Sunday, 2 February 2014

Irish Cream on Cornflakes: Journey to the Field

Anthropologists study cultural and social of human life. We do this by analysing our experiences of doing fieldwork. This usually consists in participating in and observing the lives of people we study. As it can take months or years, an anthropologist typically only gets the chance to do fieldwork in only one or two locations. In early 2014, I journeyed to my second, and maybe last, fieldwork location: The Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

Home Island, one of two inhabited islands on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands are two atolls which are part of Australia’s Indian Ocean territories. Keeling Island is uninhabited, while the Cocos Islands atoll to the south has two inhabited islands. West Island accommodates about 130 people from mainland Australia, while Home Island is home to about 420 Cocos Malays. My fieldwork project is based on Home Island. I have described, with Monika Winarnita, a little about life on Home Island.

My trip to Cocos Islands began in Perth.  Finding out that we were going to the Cocos Islands, the driver of our airport transfer said “I hope you like Bailey’s [Irish Cream] on your cornflakes”.  He told me that one passenger he had taken to the airport preferred Bailey’s on his cereal as it is cheaper than milk on Cocos Islands. It was before 7am and I felt dizzy even thinking of it.
This is the direct flight path from Perth to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.
However, we went via Christmas Island.

Virgin runs three flights a week from Perth to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. The flight now travels via Christmas Island. The passengers comprised of ex-pats and only filled half the seats, with less than a dozen left after most disembarked at Christmas Island. To give an idea of the number of passengers, apparently in 2009-2010, 9,129 passengers passed through the Cocos Island airport, and 15,712 in 2010-2011--Cocos being ranked 99 out of 103 airports in terms of traffic.

Looking over the lagoon to the southern part of the Cocos atoll

I arrived at Cocos Islands exhausted and going through embarrassing extremes from goofy positivity to disconsolate pessimism about the project ahead. I was returning after doing pre-fieldwork trip of a couple of weeks in 2011. The reason for my trip to the Cocos Islands is that in 2013 I was awarded a generous government grant to cover the costs of doing extended fieldwork for my wife and me. My wife, Monika Winarnita, PhD in Anthropology at the Australian National University, will also do research as part of the grant. Scheduled to start in 2014, the grant also provides for someone to cover my university teaching while I am away. My job is to produce a record of contemporary culture and society, if possible, a book with chapters on: Economy; Kinship; Mobility and communications; Life Stages (childhood, youth, adulthood); Gender; Religion and tradition. I would like to focus on what people think the good life is, what is important, what really matters; something like that. So what do I know about the Cocos Malays so far? 

Cocos Malays are the descendants of indentured laborers brought by Europeans to these empty atolls in the 1800s. From the mid-1900s large numbers migrated to Singapore, Christmas Island, Borneo, and several locations in Western Australia. After a plebiscite, Cocos Malays became part of Australia in 1984. 

Cocos Malays speak their own Malay dialect and possess unique customs. For example, amongst the Cocos Malays, you take the name of your oldest child.  As soon as you become a grandparent you take the name of the newborn baby. The anthropological term for this practice is "teknonymy".  As I wrote on Wikipedia:
An example of teknonymy can be found among the 'Malays' of Cocos (Keeling) Islands, where parents are known by the name of their first-born child. For instance, a man named Hashim and his wife, Anisa, have a daughter named Sheila. Hashim is now known as "Pak Sheila" (literally, "Sheila's Father") and Anisa is now known as "Mak Sheila" (literally, "Sheila's Mother"). 

Anyway, back to the trip.We disembarked using stairs and walked to the airport, a small building. A tractor brought our luggage on a trailer. And then a pick-up / ute took our luggage to the ferry, while we waited for the bus.

Waiting for the bus

The bus provided relief from the boredom of waiting and from the humid heat. Adults were 50c each and kids were free—I didn’t bother to ask for a receipt!

 Then we caught the ferry from Home Island to West Island.

Ferry to Home Island

Getting on aforementioned ferry

We had called ahead earlier, organizing for dinner to be made for us by Darling, who works at the Home Island establishment Cafe Mesra. We ate curried fish and beef ribs with rice. Then we all collapsed before 7pm; probably a mistake as the kids were up at 3.30am and moving about soon after.  

I wasn’t too sure what to expect upon waking. Luckily there was no Baileys. Custom dictates that there should be no alcohol on Home Island. The drinking seems to be restricted to West Island. But what else would be different about living here? What would be the same? How would I fit in? I wanted answers, and straight away, but I knew better. It would take months or years to begin to understand the culture and society on this island.

Anthropology & fieldwork

There are four main forms of anthropology:
1.       Linguistic anthropology
2.       Biological anthropology
3.       Archaeology
4.       Socio-cultural anthropology

I do number four. We generally just use the word “anthropology” to refer to “sociol-cultural anthropology”. So from now on if I say “anthropologists”, I am referring to “socio-cultural anthropologists”.

Anthropology is the study of social and cultural aspects of what it is to be a human being. Other disciplines—sociology, cultural studies, history, etc.—have a similar goal, so it’s often difficult to explain to students what’s different about anthropology. But one thing that always comes up is our method of data collection. We don't tend to do focus groups, questionnaires, experiments with control groups etc.

“Ethnography” can mean several things:
1.       Sometimes it means almost the same thing as “socio-cultural anthropology”. If say “ethnography is one of the greatest disciplines”; I mean something like “sociol-cultural anthropology is one of the greatest disciplines”
2.       Sometimes it refers to an “anthropological book”. If I say, “Tonkinson wrote a beautiful ethnography of the Mardu Aborigines” it means “Tonkinson wrote a beautiful anthropological book about the Mardu Aborgines”
3.       Sometimes it refers to a fieldwork methodology. Typically, this fieldwork methodology involves long-term observation of daily life and, where possible, participating.
What I’m talking about in this blog is sense number three, a fieldwork methodology. In this sense, the word “ethnography” usually implies an anthropologist (sometimes with a partner/spouse) spending about a year, learning a local language (if they don’t already speak it), keeping a diary, taking notes (fieldnotes). They do this in what is called the “field”.

Where do anthropologists do ethnography? These days, the field is commonly somewhere local, and the anthropologist focuses on what might be called a ‘sub-culture’. Students I know are researching drug addicts and train users in Australian inner cities. Some anthropologists also seek out cultures in other areas or countries. This is my primary interest.


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