1991 Working Papers #6: “Taking Time and Proceeding with Caution: Time and Process in a Cambodian Life History Documentation Project”

This paper discusses the process of ethnographic research and some reasons it might not go as smoothly as researchers or funders have planned. The paper’s orientation is from that of a folklorist, but some of the cautionary matter may apply as well to oral historians and others involved in multicultural projects. The research was to conduct 15-20 life historical interviews within 7 months in 1990-91 to document life histories and life cycle rituals in the Cambodian community in Philadelphia. Although several Cambodians were contacted and provided information, only two interviews were conducted during this time. The report covers four areas that had a significant impact on the success or failure of this project and may affect other multicultural projects in general: (1) time: It takes time to understand a new culture; also, people have other things going on in their lives; (2) language: When using translators, interviews became more complex; non-verbal forms of communication are important to understand; (3) gender: When gender relations are constructed differently it affects the interview process; and (4) politics: The varying political opinions of the Cambodians in the U.S. affect the relationship between interviewer and interviewee and construction of the oral narrative. These topics should be given more attention when ethnographers evaluate their work. Ten notes contain approximately 13 references.

William Westerman