Fieldwork I Lessons Learned: PKP PSP

Sat. March 31, 2007
Categories: Research


We lost track of how many miserable miles we drove past wrecked houses that day in the Ninth Ward. It was time for a Hurricane, a popular tropical-flavored drink sold on Bourbon Street. It is a wonder there is so much joy still on the streets of New Orleans, but people  have an uncanny knack at turning tragedy into humor. Laugh at disaster, the city seems to say: make my day. Tragedy wearing a mardi gras mask.

So it was at the bar that it happened. I did a bad thing, perhaps. Let me qualify what bad could possibly mean. Below the standards of behavior expected of a post-graduate student? Rotten, like an apple that sat around for too long? Graceless, improper, naughty or was it, heaven forbid, evil?  I fell in love, but let me explain. I needed to hold New Orleans in my arms. I needed to kiss the lips of the city as the story was being told. I needed to feel the city skin-to-skin, white against black because I had been listening for so long, taking in the faces of human suffering. And I am asked to write a paper on the hermeneutics of love as it relates to my fieldwork.What I have told you contains a confessional tone, and is that unusual for a paper meant to be a critique of the flaws in my fieldwork, written to discover what I learned and what I hope to do better in the future?

Hermeneutics means to interpret text. As related to phenomenology it becomes about researching lived experience, the literature of our lives. As related to love, it means to recognize love as the primary giver of meaning. Events are seen through this lens of love, or filtered through love like sunlight through treetops, the data tinted as if seeing through rose colored glasses so that we may arrive at a deeper understanding of love. In reality, does this mean the data is tainted? Any argument against the love lens as phenomenological would lose ground rather quickly since as researchers we inevitably bring a personal view or bias to our work. In this regard, Dr. Erik Craig asks us to just be clear about what our biases are. So it is that I find myself asking if, instead of the usual skepticism, why not let my actions be guided by love, by being more loving towards the research. Dr. Craig reminded us that we need to bring ourselves to the topic and explore our predispositions. Dr. Craig’s approach is heuristic, it includes the personal self of the researcher who might ask “have I become more my ideal self through this fieldwork?”

Some of us are fascinated with the unknown, in other words with mystery and to know what is in the shadows. This whole process is not about thinking we know anything but about wonder and living our question. I came to New Orleans with questions on my mind. From the start I was asking: ‘What happened in New Orleans; what are the dreams of Katrina survivors; how is restoration of Being possible; how does being without a house affect the feeling of Home; what about the loss of Place; how to rebuild the Community; what was wrong with the media coverage, what was wrong with the government’s response, can bodywork help to heal the Soul . . . and then as students we were taken deep into theory, theory, theory. Since the question is the single most important thing in research, I would summarize my research question as “What is the depth psychological understanding of what happened in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina?” In hindsight, a better question would have been “What do I need to know to help those affected by the Hurricane Katrina disaster to survive, recover, develop and self-determine their futures?” That is a more complicated question with an agenda, and I am told we are looking for parsimony, elegance, and simplicity in framing our questions.

Let me further identify my predisposition to my research question. I lost a home once and have been searching for the feeling of it ever since. It was a family tragedy that left my soul feeling uprooted, lost, helpless, and it was excruciatingly painful. I mean, we lost everything, the house, the land, the city we lived in . . . So you can imagine how deeply involved I was just reading the Post Katrina portrait stories because these stories resonated with my personal suffering. I know what it is like for a soul to be planted in the soil of a place: walking on our land everyday was an outdoor act of communion. The green hills and oak trees were my church. The birds that sang there, the mud I carried on my shoes, the smell of wild grasses, too. Gone! I wondered if ensuing emotional problems stemmed from a deeper, more long-standing feeling of worthlessness. That being said, I was aware of my father’s shame over the poverty he experienced growing up in Kentucky. I struggled for years to understand his shame which I saw as my inheritance. Growing up he worked hard and we were not poor, however the feeling of shame was hidden below the surface. I felt sad about his embarrassment over discussing his past: he would rarely talk about his childhood with me. I knew he still loved his family’s place even though he said he would never return to it. So I bought a couple of airline tickets, put him on a plane with me, and flew back to the coal mining town in the remote hills where he was raised.

There is something about humility that makes me feel at ease, and I felt it in Appalachia in contrast to the hubris of wealth, and then again in New Orleans. There is an earthy quality to the simplicity of expression. I tend to idealize simplicity of soul, because what I hear comes from the heart. There is something about their soul, ok his soul, the soul of the man at the bar on Bourbon street, that makes me think of the Bible passage about entering the kingdom of heaven. I love that heavenly feeling. Was it unethical of me to let my eyes get caught in his gaze, and not look away? The more I gazed at the portraits, the more transformed I became. Now I could see! I could see so much and understand it as well because of the stories. I was less afraid of black skin, black eyes, or black language. I no longer judged ways of talking that were so different from mine, or even the inability of some people to write their own stories. I saw through the portraits into souls as I practiced “seeing-through” and was amazed at my perceptual shifts in awareness.

The man who goes by ML was not one of the survivors interviewed and he knew nothing about the organization I was researching. He has a house in Jefferson Parish that did not get flooded but was damaged by the storms. The project came alive in a more personal way with him. It was as if my personal levee broke and there was a flood inside of me. Our eyes were locked in a crowd of dancing fools; the band he was in played loud funk; and I drank my Guinness, surrounded by friends. There was no thought of the storm, no recovery efforts, no worry for the people. Or, I had to ask myself, was he just another portrait study? Because it was ALL there in that moment, everything I had seen and read, all the despair, the pain, and hope was held in that gaze. He said later his luck could be changing, an angel had come. For me, helping someone is the doorway to feeling love, and in this regard I need to be careful. I do not know love unless it is in some form of action, unless I do something to express it. And if asked to think about love, I do not usually experience it. This great and growing non-attached love for the people of New Orleans reduced itself to one erotic love affair. He does not know this but he put my world in perspective and this shift was a good feeling. It is hard to explain how someone could make me feel so calm in this crazy world. Let me ask, do I need to be saved in your eyes, and if so, how would I go about it?

In the past I practiced erotic love consciously channeled into an ascending love for the Divine; energies sublimated for the union of soul and spirit. The physical energy moves up from the lower chakra and unties the knot of the heart in a release of spiritual joy. But to experience a love that descends into the body is different. It feels very human and I understand what Erich Fromm says in The Sane Society.

Love in this sense is never restricted to one person. If I … love only one person, and nobody else, if my love for one person makes me more alienated and distant from my fellow man, [even if] I may be attached to this person in any number of ways, yet I do not love. If I can say, “I love you,” I say, “I love in you all of humanity, all that is alive; I love in you also myself.” (1955, p. 32)

I feel this way about my work and about my love for one man in New Orleans. In loving, I need to take all of humanity into consideration, it is not just an exclusive relationship that I have with one other person. Fromm said our failure to relate ourselves to the world at large is insanity, and that our relatedness is the condition for any kind of sane living. From our discussions about love, I decided to have relationships that are open to the world, to humanity. Descending love feels great in the sense of feeling love for all of humanity. I think love both descends and ascends and it requires skill to do both because, as Hillman says in InterViews,

The moment you are in love you are a case . . . the sense of being bewitched or transfigured or whatever belongs to being in love because love is one of the forms in which the normal ego has to submit to the psyche.” (1991, p. 177)

Hillman says love is fine for ignition of the imagination because it is Psyche doing this psychotic thing. He said falling but going up is a delusion! I wonder about the idea that the sex drive needs to be reduced to the imaginal, that Psyche is at the root of it all (p. 179).  I hear Hillman as saying Psyche does not necessarily want us to concretize the coniunctio in a physical way. That I should have held back and not acted… maybe just held ML in my imagination and let the work towards individuation take place there. I have done that active imagination before (you can read of it elsewhere) but it seemed unlikely that this was how the world was turning at that point. I have had to ask myself if I was I truly expressing love as an act of caring for ML? Regardless of the fact that it gave him relief as well as hope, it is not the kind of relief my project is about, and I hear Hillman whispering that it is an act of love to not act whenever we feel erotically “bewitched.” He says that the “image frees us from our obsession with feelings” (Hillman, 1991, p. 181) and we should use myths, literature, and drama instead . . . of actual . . . sex? Does he mean sublimation of erotic feelings which, to me, is different than ascending love?

Then I go to bell hooks writing about lust in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom and read

Keen asks, what forms of passion might make us whole? To what passions may we surrender with the assurance that we will expand rather than diminish the promise of our lives? (1994, p. 195)

My mind saw the word transgress as I read that. A synonym is to violate or fail to keep either rules or law. It also means to trespass, which is to offend or to sin. We are to bring passion to our fieldwork projects, to love our ideas in a way that will transform social relations yet not act upon feelings of love, but wouldn’t that mean we are further disembodying our love? So let me understand this, we can use passion to ignite our learning and our work but never concretize it through a touch? hooks says “find the place of eros within and allow the mind and body to feel and know desire.” (1994, p. 199) It depends on the situation…I continue to remind myself that ML was not a subject in the project. Nevertheless, my project is the lens through which I see the world and ML became a part of my world because of it. I am listening to hooks (2000) in All About Love when she says to embrace a love ethic in terms of social justice and equality and I take that to mean awareness is to be cultivated, that I am to critically examine my actions to see what is needed so that I can give care, be responsible, show respect, but also indicate a willingness to learn from my mistakes. That is why I needed to look honestly at my predispositions to this project in order to see how it was possible that I could become “bewitched” as Hillman would say.

It was obvious that I would embody my passion for the portraits as well as for my ‘co-researcher’ Francesco in the presentation given to the class. There was so much I wanted to say in such a short time that I did not allow myself to use the power of pauses to let my ideas resonate within the hearts and minds of my classmates. It was a “sober” presentation, I was told, but I took that as a complement from a person who drinks a bit more desperately than I do. Another student said that it was “hard” to look at the portraits and read them, but she admired the work. And, of course, there were many bravos in those love letters we received from each other. I only regret that I did not make more eye contact with enough people to see their expressions so that I could understand the experience they were having as they heard me speak. I was afraid to know, it was that #@$%^ ambivalence again! In retrospect, I would have liked to have shared that with them.

It is wonderful having hundreds of stories since everyone who experienced the same thing had a different perspective, and it was like getting a look at the “whole elephant.” It felt more representative of what might be “the reality” of the event. There was not much room for depth in individual stories, which is how some researchers glean answers, but it was a wide net and someone waindividuals s bound to tell experiences that were shared by many others.

My method, which I should have probably explained in the fieldwork project paper and in the presentation, was to experience the portraits from a phenomenological perspective first of all. I attempted to “see-through” each portrait to glean the essence of what this person was saying, and I selected the words that most characterized the story. This became a brief title that would help me when it came to arranging the stories. I am interested in quanti-qualitative research methods. I actually want to “count the words” and do a content analysis of the Post Katrina Portrait stories, then group stories into categories, and find common themes. This is followed by an interpretation of the stories from a depth psychological perspective with sometimes personal thoughts added.

There are no signed consent forms since the participants were given the option of anonymity. It would sadden me if it were an ethical violation that anonymity was offered to thousands of subjects and no other consent was asked for other than they write their story on the page next to their portrait. This was an indication of their consent to the project. Another option was that they could have the story written by a scribe as they told it, and then the scribe would read it back to them for their approval. No portrait was drawn without the subject’s consent.

At the end of the fieldwork paper I felt there was a need to offer something restorative. This is not the way research is normally presented. I offered a method for disaster relief workers to experiment with in the future when dealing with disasters, although this method had nothing to do with the stories themselves. The next phase of the project, since the stories are posted on the web, is to make it possible for the public to comment on the portraits (not critique them, but find meaning in the stories). This is to increase public awareness for ongoing support needed in the New Orleans area. It is also my hope is that the subjects can be contacted and helped to respond on the website if that would add meaning to their lives.

In conclusion, I opened my heart to contain more of the world and was enriched deeply by it. I also opened myself up to Eros but I may lose ML to this vast universe of love, to let the drop that came from the ocean return once again to merge with the ocean. I should probably have had more Logos working for me. The project never has felt like it was mine, rather it feels like a burden and a gift at the same time, more like a telephone call and I was just the person who picked up the receiver. It feels determined by some other being and this man, ML, felt like the gift that was given back to me from the universe so that I will be compelled to continue the project. The hermeneutics of love requires it. Perhaps it would be better if I loved the organization of the Common Ground Collective instead, full of pitfalls as a growing bureaucracy, but I am tired of loving organizations, institutions, and causes. It is people that I love and I have no desire to sacrifice myself for a principle or an ideology. If this project was an act of love, it was not conscious. I am a victim of love in that regard – if it is love working through me. I do not feel that “I” am doing anything that could be called love. It just so happens I fell in love and that makes it more joyful. I broke through apatheia finally, this deadening of heart and mind from mass media, from job and time pressures, from fear of despair over disaster and a false belief in my own powerlessness.  Next, I would like to do a co-operative inquiry with the board of humanitarian logisticians to ask the second, more difficult question of how to help communities stand solidly together in disaster to survive, recover, develop, and find self-determination.



Fromm, Erich. (1955). The Sane Society. NY: Henry Holt & Co.

Hillman, James. (1991). InterViews. NY: Spring Publications.

hooks, b. (1994). Eros, eroticism, and the pedagogical process. In Teaching to transgress (pp. 191-199). New York: Routledge.

hooks, b (2000). Living by a love ethic. In All about love: New visions (pp.87-101). New York: Perennial.

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