Address to Convocation
Dr. Robert PaineTuesday, May 26, 10 a.m.
Mr. Chancellor, Mr. President, members of the Senate and fellow graduates: first my astonishment … I’m standing up here honoured , and still upright! Thank you.
The account our esteemed University Orator just gave of my professional life is not quite how I have seen it! Here let me evoke one of our engaging Newfoundland place names: “Come By Chance” and with that begins another story: when a chance is coming one’s way, life is open to a choice – take the chance or not? It is this chance-choice interplay that catches, for me, much about my life as an anthropologist.
Now before venturing further, I want to congratulate each and every one of you who graduated today. You’ve completed one phase of your lives, but life moves on --betwixt chance and choice?--and in relating episodes from my life I hope to engage you in yours.
The year is 1950; a friend and I are in the King’s Arms in Oxford. Aware that our undergraduate days are drawing to a close, we ‘re discussing once again what our futures could hold after three ‘unreal’ years as undergraduates preceded by three ‘real’ years in the armed forces? Returning to college after the pub closed, we open the University Calendar –perhaps we could extend our time here by enrolling in a post-graduate degree? When we see the course calendar for “Anthropology,” we say, practically in unison, “but those are some of the very things we’ve been talking about, on and off, in our own fashion! “ Here is a chance!
I’m accepted into the anthropology graduate school.
Now much of the allure of anthropology –indeed much of its raison d’etre — lies in the field research, and a year later finds me onboard an English trawler on its way to Norway. No, it isn’t the fishermen that are to be the subject of my field research. I am just hitching a lift over to Norway! What I have in mind is a study of Saami (“Lapp”) reindeer nomads. Well, I find a camp but it‘s the month of July –-the season of mosquitoes and tourists. All the men are away in the hills – calf marking; the children accept my chocolate bribes; the women throw me out.
A dashed “chance”? Yes. Actually my original choice for fieldwork was the “Eskimos” -- as we called the Inuit in those backward days. But for that one needs a research grant and to get one, some evidence of research competence was necessary: that’s what I hoped my time with the Saami would provide.
Thrown out of that camp, I am determined not to give up. Forget the “Eskimos”! I’m going to find another pastoral Saami camp. But that doesn’t happen the next day.
No. Aside from a necessary semester back at university, the next 18 months find me in a Norwegian-assimilated Saami fishing village , where I learn -- the daily language is Norwegian--how to live in the field while doing research: I place myself on the local labour market as a cheap bargain -- cutting peat, wooding, haymaking, etc..
Then in January 1953 I find my way to a Saami village on the tundra frequented by reindeer pastoralists. I am lodging with Rist Anti, a Saami pensioner, who is helping me in speaking Saami, and then … who knows? The opportunity comes sooner rather than later: one afternoon , there’s a visit from a pastoralist – Pers Nigga.
There are only two chairs in the kitchen, I surrender mine to Pers Nigga and sit on the floor. The gist of the conversation, as I catch it, is that Pers Nigga is now without a herdsboy; to my astonishment and delight Rist Anti suggests that he take on me! We quickly come to an agreement: I’ll work for him in return for food and clothing and a spot of pocket money for cigarettes and beer. I am with Pers Nigga until October; it is the nagging matter of acquiring a doctorate that brings me back to the coastal village and thence to Oxford with a backpack of fieldnotes. So my pastoral experience is put on hold for a while.
But when I do return to it, it is not to the adventure of being a herdsboy in a pastoral camp –with its inevitable measure of charade and make-belief -- but as a responsible ethnographer. By this time I have a research grant and I pay for my keep; the intention is to write a full account of pastoral life and herd management, and in that undertaking I have the full cooperation of another pastoralist, Ellon Ailu, whose camp I’ve just joined and whose concern is that I get things right.
Another come-by-chance episode is my arrival here, at Memorial, in 1965.
That summer Mose(s) Morgan, then Dean of Arts, phones me in Norway: they are looking for a Head of Anthropology & Sociology (hmm!) who would also be the Social Studies Director in the Institute of Social & Economic Research (ahha!). But I have to say, “I’m sorry, but I’ve just accepted the Chair of Anthropology in Oslo.” Mose(s) asks, “When does that start?” “In the New Year,” I reply. “Well,” he says, “Come over now on a visit for the Fall Semester,” which is what I do. Within a month of being here I made my choice. And I’m still here!
Considering my attachment to Norway, it was an astonishingly easy decision. What I found here is indeed a “new-found-land” with broad research horizons waiting to be developed. Aside from initiating a publishing programme (ISER Books), the real coup in those heady days was persuading Mose(s) Morgan to introduce faculty “joint appointments” whereby a person would alternate on an annual or semester basis between research and teaching –that could put us ahead of others in the qualitative hiring game, and it did.
But “chance” didn’t leave me. Wondering about new research opportunities for myself, someone says: “Robert, if anthropology begins at home, what are you waiting for?” She has in mind the then premier Joseph R. Smallwood. What about him? His political rhetoric, of course. That kept me busy for a good while!
And then, in 1982 another chance: I find myself in Israel as a Visiting Professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. An Israeli colleague noting my embarrassment at not understanding Hebrew, shouts at me: “Learn Hebrew? YOU! At your age! Get out and about, explore! You will find plenty of people who will tell you about themselves in English.”
I went to the West Bank, and he was right, and …? Well, I’ve written about it.
Alright, let’s move on, time is running short. I’ve taken my chances and made my choices.
The year is now, indeed, 2009 and let’s suppose we all – you and I—are together in the King’s Arms discussing what “doing” fieldwork implies.
I suggest that the Newfoundland term “CFA” –a Come-From-away—can well stand as the salient characteristic of anthropologists in the field. Following on that, one thing I found important was to reach as soon as possible a balance between not knowing -- so I needed to be informed-- and knowing enough so as to make it seem worthwhile for a person to give me their time. This was a fieldwork truth whether among the Saami down on the coast or up on the tundra.
Still more noteworthy, it was true of my time in the West Bank among Jewish settlers: it soon became quite clear that my not being Jewish (let alone Israeli) was not a hindrance – more often than not it helped: I wanted to know the different “whys” and “hows” of their being Settlers and they wanted, individually, to make these quite clear --with the assurance that I would carry it all back to Canada, especially to my students.
Here the question of risk needs mentioning. When an anthropologist is involved: what risk? And with whom does it lie? In 1951 (as I recall) I saw myself at risk (I could get lost) and not as a risk; but by 1961 with Ellon Ailu this had turned around: as he had me there, I could be a risk to him, particularly respecting his relations with fellow pastoralists. And among the Settlers? Similarly, I was not troubled with the thought that I was at risk but rather that those who gave me their time might incur negative responses from among those who spurned me.
But even in the span of my lifetime, much of the ethics of anthropological fieldwork has changed. No longer does the fieldworker arrive unannounced and uninvited. First, the subjects of the projected research must give their permission, perhaps even pointing out what they want researched. This applies especially to “native peoples” and several of my colleagues here at Memorial enjoy mutually rewarding research relationships in this way. “Chance” and “choice” are still there but in a new context of shared responsibility.
For myself, the Saami accept me as an “old hand;” but they’re curious, and I’ve accepted invitations by Saami organizations to come and tell them about my research efforts.
So anthropology has joined the real world.
Well, my time is up.
And you’ve had to sit and listen! I’ve done all the talking. I only hope that my self-reflections have prompted you to some of your own.
Best of chances and choices to you all. And again, congratulations!