The Ups and Downs of Fieldwork – A Personal “Dispatch From the Field”

– by Nicole Hess

[Communication Officer’s Note: Readers of Evolution & Human Behavior are used to reading the results of fieldwork when the papers get published. However, unless they themselves are field researchers, readers of E&HB may not be as familiar with the *process* of fieldwork and what it’s like to collect such data (I count myself in this category). This blog entry is a personal account of the fieldwork process for one of the papers in the recent special issue on “Dispatches From the Field”. It highlights some of challenges and joys of fieldwork and of adapting protocols from MTurk into the field. Of course, every field site is unique, so anthropologists’ experiences will vary as much do the cultures they study – this is just one illustrative experience. The paper described herein is: Hess, NH, & Hagen, EH (2023). The impact of gossip, reputation, and context on resource transfers among Aka hunter-gatherers, Ngandu horticulturalists, and MTurkers. Evolution and Human Behavior, 44(5), 442-453.]

In the summer of 2012, when our daughters were 2 and 6, my spouse was preparing to head to the Central African Republic (CAR) to continue his fieldwork on recreational drug use by Aka hunter-gatherers. This was his 3rd or 4th trip, and I would be staying home (again) with our young children. I also have a PhD in Anthropology, so as he applied for visas and secured research materials, I wondered if I could join to work with one of the few foraging groups left in the world, the Aka, and revitalize my evolutionary psychological research on gossip as reputational competition. My teaching responsibilities would not be disrupted, because we’d be back just before our university’s fall term started.

We could not take our young children to the field for safety reasons, mainly the high child mortality rate (5 children in the village died during our field season). Inconveniences included limited dietary options and a lack running water or electricity for cooking or personal use. We were fortunate to have reliable grandparents and great-grandparents two states away who were willing to help, and a satellite phone to call twice a week. My matriline agreed to do most of our girls’ caretaking, and my paternal grandparents (who were approaching their 90s) agreed to give them breaks by taking the girls for a day at a time over the month that we would be in Africa.

It is harder to make last-minute changes to fieldwork than lab work due to additional health, governmental, and logistical challenges. We adjusted our travel dates, applied for my visa, and added my name to research permit applications that were about to be processed by the CAR government. I took the risk of getting several vaccines at once so that all the immunities would be in effect by the time we arrived in CAR. We got all that in order, flew to Los Angeles to drop our girls off with my mother, got right back on a plane to Paris for a connecting flight to Bangui (CAR’s capital) for our permits, food, gasoline, and gifts for our hosts such as soap and medicines (aspirin, antiseptics, bandages), and finally drove to our field site; that’s over 48 hours of flights, connections, and driving.

We arrived in the Ngandu village of Bagandou, CAR in late July. The Ngandu are small-scale horticulturalists growing manioc, corn, plantains, and other crops in extensive gardens surrounding the village. They have some market integration, with families producing some cash crops, like coffee for sale outside of the village. Ngandu also trade their crops, money, and small gifts like salt and tobacco with the Aka for net-hunted small game and labor (e.g., Aka work in Ngandu gardens for manioc).

We happened to arrive in Bagandou in the middle of caterpillar season, a short period when most Aka are focused on moving far and wide in the forest to collect caterpillars to use as food. Caterpillars are consuming plant matter prior to metamorphosis into moths and butterflies; they literally rain from the trees as they feast. Caterpillar season had come unusually early this year, so we had to put our primary study, which involved reputation and access to resources, on hold because most adult Aka were not accessible. We decided to run our secondary study first, working with Ngandu participants to replicate an MTurk experiment we’d run earlier.

The MTurk resource allocation experiment involved participants being exposed to stimuli including a vignette with a fictional target individual, followed by several negative vs. positive and relevant vs. irrelevant gossip statements about the target. Participants indicated their opinions of the target, as well as their likelihood of allocating a valuable resource to the target.

The MTurk experiment used stimuli suitable to a WEIRD population. To run it with the Ngandu, we had to create new vignettes, gossip content, and dependent measures that were consistent with Ngandu culture. Initially I created vignettes involving witchcraft, as this is a common precursor to gossip in Ngandu daily life. For example, witchcraft accusations often involve jealousy over accumulations of material wealth. But our Ngandu research assistants quickly vetoed those vignettes, sternly warning us to “never talk about witchcraft” because witchcraft and witchcraft accusations led to serious consequences. They provided several accounts of witchcraft that resulted in painful losses, dangerous behavior, illness, and even death. So we brainstormed for several days with our field assistants, developing vignettes, gossip statements, and dependent measures. The Ngandu value a reputation for generosity, and resource transfers among paternal and maternal relatives are routine. With this in mind, our assistants helped us develop vignettes that reflected common local experiences: inheriting valued items and sharing them with family, and also hiring Aka laborers with whom they often shared gifts like clothing. Our assistants also helped us generate several gossip statements that were to be manipulated. To check the validity of the statements, we recruited dozens of locals to evaluate the negativity and positivity of each statement. So just adapting our stimuli to the local context took an immense amount of work – and we hadn’t even started the actual experiment!

We shared many laughs with our assistants about what kinds of behaviors were associated with “good” and “bad” reputations in our cultures. Some behaviors they viewed as important were not ones we expected; other behaviors that we thought would surely be “good” and “bad” were insignificant to the Ngandu. They told us gripping stories about encounters lions, hippos, crocodiles, and apes; we told them that, where we were from, movies and amusement parks exposed people to such animals as a form of entertainment. They laughed in disbelief at my description of the “Jungle Cruise” ride at Disneyland—and when I convinced them it really existed (with fake animals), and was an experience for which people paid a lot of money, they asked “why would you want to scare a child with this?”.

Once the study was designed, I got to work putting the materials together to present to participants, which was another challenge in the field context. We couldn’t collect data on laptops because of the limited electricity, so I cut uniform 2×6 inch strips of paper out of a flimsy, lined cahier (notebook) from the tiny local market, and neatly hand-wrote our experimental stimuli on them. Then, making good use of my packing tape, I laminated each slip, front and back. The gossip statements written on the slips were to be used hundreds of times in different random combinations for our between-subjects design, so they needed to be sturdy. I made one set in English, and one in French.

Then there was the actual running of the study. We needed translators to present our stimuli to participants who spoke the Ngandu language (diNgandu) or Sango, the main language in CAR. Not all of our research assistants spoke English, so in running our experiment, my spouse/coauthor worked with a translator who spoke diNgandu, Sango, and English, and I worked with one who spoke diNgandu, Sango, and French – some of which I thankfully still remembered from 25 years ago. With the help of our tireless translators, we were able to efficiently run our Ngandu experiment with enough participants to fill our conditions. We found that hearing more positive gossip relative to negative gossip led to a higher likelihood of giving the benefit. And, when gossip content was relevant the context of the competition (family or work), the effect was stronger.

Surprisingly, we still had about a week left before our flight home (only one plane left Bangui for Paris each week, and we could not miss it). We decided to attempt to run our Aka study. By this time, caterpillar season was coming to a close, and the Aka were returning to their camps which were located along trails that radiated from Bagandou into the forest. One of our research assistants who also spoke diAka helped us run this study with adult Aka participants from camps along 2 trails. This study involved non-experimental methods where participants peer-rated one another in response to a small number of questions related to reputation and access to resources (along with age, sex, and relatedness). We investigated the relationships between participants’ peer-rated contributions to their group, reputations, costs imposed on the group, and receipt of benefits from the group. Unlike typical groups of adults in the US, such as co-workers, the Aka in our study had lifelong relationships with each other, and many were biological kin. Aka results showed that contributions to family and community were associated with a good reputation, which in turn was associated with receiving benefits.

Although there were many challenges, this field experience was not just fruitful, but enjoyable. I had been expecting a physically uncomfortable site with hard-to-access participants, where language barriers would limit my ability to study gossip. But the living conditions and climate were pleasant, and language, thanks to our competent and enthusiastic assistants, was no problem at all. Members of the communities were warm, authentic, and willing to share themselves and their cultures with us, and they were curious about what we were up to; this made data collection breezy and gratifying. We wanted to return to CAR soon.

Unfortunately, a few months after these studies, CAR plunged into a civil war that is still ongoing. We get infrequent updates from our research assistants about their lives and the local political climate. Diamonds and gold were discovered in the region around the time we were there, and jobs for men in mining (a dangerous venture that can result in windfalls, but also injuries and death) dramatically increased cash flowing into Bagandou. Beyond disruptions due to civil war and dangerous mining practices, interest from international mining groups in diamonds and gold are increasingly impacting in the region. We have not been able to return in over 10 years.

Read the published paper described in this blog: Hess, NH, & Hagen, EH (2023). The impact of gossip, reputation, and context on resource transfers among Aka hunter-gatherers, Ngandu horticulturalists, and MTurkers. Evolution and Human Behavior, 44(5), 442-453.