Anxieties of instrumentalism in fieldwork relations

From “On Sentimental Education among College Students,” by Portia Sabin, one of the only other anthropologists of universities to have done her dissertation in this field (most such anthropologists started studying universities once they already had tenure):

I went to Kat’s room to ask her something and found her on the phone and her friend Laura sitting on her couch bed. It appeared from Kat’s tone that something was wrong. I talked to Laura for a minute, and when Kat got off the phone I asked her what was the matter. She told me to sit down. Then she said, “Are you just going to use this for your study?” I asked her what she meant. She said, “You like me, right? You’re my friend, right?”

Portia, who seems to have since quit academia to become the president of a small record company, goes on to talk about how colleges are places where one is “caught,” involuntarily, in relations of sentiment with others. And not just sentiment, but sentimental education: taught how to feel. And taught how to appropriately display one’s feelings. It’s a great essay about the normativity of love and its far from voluntary imposition by “friends.”

But being “friends,” Portia points out, is equally a normative category, supposed, at least by Kat in the above example, to entail liking and affection beyond merely instrumental desires (such as the desire to acquire field data). Certainly this tension between sociality and instrumentality is something that makes me anxious periodically, when I meet people who are, for lack of better words, both awesome and ethnographically interesting. Not because I envision myself, as Portia did, as someone who might manage to stay clear of local friendships and just do the work, but for the opposite reason: because I am happy to make friends with other French academics, but as a result it then feels nonnormative to still be an ethnographer.

I’m not the only to have these anxieties, of course; people I meet are also worried at times about their unclear sense of being ethnographically “watched.” For instance, I do get jokes about being a “spy” with some frequency, but usually it doesn’t greatly interrupt normal social life, as far as I can tell. And unlike Portia, I haven’t encountered the normative discourse about being “friends” here so much. In informal social interaction, in public places where people come and go, it’s possible to pass more or less as a new and somewhat unmarked participant. Not that anything is therefore unproblematic, and I’m definitely not trying to go undercover, but so far, anxieties about instrumentalism haven’t become a major topic of conversation. We’ll see later about what kinds of friendship become normative… of course, it’s not only friendship and informality that are normative; people also have normative ideas about what it means to be an ethnographer or a “research subject,” and it’s interesting too to see what kinds of norms are applied to my presence as ethnographer. Ethnography of academic life, it seems, involves inevitable tensions between contradictory norms and expectations, between normative sociable informality and normative anxiety about being observed, between wanting to pass under the radar and wanting to get outside attention.

Instrumentalism isn’t a risk particular to ethnographers, of course. It can crop up even in regular academic relationships. That’s certainly my experience in American academia – there’s always the threat of having, or not having, careerist relationships. And such risks appear to exist here too, to judge by their dramatization in a quip I heard here, something like this:

Person A (seriously): Person C has a huge network, he keeps in touch with everyone, it’s admirable.
Person B (joking): So you’re saying that he keeps in touch even with people who aren’t professionally useful?
Person A laughs.

The joke being, I take it, that it’s admirable to rise above the bounds of narrow self-interest in one’s social relations…