Written by Moriah Lavey
Observing the 16th International Society of Ethnobiology was my first experience with
ethnography outside of an undergraduate research methods class. And what a time it was. I
came face to face both with the challenges of collaborative event ethnography in general, as
well as some context specific issues that arose institutionally at the ISE.
Collaborative event ethnography as a methodology, is challenging. Though valuable, it is
difficult to take on a field site that is temporally constrained and incredibly jam packed. The
four days of the conference were the only opportunities we had to collect data and make observations. For example, on day three, I was tired, frustrated about the language barrier, and a bit distracted due to some personal concerns that arose, and I know it impacted the way I collected data. The events that I attended on day three will not happen again, so the pictures I did not take will remain undocumented, and that is unfortunate. Additionally, even with the five of us spending multiple hours a day within the conference, there is so much that occurred that was beyond our reach. Especially in the first three days, I was consistently doubting myself, feeling like I was not seeing nor doing enough,
despite the entirety of my days being spent observing and participating. Thankfully at a team
meeting, Laura affirmed that this sentiment is common in doing CEE’s. Not to mention it
certainly is tiring to invest the majority of your waking hours physically, mentally, and
emotionally invested in the goings on of the ISE.
Doing the field work was demanding, but also rewarding. To be documenting the ISE was certainly enjoyable. The events that I observed, and especially the ones I could linguistically understand, were fascinating, and the conference itself was a historic event. But outside of the challenges inherent within collaborative event ethnography, the ISE itself posed its own obstacles.
As a team, I believe we underestimated the extent to which the three members who did
not speak Portuguese were excluded from the events at the conference. Of the twelve events
that I went to, only one was explicitly in English, while three were equipped with translation
services. This limitation certainly created obstacles to my ethnographic observation,
understanding, and analysis of the events that I witnessed. Not to undervalue context clues like
vocal tone, volume, body language, and materials like slides and videos, but to be disconnected
from what was actually being discussed, and especially from the conversations that were had in
event question and answer sessions, barred me from a lot of content. Not speaking the
language, however, did provide us with a powerful experiential viewpoint, that of being a
participant unable to access the common language of the space. It cannot be understated how
this linguistic difference impacts the ability to participate and contribute to the events.
All in all, being part of a collaborative event ethnography at the ISE in Belém has been a
powerful learning experience, challenging me both in ways that I anticipated and in ways that
caught me by surprise. Through this experience, however, I feel myself to have grown as a
person and as an ethnographer.
Written by Michelle David
The 2018 International Society of Ethnobiology Congress has come to a close. This conference not only created a space for people from across the world to meet, but also a space for discussion, dialogue, and collaboration. After four days of lengthy yet lively sessions, a Letter from Belem+30 was created to revisit the original 1988 Declaration. The letter was read aloud and presented on two large screens for all ISE attendees at the Closing Ceremony. One of the women invited to read the letter, a Quilombola leader, announced, “when I signed this letter, it marked one of the greatest moments in my life.” The letter included clauses that renounced existing rights violations against Indigenous Peoples, Traditional Peoples, and Local Communities; empowered Indigenous Peoples, Traditional Peoples, and Local Communities to protect their lands and knowledge; defended the inherent ties between and importance of respecting biological and cultural diversity; reaffirmed free, prior, and informed consent for both private and public projects; and called upon national governments to uphold these protections.
On the first day during the Opening Ceremony, Pepeyla Miller, President of the International Society of Ethnobiology, reminded all attendees to “communicate, communicate, communicate…and listen.” Listening to the letter as it was read, I was pleased to hear some of the proposed language from the two Forum dos Povos (People’s Forum) sessions I attended. I would like to believe that the Indigenous and Local Peoples who spoke up to defend and propose their own ideas felt some mix of satisfaction, empowerment, and hope as their ideas were presented to a large auditorium of eager listeners, knowing their audience would soon be the world.
Despite the creation of the Letter from Belem+30 and all the collaboration I witnessed these four days, I can’t help but come back to one message from the opening speaker at the Closing Ceremony: “Don’t forget that we have a lot to do after this event. We have a lot to work on as researchers, as people… as partners, from the communities and the social movements we work with. And it’s necessary that we learn some more to denounce, to shout it out, to feel dignified.”
Tomorrow is the last day of the ISE Congress, which should bring exciting things for Congress attendees. So far, there have been many spaces for indigenous voices to be heard, which very much differs from the normal academic conference program. The Feira de Sociobioversidade (Sociobiodiversity Fair) is certainly the liveliest part of the space, which invites different NGOs, activist groups, academic societies, and even food vendors to create a market in the midst of the Hangar. It is exciting to see Indigenous Peoples and Traditional Communities inserting themselves into the daily activities and panels. We’ve seen everything from academic panels to forums, provide space for Indigenous voices, and I don’t foresee the last day of the Congress being any different.
We’ve heard from various participants that ISE is the liveliest and most fun conference they’ve been involved with, in fact, as I’m writing this, I just witnessed researchers I know dancing between the stalls at the Feira, while Michelle and myself sit in an empty stall to catch up on work. Our team is exhausted from the CEE process, yet meetings are a rewarding space as they give us the opportunity to talk about our daily experiences and make connections across events. CEE is definitely not for the faint of heart. Sleep may be futile, but our data is not!
It’s day 2 at the ISE 2018 Congress and time is already flying by. It feels like just yesterday I was a mere undergraduate student learning about collaborative ethnography on campus, and here I am working on a research team in Brazil. The transition from research assistant to field research has been difficult, but I’ve learned a lot. One lesson I’ve learned after only 72 hours in Brazil is the importance of language. I have no experience with Portuguese, and I naively did not expect this to be an obstacle in the field. Even the smallest questions like, “where is auditorium A?” become a confusing slur of words and a jumble of hand motions. It’s almost impossible to be self-sufficient with this language barrier, so the collaborative nature of our team is particularly important for me.
Body language and context will suffice for basic questions, but things become more complicated during events. Since the schedule is in English, I have a general sense of each event before attending, but I am unable to get a comprehensive understanding of the content. I have felt intimidated walking into these events that I won’t understand. I am exhausted from trying to pull out the few words and phrases that I recognize and construct a possible narrative based on the event theme. Despite the challenges of a language barrier, I have been able to gain something from each event. Instead of writing down every single word (which I would do in an English-speaking event) I am able to look around the room and see how people respond to each speaker. I can also devote more time to spatial awareness, taking in the environment of each event space. My contextualizing skills are getting some great exercise as well. I’ve been reminded of the uneasy feeling of dependency and confusion that many non-English speakers may feel in the US, and I feel privileged to live in a place where most people speak the language that I’m most familiar with. There are also the multiple Indigenous languages to keep in mind, but I’ll tackle one at a time.
Luckily we have 2 Portuguese speakers (Laura and Emily) to guide us through the language barrier and ensure that we are not ordering the wrong thing at restaurants.
Written by Moriah Lavey
The 2018 collaborative event ethnography team for the International Society of Ethnobiology Congress has assembled! The five of us (one faculty member, one graduate student, and three undergraduate students) are in Belém, Pará in Brazil, eagerly preparing for the start of the conference tomorrow morning. I have spent the last two days exploring the city on my own, adjusting to the time difference (a meager two hours, but travel is tiring!), the language barrier, and a vastly different space. I have spent much of my time alone, walking around, taking the environment in, and anticipating this next week and a half of arduous but incredibly exciting work.
And now we are here! It really and truly is happening, with Laura adding ‘all at once’. I feel as though I spent so much time in anticipation and preparation, it is hard to make sense of the fact that the time has come. Tomorrow we will be in the field, putting into practice all that we have talked about over the last few months. We are staying at the Stada Hangar Hotel with the Hangar Centro de Conveções e Feiras da Amazônia, the site of the ISE, visible from our window. The Hangar is a massive geometric structure with windows covering the exterior that demands attention. While it certainly is daunting from the outside, the english-speaking owner of the hostel I was staying at previously assured me it feels even bigger on the inside. I am curious to see how the five of us will be able to navigate, occupy, and eventually map out the space. Our goals are lofty, but I believe in the team’s ability to do meaningful work over these next four days and beyond. I am experiencing similar levels of excitement and overwhelm, and I figure that is a good sign. Ready or not, ISE, here we come!
In the field...
Follow our team as we cover international environmental policy making meetings.
Dr. Kimberly R. Marion Suiseeya, Department of Political Science, Northwestern University
Dr. Laura Zanotti, Department of Anthropology, Purdue University
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