A once common ethos in social anthropology has been to “go native”, namely, to try one’s best to adopt the habits, norms and lifestyles – and even the values and beliefs to the extent that it is possible – of the people one studies. While “going native” is still often regarded as a prerequisite of good ethnographic work, this trope has since been problematized in a great many ways, and its meaning has gradually changed.
Primarily, it has been noted that the anthropologist – like any other person – always carries with him/her their own social and cultural baggage, and so despite their very best efforts, that baggage is always and inevitably going to shape their understanding of a particular cultural system, phenomenon, or event. In other words, one can never entirely ‘go native’.
But although this goal of going native is clearly unattainable, the anthropologist is still expected to give it their best shot. For instance, if everyone in the village is going fishing, the anthropologist needs to get on a boat with the rest of them. If people around are fasting to commemorate a historical event, the anthropologist should do likewise. And if the general belief is that ancestral spirits cause disease, the anthropologist, upon falling ill, might be wise to consult a local healer as to what the cause of his/her specific ailment may be.
The idea is that while the great distance between people from different places and backgrounds can never be completely erased – or in other words, truly ‘becoming native’ isn’t possible – this distance can certainly be bridged to some extent. That’s what social anthropology is all about, after all. And to bridge this distance, one must actively seek ways to come to appreciate the experiences and perspectives of those one wishes to understand. If not to become them, then at least to pretend to become them for long enough to get an insight into their motivations and reason.
This issue has haunted me for some time as I was doing my fieldwork. Because while cultural traits can perhaps be partly acquired through learning a language, studying texts, engaging in specific kinds of labour, or assuming a particular social role in the community, my study does not focus on cultural differences. My study focuses on neurological differences. So what do I do? How can anyone participate in ‘being autistic?’, if they’ve not been born with that particular neurological variance? How does one adopt a form of difference, when that form of difference is embedded in the brain?
The short answer is “you can’t”, but I don’t think this matter should be resolved quite this quickly.
In my post about the film Playtime, I discussed my experience of watching the film as instrumental in my understanding of what being autistic might be like: the irritation by noise; the disorientation; the confusion; and the frequent sense of inconsistency and incoherence. It demonstrated that it was possible for a NT to perhaps get a glimpse into a neurodiverse experience.
So I began to pay more attention to these and similar sensations in my own everyday life. Take noise, for example. I used to find it very easy to block out background noises. It’s a question of attention, after all, and I simply focused mine on the sounds that were relevant. Gradually, however, while I was doing my fieldwork, I began to consciously shift my attention outwards, and effectively force myself to absorb more and more sounds from the environment; the traffic, the fridge, falling rain, anything. Gradually the world – my world – had become a rather noisy place, at least as long as I was paying attention to it. But fascinatingly, what started as an exercise, has become rather permanent – I have trained myself to become more sensitive to auditory stimuli.
The other day I was sitting in a busy restaurant in nice company, and I found it extremely difficult to concentrate on the conversation. The loud music and the constant chatter impressed so heavily on me, that I began to develop a headache. Moreover, distracted by all the noise, I couldn’t articulate myself as well as I wanted to. After a while, the loud sounds were all I could hear.
Mind you, I’m not saying “this is what being autistic feels like”. I have talked to enough autistic people to know that there is much, much more to it than this. And anyway, I doubt my auditory experience was even nearly as uncomfortable as it can be for so many people out there. Not even close, as far as I can tell.
But it’s a window, you know?
Because here is where this small discomfort led to a rather significant insight: what can I do about the fact that the noise is making me uncomfortable, ineloquent, and slightly ill? Should I excuse myself and step outside (not a huge improvement, as I have also become more sensitized to the heat and air pollution)? Should I try and share my discomfort and apologize, which may result in my being stigmatized in unexpected ways? Should I suggest that we speed up our lunch and go find some place quieter? None of these options is ideal, and each would involve some breach of social etiquette. I was trapped.
Let me be clear: I wasn’t suffering. Mostly, I was enjoying myself. It would be inexcusable of me to claim that I understood what being autistic was like at that moment. However, I could also imagine it being ten times worse. And I could imagine finding it that much more difficult to navigate the social dimensions of this event. And I could imagine the stress, even panic, of trying to assess how each of my possible choices would turn out.
No, I wasn’t “becoming native”, but I did manage to briefly pretend that I was, if only for the sake of my own education.