Ethnographic fieldwork is an artful balancing act between distancing and immersing, revealing and concealing. Ethnographers, and other qualitative researchers are required to get close to the social group they study to gain perspective of the group, as well to be trusted with behaviors often withheld from outsiders. They are also expected to maintain critical distance so that they are objective observers, rather than unfiltered advocates for the group.
Katherine Browne, author of Standing in the Need, would be the first to admit that finding this balance isn’t easy, and perhaps even impossible, especially when studying a group for a long period of time. She made some unconventional choices when it comes to her methods, which aren’t necessarily in line with standard practices in her field and will undoubtedly upset some purists. Her book, an ethnography of a large African American bayou family in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, is a shining example of anthropology at its most revealing.
Browne, a professor of anthropology at Colorado State University, studied a large family from Louisiana, that had lost nearly everything during Katrina. For eight years, from 2005 to 2013, she tracked members of the JohnsonFernandez family and chronicled their lives during different stages of their recovery. Browne’s distinct approach included revealing her subjects’ identities. She even drafted detailed kinship charts and included portraits of family members, photographs of their homes (or what was left of them), their neighborhood, and their family gatherings. Over the course of her field research, Browne grew incredibly close to her subjects, especially members of the Peachy Gang. The Gang consisted of roughly 150 descendants of Alma “Peachy” Johnson (1909-1984) and McKinley James (1896-1964) who were evacuated from St. Bernhard Parish, just southeast of New Orleans, to Dallas, two days before Katrina made landfall.
Browne’s research began as a film documentary, which probably explains her unconventional choice to reveal her subjects’ full identity. Together with filmmaker Ginny Martin, she followed the Peachy Gang. Over 20 months, Browne and Martin documented its members’ experiences in Dallas and the beginning of the group’s recovery after they returned to their bayou environment. (Still Waiting: Life After Katrina was first broadcasted on PBS stations across the country during the second anniversary of Katrina.)
Browne uses the Gang as a vehicle to tell a much wider story about cultural rituals (often centered around food), local practices, the distinct bayou speech, and unusual yet fascinating family structures. The author aptly demonstrates how recovery agencies’ lack of awareness of these unique habits, practices, language, and structures has seriously hampered psychological and physical recovery after Katrina. However, a perhaps unintended result of her methods is that while she is very critical of recovery agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its program The Road Home, she lacks that same kind of critical eye when it comes to the family she is studying. Browne, seemingly aware of this shortcoming, explains in the book’s preface that what she experienced in the field became personal—as illustrated by her memoir-esque use of the first-person-singular.
As such, Standing in the Need—intended for interested general readers, agents of recovery, and students of disaster—tells not one, but two, closely intertwined, stories. One tracks the disaster recovery of an extensive yet tightknit African American family. The other documents the experiences of a white anthropologist who immersed herself in African American bayou culture and transitioned from outsider to integrated insider—even by her subjects’ accounts. She became a loving and committed friend of the Johnson-Fernandez family.
This transition to insider is particularly evident in Browne’s relationship with the four living daughters of Peachy Johnson: Cynthia, Katie, Roseana, and Audrey, who are at the center of Browne’s study. The women grew up in Verret, a small town in lower St. Bernard Parish. Katrina completely inundated the parish and destroyed the sisters’ homes. While trying to stay positive, their journey of recovery, meticulously documented by Browne, has been long and frustrating, characterized by setbacks, delays, and broken promises.
In her book, Browne uses a rhizome, a horizontal plant stem that sends out roots and shoots from its nodes, as a metaphor to describe the interconnectedness between members of the Johnson-Fernandez family. Like a rhizome, the individuals of the family form a dense tangle of nonhierarchical and interdependent relations that feed off a shared life source, the rootstock, which is firmly planted in the soil of the bayou. According to Browne, the rhizome nature of family life is common in the Greater New Orleans region and has kept families together for generations. These families have their own emotional ecosystem and members do not spend time mourning in private. For instance, they sought comfort after the hurricane through daily cultural rituals and family practices that reinforced everyone’s connection to each other.
Many of these daily rituals and cultural practices center around eating, and food is a common theme running through the book. It is clear that food and, more specifically, eating together as a family, was the Peachy Gang’s most important emotional coping mechanism. But, as Browne notes, this relationship between food and emotion is not unhealthy, as is often the case with “emotional eating.” The family’s comfort foods were whole and mostly healthy. The meals, so carefully prepared by the women and the men in this family, begin and end very close to home, with locally sourced bayou ingredients such as crayfish, shrimp, crab, okra, collards, and mustard greens. When the family evacuated they were plucked from the source of everyday food traditions and lost not just the food but the ties to the bayou and to each other.
Once back in their familiar bayou environment, the family could access those traditional ingredients. But the cramped FEMA trailers they were living in for years didn’t have the kitchen or the space to make the elaborate meals that were so vitally important for their emotional and physical wellbeing.
Adding insult to injury
Not being able to cook a proper bayou meal was only one of the many problems that arose while living in a FEMA trailer. Browne observes that while it was a challenge for the family to adapt bayou life to the foreign environment of Dallas, once back home the constraints imposed by the trailers cut off even more forms of sharing. Living in little individuated spaces compartmentalized people in unfamiliar ways and undermined family life as the Peachy Gang knew it.
Of all the people we meet in the book, Katie, one of Peachy Johnson’s daughters, gets the shortest end of the stick. Katie, who lost one leg due to diabetes, ordered a trailer built to Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) specifications, with a ramp, to put on the lot where her destroyed home sat. Unfortunately, what FEMA delivered to her was one with aluminum steps. One day, as Browne vividly describes, Katie fell while trying to hop onto the steps, and she severely damaged the leg that had been amputated just under the knee. Her injury didn’t speed up the process of getting a suitable trailer, shockingly; by the time FEMA delivered—five months after her fall—the stump of Katie’s leg was so badly compromised that she was never again able to wear the prosthesis she wore when Browne first met her.
Precarious balancing act
That ordeal seems to be a turning point in Browne’s study. She was already close to Katie, but the injustice the author witnessed solidified their friendship. Later in the book Browne unmistakably crosses the line between observer and advocate. Browne decides to help Katie get her Road Home check. Pretending to be Katie—only the person on the case file was authorized to call the helpline—Browne wanted to find out why, after seven months, Katie still hadn’t received her check. Browne exploited her vast experience with bureaucrats and was eventually able to procure the answers that Katie couldn’t glean.
The intimacy of the author and subject’s relationship becomes especially clear after Katie died. She suffered a massive stroke in 2007 and eventually passed away four years later, just two weeks after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Browne, who spoke at the funeral, was mentioned in the program as Katie’s “loving and committed friend.”
It is clear that Browne is less concerned than most of her peers are with striking the balance between being an insider and an outsider, and at times she is unable to maintain a critical distance. In her defense, she never set out to be an objective observer. She informs her readers right off the bat that this is a personal story, an ethnographic memoir.
Other ethnographers (Venkatesh 2008; Goffman 2014) who chose to change names, places, and the order of events to protect their resources have been criticized for lacking accountability and for fabricating. The people whose lives are chronicled by Browne, however, are present and accountable in multiple ways, their talk is transcribed very accurately, they are called by their real names, and the photographs Browne included do not only capture personal images but also social relationships. The benefit of her all revealing approach is that the link between the evidence she gathered during her field research and her conclusions is crystal clear. Although critics might feel that she failed the precarious balancing act, I think that the end justifies the means. Her book is a beautifully written, compelling and insightful ethnography and it should be considered a valuable contribution to the field.