Blog | October 2009

On research and festivities

by Franziska Meissner


Now I could write about an ordinary day in the office, but whilst at times it is amusing to watch my office mate make faces at his computer screen, it is really the weekends when research gets exciting. Ok, I am not referring to those weekends when I sneak into the office, in a rather frantic attempt to meet the impossible deadline I had set myself (I am just at the beginning of my PhD research, so I am hoping that by the time I get around to chapter 5, I might have more of an idea of how long writing really takes). No, I am referring to those weekends that happen once in a while, when being a researcher means going to ‘the field’.

In my research I focus on the social networks of Pacific Islanders living in London and Toronto. The one problem with this research topic is that there aren’t very many Pacific Islanders living in London or Toronto (the sheer paucity of numbers is at the heart of my research question surrounding social networks among small groups of migrants). After asking pretty much all the people I know in London (and for that matter most of the people I know) whether they in turn know any Pacific Islanders living in the city and getting the answer ‘Who?’ a surprising number of times, I decided that it was time to extend my search for opportunities to learn about Pacific Islanders beyond London or Toronto. This has recently taken me to the Samoa Festival at Silbersee, a small lake bang in the middle of Germany.

The festival, which started on a Friday evening with drinks and people arriving from as far away as Sweden, continued late into the evening on Saturday, culminating in a disco where festival goers and village youth danced in front of the setting sun. Now you may wonder which part of this weekend excursion was the most fruitful with regard to my own research and I would have to say that beyond making contacts (curiously I met the cousin of one of my Pacific contacts from Brighton) observation was the most important part of these two days. It is funny sometimes how looking in the most unexpected places can reveal the most interesting insights about your own research (given that my repertoire of research findings for this project is still limited) and how simply observing the things going on around you for two days can sometimes be worth more than two weeks or more of reading. Although I should say that two days of reading can sometimes be worth more than two weeks of observation as well.

So, I set out one Friday after working in the office to go out into the ‘field’, as anthropologists like to call it. After a one and a half hour drive, including of getting lost and roaming a number of country roads before getting to the right intersection, I found myself in this little resurrection of a Samoan Island (maybe I am exaggerating: the sun was shining but the island feeling was all due to the people, since the lake -- pretty though it was -- could not quite resemble sandy beaches framed by palm trees, but I digress…). Friday evening was in many ways like the quiet before the storm. I arrived as an outsider and took to chatting with the organisers of the festival, with whom I had been in contact before. As I was told about the history of the Samoa festival and how it has grown out of the initiative of a few core people, I observed how everyone around me seemed to be returning to a space where people knew each other, regardless of the actual place we were in. Preparations for the following day got underway and, drinking ‘Becks Pilsner’, the Samoans and -- as I had expected -- also some Tongans, Fijians and other Pacific Islanders with their spouses (many of whom are German) settled down at the tables to catch up on their kids and life in general.

The following day was packed with events and in many ways a display of cultural heritage to those bystanders interested in finding out about Samoan culture but also for all the participants and Pacific Islanders who had travelled to Silbersee for that day. There was a lot of dancing, good dancing, with the main act being a French group from the Wallis and Fortuna Islands. There also was food -- a lot of food -- specially prepared and including two pigs cooked in a traditional umu oven (see picture). All in all it was a spread: there was a cava ceremony in honour of a special guest, the Samoan High Commissioner, speeches and a routine prayer. Again I found observation intriguing: the groups of mixed background dancers getting ready for their performances; the way friends who hadn’t seen each other in some time were standing at the fringes of the action and talking to each other, only to disperse into the hustle and bustle and then return in different configurations of conversation partners. In many ways the interactions were similar to those of the day before, just that there was a very interesting programme going on in the middle of the scene. All day long, while talking to people and learning a few stories of why people were attending the festival, I could not stop but wonder: what should I expect to find with my own research concerning the specificity of locality, the draw of the super-diverse city and the role of day-to-day social networks? Based on these specially arranged meetings and festivals (the Samoa festival being just one of a number of festivities taking place throughout each summer) how does socialising differ when everyone has returned to the respective cities, towns or villages where each of them lives (only few of the Pacific Islanders I talked to seemed to based in the same location)? I could not help but think that the festival in some regards was a space for ‘re-union’, which seems to support my notion that those day-to-day post-migration networks are more locally bound with a pinch (or more) of transnational connections. I guess I will only be able to grasp the particularities of these once I get going with my main research ... but the story of how I went to the Samoa Festival to learn about, observe, and meet Pacific Islanders living in Europe will continue to stay at the back of my mind.


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