My field methods book includes a section on linguist/community relations, and I am in the process of compiling a list of the most common actions which lead to tensions between the linguist and consultant. Please help me add to it!
This section was written on the basis of things I have been told by my consultants. There are some things that linguistic consultants tend to be annoyed by, and things that make them uncomfortable. I would argue that these are actually things that everyone gets annoyed by. No one likes being disbelieved, or constantly being interrupted, or patronised.
• Not being given time to answer. It’s important, once you’ve asked a question, to give the consultant time to answer it. Rephrasing the question if it’s unclear is worth doing, but don’t keep talking. If you move onto another question, be clear you’re doing so, it can be confusing if you have gone to ask another question but the consultant thinks you are still talking about the previous topic.
• Not being believed, or being contradicted. If you are going to the trouble to answer the question, it’s because you don’t know the answer and you think the consultant does. Therefore be careful that you do not contradict the consultant, even if you think they have said something for which you have evidence to the contrary. You may want to follow up on what they say, and ask more questions if you think you are not getting the full story, but there are ways to do this without being objectionable.
• The linguist not making the effort to listen to the consultant and understand what’s going on (e.g. not writing things down that are important – cf Mithun (2001) and Rice (2001).
• Broken promises. This is part of a wider problem, I suspect, of race relations in Australia. People of European descent have a widespread reputation of breaking promises or not meaning what they say. This can be a bit of a minefield, but it’s therefore especially important that you follow through with all promises to the best of your ability, and don’t promise things you can’t deliver. This is also applicable to promises regarding confidentiality of data and anonymity of consultants.
• Being patronised. This is particularly an issue when there is a big difference in education levels between the linguist and the consultant (e.g. university faculty versus someone who’s never been to school). You’re on familiar ground with recorders, writing and linguistic analysis, but it might be very foreign to the consultant. Don’t be patronising.
• Being bored. Don’t assume that things that you find fascinating will hold the same level of interest for your consultant. You can avoid this by working with several different people and working on topics that suit the different people, by not working for too long in any particular session, by being sensitive to what your consultants want to work on, and so on (all the things that we have discussed in the previous chapters).
• Not seeing results. The linguist does all this work and then goes away and the people who worked with the linguist never see any of it. That’s a point that came up over and over again with a few researchers some of the ladies had worked with, and it was a point of praise for several others who had worked on Bardi in the past.
• Having decisions made by the linguist which are not theirs to make. For example, questions about orthographies, publication of materials, and the like are not ultimately up to the linguist – it’s not their language. As a linguist you have training in documentation. This should let you to provide the community with information about various alternatives (e.g. the advantages and disadvantages of choosing one type of orthography over another) but it isn’t the linguist’s job to make the final decision.
[I have other sections on cultural theft.]