Draft: July 3, 2019
A basic tenant of field research that involves obtaining information from people is that you must never pay for information. This said, depending on where you do your research, and who you are interviewing, exchanging goods or money for time may be a cultural prerequisite. Also, someone who is very poor may not have the time to spend with you, however willing, if you cannot compensate for that time the amount of money or goods they would have earned during the period they are talking with you.
In the Samburu culture one must always bring tea and sugar to the household you come to visit. This applies to everyone, family member, local friend, foreign visitor. No exceptions. So that you do not enrich one family at the expense of everyone else it can be appropriate, depending on the amount of time you are spending with an informant, to distribute tea and sugar to the manhattan elder for distribution to each household.
It is obvious that if you are an instructor and someone comes to interview you ten minutes before your class starts that you will not be able to be cooperative, no matter how much you really would like to answer the interviewers questions. Be sensitive to informants time constraints so please familiarize yourself with each informants situation. Women, for example, have ongoing duties throughout the day to their family and their animals. You need to work within their down time. It is thus very common to need to go to a manyatta one day to make an appointment for the following day at a convenient time for your informant.
In Samburu culture, as in most cultures, men and women have very different social roles — very different day jobs. In many countries one sees cafes filled with men smoking water pipers, drinking tea or coffee, or drinking an alcoholic beverage with no women in sight. The women are likely to be home tending to the family.
Beware of inadvertent male research bias caused by the relative ease with which one can interview men.
In Samburu culture, as in many others, it can be easier to find men to talk with most any time of the day and for hours on end than to find women to talk to with such convenience to ones own schedule. In the Samburu culture, as in so many others in the world, men may deem themselves qualified to speak with you about anything you ask whether they are really qualified on that subject, or not. Traditional Samburu culture is patriarchal so men are raised feeling entitled and powerful. In Samburu culture, as in much of the world, men tend to be more more used to being out and about in the world than women, more used to talking with strangers, and more used to pontificating on this that or the other as part of male social interactions with each other. In the Samburu culture of today, more adult men will be fluent in English than will adult women because until recently many more boys went to school than girls. All these factors taken together makes it feel as if there is always a willing pool of fabulous seeming male informants. Many men seem to have all the time is the world to talk and also to be a font of both general and detailed knowledge. What fabulous luck for the researching who is dive bombing into and out of the place!
Beware! It is very easy to obtain male-biased research that will result in seriously flawed work.
If you are researching a subject that is within the purview of women, then you may use male informants to give you a general sense of how things work — at least from their perspective – but do not rely on this information. Only use it as the skeleton that you then develop and flesh out using female informants. Ideally, however, get female informants to give you the overview of the work they do.
Here is an example from my own research of faulty male information. My study amongst the Samburu has to do with the preparation of milk in wooden containers that are sterilized with burning sticks. Different botanicals leave different flavor profiles behind. To get at the question of intentionality, I had asked one of my informants, a man with a degree in anthropology, whether women ever mixed woods when cleaning the containers in order to obtain a desired taste profile. He told me that women never do that. They clean with one kind of wood, only. Indeed, Samburu women mostly do only clean with one type of wood in any given cleaning session, but when I asked this question of his own wife said she sometimes uses two woods in order to obtain a specific taste profile. His own wife!
What we know about databases — garbage in garbage out —applies to field research, as well.
There are multiple barriers to interviewing Samburu women. Firstly, they are very busy. They have multiple responsibilities. Taking care of children is the most visible to outsiders. But they have responsibilities for the animals kept in the manyatta. Their most obvious responsibility is milking.
Traditional Samburu culture, the part of the Samburu culture that most researchers study, is strongly patriarchal and strongly weighted to give increasing authority to men as they become older. This can have negative impacts on your research if you are depending on male translators when speaking to women who only speak Samburu.
Firstly, if your entree into a manyatta is through a man, and if the man chooses a woman to help you, then his telling that women to help you is an order that she cannot refuse. If you are lucky, she will be very happy to talk with you, and will understand the sudden appearance of a stranger from far away as a great little adventure and an opportunity to show of her skills. On the other hand, she might be busy, might be about to go do something, might not be feeling well, might not like the man who brought you, might be the kind of person who prefers to be left well enough alone, and might have been spoken to in a tone of voice that was offensive. In other words, you can end up being foisted on someone who has not interest in helping you, but must, so goes through the motions of whatever is being asked of her to fulfill her social requirement to obey the elder man who brought you. This is very hard to control. Being aware is the first step.
You will be almost always being talking to women through male interpreters. To keep control of the interview we strongly recommend sentence-by-sentence translation both ways. We also strongly recommend that all interviews are well recorded so that you can review interviews with different native speakers to be sure that what was translated was accurate.
If a question is important to what you are trying to understand, ask it multiple times different ways to as many people as you can to be sure that you have it right.