Why Research is Powerful.
Importantly, research is only as good or strong as the contextual description it relies upon. Set against a poorly researched description of contributing factors, any study becomes too weak to stand on its conclusions. For example, in the picture above, there appears to be someone in jeans standing on the left. However, when brought into its full context, we can see there is really only one person (me) in the picture (below), standing instead on the right.
Building Contextualized Research is Not Easy.
Even so, developing richly contextualized inquiry is not easy. But here's how I did it in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (2010-2011) to support my research on social identity and language policy in the teaching of Swahili to non-Africans on study abroad in Tanzania from the Austria, China, Libya, Japan, South Korea, and the U.S.
In my experience, there were there main principles at the core of my fieldwork that assisted me with building context for the study:
(1) Participation and friendship.
(2) Interpersonal communication.
(3) Openness and adaptability.
In this post, I'll address the first of these: Participation and friendship.
Participation and Friendship: A Visit to a Tailor Shop.
Visits to a tailor shop or fundi allowed for increased conversation with these amazing fashionistas. I felt like I could be on the set of Project Runway Tanzania, sitting among some 3-4 seamstresses and seamsters that could take your requests and dream up new dresses, pants, and suits from thin air and thread in every color. Suddenly, a customer would come by who had ordered a blouse or skirt ages ago, and was now in need of picking up their order. All the shop activity would come a halt--conversations, too--and everyone would pull together to get the order done, right down to the wire.
As we sewed, our friendship became a two-way site of intercultural learning and exchange. On days with power rationing, no electricity meant no electric sewing machines or fans. My eyes blurry from my sweaty brow, I learned to silently put up with the heat and humidity like the professional tailors around me, and just deal with it. That's what they would do, and just mop their foreheads throughout the day. Hanging with them toughened me up a bit, because I could see how they all moved past it, since it wasn't anything they could control.
My seamstress-designer friend helped me see the outdoor market (where the shop was located) in a different way, from within the shop. Seated behind a sewing machine, I had a different vantage point, than as a customer walking the dirt paths between shops. I could begin to see how neighboring shopkeepers supported each other, and how the market was actually more like a mall, with organized rows of shops hosting prepared food for sale, electronics, or fresh vegetables, meats, and seafood. Sometimes a teenage boy would come by, bearing a message for the shop owner, gesturing and humming to deliver the full message. My friend explained to me that he was mute. Being unable to speak, I could see the boy found other ways to communicate, and that no one ridiculed him for it.
As a result of this time I spent at the shop, and my friend's generosity, my perspective was made larger on the role of language use in Dar es Salaam life. In exchange, she wanted to learn English from me, and know more about the U.S., and the life of African Americans. We would laugh about what we'd hear on the radio, or the happenings of the day, and she would show me how to sew on a button or a zipper. Some days, she would pull together scrap fabric to allow me experiment machine stitching, and point out where my stitches were completely haywire, or where I was actually improving.
Several months later, when I eventually returned home to the U.S., I made sure to send back to her and the shop, by way of a friend traveling to Dar es Salaam, several pairs of new, sharp sewing scissors, so that they could remember our friendship and know that I appreciated and valued our exchange.