something of ourselves with the world on our own terms.

Of course, this is all much easier because I like the people with whom I conducted this study and I concluded that what they're doing has value. It is easy to collaborate with people to whom you already feel connected and whose activities I see as positive rather than harmful. How would this experience have been different if I had felt otherwise? What will happen when this is the case? What will it be like to try to forge a collaborative narrative when the participants in your study are hostile to my presence? When they are doing something I feel is misguided or harmful? I do not believe the answer is to always shy away from experiences like this. In that case, I could only ever study people who were not very different from myself -- and that seems very undesirable. The honest effort to learn from others who are not like me is important too - and too important to avoid out of discomfort. These classes have helped me to see that critique and even deep disagreement can indeed be a part of an open, respectful ethnographic process. Perhaps my next ethnographic project will be an opportunity to put this conviction into practice.

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