History in Africa

The Informant as Resolute Overseer

Jeffrey Kaufmann

University of Southern Mississippi, jeffrey.kaufmann@usm.edu

In this paper I take into account informants who oversee fieldworkers in local arenas. My intention is not to question the importance of participant-observation as the hallmark of field research but to elevate the recognition of informants in fieldwork. The argument centers on local overseers who are integral to participant-observation by controlling more of what the researcher observes, and with whom one participates, than they are usually given credit for in the literature. I intentionally use “overseer” rather than the usual “gatekeeper” label to convey a strong sense of informant involvement in ethnographic research (cf. Ellen 1984 where “gatekeeper” is used to describe a range of actors who control access, channel activities, and so on). The case study is drawn from my experiences with a host family in southwest Madagascar with whom I lived for 10 months in 1997.

There are different ways of representing informants in the literature. One way is to draw a wide line between informant and participant-observer. Informants are defined as local people who willingly provide information to participant-observers. Participant-observers are non-locals involved in intense interaction with members of a community over a long period such as a year. The two are not to overlap. Evans-Pritchard found informants vital to his Azande research, participant-observation central to his Nuer fieldwork. “Azande would not allow me to live as one of themselves; Nuer would not allow me to live otherwise. Among Azande I was compelled to live outside the community; among Nuer I was compelled to be a member of it” (Evans-Pritchard 1940:15). This tradition, of treating each as a separate method, is widespread (see, for example, Bernard 1995:136-79; Casagrande 1960; Ellen 1984; Freilich 1970:541; Herskovits 1955:376; Jackson 1997:188; Malinowski 1961:1-25; Pelto and Pelto 1973:242-43; Spradley 1980:177).