Blog | August 2010

Ties that bind: the emotional entanglements of ethnography

by Justine Buck Quijada


I first met Bair Zhambalovich in Ulan Ude in 2004. He is the Director of the shaman’s organization with whom I worked as part of my dissertation research. Ulan Ude is the capital city of the Republic of Buryatia, part of the Russian Federation. Buryats are an ethnic group, closely related to Mongolians, who, for the most part, live in the area around Lake Baikal in south-central Siberia. Their territory was incorporated into Russia four hundred years ago, and most Buryats living on the eastern shores of Lake Baikal have been Buddhists for about the same length of time. But many, if not most, have also continued to practice pre-Buddhist rituals that have come to be called ‘shamanism’. Bair, like many Buryats, has a graduate degree from a Russian university, but he also has a calling from his ancestors to become a shaman. He has a vision of an organization that can educate young Buryats about practices that were forced underground and forgotten during the Soviet years. He and his students believe that Buryats cannot be happy and healthy if they do not maintain relationships with their ancestors, and have access to ‘traditional’ forms of healing. He knows that shamanism is not ‘traditionally’ an organized religion, but he believes that if these practices are to survive and become relevant again, they will have to take institutional form. Part of the organization’s mission is to collaborate with scientists, and it is due to this commitment that Bair welcomed my presence.

In April I visited him in Berlin. He was there to give a seminar on Buryat shamanism. He and his wife, who works as his assistant, divided their time between sightseeing and seeing patients, many of them Russian émigrés living in Germany. Berlin seems like a world away from Buryatia, and it has been several years since I've seen Bair, but as soon as the door to the apartment opened, the familiar scent of incense closed the distance. Buryat shamans smell like aian ganga, a type of wild thyme that is burnt during ceremonies, no matter where in the world they are working.

We talked, catching up on news of shared friends and acquaintances: babies born and initiations passed since I had been in the field. I gave him a copy of my dissertation, my own initiation, successfully passed. His English is not good enough to read it, but he looked carefully at all the pictures. “I hope you approve,” I said, “A lot of it is about you.” “It's good” he said, “so that people learn our name.” I am humbled by the trust he places in me, pronouncing it good, unread. But maybe it is just that no publicity is bad publicity. Bair Zhambalovich has plans for his organization. When I was in Ulan-Ude, they rented office space in the center of the city. Now they have their own land, on which they can hold ceremonies, and on which they are building a large shamanic complex. He showed me photos on his laptop, and architect's schematics. The work is going slowly, he explained. The financial crisis has affected the number of donations they receive. “Someday,” he said, “we will have a grand opening of the central temple, attended by foreign scholars. I hope you will come.” “I wouldn't miss it.” I assure him.

Recently, at a linguistics workshop here at the Institute, we discussed how reality is 'co-constructed' through interactions. Co-construction means that as we talk to each other, we make claims about the world, and our interlocutors accept, deny or misinterpret these claims as they respond. Through this give and take, a shared world is produced. As I talked to Bair, I was struck by how ethnography is a perfect example of co-construction. I am hardly the first ethnographer to point this out, but I think it is important enough to bear repeating. ‘Co-construction’ is such a dry and mechanical word for a process that is infused with emotions, expectations and obligations. We need each other, Bair and I. More than that, we produce each other. I need his tolerance of my presence, his patience with my questions, and above all, his approval, in order to do any work at all with his organization. My career as an ethnographer rests, to a large part, on the cooperation of Bair and people like him. I need him more than he needs me. He will be a shaman regardless of my presence. But he needs me too, at least a little. My presence legitimates him. Books and articles published about him will strengthen his authority as 'the real thing,' and scholarly authority is very valuable capital when you are trying to rebuild religious practices that were pushed underground, silenced and erased during decades of Soviet atheism. But is the legitimation I provide enough to repay the debt I have incurred? In Ulan Ude I am a foreign researcher, and this has a certain cache. Back home, I am one post-doc in a huge academic field, a person of little power, struggling to publish something, anything, and I am grateful that Bair seems to understand that. But is it enough that we both enjoy the conversation?

Through that conversation, we co-construct each other. My listening ears and scribbling pencil produce him as an expert, an authority, someone whose words are worth recording. At the same time, the act of talking to me produces me as an ethnographer, someone worth telling your words to. I don't think co-construction somehow “taints the data” as if there were some pristine reality that we, as ethnographers merely record. We are part of the world we study. Nor is it merely navel-gazing about how my encounter with him has changed me, or how my own subject position affects my ability to understand him, although these are both undoubtedly true. Being part of the world we study means we are enmeshed in it emotionally and ethically. I like Bair. I enjoy the discussions we have, and he would not waste his time if he didn’t too, at least a little. The co-construction of ethnography is not commodity exchange, but a Maussian gift, a relationship where what we give is infused with something of ourselves, and the relationship is sustained by the fact that I, at least, will never be completely absolved of my debt. Back home, writing and working, my professional and familial obligations are more immediate – lectures to attend, deadlines to meet, drafts to write and dinner to prepare. My relationships from the field make no immediate demands on me. But because they demand nothing, I have not yet returned the gift, and they stay with me, like the scent of aian ganga clinging to my clothes.


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