In order to be able to work with the iron-smelters without overriding the ethical boundaries or cultural sensitivity, I adopted a different methodology. In the first few days of fieldwork, I was visiting the village in the car of a local academic who had kindly offered to drive me around. I realized that car is an index of social prestige and economic and political power, and is often identified with rare visits of politicians, ministers, assessors, surveyors or other government officials. Apart from the issue with paperwork, this was also affecting the way the iron-smelters perceived and interacted with me. In their eyes I belonged to the privileged class capable of exercising more power and authority over them. My non-local origin, my broken Telugu, and my current social standing as an academic educated abroad also added more complexity to the way my identity was created and perceived by the local rural community. It was my responsibility then to narrow down the gap in power hierarchy and change their perception as much as possible.
As a result, I hired a friend who is a native speaker of the local dialect of Telugu, as my interpreter. We then rented a motorbike, a common form of transport used by the locals in the region, to go about my fieldwork. Whenever we visited these communities, we made it a point not to go straight into the research topic. And we never mentioned the “Consent Form”. We started our conversation introducing ourselves, over a cup of tea or fresh milk offered to us. Although most of them insisted that we sit on chairs as they squatted on the floor, we made it a point to sit with them in the same level and maintain eye contact as we speak. We would gradually ease into the topic of our research, asking for oral consents about taking field notes and pictures. It was essential for them to feel comfortable and respected in our presence and it was important to tell them that we are grateful for their support in helping us understand their past. There were occasions when we were asked to leave, or requested not to take photographs, and we obliged immediately without forcing to stand our ground.
A common question that my interlocutors often asked was how they would gain from helping me do this research. This was their genuine concern that needed to be addressed in a thoughtful way. The automatic instinct in this case is to give money to the poor interlocutors as an expression of our gratitude. But that may not be the right course of action. The impersonal act of giving money places the ethnographers in a dominant position of power widening the gap between them and their interlocutors. It also belittles rather than gratifies the interlocutors’ genuine enthusiasm to share information about their lives. The authenticity of ethnographic information purchased for money can also be highly questionable as the communities can come up with a standard narrative of what the researcher wants to hear. This was the case in at least one village in my study area where a few years earlier someone shelled out large sums of money to get information on smelting from the local community.
In the case of my interlocutors, they were happy to know that the stories of their lives and crafts will be available for an international audience when published. They also often asked me to send them their pictures that I took during my fieldwork. Each time I visited them, I asked if they needed anything from the town I was living in, and I bought what they required. When I worked with the local blacksmiths, I normally purchased iron implements from them for my rented apartment. I have also collected a number of smelter family genealogies, which I intend to print and send to the respective families, so that these can be used to perpetuate the knowledge of family histories. My interlocutors never asked me for money, and they appreciated the personal nature of my gifts that created a lasting relationship with the community.
Post Script: Prior permission is taken from those for using their pictures and information in this post.