Reflections on Ethnographic Work: Behaving Badly and Defending Grandpa

I was talking to a researcher about doing work in Oman and gave my usual spiel about the necessity of being honest and calm. Sometimes it’s better not to answer a question or get involved in a discussion about a certain topic, but you need to remain truthful and composed.

This reminded me of a conversation I had with some of the research guys when I had only known them a few years. I can see contours of the argument now that I couldn’t see then, but I clearly remember how uncertain I felt to wade into a heated disagreement.

A few of the research guys and I were sitting on a beach and somehow we got into a discussion about Masons. I said my grandfather was one. One man had read some conspiracy theories about Masons and started in on the evils of the organization. I am usually perfectly fine ignoring provocations or avoiding arguments, but this was about my grandfather’s morals and I refused to back down.

I was not close to my grandfather. He was slightly forbidding, somewhat reminiscent of a hawk, and the pillars of his life were the Methodist church, fishing, golfing, deer-hunting and the Masons. His career was in banking and he ran one of the few banks in Wisconsin that stayed open during the Depression, something I have always been proud of. That might seem a slender thread to hang family honor on but I cherish the fact that he had used his hard work and business acumen in the service of others. And while I was arguing with the research guys I thought about his funeral service. He was buried in his Masonic apron and there was no one who could say that he had ever cheated or lied in his entire life. I was not going to allow anyone to tarnish his reputation.

We went back and forth for almost two hours. I raised my voice, argued stridently, interrupted and refused to acquiesce. I felt uncomfortable quarreling with the guys but I would not let them have the last word. My upright grandfather would never have belonged to a group that caused harm in the world. I knew I was being rude and not adhering to the normal standards of our conversations but it felt like a betrayal of Grandpa’s memory if I quietly accepted what they were saying.

In the end, given the conventions of friendships, we had to find a way to resolve the argument so we hammered out an agreement that MAYBE upper levels of Masons had POTENTIALLY done bad activities in the past but these were HIDDEN from the lower level ranks who did good things like raise money for charity, thus my grandfather was a GOOD man who did good things.

Thinking about that fight now, I think that the guys were deliberately pushing the topic to see what I would do. The role of Masons in world politics is certainly not a subject of great concern to them. They had no personal investment in the topic which would warrant an extended attack on the organization. They had not seen me really mad before and I think were interested to see how much self control I would lose. And I think there was a level of understanding that I was fighting for the respect/ reputation of my grandfather, so while my anger showed a lack of self-control, they never brought up Masons again or teased me about the argument as an example of my behaving badly.

Reflecting on that conflict later made me realize that the general Dhofari expectation of keeping a pleasant atmosphere sometimes has to be broken. It’s impossible to foretell for yourself or anyone else when the time will come, but during the Masons argument, my cautious, ethnographic self went right out the window. Although I was afraid of angering the guys, I dug in and fought my corner.

When I talk to people about the need for staying peaceful, I remember my yelling and pounding my fist that night. And it’s hard to explain when it’s OK, or even justified, to lose your temper; each person needs to make that decision for themselves.

I was lucky that I didn’t get furious over something to my personal advantage which would be read as selfish. Of course it’s better to control yourself, but defending Grandpa was an acceptable reason to shout.