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Prairie PatrimonyFamily, Farming, and Community in the Midwest$

Sonya Salamon

Print publication date: 1992

Print ISBN-13: 9780807845530

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: July 2014

DOI: 10.5149/9781469611181_Salamon

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(p.257) Appendix Methods for Farming Community Studies

(p.257) Appendix Methods for Farming Community Studies

Prairie Patrimony
University of North Carolina Press

My theoretical perspective is mainstream anthropology, but my methods are not typical of anthropological research. My methods of investigation evolved from the limitations and advantages of working with students whose applied professional goals led them to study for a master's degree in an interdisciplinary unit dedicated to human development and family studies. Master's students have a year to obtain data and write a thesis and are not trained in anthropology; these factors dictate close supervision. The procedures followed in each yearlong community study combined anthropological methods with those more typical of psychologists directing many graduate students on a large research project. I had an umbrella topic: farm families and their land. Students collected data to meet the project objectives, but they were free to pursue a unique family issue as long as it fit within the larger project. Some of these issues were women's changing status and the integration of die elderly in families.

Anthropologists typically carry out research by living among their subjects, interacting with people on a daily basis, and learning the rhythm of their subjects' lives by experiencing it. Although some (e.g., Oscar Lewis) have employed teams of fieldworkers, most anthropologists work individually. In the fourteen community studies I have directed, all but the Gray Prairie communities (studied by two anthropologists with Ph.D. degrees) were carried out with second-year master's degree candidates. To accommodate the supervision required of this group, I focused on central Illinois, where students could go to the field and return to campus daily. Although I did not do all the fieldwork personally, I chose the communities and subsample studied intensively, met many of the families, read all fieldnotes, guided what was asked and which issues were pursued, and discussed each interview as the work unfolded. Students typed fieldnotes (see below), and I read them immediately so that we could talk about findings before they returned to the field. Thus analysis took place virtually simultaneously with data collection, facilitating testing of working hypotheses with the families being observed (Denzin 1970).

At the beginning of a study, we visited with some key community members, who varied by community. If a single church, such as Catholic or Lutheran, anchored a community, we talked with the priest or minister and (p.258) asked that he publicly announce our presence. If a religious leader was an inappropriate contact, we might talk with the mayor and place a story in the local newspaper. As a College of Agriculture faculty member at a landgrant university, I relied heavily on county-level Cooperative Extension agriculture and home economics agents. These people know their county well and served as background informants and provided introductions to families.

“Community study” is not an exact label for my research objectives. Typically a community study aims at fully describing all aspects of a community, with particular emphasis on the power, economic, and social structures. Because of these emphases, a community study does not generally reflect the lives of individual households. I chose the community as a target population but built it from the bottom up by household, and among all households I concentrated on those families with a link to farmland. With the exception of Wheeler (the last community studied) we contacted every household in the door-to-door survey but carried out the survey only with families who met the United States agricultural census criteria for a farm household: one or more adults who (1) work off-farm less than 150 days per year or (2) have farm earnings of over $2,500 per year and, by my additional criterion, (3) own more than ten acres of farmland. In reality we often ignored work offfarm; many farm families today practice pluriactivity; that is, they depend on a variety of income sources along with farming for a livelihood (Barlett 1986). Because the seven communities were farming-dependent, most households fulfilled the criteria. We also interviewed some nonfarm families who were related to local farmers and who lived in the community but commuted to work elsewhere.

The Survey, Histories, and Participant Observation

From the household survey, both demographic (family size, education level, mobility, occupation) and agricultural data (operation size, sources for rental and owned land, family labor involvement) were obtained. Farmers are besieged by salesmen hiding behind fake surveys to get in the door. They are reluctant to cooperate especially when suspicions are aroused that survey results might lead to higher taxes. Our in-person approach was therefore an advantage. We often won cooperation from the reluctant by saying that policymakers do not understand farmers. The sentiment was met with hearty agreement. Farmers, as firm believers in the work ethic, approved of graduate (p.259) students working hard for a thesis. For this reason we met with success “to help the little girl out,” as one farmer rationalized cooperation to his wife. Each survey required about an hour to complete. To facilitate the process and set people at ease, we provided a copy of the survey for the interviewee to read as we asked the questions. We also used an informed consent form on university stationery that explained the research and that participation was voluntary, and we included our phone numbers and address should further information be desired. No one contacted us, but the information helped to convince people that we were authentic.

The door-to-door survey produced an overview of the community, with much information emerging during nonformal conversations. Families often felt more free to visit after the interviewer put down her pencil and things were “off the record.” Then, gossip, major concerns, and complaints were related, and recommendations were made for which families we “should see.” Typically the largest landowners or the most prominent families—often the same people—were mentioned. We usually followed the recommendations, but the survey provided data for assuring that a community cross sec-tion—lifecourse phase, farm scale, type of farm operation, and social class—was covered. The interviewer explained that the survey was a first phase and that the second phase involved more intensive work with a few families, requiring the taking of family histories and observing daily life. Certain families obviously enjoyed the survey, were willing and open participants, and welcomed further contact with the project. The selection of families for the intensive phase struck a balance between the willing and the representative. Intensively studied families constituted approximately 20 percent of the households surveyed in each community.

We met with participants in the intensive phase from a minimum of six to as many as seventy-five hours, from three to as many as ten times, and over an average of three months' duration. The first two or three visits focused on constructing a genealogy and then compiling a land/family history, both ideal mechanisms for learning about relatives and the family's background. Furthermore, a genealogy provided something most families thought valuable that we could give in exchange for their time. The genealogies covered both husband's and wife's families from first settlement in Illinois. Many used family Bibles and mobilized relatives for assistance with forgotten facts. This process gave insights into the family's social network and the importance of such information. After collection of a genealogy, we were knowledgeable about kin relationships, and this was useful for the construction of family and (p.260) land histories. Working together on the genealogy also allowed us to build trust so that people were at ease when we discussed the more emotional issue of family land.

The land history started with the ancestor who originally settled in Illinois, and it recorded all acreage ever farmed by the family, including rental land. We asked how owned land was obtained, and we ascertained the relationship between the family and the source. Families were less reliable about rental acreage although such acreage is an important indicator of how present families survive. Census data may show rental acreage, but the source of the land and the relationship of the owner to the operator is virtually undocumented. Qualitative methods are most useful to get at this ephemeral piece of the puzzle about how Midwestern families farm.

Stories always emerged as a land history was compiled. Family feuds, grudges over inheritance equity, pleasure about outsmarting a seller, and kinship jealousy all focus on land. When a story was related about cousin Joe being unhappy with how his father divided family land, we knew who Joe was because we had done the genealogy. One German farmer close to ninety still felt guilty about how he obtained some land from a relative almost sixty years ago. He waited until his wife left the room before telling the story. Land histories provided the data for determining cultural beliefs and practices: how much land people desired, who should inherit and what, how transfers should take place, and appropriate behavior. Land provoked the most emotion among families and was the topic about which farmers always had an opinion.

When families were willing, after the genealogy and land histories were completed, we observed them engaged in normal routines for at least a day. I developed the single-day approach after reading Oscar Lewis's field methods (Lewis 1965). Although Lewis was not particular about the day used, I found fall harvesting and spring planting days were especially good for uncovering the hierarchy and division of labor as families worked together at a busy time. If a full day's observation was not possible, we minimally asked to take a meal with the family. Mealtimes reveal a family's organization in ways about which they are unaware, and thus they are not self-consciously presenting “good” behavior (Bossard 1943, 1945; Kantor and Lehr 1975). Who sits by whom, who leads the conversation, how exchanges take place, and what topics are discussed all reveal family rules, concerns, and routines. In the course of the seven, year-long studies we attended a multitude of activities with families: church services, shopping trips, funerals and weddings, farm sales, visits with neighbors and relatives, land auctions, Bible study groups, (p.261) Cooperative Extension Homemakers' groups, 4H meetings, county fairs, community homecomings, and beer parties. We also worked at combining, disking, planting, castrating pigs, and milking cows. Some students were invited to spend several days with a family and stayed at their homes. They were then privy to visiting behaviors and time schedules. The participant observation aspects of the research contributed the most data about the networks that link families to the community and the community structure.

To not be biased toward one class of individuals in the family, we attempted to interview and observe males and females and parents and children, separately and together. Because my students were almost all female, we tried to begin fieldwork with the male head of household, although we indicated an interest in talking with the farm woman. Focusing on the entire family unit dictates obtaining a picture of multiple generations and extended family branches. This was a thorny problem when various linked households were involved in a conflict. Each household must be convinced that confidentiality will be preserved while, at the same time, the interviewer is expected to be a sympathetic listener.

Aside from the survey, genealogy, and land history little writing was done while with a family. I feel note taking interrupts the natural flow of behavior. The student research assistants had taken my family interaction seminar and were trained to observe verbal and nonverbal practices that disclose a family's organization and beliefs. Rules, they understood, are implied by what is rewarded or discouraged in families. They were trained to view stories related emotionally, repeated, and discussed as indicators of fundamental concerns. They observed how money was spent and the goal of earning from the appearance of the farmstead, home, equipment, cars, and the family's leisure activities. Inheritance rules were embedded in the land history—who had received land in each generation and why.

Notes were typed as soon after a field visit as possible to avoid losing details with much elapse of time. We attempted to record everything, from who uses the telephone to what is eaten for lunch, on the principle that one never knows what is data until the analysis is in process. The quotations are a close approximation of what was said; the memory improves as one learns to mentally play back a conversation that transpired. Students were constantly worried about forgetting something, and each devised methods for jogging the memory. Writing down key words during the observation and talking into a tape recorder during the drive back from the field were two useful devices. Some subtle factors are transient, but we found important issues generally recur. Critical factors, such as a person's core beliefs or long-felt (p.262) bitterness about land, tend to be repeated at some, if not all, meetings. Those things that define a person or family were emphasized by them during interactions. Only after hearing or seeing the same thing three times in different contexts did we hypothesize a pattern. Most reported patterns were observed more frequently than the requisite three times.

A third research method employed was the investigation of archival materials. Ownership reflected in plat maps of county land (which show an own-er's name and the size of the tract) provided community-level data to trace land tenure. These concrete facts provided a comparison for our informants' observations about community patterns. Illinois has a major rural map publishing firm and therefore the state's plat map record is among the best. For the entire state, maps were issued erratically until after World War II, when they began being published every three years. However, the more prosperous and heavily populated counties had more maps issued, and this difference dictated the communities chosen for in-depth analysis. Other archival sources used included county histories (issued for most Illinois counties in the late nineteenth century), local newspapers, church documents and histories, family mementoes, and community histories. It was fortuitous that the research began in 1976, for many Illinois communities undertook writing local histories as part of the national bicentennial celebration.

Comments on Constructing Culture from Everyday Family Life

The challenge of using the domestic setting for inductively determining a cultural system is to glean a sense of community from the actions and interactions of individual families. Several principles guide this process (Salamon 1990).

1. The family is the primary arena for the socialization of neonates.

A high degree of consciousness of how to transmit, reinforce, and explain cultural practices exists in the family, a primary educational institution. The home is a context in which people are accustomed to teaching cultural rules, ideas, and beliefs. It is easy for the fieldworker as a neonate to be instructed about what family members take for granted.

2. Everyday family behavior is not random.

Rules are necessary to allow family life to flow smoothly (Garfinkel 1972; Goffman 1971). All family rules are not evidence of patterned behavior shaped by culture; some are peculiar to the family as a consequence of history and personalities. What reflects a (p.263) shared culture are those factors duplicated, rewarded, or discouraged ver-bally, nonverbally, and spatially throughout the community. Stories concerned with inheritance or succession that are related emotionally, repeated, and widely commented on, for example, represent acts that either violate or re-create cultural structure.

3. Culture permeates all aspects of life.

Beliefs are not matters easily obtained by asking people directly what they think or feel about behavior. What is most important to people, however, is present in a variety of communication channels. Often, for example, the nonverbal—where people sit, who imitates whom—reveals the family hierarchy. Everyday family life contains clues that allow a cultural system to be inferred from public behavior. I start with the public acts and evidence of family choices and work backward to get at the more private world. A reflection of priorities is found in the ordinary possessions of home or car: whether the barn or home is in better condition; whether the tractor or refrigerator is newer. Choices are clues to family goals and priorities and when widely replicated suggest aspects of a shared community culture.

4. The family is larger than the sum of its parts.

The family system must be constructed from data gathered and observed of all its members. I argue it is best to observe families in their natural context going about activities they take for granted. They lower their defenses in familiar and comfortable surroundings, and how the group works emerges. Ideal versus real behavior can only be sorted out through actual observation of family interaction.

The research strategy had to accommodate constraints presented by farm families. Fieldwork had to fit into tight schedules dictated by the seasonal demands of farming and the active community and school involvements of family members. We made appointments that were often broken, or we were told, “Call me when it rains.” Farmers would not allow the researcher to impose on them if it was inconvenient. This is not to say that we did not become intimate with families; I or my students were occasionally almost adopted. But most families wanted to know how long the interview was going to take, what it was to be used for, and whether confidentiality would be preserved. Unlike the subjects of traditional anthropology, the middle-class, educated farm families read the newspaper and are exceedingly well informed about research. Care had to be taken not to violate privacy while telling their story. I have given the communities pseudonyms and have altered details about people to make identification difficult without destroying meaning. Once I addressed a group of 4H leaders that included members of some communities I had studied. I explained that although they might (p.264) choose to tell others about their participation, I would keep their identities confidential.

I felt an obligation to repay the families by informing others about their lives, as I had justified the research to them. Each professional journal article I published was translated—with the assistance of Gary Beaumont in the University of Illinois Agricultural Communications Department—into television and radio spots which were broadcast across the state and sometimes nationally. I have also written popular articles and done news releases about my findings. This book also contributes to my responsibility to make their lives known to policymakers and perhaps influence the policy-making process.