Tom Carroll – Part III

The following is Part III of a four part interview with Tom Carroll, folklorist and ethnographer (read Part I or Part II).

Part III – The HOW and WHY of the work– ethnography

As a self-employed fieldworker hired on a contract-by-contract basis, Tom’s work was notably contingent – he would do his work in a given place, then go on to the next job.  Tom traveled from place-to-place within an established region (in his case, the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast), often setting up in motels or lodges or hunting camps, and remain till the work was completed.  Since he was away from home, all he had to do was his field work, absorbing as much as he could. As Tom shared with me, he has always felt that ethnography should be done away from home – it is important to do the work outside your comfort zone. And there are two advantages to this practice: people often talk freely to an outsider, and they can be more forthcoming with someone who they know will leave. Ethnography is ultimately about being present – when in the field, you get up every day and start working from scratch.

But as the work unfolded, he also found that these projects became integrative. The more of this work that he did, the more he could begin to talk across communities – talk with the current communities about the issues they were facing in terms of how the other communities with whom he worked were tackling them. Communities are complex and they are affected by shifting economies and powerful external forces, such as migration. His work engaged questions of access, and was about mediating relationships, pointing out tensions. And his role as ethnographer was not so much as advocate but primarily as witness: submitting his reports to the hiring agency while also circulating them back to community members.

For Tom, drawing on his training with folklorists at Penn such as Kenneth Goldstein and Henry Glassie, and with anthropologists Ray Birdwhistell, Anthony Wallace, and Dell Hymes, he saw fieldwork as a form of engaged social and political practice – this is ethnography – the purpose of an ethnographer is to witness and listen, to document and discuss – to make space in the world for the multiplicity of cultural practices and identities. When done over long periods of time, this starts to provide an opportunity. As Tom explained, fieldwork is not so much a documentation project but an opportunity for heightened speech. And the paradigm of giving something back to the community is hugely important, whether this be in the form of witnessing the community and providing an opportunity for people to step forward, or simply making sure that his reports always went back to community members.

I quote here from my notes of Tom’s reflection on his practice:

[What I produce] is a metanarrative built on the individual interactions within communities during the fieldwork process

Culminating in a comprehensive picture of what the community was like

Knitting together into a larger narrative the individual narratives, and the things that I heard or observed

I quoted from field notes and interview notes or transcripts as extensively as possible

I named names

Teasing out what I felt were the contradictions within a given community, and revealing that these were not contradictions, but just a larger truth

While the deliverable at the end of a project is usually a report, it might also be about establishing an archive, contributing to an exhibit. But it is also about helping people connect with one another, to connect with community.  As Tom shared with me, folklorists increasingly use the terms “cultural worker and cultural work” to describe the evolving nature of their engagement. “We are going in to discover resources and needs and then to help people and communities be more effective. We serve as a middle ground and a link. And when as possible, as a resource.”


Stay tuned for Part IV of the interview with Tom next Wed – featuring Tom’s advice for the next generation


Want to read more?  Read Part I and Part II of Tom’s career path.


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