By: Nick Santangelo

What do PhD students do in the field? What are they supposed to do in the field? Research, of course, but that’s a broad explanation. Is there a right way to perform field research? If so, how do students know when they’ve found it? It was a question a College of Liberal Arts anthropology PhD student tackled during last Thursday’s Anthro Hour presentation in Gladfelter Hall. Along with two fellow PhD students, she was recently back from a research trip, and all three students were excited to share their fieldwork experiences with their student peers in the program.

Melissa Krug, Peru

“It was a lot of long days, a lot of thinking, ‘well, what should I be doing?’” Melissa Krug said of her recent 10-month trip to Lima and Cusco, Peru. On a daily basis, Krug found herself doing a lot of hanging out with the locals, snapping pictures and helping Peruvians however she could. At first, she questioned internally if this is really what anthropological fieldwork is supposed to be like. Was she doing it “right”? Would her efforts lead to compelling research?

“A lot of fieldwork is just kind of being there, learning a community and figuring out what’s important there and adapting,” she explained.

The indigenous Kichwa people she stayed with in Lima saw how eager she was to help them out. They were happy to utilize her as a volunteer for filling out paperwork and keeping up records. For Krug, it was exciting to feel like a useful part of their community. She even took care to speak to them in Kichwa whenever possible, even though she doesn’t have full fluency in the language. Asked how the Kichwa felt about her attempts to speak to them in their native language, Krug said they were always pleasantly surprised at her efforts to learn and converse in their native tongue.

In her research, Krug is taking a linguistic approach to fair trade issues, which she said is an angle few scholars have previously explored. She’s examining what’s happening to the people, their identity and their language as Peru changes around them.

One point of contention is a flood of Chinese knock-off rugs falsely sold as authentic Peruvian alpaca rugs. Krug had a number of photos of the rugs and spoke about how difficult it can be for outsiders to differentiate between authentic and knock-off ones. A faculty member in attendance at the Anthro Hour remarked on how all the students were using photography in their studies and was particularly impressed with some of Krug’s shots.

“[The Kichwa] knew that I had this camera, and I don’t know nearly as much about how to use it as I should, but having the camera indicates certain ideas about what you’re doing,” she responded. “So they did assign me to, ‘OK, you go off and take this picture of this and that.’ But I don’t know yet what I’m going to do with photography in my work.”

Dave Paulson, Vietnam

How the modern world is changing the lives and languages of shrinking indigenous populations was a common theme for all three students. For Dave Paulson, that took the form of fieldwork in Vietnam, where he’d been studying the Chams. Why is this type of work so important? Because many of these extreme minority languages are fading away at an alarming pace.

“Scholars estimate that the last speaker of a language will die approximately every two weeks,” Paulson told the audience.

Today, only about 79,000 of Vietnam’s nine million people speak Cham. Fewer still can actually read and write it with full proficiency. That’s partly because Cham is extremely complex, with its written form being vastly different than its spoken form, so many Chams only learn how to read or write it rather than both.

“Some people are really committed to learning it and keeping up with it,” said Paulson. “Other people have different priorities in their life. For the most part, no one can really read and write it anymore.”

For his research project, Paulson is studying these and other complexities of Vietnam’s “linguistic marketplace.” He’s learned how Cham is “routinely devalued” in Vietnamese society, but “the implications of losing language may go well beyond how one person or how a community identifies itself.”

For example, Chams believe their people are born three times: their actual birth, their marriage and their death. When one passes, they can only be properly laid to rest through a ritual the involves the reading of scripts printed on palm leaves that are quickly deteriorating and which fewer and fewer people are able to read even if they weren’t.

“This is a long way of saying stuff matters,” concluded Paulson. “And as stuff changes, I argue that it affects the vitality of language.”

Hilary Symes, Marquesas Islands

About halfway between Australia and South America, Hilary Symes has been conducting her fieldwork in the stunningly beautiful Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia. There, she saw firsthand how locals face the “stark reality of global and environmental change.” Symes’ work examines how Polynesians on these gorgeous islands are being forced to adapt to the depletion of their local resources due to anthropologic climate change.

Like her fellow students, Symes has also made liberal use of photography in documenting local art and exploring how the art and the artists themselves have changed over time. A major focus during the eight months she’s spent on the islands has been databasing 19th-century Marquesan art. One thing she’s discovered is that much of what’s available from that time period was actually documented by German colonials, and the Polynesians are now trying to sort out what is actually traditional and what is not.

In her work, Symes found herself asking, “How are people reclaiming traditions for themselves?”

She’s been traveling back and forth from the Marquesas Islands for over a year, and her travels haven’t been without some mishaps. “I got very seasick,” she said of a five-hour boat ride from one island to another. Once, her plane even missed the runway and had to pull a U-turn which Symes described as “one of the scariest moments” of her life. What’s more, the people of the northern islands speak a slightly different dialect from those in the southern islands, with each only understanding about 70 percent of the other’s dialect.

But Symes is making it work thanks in part to social media. She posts some of her photos to Instagram, which gets her exposure and makes people want to come and meet her and talk about their experiences living in the Marquesas Islands. She’ll get a chance for more of those talks when she heads back for more fieldwork next month—hopefully on a safer flight this time!

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