Anthropology Fieldwork: A Short Comment

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...

Thanks for reading!

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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.

Connecting to Family and Religion While in College - Guest post from Maria Carrillo

A few weeks ago I asked whether anyone wanted to send anything that they would like posted as a guest post. I received a few replies, and here's one from Maria Carrillo who can find here on Facebook

Connecting to Family and Religion While in College - Maria Carrillo

"With the coming of fall semester only a few weeks away comes the beginning of a new college. Living away from their parents, already living out of the home, or planning to commute, college students will be embarking on an adventure and developing what I call their own student identities. Part of their identity will be reflected in how they dress, activities they participate in, and perhaps most importantly what they choose as a major and field of study. Despite their age, sex, or even cultural background, all will be exposed to new ideas, ways of thinking, and topics that may put into perspective or question their current beliefs. Despite their course of study and years it may take to finish, a degree students will learn to become critical thinkers and analyze educational information presented to them. How does the process of critical analysis of information spill into their personal lives and analysis of their own personal beliefs?

Through a series of ethnographic interviews conducted as part of my thesis project, I found that family can be a key player that aids in the reinforcement of culture and spirituality during students college years and a silent force that brings students back to some of their core beliefs years after graduating. I also found that the skills of critical analysis that students develop in college, for analyzing research and information, are not always applied to their life. I believe this is an example of the process of compartmentalizing that permits students to develop new identities during and after college.  

While not the case across the board, students tend to put personal beliefs, specifically religious, spiritual beliefs on the “back burner” of their thoughts while in college. The view their family has of them is still important to them even while pursuing their own desires. It is important that as individuals they can develop an individual identity while still maintaining some connection to their family and culture. When asked about their current religious beliefs students would almost automatically refer to “how they were raised,” their family’s beliefs, and how despite their lack of time, they maintained these relationships. When engaged in discussions about their religious and spiritual beliefs students will often bring up ideas of family, time, and critical analysis. Perhaps even more interesting is the question of whether or not individuals revert back to beliefs or adapt changes post higher education. 

The college years are typically marked by the ability an individual has to explore their identity without large outside influence. They may lack a comfort with the idea of having to defend their beliefs. As they become increasingly exposed to new ideas in college, students realize that their beliefs are not the only ones out there. This realization could be part of what prompts students to hold back and listen to others. They realize they are no longer in their home community and now have to pass to form part of a larger community where everyone feels differently. I believe that can be said about the student experience at any age and exploring religious and spiritual beliefs is one part of that."

I'd like to say a big thank you to Maria for the wonderful information and all the work she put into this post, please feel free to leave comments below.

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What Do You Think Makes Us Human? (Competition, July 2014)

Now I know the question is really quite vague, but I really wanted to create a wide scope for any ideas or comments you wanted to make. I just want you to put forward anything, anything at all that you think makes us humans who we are today. 

For example, one might say that we are intelligent beings with a boundless curiosity and indomitable spirit as a species, and thus we are destined to reach for the stars. Whereas others will say that we are ruled by violence and primitive instincts, and we're headed for self destruction...

You could talk about your take on evolution, different cultures, human psychology, spirituality... Literally anything at all that you think is an important (or even the most important in your opinion) component of human nature.

As a reward, I will post the most interesting and in depth answer as a guest post, completely attributed to the winner. The winner will also be featured on the Harris Anthropology Blog, on the new 'Competition Winners' page with a link to the winning answer, so you can bask in the glory of your victory forever!

A picture depicting many (Asiatic I think) Races
Your comments can be about any aspect of humanity; biological, cultural, spiritual etc. But please put your comments here on the blog! You don't have to take part in the competition if you don't want to, you can just join in the fun and post something small. However, please keep it relevant to the question, and feel free to debate but try and keep it in good spirits, I would like it to stay friendly.

Competition Deadline: Thursday 31st July... Don't be late!

Please don't forget to follow this blog (which you can do via the sidebar) to keep up to date with anthropological and scientific news and research, and check out Harris Anthropology on FacebookTwitter and Google+ too, Thanks.

[Image credit: G. Mülzel]