Siirry suoraan sisältöön

Ethnographic Postcards: The Mean Girl

This text was written six months after finishing ethnographic fieldwork at an after-school club in Helsinki. I was working on a journal article based on my fieldwork data and spending a lot of time thinking about how the children in the study interacted with each other and the world around them. Overall, my fieldwork experience was wonderful, but there were several unsettling moments and characters that continue to play on my mind, leaving me with questions about my own role.

Location: Helsinki, Finland / After-school club (iltapäiväkerho)

Children’s names have been changed to protect anonymity.

She was the very definition of a mean girl at the tender age of ten. From such a gloriously glittery exterior – with her carefully styled hair and the essential fluffy pink keyring dangling from her backpack – erupted venomous words that could only have been intended to terrorise the small gaggle of classmates desperately competing for approval every day.

When she’s doing homework with Frida and their classmate Kristi wants to join them, she glares at her and says:

“Don’t copy me. It’s not my fault you can’t do maths, stupid. Actually, don’t even look in my direction while you’re doing your homework in case you’re cheating. I know what you’re like.”

Kristi’s protests received only dark looks, so she accepted her fate and sat a couple of metres away, overly focused on her maths book. Frida sat by and said nothing while the mean girl glared over at Kristi occasionally, re-positioning her backpack so that her maths book was hidden.

How is the observant anthropologist supposed to react to such a child? 

She was old enough to know better, really. If she’d been one of my students when I was teaching, it would have been much simpler. I’d have reminded her to be nice to others, to choose to be kind, and to think about how our words and actions can hurt. 

I’d have checked in with her in case she was reacting to something bigger that was going on at home. I’d have discussed it with her parents or other teachers and with her and her friends, edging them in the direction of friendliness. 

But as an ethnographer, where do I draw the line between observation and participation? 

Should I take on the disciplinary adult role, guiding, checking, teaching, even scolding this child? Do I even have that right as a visitor? 

And what are the implications for my research, whose entire purpose is to understand how children work out such conflicts and tensions with each other? 

But at the same time, how can I justify sitting by and watching her, listening to the venom pouring out of her when I see how it affects others? 

When my own body reacts with unease and dislike as I catch the faces of her so-called friends as they experience this sudden rejection in turn. Will my silence be seen as tacit approval of this behaviour, encouraging her to go on, giving her even more power over her peers? 

When she turns up late, and Kristi cheerfully explains that she and Frida are racing on the monkey bars, timing themselves to see who can stay up the longest:

“Ugh, what a boring baby game. I would beat you guys anyway because you’re weak, and she’s fat and heavy, but I don’t even want to try something so boring. Let’s play with our cats instead. But she can stay there.”

And she stalks off with Kristi, who savours her moment of being safe from scorn, without a glance back at Frida hanging alone on the monkey bars.

Both Frida and Kristi would tell me that she was their best friend, constantly vying over her attention and revelling in their moments of being included.

Best friends don’t treat you like that – I always wanted to say. 

But just how involved should I get? What could I do? Surely mentioning it to the staff was enough? Was it really my place to try and change it? 

All this I dealt with neatly in the ethical review process, but as it unfolded in reality it caused an amalgamation of feelings; guilt – dislike – relief – avoidance. 

As soon as she realised I was a more-or-less passive observer, I got to experience her charms too. When Frida complimented my new puffy coat, a necessity in the sub-zero temperatures that come with December in Helsinki:

“Well, I don’t like your coat, you look like a fat pink bubble. Why are you even here?”

There’s a defiant look in her eyes, daring me to call her out. Can I? Should I? Would I be doing that as an adult? A researcher? Just another human person sharing space and time with her and finding it difficult to do so without dislike?

It wasn’t even her words that I found so shocking. It was the cutting, to-the-point, and scarily adult way in which they were voiced. She seemed to enjoy the power that came with having dedicated followers to manipulate. 

She sticks with me even now. Remembering causes an unpleasant visceral reaction in me that is so at odds with the rest of the time I spent with the children at the club. 

I still wonder where her words came from. I feel sorry for her and the dedicated friends who were so in awe of her that they put up with this on a daily basis. 

I feel like I didn’t do enough to challenge her or make sure her friends know they don’t need to put up with being treated like that. 

She was the grey area of my fieldwork, the place where my being an adult member of society and my being a researcher overlapped in a confusion of roles, and I can’t help but feel like I got something wrong.

What are Ethnographic Postcards?

‘Ethnographic Postcards’ began on the small island of Vallisaari as part of a writing workshop during a University of Helsinki anthropology discipline outing held in May 2022. 

The workshop was inspired by anthropologist Alisse Waterston, who prior to the outing on Vallisaari had just visited Helsinki to present at the Anthropology Visiting Seminar.

Her paper, ‘Making Knowledge Accessible’, explores how anthropologists can take on more experimental formats and efforts to communicate the work we do. To apply what she taught us, we walked along Vallisaari’s coastal trails and shared our experiences and emotions associated with writing. 

Ethnographic writing can be very personal and ignite unexpected feelings when diving into stories and experiences that have been gathered from the field.

Writing makes visible what we do know, but it also sheds light on the possible wrongdoings of the ethnographer – making the writing process a daunting task to start with. 

Writing groups are a space where one can share feelings of joy and success, but also of fear and procrastination – all things related to the process of (ethnographic) writing. 

We met once a month with the aim of writing a standalone piece of no more than 1000 words within forty-five minutes. Also inspired by Professor Waterston, we used Carole McGranahan’s online series of Flash Ethnography in American Ethnologist as a prompt. 

Everyone who participated in the sessions usually came to the collective writing sessions with an idea about what they were going to write about – a person, scene, conversation, place or subject based on each person’s fieldwork. 

As works in progress, the purpose of these writing sessions was to turn these ideas into life; to see how they catch the light. 

This series of anthropological stories is the outcome of our writing sessions. We take postcards as a metaphor to share personalised events. 

Similar to the postcards mailed as souvenirs from another place that showcase an iconic city landscape or monumental site, our postcards evoke memories from the anthropologists’ field sites.

AntroBlogi in English

AntroBlogi has always been adamant about promoting the use of the Finnish language in sharing academic viewpoints and knowledge produced within Finnish anthropology. With this series, AntroBlogi has opened the door to experimenting with other languages too. 

Finnish anthropology hosts researchers from all over the world – and AntroBlogi should be a virtual space for everybody making a difference in the local community. 

This does not mean that there will be less Finnish language content on the site nor that we will try to pivot to a global audience. Similar to the ‘Ethnographic Postcards’ series, we want to keep our publishing work open-ended so that it keeps evolving together with the discipline and the local academic community.

Editorial team

  • Writers (What are Ethnographic Postcards): Suvi Rautio & Emmi Holm
  • Editor: Emmi Holm
  • Podcaster: Eemi Nordström
  • Layout: Niina Ahola
  • Featured image: Heikki Wilenius/OpenAI Dall-E 2
Jaa tämä artikkeli:

Maija Sequeira

Maija Sequeira is a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Helsinki. Her research uses a cognitive anthropology approach to compare child-rearing and socialisation practices, and the norms and values that shape them, in two distinct socio-cultural contexts: Helsinki, Finland and Santa Marta, Colombia.Katso kirjoittajan artikkelit

Osallistu keskusteluun

Sähköpostiosoitettasi ei julkaista. Pakolliset kentät on merkitty *