Tropical Tribulations, Episode 2: Half-Time. Fieldwork, fast and slow.

one-does-not-bbraomAccording to rumours, something of importance came to end around a week ago in Brazil. Apparently. People still talk about it in the streets. It must have been a big deal. And indeed it was: after six weeks in Recife, the first half of my time in Brazil has come and gone! (Also: the World Cup). Six weeks full of encounters, experiences and events, which yielded a pitiful two interviews so far, and the half-time conclusion that fieldwork is fun! – and slow. And, also, that things rarely go according to plan, which, as it turns out, is usually all for the better. Tales, then, of winding paths – and of another kind of couchsurfing.

One does not simply…

In truth, it isn’t so much that things didn’t go according to plan, for there wasn’t much of one to begin with. I’ve already recounted early struggles – and successes – with initially up-in-the-air money-, accommodation- and food-arrangements, and, for better or worse, my academic tribulations haven’t been all that different. The closest to a roadmap I had upon arrival said something like “Walk into Recife, look for 25-30 recipients of the social program under study, and interview them.” Easy as, one might think, since about 25% of Brazilian households – and 132.000 in Recife – perceive the Bolsa Família [‘family allowance’]. But alas, one does not simply walk into mordor. For how do you select – and meet – roughly 1 out of 4400 people, thirty times?

Strikingly, what I did very rapidly walk into – sometimes quite literally in random street conversations – were, precisely, said beneficiaries of the program, and thus ostensibly my target population. Streetwalking, however, is not a widely recognised sampling method, and as my newly encountered Brazilian co-supervisor stressed, one shouldn’t “let chance take one for a ride”: random encounters shouldn’t drive one’s results. Instead, he recommended a more active, directed approach, and we agreed that I would select two neighbourhoods – ideally of contrasting socio-historic background – to anchor the sampling, as well as to test whether the results held up in different environments. Two – out of 94.

Neighbourhoods are a little easier to select than people, because they are officially listed, described by statistics, and even have their own wikipedia pages. But that only takes one so far, as narrowing down the choice to two still involved a good amount of arbitrariness, meaning I spent a week or two mulling it over, relatively undecided, and somewhat stuck. When I finally forced myself to a decision, it was time for the next step: “procuring access”, in fieldwork lingo. For one does not simply walk into a neighbourhood.

The Revolution continues!

One does, however, rather simply walk into the Prefeitura [town hall]. As I was doing so on an early Winter morning – to attend my meeting with the Executive Secretary for Social Assistance in Recife, which would hopefully grant me access to contacts in the neighbourhoods I needed – I even came across a group of young people apparently making themselves very comfortable on the ground passage under the municipal building, setting up their tents and putting up banners.

It was our friends from Estelita again!

Brief recap: The #OcupeEstelita movement had occupied the ‘Caís do Estelita’ (an old wharf) for the past month in protest against municipal/private plans to build high-rise, luxury condominiums there. As I finished my previous blog-post, they had just been evicted from that land by the police (rather unamicably, at dawn, with smoke grenades), although they promptly relocated themselves to a nearby site, by which they continued to stage cultural events – including a lovely by-the-water concert – to attract crowds and raise awareness.

The battle continues under a roof…
… and in music! Site of the concert later that night.

As I came back down from my brief meeting and some cake (on the last day of the month, offices here celebrate all birthdays of the month), the occupiers and representatives of the mayor were engaged in an impromptu negotiation, in the presence of local and national media outlets which had rushed to the scene. The discussion was largely respectful, with people raising their hands to speak and being allowed to finish their points, although the activists occasionally rallied to remind the officials of the movement’s Leitmotiv: Ocupar… Resistir! [audio-file]

Impromptu Negotiations at the Prefeitura

Fast-forward to today, however, and the Prefeitura has not conceded much, aside from finally holding a ‘public audience’ about the projected works, to which the private building consortium *allegedly* sent two busses full of paid supporters… (30 Reais to go, 10 more to stay until the end of the meeting – but I should note I cannot actually confirm any of this). Fast-forward to today, as well, and I am still waiting for the letter of support the prefeitura promised me. As easy as it is to get into the building, one seems to get little out of it!

Couchsurfing to the rescue – again

One month into my stay here, then, I had no support from the prefeitura, no contact in my target neighbourhoods, and no interviews to show for it. What I did have were the keys to the sociology graduate student’s study room on the 12th floor of the ‘Centro de Filosofia e Ciências Humanas’ (CFCH, the philosophy and human sciences building), where I spent my then rather ubiquitous spare time reading relevant books and enjoying the view of the campus and the city.

The sharp-eyed reader will notice the many high-rise condominiums on the horizon (by the ocean), whose further spread the #Estelita movement is precisely trying to prevent.

Yet I hadn’t exactly come to Brazil to sit around and read – apparently one can do that in Montréal, too – and it became abundantly clear that I’d been doing that for a little too long when I found myself locked into the building.

And now?

I had forgotten everything closed early on the days Brazil played, a measure meant to ensure everybody could see the games. As it turned out on this particular occasion, however, Brazilians may rather have been at work than in front of their TVs, and whilst it took the warden considerably more time to fetch the keys than Germany to score 5 goals, I was freed in time to watch the game of the tournament with a group of Brazilians who, being staunchly against the whole World Cup, were mostly amused by the spectacle.

A week later, what Germany had been awaiting for 24 years finally came to be, although in the luckiest of ways: my academic deadlock gave way, as I finally Götze some contacts… via Couchsurfing. The community here is very active, and I had some invites for meet-ups on the website, mostly from young Recifensens who wanted to practice their [already very impressive] English or French. As I met some of them over the course of various evenings, they proved to be not only very nice people, but also rather well-connected, and willing to help by offering up their contacts (mostly in the local NGO sector). As a consequence, I now have leads into three key neighbourhoods, and I am set to finally start interviews with program beneficiaries in the coming week. Here’s what my flatmate Steak (actual name) had to say about it:

“OMG. Interviews.”
Smoking was less impressed.
Smoking was less impressed.

Final Considerations and Parallel Universes

In an earlier life, this fieldwork stint was initially meant to last six weeks in total. One dreads to think what that would have yielded, lest it be for the well-known universal truth that the pace of scholarly progress is inversely proportional to the time assigned to the task. In a similar way, if I had chosen a hotel over couchsurfing for the first few nights here, I would in all likelihood not have met the contacts which will now prove essential, and might still be sitting around waiting for a letter from the prefeitura. Or not –  who knows? As the proverb says, God and fieldwork move in mysterious ways.

Ultimately, as so many things have ended in Brazil recently, many others have begun. The second half of my time here, certainly, but also the operations of a new rapid transit system in Recife (initially meant to be ready before the World Cup), the electoral campaign for the presidential and gubernatorial elections in October, and another kind of campaign (“Tomorrow starts now”, says Nike) for the next big thing in Brazil. But before it gets to Rio 2016, I will be back in Canada, just in time… for the next World Cup!

Games in Montréal!
(and Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Moncton)

Before that, a few final pictures from the past weeks.

Photo-finish: music and sport

The Saint-Jean Baptiste, a.k.a. São João, Brazilian style. Photos from a public concert.
Music, the good old way.
Another kind of musical event.
Carnivalesque football players at the public viewing before Brazil-Colombia. From the right: Hulk, Fred, Suarez the vampire, Ronaldo the Globo reporter, and David Luiz.
Carnivalesque football players at the public viewing before Brazil-Colombia.
From the right: Hulk, Fred, Suarez the vampire, Ronaldo the Globo reporter, and David Luiz.
Spot the German.
The Champions! (to be).
The Champions!
(they just didn’t know it yet)

ps. as I stood in goal playing football with a few children yesterday, one asked where I was from. Alemanha? “Good”, said the ten-year old – “Germany scored many goals against us, and now I scored one against you. I have my revenge.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s