It is no great secret that when engaging in that extremely self-centred endeavour called 'participant observation', the field worker is her/his own best friend and worst obstacle. It is these latter two that keep the observer in a prison entirely of its own making. In order to come with anything worthwhile knowing, a jailbreak is mandatory; without it, we remain stuck with a diary that may be of interest to the observer's self, but that is entirely irrelevant to give us any insight into the lives of others the whole exercise of 'participant observation' is said to be about.
The classical example is the work of the father of 'participant observation', Bronislav Malinovski, who clearly separated the result of his observations on the Trobrianders, such as recorded in his majestic Argonauts of the Western Pacific (London: Routledge 1922) from his personal apprehensions, emotions, and experiences, such as recorded in his A Diary in the True Sense of the Word in which he revealed his frustrations, irritations, and solitude. Whereas the Argonauts was written in his (and our) adopted English, A Diary is in the language of the heart, his native Polish.
In the first three-fourth of Just Enough, Manickam's in itself sympathetic view into her own life and experiences exposes us to a surfeit of apprehensions, prejudices, and other personal obstacles that tell us about her being 'in the field', but that are not very enlightening about the ways of the people she has come to 'understand'. Of course, she is a forester, there to curb the predatory push-net fishing and to protect the life-giving mangrove forest along the coast; by no means is she a trained anthropologist! In that way, we remain stuck with an intensely self-centred account of six weeks in a small, out-of-the-way fishing village where she does not understand the local variety of Malay and in which Thai is not familiar to most. Even so, she records about her short visit there and another two weeks on the West Coast of the peninsula as if she had all sorts of fluid conversations and understandings. I would have appreciated it, if she had been clearer about her overcoming the language barrier.
Many people are said to have encouraged her to write, although I find it weird that a respected colleague of mine stimulated her to write "beautiful prose" (x). This is about the last advice an aspiring author needs, and so the reader has to deal with many old people's toothless grins and smiles, with everything being used becoming battered, and a Niagara of other adjectives. Toppers among the embellishments are, "in bucolic landscapes of the national imagination" (74), the "pristine streets of Munich" (131), and a "weary little path that crawled toward..." (172).
When we are approximately at page 150, author and reader are regaled with the redemption of understanding the native way of life. Islam is no longer an obstacle to progress that keeps women down—‘in America, we are free!’—as it becomes the trusted pillar of a way of life; in view of the ecology of fishing in the murky waters of Pattani Bay or in the over-fished waters on the Bay of Thailand, the officially propagated "just-enough economy" and its modest aspirations make sense, as they set realistic limits to what can be hoped for. "Just Enough" is a way of life of people with poor means and little formal education that is nourished by religious learning and the wisdom of resignation to Allah's plan.
Even so, at the end of the exercise the author still inhabits her personal cage and has not been able to achieve the distance between 'data' and 'self' that was exemplified in Malinovski's Argonauts and Diary. It would have been more than can be expected from a very short experience of an out-of-the-way fishing village.
Niels Mulder has retired to the southern slope of the mystically potent Mt. Banáhaw, Philippines, where he stays in touch through <email@example.com>
My scepsis and reservations regarding field work have been elaborated in "Doing Anthropology", pp. 190-208 of Mulder, N. 2012. Situating Filipino Civilisation in Southeast Asia. Reflections and observations, Saarbruecken: LAP Lambert Academic Publishing (print-to-order edition, ISBN 978-3-659-13083-0).