Figuring Out What Counts by Alma Gottlieb

My friend, the widely published anthropologist Alma Gottlieb, posted this fascinating piece in response to my musings about whether or not I could count going out to lunch as part of a creative process. It was written on an analogous question, but in the more rigorous (than poetry!) field of anthropology.


Figuring out “what counts” (for what, and when) is the major challenge of all our lives! Here’s something I wrote recently on a very similar question (about a new research project working with Cape Verdeans in Lisbon)–with a very ambiguous ending . . . Like you, I wasn’t ready to commit to an answer!

“Although I grew up in New York and considered myself a ‘city girl,’ doing ethnography in a European metropolis often left me breathless. For my first few months in Lisbon, I wasn’t even sure if, or when, I’d actually ‘started fieldwork.’ In recent years, a growing number of cultural anthropologists have pondered their own version of such ‘Where does “the field” start and end?” conundrums, and I had even taught some key texts on the theme. But reading and teaching articles, and living their lessons, were two entirely different endeavors—as countless generations of students and scholars before me have well known. Did learning to find my way through the metros and buses of a new city constitute ‘ethnography’? Or figuring out which pronoun to use (or not use) when greeting people? What about knowing when to predict that the car speeding up the hill was likely to screech to an unlikely stop at the crosswalk, rather than run me over?

And then there were the evenings. Just two weeks into our thirteen-month stay in Lisbon, Philip and I celebrated our thirtieth wedding anniversary by going to a concert by the great Cape Verdean musician Tito Paris, who lives in Lisbon and was playing at a downtown club. Could I claim our anniversary celebration as the official beginning of my project, or was that personal ritual too intimate to share the discursive space we call ‘research’?”

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