Today, many anthropologists conduct fieldwork by travelling to (if necessary) a chosen destination to live with people and conduct ethnographic research by practicing 'participant observation'; staying in area long enough to be considered 'natural' by the natives (Eriksen, 1995, pp.27). Bronislaw Malinowski is regarded as a founder of modern anthropology for his promotion (not necessarily creation) of these 'intensive personal fieldwork' methods that "revolutionized the content and practice of anthropology" (Wax, 1972, pp.2-3). He realised that one could not create an accurate picture of peoples' lives from the comfort of an armchair, that one must physically live and observe people to truly understand them, which changed the face of anthropology completely. In light of this, I will be looking at what the point is of carrying out such fieldwork.
The way in which fieldwork is carried out obviously differs between anthropologists, due to differences in working style, location, risks, and many more factors. In his ethnography: "Japanese Working Class Lives, An Ethnographic Study of Factory Workers", Roberson chose the Shintani Metals Company to conduct his research on the lives of factory workers in Japan, after having not much idea what to do. However, Roberson's approach wasn't to simply observe the people at work, he actually asked to work with them, eventually working full weeks from 08:00 until 17:00 or more, in addition to writing up his research notes. This may seem like it could be counterproductive to his research, Roberson even says he started asking himself "is this Anthropology? Are you really going to write about this?!" (pp.25). Nevertheless it is then revealed that this participation allowed Roberson to get much closer to the workers, as he was considered a fellow colleague, opening up a whole new world of possibilities for his research (Roberson, 1998).
However, fieldwork can never be perfect. The very nature of fieldwork itself leaves it vulnerable to flaws and oversights, whether they are down to the anthropologists themselves, or uncontrollable external conditions. It takes an extraordinary amount of effort to defamiliarise oneself, but is a skill that can provide new perspectives without the limits of one's own cultural experience and ways of thinking. It can be hard to change oneself to allow conformity to social regulations and rules, but may be the key to gaining the trust of a group of people (which is a huge part of fieldwork; if people don't trust you, you won't learn anything), as we see that MacClancy had this issue during his fieldwork in Ulí Alto, where the natives' main problem was his formality. They wanted to see him more emotionally involved, even going as far as to say he should have maintained a girlfriend there (MacClancy, 1988, pp.239). Another main issue with fieldwork is the question of ethics, whether it is the privacy of people's information, or even whether the people's safety is at risk. We see that in an attempt to make public the outrageous actions of the American military against South American refugees, Bourgois disregarded the privacy rights of his subjects and host country to make his statement to the media for the suffering people (Bourgois, 1990).
So we can see that fieldwork in its nature is a tricky thing to get right, but that doesn't make it any less important when trying to understand one's research subjects. It's for this reason that since Malinowski's initial foundation of effective fieldwork methods, the process has changed and indeed improved. The emergence of multi-sited ethnography has potentially improved the perspectives available to anthropologists conducting fieldwork as "one learns more about a slice of a world system" giving a "definite sense of doing more than just ethnography" (Marcus, 1995, pp.113-114). Also, a re-evaluation of the way anthropologists conduct fieldwork in relation to their subjects of study has highlighted the benefits of collaborative ethnography. This approach allows anthropologists to "probe the deep mysteries of the human species" by pulling together different anthropological traditions (academic, applied etc.) to gain a much deeper understanding (Peacock, 1997, cited in Lassiter, 2005).
In conclusion, I personally believe that fieldwork is anthropology's main component. Without fieldwork, there would be very limited understanding in regards to different cultures, as it is the act of 'participant observation' that allows an anthropologist to truly learn about a culture through experience. What do you think? Is fieldwork truly the most important part of anthropology? If not, then what is? Please leave your comment below...
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Bourgois, P. (1990). Confronting Anthropological Ethics: Ethnographic Lessons from Central America. Journal of Peace Research 27(1), pp.43-54.
Eriksen, T.H. (2010). Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology. 3rd ed. London: Pluto.
Lassiter, L.E. (2005). Collaborative Ethnography and Public Anthropology. Current Anthropology 46(1), pp.83-106.
MacClancy, J. (1988). Going Nowhere: From Melanesia to the Mediterranean. Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford XIX(3), pp. 233-240.
Marcus, G. (1995). Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography. Annual Review of Anthropology 24, pp.95-117.
Peacock, J.L. (1997). The Future of Anthropology. American Anthropologist 99(1), pp.9-17.
Roberson, J.E. (1998). Japanese Working Class Lives: An Ethnographic Study of Factory Workers. London: Routledge.
Wax, M. (1972). Tenting with Malinowski. American Sociological review 37(1), pp.1-13.