Face to face

As an anthropologist and ethnographer, I attempt to gain access to the participants’ memories in the way I would have liked to have been interviewed. 

Tatiana Diniz
10 June 2015
Women of Barcelona

I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.[1]

“Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.” (Chimamanda Adichie, TED Talk)

Edna. UNU-GCM. All rights reserved.

Edna. UNU-GCM. All rights reserved.When we think of a culture, we think in terms of difference. We consider what elements make the culture stand out or different from other cultures due to their specificities. In order to think about one’s own culture and what makes it special, it must be thought of in contrast to another. However, how can the other be known?

Years of history and of ethnographic studies of the other – at first thought of as something wild or primitive – have not been sufficient to overcome this mistrust of the stranger. Maybe we should ask ourselves why we still have this apprehension, now that we receive a wealth of data on a daily basis that saturates us with information regarding the other.

Ethnographic studies can be understood as a continuation of as well as a rupture with this status quo. On the one hand, they take up questions that social groups put forward in order to discuss the existence of other ways of life. On the other hand, these studies try to break with the colonial imagination and to offer a method which allows for the study of material cultures and the symbolism of groups of ‘other human-beings’.

Today we look for a balance between ‘otherness’ and a means to overcome it.  What is required is the creation of a gaze not colonial or colonized, a vision that is rarely visible, but that constantly looks for a focus. Yet it is a continually changing vision due to the migration flows symptomatic of late modernity. It is not solely individuals who migrate, but also ideas, values, wishes, aspirations, concepts and ways of life.

With these thoughts as a starting point, this research project set out to portray the large contribution made by the outlooks, diversity, culture and collective humanity of immigrant women who are resident in Barcelona.

The role of the researcher in such a project is to foreground the stories of 16 female migrants and create a representation of the metropolitan mix that lends texture to this city. Interviews were conducted over the course of six months to gain an insight into the personal and collective lives of the participants, and to illustrate the variety of people that make Barcelona the most multicultural city in Catalonia.

Ethnography demands a complete immersion of the researcher into the culture and the daily life of the people being studied, whilst also leaving sufficient distance to allow for observation and analysis. Through a number of meetings, 16 women opened the doors to their homes, work, pastimes, anxieties, and experiences of migration. Through recorded audio interviews, they told their stories of frustration, conquests, fears, courage, achievements, losses and successes.

The voluntary participants came from different countries across the world: Argentina, Cambodia, China, Colombia, Cuba, India, Italy, Finland, France, Morocco, Mozambique, Pakistan, Spain (Seville), the Philippines, Senegal and Venezuela. They are first generation female migrants of different ethnicities, ages, social class, levels of education, professions and personal histories. The most important research requirement in conducting the interviews was to maintain ethical, conceptual and methodological rigour, alongside any requests for confidentiality by the women involved. Only the information they were happy to share was used.

The first search for participants was carried out through a selection of NGOs located in Barcelona that concentrate their work on migration and gender. Eighty emails were sent out explaining the project. A pre-selection was then made. We also approached organizations that collaborate with the host, UNU-GCM, and sought out subjects by word of mouth. The ethnographic study consisted of two (or more) meetings with each woman and was audio recorded.

Topics ranged from reasons for leaving home, from financial difficulties to academic ambition or health reasons; the crossing of borders; memories of their first days; the feeling of 'now I belong'; the reconstruction of home and of a new identity; overlaps between home and work in a new city; memories of here and now; a change in values and perspectives; and reformulating one’s identity in the city. Space was created to let each participant explore these concepts: photography and oral histories helped us to trace the processes of identity.

Self-discovery was a key theme that the subjects said they had experienced. The participants were encouraged to share their feelings and points of view. The stories of the interviewees revealed that they had changed, not so much in spirit, as in their perception of themselves as agents of their own future.

I am Brazilian and I have been living in Barcelona for eight years. Personally, I feel my position as a female immigrant was crucial to gaining a deeper understanding of the stories of the participants. Although these women arrived in Barcelona with different histories from my own, I was able to connect to the stories they told, simply because of the feelings of belonging to two places at the same time.

This ethnographic experience has also served as a journey of self-discovery. Whilst the women were thinking of how to answer my questions, I thought about my personal experience, identifying myself with them on various levels. As an anthropologist and ethnographer, I attempt to gain access to the participants’ memories in the way I would have liked to have been interviewed, had it been me with a microphone attached to my shirt.

I believe there was not a moment during the conversations where there was a feeling of superiority on either side. The questions arose naturally, silences were respected and the topics changed effortlessly. Being a female immigrant generated a certain level of empathy that went beyond cliché, and allowed for stronger connections and maybe a higher ethical motivation to be maintained throughout the interview process.

I consider ethnography to be a form of research that allows for the study of circumstances, stories and discussions that situate social imaginaries, which are symbolic of individuals and societies. A social objective is created and a conscious relationship is established between the observer and the observed. Most importantly, contemporary everyday life is the object of study.

The collection and translation of oral histories, from an anthropologist’s standpoint, can be considered as a method of reconstruction of an historic past. The life stories in this study depict the growth of the subjects within their various cultural contexts. Oral history allows us to reconstruct events that are part of the heritage of a given society. They assist in forming perspectives on collective experience. An historical interest is forged, as it is based around the experience of collectives.

This study reveals that women want a “room of their own”, where they feel at home, can act as individuals, and have their work and stories recorded in history. They are no longer anonymous, as has occurred with women in the course of past centuries. Instead, they are actors and authors of their own history. A story signed with their own hand, name and surname. 

[1] Virginia Woolf, in A room of one’s own, 1929

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