Helping hands: The role of assistants in Ethnobotany

Post by Karsten Fatur, SEB student representative elect, PhD student in biology at the University of Ljubljana.

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As the sun shone on the Adriatic, I watched families flocking to the beach, enjoying another perfect day in paradise. My legs, however, were not carrying me to the sea’s cool embrace, and my back turned on the pristine beauty and revelry behind me.

I knew today was not a perfect day.

At about 35 degrees by 10am with the sun beating down on me, I headed off to conduct my interviews for the day on the usage of medicinal plants in the coastal region of Slovenia. Though the weather was indeed beautiful for a day on the beach or one spent reading in the shade, for fieldwork it was not ideal. For hours I stood in the hot sun, unable to find shade in the scrubby Mediterranean vegetation. My hands were busy trying to do a many things (taking notes, collecting and photographing samples, and recording the interviews), so I could not hold the umbrella I would usually use to shade myself from the sun. When the wind picked up, things got even worse, with my samples trying to fly away with each gust that also pulled at my various supplies and made it more difficult to hear the informants whose answers were crucial to my research. At one point, the cellphone I was recording on overheated and could no longer function. 

I, however, was lucky; I had assistance. An extra set of hands from my friend who had accompanied me to help me with interviews on that day. Hands that held the phone close to informants’ mouths as they spoke, while I gathered samples with others. Hands that flew in to offer extra hold on things that tried to fly off in the wind. A body that would sometimes stand over me and block the sun’s harsh rays from falling on the back of my neck. 

Field assistants, the unsung heroes of ethnobotanical research. Though in my case just a friend with no background in either botany or cultural studies, just the extra set of hands so eager to help made all the difference in a day that otherwise could have been a disaster. 

Whether they be friends, family members, student assistants, or local guides, those who assist us in our research carry out a fundamental role that I feel is too often overlooked. In their least-involved capacity perhaps they are carrying some of your things for you, but at most, they may be the local person who speaks a language that you do not and is your only means of communicating with the people you are trying to interview. 

I must admit, before this day I had given the thought of assistants little thought; I have always conducted research in areas where I was able to communicate with the local people, and my previous fieldwork had been at a much slower pace. But with three individuals all standing around waiting on me in order to share their knowledge and get on with their days out of the sun, the pressure to carry out my tasks as quickly as possible was on. Without the help that day, I simply would not have been able to carry out my work. I would have lost samples to the wind, my recording would have been muffled from being down on the ground with me by the plants, and I surely would have come home realising that my day had been a complete failure on the research front. 

It does beg the question of what role a research assistant plays in our work. An author for a publication is usually one who makes an intellectual contribution to the work, but isn’t this what a local translator would be doing? Taking the words of their peers and shaping them into a narrative in a language that we can understand. In this case, the assistant is the first filter on the data. Does this make their contribution significant enough to warrant being included as an author on your publication, or is a note of thanks in the article more appropriate? I don’t have an answer to this question. I suppose context is key. But where do we draw the line between someone who has carried out field research with us and someone who has helped us carry out field research? Maybe these are pedantic questions, but since that day I have thought of them. 

Though ultimately my friend will not be listed as an author on the paper that will hopefully come from this research, he will definitely be thanked in it. Though he may not have translated for me or helped to identify plants, the extra set of hands was exactly what I needed on that day, and a true show of friendship that he was willing to come and help me when he could have spent his day on the nearby beach lounging in the shade while the clear blue waves lapped at his feet. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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