On fieldwork

Tom Payne tpayne at OREGON.UOREGON.EDU
Thu Feb 6 15:39:31 UTC 1997

On theory-neutral grammars and fieldwork.

A field linguist works under many, often competing, motivations.
Many  of these motivations have been discussed in
more or less separate threads recently. In this post I
would like to bring them together, and offer one more
perspective to the mix. The motivations, it seems to me
can be arranged hierarchically (additional suggestions

I. Pragmatic motivations
   A. The motivation to publish
         1. The motivation to make one's writing understandable and
	          accessible to the target audience, whoever that may be.
		        2. The motivation to make significant advances with
			         respect to previous understandings in one's
      B. The motivation to improve the quality of one's research and
            employment prospects by interacting with other members of a
	          scholarly community.
		     C. The motivation to develop a respectable resume of

   II. Idealistic motivations
      A. The motivation that one's work should be personally
            satisfying (fun!).
      B. The motivation that one's work should be of genuine
	 value to others.

These motivations often seem to compete with one another.
For example, if a linguist gains access to a field purely
in order to develop her resume of experience, there may
not be much she can do to be of genuine service to the
people she does research with. She may not be personally
satisfied, but will develop a decent research record.

On the other hand, if she looks at the whole world in
terms of "the needs", and directs her career toward the
field where she is needed most, that field, or that
particular need, may not be one that leads to
professional recognition. Her career may stagnate or die.
If she ends up leaving the field, she may no longer be of use
to the community.

I want to claim that these motivations can, in fact, be mutually
supportive, rather than conflicting.

Part of the solution, I believe, is to view one's career
in stages. Usually we think of younger people as being
more idealistic and older people as being more pragmatic,
but I want to suggest that we reverse this order.

At the risk of sounding callous, I do not advocate that
young researchers
look at the world in terms of needs. There are so many
needs, so many endangered languages, that one can burn out
before one even gets to a field just thinking about them.
Each of us only has one lifetime, and it is reasonable to
expect to have some positive influence on just a
small corner of the huge range of needs in the world.

Before one has developed a reputation within a scholarly
community, one
is in a "weak" position with respect to access to fields.
You have to pretty much go where there is an opportunity. You
work where your advisor has worked. You work in the area
where you grew up, or did Peace Corps service, or
whatever. The initial motivations for "choosing" a field
are usually quite pragmatic in this sense.

There are enough needs in the world that in pretty much
any field, even those chosen for purely pragmatic reasons,
there are ways that one can develop a vision for service.
That service may not be clear at first. But if you
stay with a community long enough, and if you develop a
reputation among that community as a person with
integrity, the particular needs that you
are uniquely suited to address will become obvious.

Later in your career, you can "afford" to allow
the idealistic motivations to come to the forefront. Yes,
there is still pressure to publish, etc. And some would
say it is even more intense in the later stages. However,
people (scholars and others) are more likely to listen to
someone who is established in a field, rather than to a
newcomer. You have a chance to define the issues and
highlight the needs in a way that a younger
researcher cannot. If you have invested your time in building a
reputation as a fieldworker with integrity during the
early years, that reputation can be used effectively in
later years to have tremendous practical value to speakers
of endangered languages.

I would like to mention Ken Hale and Colette Grinevald as
fieldworkers I have known who seem to have approached these
presumed conflicting motivations in this kind of a way.

Thus, concentrating on the pragmatic motivations in the
early stages of one's career, supports and strengthens the
idealistic motivations later on. Being too idealistic too
early can lead to burn out and ultimate loss of ideals as
one is forced by circumstances to pursue other ways of
earning a living.

Of course there is much more that can be said on this
topic, and I hope others will say it all. Right now I have
to run off and build a reputation . . .
Thomas E. Payne
Department of Linguistics
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403
Voice: 541 342-6706
Fax:   541 346-3917

Endangered-Languages-L Forum: endangered-languages-l at carmen.murdoch.edu.au
Web pages http://carmen.murdoch.edu.au/lists/endangered-languages-l/
Subscribe/unsubscribe and other commands: majordomo at carmen.murdoch.edu.au

More information about the Endangered-languages-l mailing list