At the end of this chapter, you’ll be able to:
- Plan, write and conduct interviews with primary informants.
- Visit a cultural space and analyze the cultural symbols in the space.
- Analyze your fieldwork data by selecting and applying a theoretical approach.
2.1 Introduction to Fieldwork
An ethnography is a description of a culture, custom, group of people, beliefs, and practices. Cultural anthropologists always take a holistic approach which means that we look at many elements that tie together to create a lived experience. We are not focused on making moral judgments, nor are we interested in proving anyone’s belief systems to be true, false, better, or worse. Rather, we strive to understand a group of people in their own, culturally specific logic. You are expected to achieve all of these goals whenever you conduct your own fieldwork.
If required to complete ethnographic fieldwork for your anthropology class, you’ll likely encounter some of the most common challenges faced by anthropologists:
- You will need to understand the other culture’s specific logic. This means that, when something doesn’t make sense to you, you need to ask yourself, “what would need to be true for this to be the case?“ You will need to speak to the people in the community and try to get to the bottom of the beliefs and practices that are the most foreign to you.
- You will need to avoid removing the power from the people that you’re interviewing. While you are expected to compose the paper, yourself, you should still rely heavily on the information given to you by members of the community. Feel free to include long quotes and stories directly from the community. You are expected to comment on information coming from your informants; you are expected to analyze the cultural practices anthropologically. But, you should try your best to amplify the voices of the people that you are studying at the same time.
- You will need to overcome the instinctual desire to measure others’ cultures against your own. If you approach the culture with the idea that it should be measured against your own belief systems, then you will not succeed in your fieldwork. You need to understand the community on its own terms and be prepared to understand the community based on its own standards.
2.2 Participant Observation: A Practical Guide for Students
Remember that there are four steps of participant observation. As students of anthropology (likely completing a miniature ethnography), you’ll need to demonstrate your ability to engage with these concepts within the limitations of your anthropology course.
- Stay for a long time: Without the ability to travel and live abroad for years as part of your anthropology class, you should still achieve a truncated version of this important step. When you plan to visit your community-of-study, plan to stay as long as possible. Don’t simply swing by their information booth for 15 minutes and then go home. Rather, stay for many hours, share a meal with the community, participate in their activities and rituals. Whenever possible, return for a second visit and follow up with your informants.
- Get off the veranda: You will need to participate in the culture at the same time that you are observing it. As you are required to engage in the cultural practices, please pick a community that you feel comfortable participating with. When you are engaging in the step, do not, for example, sit in the very back of a church slumped down ignoring the people in the church. You need to sit in the front, pray with them, shake hands, and participate in the actual events in order to understand them from the people’s perspective.
- Learn the language: It’s likely that you already speak the languages of the community that you’ll be studying as your research will be conducted locally. However, you should expect to learn some new culturally specific terms while you are talking to the people. Maybe you’ll learn slang terms, or you’ll learn the professional terms they use in their field. But try to identify at least one or two new words and then explain to your instructor how they reveal something about the people’s cultural beliefs and priorities.
- Explore the Mundane Imponderabilia: You need to make the strange familiar and make the familiar strange throughout your research. Try to understand how your beliefs and practices are constructed and confusing to outsiders, while simultaneously trying to make sense of cultural practices that are confusing to you.
2.3 Emotion, Storytelling, and Vivid Language
Strong ethnographic research incorporates narrative elements and storytelling. When conducting and writing your own research, you may want to incorporate any of the following types of stories:
- A story that reflects on your personal experience in the new culture
- A historical tale that shapes the culture that you are studying
- A myth that is sacred to the community that you are studying
Remember also that you are a human being studying human beings so your emotional experiences during fieldwork are important to include in your research. If you felt scared upon entering the community and then felt relieved to find that they were very welcoming, then that would be an important element to include in your research. You can also vividly describe the environment including sights, smells, flavors (if the community feeds you).
In fieldwork, anthropologists strive to develop rapport with their community of study. We use the word rapport to refer to a close and friendly relationship through which individuals can clearly communicate. In other words, if you are able to develop a relationship with the people that you’re interviewing, then your fieldwork will go smoothly. In the interest of smooth fieldwork, please try to maintain a respectful relationship with the community throughout your research process. You can achieve this in the following ways:
- Remember to be grateful. The community that you are studying is doing you the favor of helping you complete your research, you are not doing them any favors. In the past, the vast majority of my students have maintained professional and respectful relationships with the people in their community that they were studyingYou will benefit from that reputation when you start your fieldwork. Please help future students have an easy time by maintaining a relationship of mutual respect.
- Be honest with yourself about your limitations. If you know that you will not be able to keep an 8 AM interview appointment on a Saturday, then please do not schedule it. Try to keep your word with the people that you are studying and, if they can’t accommodate your own schedule and needs, then go ahead and switch to a different topic that is easier to achieve.
- Prioritize your own dignity. It’s rare that anthropology students are not welcome in a community but it is possible. If you do not feel comfortable with the community that you planned to study, please switch topics. When conducting research, you should not feel unsafe in any way.
2.5 Primary Informants
An essential feature of anthropological research is the interview. Cultural anthropologists establish strong relationships with a primary informant. Your primary informant will be the person who you trust the most in the community and, likely, the person that you will conduct your interview(s) with.
It is likely that your informant will be the first person that you reach out to when you contact your chosen community of study. However, it’s possible that the first person you reach out to will forward you on to someone who is a better fit for your research. Either way, you’ll need to identify who your informant is in your paper. You are always welcome to anonymize anyone’s name in your research because your paper may be posted publicly or shared widely. However, when you have your informant fill in a consent form, you must include their actual name and contact information.
2.6 Gaining Consent
It is unethical to include any interview information from anyone who has not expressly consented to be interviewed. You are required to gain written consent from members of your community of study. Ensure that your informants sign your consent forms before you conduct your interview. This book will offer a sample consent form that you are welcome to use.
Sometimes, anthropology students forget to bring any consent forms only to learn that their informants do not feel comfortable signing after the interviews are complete. This is unfortunate because that student’s hard work could not be turned into a research paper. Please make sure this does not happen to you; make sure that you get consent before you interview.
Please understand that some communities will simply not feel comfortable signing a consent form. There are many communities in this world who, for a very good reason, do not trust outsiders coming in and asking them to sign things. If anyone refuses to sign your consent form, please accept their right to refuse and move on to either a new informant or to a new community altogether.
2.7 Planning and Conducting Interviews
You’ll need to interview at least one member of the community after having completed the following steps:
- Reach out to the community and schedule a time to join an event and conduct an interview
- Get your consent forms signed
- Participate in at least one cultural event with the community of study
Whenever possible, try to diversify the types of people that you are talking to. For example, if you only interview a group of men then you will not get a chance to understand how that culture is experienced by all genders. That being said, if you are specifically studying men’s experiences, then it would be appropriate to only interview men. But, in that case, please interview men and boys of different ages. Or, speak to leadership and laypeople. The more diverse the viewpoints, the stronger your research will be.
Write up a few questions before you go into your interview. You’re welcome to ask whatever you want. It’s recommended that you formulate your questions in the following way:
- Avoid writing your questions with anthropological language. For example, asking someone what “myths” or “magic” they believe in might be offensive because they assume that you are implying that their sacred stories and beliefs are untrue. Instead, rephrase in a way that is more respectful and understandable to people who have not taken an anthropology class.
- Decide exactly what you want to understand about this community and structure your questions in that direction. Try to come up with an interesting thesis. So, identify a unique angle that you want to examine, and then prepare to interview on that topic.
- Remember that you are not an undercover cop trying to unveil any kind of secrets from this community. Anthropologists are open and honest about their motivations. You should always be transparent about what you are trying to understand, and how you are trying to understand it.
- Consider drafting 5 to 10 questions but prepare yourself to throw out a few questions throughout the interview. You may get an informant who is difficult to interview or someone who talks for so long that you never get a chance to reach the other questions. All of these circumstances are perfectly fine. Simply focus on identifying some bits of information that you can turn into a research, and don’t worry about strictly sticking to your interview plan.
- Be prepared to improvise questions throughout the interview. You do not have to stick to prepared questions, you may want to take your conversation in an entirely new direction and you should be open to that organic flow.
- Write both directive questions and open-ended questions. Directive questions are structured in a way that requires a singular, clear, direct answer (often a yes or a no). Directive questions can help you get to the bottom of something that you need a clear answer on. Open-ended questions allow the respondent to elaborate in a variety of different ways. Often open-ended questions to allow for more cultural context.
- You do not know if you will be interviewing someone who is clear, or a lengthy talker and you should prepare for both.
Plan to interview your informant in a setting that is comfortable for them. It’s always best to interview them in their own cultural space because then you can observe how they interact with, decorate, and organize their cultural space. However, please assure that you never put yourself in harm’s way. Your dignity and safety should always come first; please do not meet your informant somewhere that does not seem safe.
When you are interviewing please remember to be an active listener. We use the term ”active listening” when someone is clearly engaged in the conversation. When you are listening actively, you are nodding your head, smiling, asking follow-up questions, making eye contact, and clearly participating in the discussion. If you are staring blankly at the informant and giving them no feedback, they will not be inclined to give you the lengthy answers that you need to write a meaningful paper.
You’re encouraged you to take some notes during your interview so that you don’t forget the informant’s body language, the specific words, statistics, or terminology that they use, or anything else that you are likely to forget. However, please do not take so many notes that you are no longer listening actively.
Many students ask if they can record interviews on their phones. The answer to this is yes, however, please sincerely ask yourself if you will ever actually listen to the recordings. If you plan to record the interview, you must record yourself asking the informant if they are willing to be recorded and ensure that they respond in the affirmative on the recording. California is a dual consent state so you cannot record someone without their clear consent on the recording.
2.8 Journaling and Drafting
After conducting your fieldwork, be sure to sit down and journal all of your thoughts and feelings. Do not wait until you get home, but rather sit in your car or at the bus stop, and record everything that you can remember before you leave the space. When you journal, consider writing down the following:
- All of your initial impressions
- The new words that you learned
- Items to look into after leaving
- Follow up questions
- Anything that confused you
- Your emotional state before and after the interviews
- Sights, sounds, the atmosphere of the setting
- Any words or statistics that your informant mentioned that you need to look up upon arriving home
Taking this step will help you have more material to draw on when it comes time to draft your paper.
2.9 Getting Community Feedback
Finally, in order to ensure accuracy in your work, it’s highly recommended that you draft your paper a few days before the paper is due. Then, you can email your draft to your primary informant for concrete feedback. Getting feedback from your informant is a wonderful way to make sure that you are amplifying the voices of the people that you are studying and to ensure that you are representing them correctly.
Glenn Jordan and Delmos Jones are two anthropologists who have re-invented the meaning of ethnographic fieldwork. Continue on to better understand their approach to fieldwork and ethnography and to consider how their ideas and research can help shape your own.
2.10 Glenn Jordan: Visual Anthropologist
Adapted from Representations. Written by Zoe Jensen. Edited by Erin Hayes and Amanda Zunner-Keating.
Ethnographies are a staple of anthropological fieldwork. These deep, vivid descriptions of a people, culture or society allow for an understanding – and appreciation – of the vast cultural differences found around the world. Arguably beginning with anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski’s 1922 ethnography, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, anthropologists have long been using vivid literary devices and elements of storytelling to enhance their work and connect readers to the people their books aim to represent. With technological advancements in an increasingly digitized world, anthropologists can now explore means of describing the people they study that go beyond words on a sheet of paper. Photography, videos, and even social media are now being used to complement fieldwork, creating more dynamic modes of storytelling that engage the senses.
An anthropologist, photographer, and curator — Glenn Jordan has dedicated his life to documenting and sharing the stories of people and their cultures particularly through a passion for photography. His work champions the underdog and advocates for an appreciation of human diversity. The focus of Jordan’s research, ethnographies, and exhibitions is representation. Jordan states, “Behind everything I do, all my photography is all about identity and representation and culture, multiculturalism” (Haf 2012). Through exposure and education he aspires to challenge ignorance. Jordan uses his photography to enhance and bring life to his ethnographic work. By enhancing cultural knowledge through photographic representation, Jordan more vividly reflects the stories told by his informants (ibid).
While early anthropologists looked to study isolated cultures, modern anthropologists – operating in an increasingly globalized world – analyze how interactions between people shape our identities. Jordans exhibitions particularly look at the life and history of minorities present in Ireland and Wales. Jordan uses his visual art to tell the stories of Somali people living in Wales and Sikh communities in Ireland, among others. Jordan’s 2015 collaboration with Andrew McNeill titled, “Under the Bridge: Being Homeless in Cardiff” explores the lives of unhoused people living in Wales (“Glenn Jordan” n.d.; Haf 2012). His article titled, “An African Presence in Europe” (2008) describes his ethnographic research on Somali people living in Wales as “an exercise in anti-racist education” (Jordan 2008). Jordan aims to improve understanding between diverse groups to create a more united community that does not discriminate against those of different backgrounds (Haf 2012).
Jordan is known to have a sensitive and caring nature which allows him to connect easily with those he photographs, often resulting in a willingness from people to be vulnerable and to tell difficult stories. The ability to develop a fruitful relationship with our communities-of-study is an essential step in anthropological fieldwork. When we invest in communities and follow the ethical codes necessary to establish genuine trust, we develop a good rapport (a relationship based on clear and direct communication) with our informants. The backbone of anthropology is fieldwork and good fieldwork requires meaningful interviews with diverse cultural groups.
Jordan has written several books and articles on culture, race, and African American history. Cultural Politics (1995), co-authored with Chris Weedon, focuses on power and reflects on the ways in which the constructs of class, gender, and race are upheld and perpetuated — Jordan writes “Social inequality is legitimated through culture” — or even how these social divisions may be challenged in a culture.
These themes are also touched upon in a later work with Weedon, in which the pair examine collective memory and its role in identity creation along racial and gender lines, among others (Weedon & Jordan 2012). They note the many influences on collective memory including the ways it may be politicized or biased to serve a dominant group (ibid).
Anthropologists use the term collective memory to refer to way that family, groups, and/or communities might share similar ideas of past events. Of course, as human memory is not perfect, social scientists know that our memories are largely impacted by the dominant narratives that are perpetuated by powerful groups. So when examining collective memory, we must take a holistic approach that considers the complex web of influences that may impact our ideas of past events.
In his piece “Re-membering the African-American Past” (2011), Jordan describes the art and history of the Harlem Renaissance as well as the “New Negro” that emerged during this time through in-depth analysis of the works of Langston Hughes and Aaron Douglas (Jordan 2011). Jordan’s work explores numerous facets of power and multiculturalism. has advocated for the agency of marginalized groups and championed the beauty of diversity through it all.
As an active member of the Association of Black Anthropologists (ABA), Jordan was editor of the association’s newsletter from 1981 to 1985, while also serving as treasurer (Harrison 1987). Here he notably instituted the ABA’s Occasional Paper series, thus expanding ABA’s publishing range and provided an opportunity for further valuable literature on racism, colonialism, and African Americans in anthropology, among others (ibid). His dedication and stability within the organization would later lead him to become vice president (ibid).
Jordan has also curated several exhibitions across Ireland and Wales (Jordan n.d.). The same year Jordan arrived in the UK, he and the community founded the Butetown History & Arts Centre in Cardiff as a project dedicated to history and education, with aims to educate on the history and cultures of minorities and immigrants within the city and Wales in general through events, exhibitions, and books (ibid). By highlighting the vibrant diversity of the area and campaigning compassion and appreciation for others, the goal is to fight prejudice and inspire appreciation for the variety of cultures present (ibid).
Through dedication to education, whether as a professor, in the curation of exhibitions, or in publishing works committed to multiculturalism and the study of power, Jordan has no doubt contributed greatly to the advocacy for Black anthropologists and other under-represented groups. Jordan’s recent works and the lasting effects of the organizations and institutions he has been a part of demonstrating a continuous impact on the world and undoubtedly will inspire and teach countless more.
2.11 Delmos Jones: Ethics in Fieldwork
Adapted from Representations. Written by Amanda Zuner-Keating and Ben Shepard. Edited by Laurie Solis.
A written ethnography presents a way of understanding a culture based on an anthropologist’s insights and experiences as a participant observer. However, as it turns out, there is more than one way to understand a culture. We will sometimes find it useful to distinguish two separate perspectives we use when studying cultures, the emic perspective and the etic perspective, each highlighting a fundamentally different way of viewing cultural beliefs and behaviors. Each of these perspectives has an important place in the anthropologist’s toolkit.
Anthropological fieldwork involves immersing oneself in a group’s day-to-day activities, participating in their rituals, attending social gatherings, and conversing with cultural insiders. All of this is done with the goal of understanding the culture from the perspective of its actual members. To learn how cultural insiders see the world is to gain what we call an emic perspective. Another way to say this is that when we take an emic perspective, we are looking at the world around us through the eyes of a member of a particular culture, interpreting it in terms of their beliefs, preconceptions, and categories.
In contrast, another approach that anthropologists use when trying to gain an understanding of a culture is what we call an etic perspective. This term refers to a way of observing a culture without the preconceptions, attitudes, or cultural knowledge of its members. In other words, an etic perspective is supposed to be free of any cultural biases, even cultural insiders’ perspectives about their own reasons for doing what they do.
Anthropologist Delmos Jones researched both perspectives throughout his career and he outlined his findings in his publication, “Towards A Native Anthropology.” In this influential work, Jones makes the case that anthropologists must increasingly focus on studying their own communities. Jones rightly argued that anthropology’s exclusive focus on being the “outsider looking in” was steeped in ideas of cultural supremacy (the exact racist and colonial worldviews that anthropology now strives to overcome). By working as both outsider and insider throughout his career, Jones exemplified a new, modern style of anthropological research that is now widely embraced by our field.
Jones conducted research in three separate areas: among the Papago Indians of Southern Arizona, among the Lahu of Northern Thailand, and within the Black community of Denver, Colorado. Each of these areas of research led Jones to profound conclusions that shaped the future of anthropology, and his work within Black communities in Denver offered a particularly powerful insight toward the power of “native anthropology”. Jones writes, “I am an intrinsic part of the social situation that I am attempting to study. As part of the situation, I must also be part of the attempt to forge a solution (Jones 255).”
Jones lived from 1936–1999. Jones grew up partially in the South and partially in Oakland, California. Each circumstance influenced how he viewed the world: the former offered him an intimate knowledge of the Jim Crow South and how people struggled in oppressive cultural systems; the latter introduced Jones to the diversity of cultural views and political engagement (Klugh 2018). Later in life, in San Francisco, Jones earned his degree in anthropology in an era when student and faculty activism was on the rise alongside the increased popularity of anti-racism and feminism.
After moving to Arizona, Jones’ initial position was as a field researcher among the Papago of Arizona. In this position, Jones developed his new anthropological consciousness: studying “the other” was also an opportunity to study one’s own cultural understanding of the self. Jones found that anthropological research should not create a false binary of “West versus other” but that, rather, anthropologists should utilize the unique perspectives of our own cultural knowledge to offer insights about our communities and the other groups that we work among.
“As a graduate student, whenever I read descriptions of other people’s way of life, I could never quite escape the notion that the writer could just as well be talking about me, and the way I lived as a Black youth in the rural south in the 1940’s…I saw the Papago more as a poor people than as “Indians”…What I saw were people, who lived very similarly to the rural Black and White people of my childhood in rural Alabama (Jones cited in Klugh 2018.)”
Delmos Jones was particularly concerned with ethics within anthropology. While working in Thailand, the local government became interested in seeking out identifying information about socialist groups and demanded that Jones’ research be handed over (Klugh 2018). Jones recognized that he could no longer conduct ethical fieldwork as his work was being used to target political groups; as a result, he suspended his research and subsequently published guidance for future anthropologists to protect the identities and lives of informants in the field.
As fieldwork is the backbone of anthropology, ethical fieldwork is a core value of our field. Without establishing and following ethical procedures, anthropologists are unable to accurately reflect – and protect – the lives of the informants who share their cultural knowledge with us. The American Anthropological Association offers 7 clear guidelines for anthropologists to pursue ethical fieldwork; each is essential for anthropologists pursuing ethnographic fieldwork.
The seven Principles of Professional Responsibility in the AAA Statement on Ethics are:
- Do No Harm: Above all else, anthropologists must not harm their communities of study. This principle emphasizes the role of anthropologists as researchers whereby we must not experiment on or manipulate the communities who we are striving to better understand. Additionally, we cannot publish information that would jeopardize the safety or wellbeing of the community.
- Be Open and Honest Regarding Your Work: Deception has no role in anthropological fieldwork. Anthropologists must remain transparent about our work. We share the purpose and implications of our fieldwork with our informants.
- Obtain Informed Consent and Necessary Permissions: Before conducting any interviews or field observations, anthropologists must communicate their research interests and purpose to their informants and gain informed consent. Information gathered without consent cannot be used in any anthropological publications.
- Weigh Competing Ethical Obligations Due Collaborators and Affected Parties: Anthropologists must consider how time, research, and publication might impact the people and institutions who we research and work with. Vulnerable groups must be protected and prioritized in fieldwork, research, and publication.
- Make Your Results Accessible: The communities that we study have a right to understand and engage with any publications that result from our fieldwork. Your conclusions must be made available to the people who we interviewed and observed.
- Protect and Preserve Your Records: Anthropologists must keep their research preserved (while protecting confidentiality).
- Maintain Respectful and Ethical Professional Relationships: Anthropologists are required to respect colleagues and informants alike. Always credit informants or fellow anthropologists for their own information and research while always prioritizing equitable workplaces and field sites.
When we look at Delmos Jones’ work, we see that we owe him a great deal. Jones developed a methodology to protect the safety and identity of informants and referred to his own field experiences to press the importance of informant protection. Additionally, Jones pushed for a new direction in the field known as “native anthropology.” While cultural anthropologists were aware of the colonial legacy the marred the legitimacy of our field for generations, Jones identified and implemented a path to research that tangibly addressed these problems.
Which area of human life would you like to study as an anthropologist?
Which ethnographic research methods would you adopt in your own research?
Before moving on, ensure that you can define the following terms in your own words:
- Ethnographic Research Methods:
- Primary Informant:
- Directive Questions:
- Open-ended questions:
- Active Listening:
- Express Consent:
- Dual Consent State:
Ensure that you can briefly summarize the arguments of these social scientists:
- Delmos Jones
- Glenn Jordan
Chapter 2 Works Cited
- “Glenn Jordan.” Academia, n.d, cardiff.academia.edu/GlennJordan.
- Haf, Nia, and Glenn Jordan. “In Conversation with Glenn Jordan.” Nia Haf, 2012, nia-haf.co.uk/for-part-of-our/.
- Harrison, Ira E. “The Association of Black Anthropologists: A Brief History.” Anthropology Today, vol. 3, no. 1, 1987, pp. 17–21.
- Jones, Delmos. “Epilogue.” Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further toward an Anthropology for Liberation, by Faye Venetia Harrison, Association of Black Anthropologists, American Anthropological Association, 2010.
- Jones, Delmos. “Towards a Native Anthropology.” Human Organization, vol. 29, no. 4, 1970, pp. 251–259., doi:10.17730/humo.29.4.717764244331m4qv.
- Jordan, Glenn. “An African Presence in Europe.” Cultural Studies, vol. 22, no. 2, 2008, pp. 328–353., doi:10.1080/09502380701789232.
- Jordan, Glenn. “Dr Glenn Jordan, Butetown History & Arts Centre.” GOT Project, n.d., got.uk.net/index.php/news-events/launch-programme/128-dr-glenn-jordan-butetown-history- arts-centre.
- Jordan, Glenn. “Re-Membering the African-American Past.” Cultural Studies, vol. 25, no. 6, 2011, pp. 848–891., doi:10.1080/09502386.2011.605269.
- Jordan, Glenn, and Chris Weedon. Cultural Politics: Class, Gender, Race And The Postmodern World. Wiley-Blackwell, 1995.
- Klugh, Elgin. “Delmos Jones and the End of Neutrality.” The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology, University of Illinois Press, 2018.
- Weedon, Chris & Glenn Jordan. “Collective memory: theory and politics”, Social Semiotics, 22:2, 2012, pp. 143-153, doi: 10.1080/10350330.2012.664969.
Written by Amanda Zunner-Keating. Edited by Tad McIlwraith, Julie Vazquez, Erin Hayes, and Ben Shepard. Sections 10 and 11 adapted from “Representations” by and Zoe Jensen and Amanda Zunner-Keating. Special thanks to Jennifer Campbell for curating photos; and to Melody Yeager-Struthers for organizing our resources. Layout by Amanda Zunner-Keating and Madlen Avetyan. Audio recording by Amanda Zunner-Keating. Published under a Creative Commons License CC BY-NC 2.0.
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