Making the Strange Familiar and the Familiar Strange: Stepping into the shoes of an ethnographer

Imagine you are about to set out on your first trip to do field work—where will you go? What will you study? As an anthropologist you may pick your field site for a variety of reasons. There may be a personal pull towards a specific location, or other times a particular topic may be the reason for deciding where to go. Can you imagine the space you will live for a significant time, and all of the people you will encounter? Then, fast forward. You are now back in your home town having been gone for two years and having had very little contact during your time in the field. Your family and close friends greet you at the airport and whisk you away to your favorite restaurant. Sitting over a plate of your favorite, and much missed, meal they ask you, “tell us about your trip…” How would you answer them?

I was asked to complete this imaginative exercise in my first community college anthropology course, on my first day studying cultural anthropology. I undertook this activity before even having a real sense of what anthropology was or what we do as ethnographers. As we imagined what it would look like to “report back from the field” we listed various aspects of our imagined trip—food, customs, people, where we stayed, public transit, the language we used in daily life—some of the things that collectively make up culture. They are fairly easy to conceptualize as a young anthropologist. I am by no means stating they are easy to describe, or take note of, or explore, but this exercise demonstrated to us that the things that make up our daily life are the things that constitute culture.

A few years later, having moved on to a research university, this question of how to define culture was posed to me again. I reflected back on the exercise above and developed an answer which addressed all of the facets of cultural phenomena we had discussed. Then my professor said—(roughly)—“for this class, and for me, culture is collectively the things that we take for granted”.

I sat there completely puzzled. I thought that this definition presented a very abstract vision of culture. I reflected back on the elements of what I had initially learned, and what ultimately constructed my definition of culture. I thought, how could these tangible and relatable things be taken for granted? Being unable to fully wrap my head around what he meant, I felt that I needed to disregard this definition to some extent. I moved on with my education, not giving him much credit. Yet for some reason, it stuck.

I did my first field work as an undergraduate in London, England. Before I left, as I was writing up my proposal, many people asked me what I was expecting to find—after all, living in the United Kingdom can’t be all that different from living in the U.S.! One professor even asked me if the main difference was simply going to be the cold weather in England vs. sunny San Diego. I knew London was a highly diverse city, with people visiting and relocating from all over the world. My first project sought to look at Western ideologies of love and romance, and I felt that to do that I needed not only to look at the U.S., but to look at another diverse community in the West, one which had a different history and culture than my own. My research mentor was as convinced as I that living in London was going to be an entirely new experience for me, and worthy of my first ethnographic projects. As I reflected back on my first day in cultural anthropology, never in a million years did I think my first field site would be in the illustrious metropolitan city of London.

Living in London, I quickly realized that there was much to take note of. So many aspects of daily life, people, places, and customs are different in British culture than they are in American culture. Believe it or not, within the first month of living there I actually had to re-learn how to eat. British custom is to eat with both a fork and knife in the appropriate hands for most meals. Coming from Southern California, I had been cutting most of my food with the side of my fork for as long as I could remember. This is just one minor adjustment I had to make. I also had to stop smiling at everyone walking down the street. In my home town, if you are walking around, you generally acknowledge others—but in London, people thought I was rather strange for this (and possibly thought there was something wrong with me). Lastly, my walking pace totally changed. I now walk about triple the speed I originally did in California, and now that I have returned home, my friends have told me to “slow it down” and asked me what my rush is about.

My experience living in London helped me to understand what my professor meant: culture is collectively the things we take for granted. I took for granted that I really only ever learned how to eat with a fork, that I smile and carry my positive sunny Californian attitude through the streets, and that I originally walked roughly the pace of a snail . Living in London, I missed nachos and margaritas (on one date a gentleman took me to a “Mexican restaurant” and acknowledged it must be authentic since Shakira was playing—but while the gesture it was appreciated, it was nothing that resembled Mexican food). I missed clerks talking to me in grocery stores, and having my coffee refilled at breakfast. I missed the sun—actually, I really missed the sun. All of these things are my culture, they are the things that I always took for granted, and the list could go on. The list runs deep inside of me.

For this reason, the biggest challenge for me as an ethnographer is not to research abroad. I study romantic or companionate love, courtship, attraction, monogamy, and family in the Western world. Ultimately, I hope to define various factors of relationship longevity and romantic satisfaction from a variety of perspectives all around the world—some which I hope to present in documentary film. While I could eventually write a book on companionate love in British culture, it is hard to wrap my head around writing on my own San Diego, California culture. I am fascinated by scholars like Zora Neale Hurston, who did field work in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida. How she managed to make the familiar strange enough to write about is an accomplishment worthy of high praise. I can much more easily relate to Mead and Malinowski, who did rich ethnography in unfamiliar spaces. Things worth writing about are all over the place when you are in an unfamiliar environment—but making something you experience every day worthy of ethnography is something I struggle with. I can acknowledge the things about my Southern California, American culture, that I take for granted, but once I am back in my daily routine, they once again go from being distant to being fundamental parts of my lived experience; in my spirit as an individual.

Breaking free of my comfort zone, and surrounding myself with new spaces is not only something I crave as an individual, it brings out the best of me as an ethnographer.

My biggest challenge in making the strange familiar is forcing myself out of my comfort zone. The first three months of doing my first field work were not the time in London I was hoping for. I was lonely and without many friends. I went weeks without seeing the sun. I had no clue how to navigate the city when I arrived, and had to learn everything from eating to walking all over again. Upon my second stretch of field work in the UK, I was studying romantic love and pair bonding with a broken heart. I was about as unfamiliar with my surroundings as one could possibly be. However, this state of being uncomfortable brought about rich observation, attuned listening to others, and discovery I never could have has as an ethnographer in my home town. Breaking free of my comfort zone, and surrounding myself with new spaces is not only something I crave as an individual, it brings out the best of me as an ethnographer. While others have successfully studied places of familiarity, there is something incredible about having to relearn, adjust, and accept discomfort in an space that is unfamiliar.

This experience has taught me that although a field site starts out as an unfamiliar place, it isn’t long until you start calling it home. London has become a site of semi-familiarity, where I know people, where I am positioned, and where I know how to eat and how to walk. Yet, there is so much I don’t know about it and so many questions I need to return to. Being in the field not only allowed me to do rich ethnographic research, but it changed me. What initially seemed strange became familiar over time, and I shaped my personal identity and outlook as an ethnographer as a result. One of the greatest aspects of my time in the field was discovering my own culture, and all of the things that I take for granted. ●


Megan Machamer received her Bachelor of Arts in sociocultural anthropology at The University of California, San Diego, and will be starting as a graduate student at The University of Chicago this September. Her senior honors thesis at UC San Diego examined love, migration and relationship longevity from perspectives of South Asian immigrants in London, England. In addition, Megan has done both qualitative and statistical research on love in the Western world. Her research interests include: marriage, pair bonding, companionate love, family, immigration, ideological transitions, cultural/psychological anthropology, and ethnographic film.

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