Fetishizing Fieldwork on the Road to Essentialism

Adieu Culture

Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s essay Adieu, Culture: A New Duty Arises is a powerful cry to contemporary anthropology. Trouillot insists that anthropology must retain and return to the anthropological concept of culture, the “Boasian conceptual kernel” (2003:116). However, anthropology must recognize that the word culture and its surrounding terms are now out of orbit:

The word is lost to anthropology for the foreseeable future. To acknowledge this is not to admit defeat. Rather it is to face the reality that there is no privileged space within which anthropologists alone can refashion the word. Culture is now in an orbit where chasing it can only be a conservative enterprise, a rearguard romance with an invented past when culture truly meant culture–as if culture ever meant culture only. . . . There is a conceptual kernel to defend, but that defense need not be tied to a word that the general public now essentializes on the basis of our own fetishization. We need to abandon the word while firmly defending the conceptual kernel it once encapsulated. (2003:115)

Trouillot’s essay has been under-read, misunderstood, and seems quite far from realization when textbooks attempt to double down on culture. I’ve been trying to use the essay as a back-text for my stock course in Cultural Anthropology. The fact that I won’t be changing the course title anytime soon only adds to the irony. But, as Trouillot said, “the ‘adieu’ of chapter 5 took a long time to say” (2003:x). It may take an even longer time to do.

This is now the second semester I’m teaching Trouillot straight-up. Like the other chapters in Global Transformations, it’s densely packed, at times extremely difficult, but richly repays reading and re-reading. For this entry, since we’ve just been reading Laura Bohannan’s Return to Laughter, I’m concentrating on what Trouillot writes about fieldwork and the ethnographic monograph (2003:103-104).

Incentives to Fetishize Fieldwork

Fieldwork was obviously always important to anthropology as an academic discipline, but as anthropology gained an institutional foothold, especially in the United States, fieldwork and the ethnographic monograph became the essential rite of passage: “The production of at least one such work became the easiest–and soon enough the privileged–rite of access to the profession. In the North American context, it became the sole credential unanimously recognized for entry into the guild (Cohn 1987” (Trouillot 2003:104).

Fieldwork as an institutionalized rite of passage “invited practical closure” around “the ethnographic trilogy: one observer, one time, one place” (2003:104). Trouillot insists this closure was not inherent or inevitable, but there were “institutional incentives to fetishize fieldwork”:

To put it bluntly, at some point in time one has to close the book and the easiest way to do so is to claim to have exhausted the territory. Doctoral theses claimed–not always implicitly–to put between two covers all that was essential to know about “the culture” under study. The monographic tradition may have had more impact on the closing of culture within academe than theory, exactly because it enforced the practice even among those who did not necessarily believe that cultures were integrated and isolated wholes. (2003:104)

Most interestingly, Trouillot sees closure around essentialist notions of culture not so much as the result of theoretical debate and pronouncements, but anthropological practice, particularly the fieldwork monograph as a ticket into institutional resources. This certainly seems true for Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture, where the emphasis on plasticity of human learning yields to reification of specific examples.

Also interesting to me is an unexpected coincidence between Trouillot and what Tim Ingold has been recently emphasizing that anthropology is not ethnography: “Anthropology is studying with and learning from; it is carried forward in a process of life, and effects transformations within that process. Ethnography is a study of and learning about, its enduring products are recollective accounts which serve a documentary purpose” (Making, 2013:3).

To be very clear, neither Ingold nor Trouillot are trying to belittle ethnography or fieldwork–both insist on the necessity of ethnography, fieldwork, and attention to empirical detail (see comment below on the importance of fieldwork). However, both insist that anthropology is a different enterprise, and to equate it with ethnography, or to fetishize fieldwork, can lead to pernicious outcomes.

Further on Adieu, Culture

Trouillot’s essay is packed with insight. On this reading I was struck by passages which could be read as helpful responses to recent comments on previous blog-posts, especially on the issue of Gang Culture and Courtroom Anthropology. Namely:

  • “Anthropology’s monopoly on both the word and the concept of culture obtained only when the use of either was restricted to the Savage slot. When it came to black savages in the cities, white immigrants, or the majority population, other social scientists, such as political scientists or sociologists–notably of the Chicago school–took the lead” (2003:109-110).

    This is an important point related to Alex Taub’s comment on Gang Culture, that indeed the idea of gang culture is less rooted in a misinterpretation of anthropology than it is in a development of ideas from sociology and criminal justice.

  • Shanklin (2000) seems surprised at the negative views of anthropology she discovered in her study of public opinion. Yet the whiteness of the discipline (extreme among the human sciences and made more blatant by anthropology’s favorite objects of study), the conservative and essentialist deployments of culture, and the near-total disconnect between anthropology as a theoretical practice and the public deployments of concepts and images together beg for a public relations disaster. The wonder is that the image is not worse” (2003:153).

    Trouillot had been talking about anthropology’s extreme whiteness, even for the social sciences, a point that relates to the comment from No Racist Anthropology. Indeed, the last few years from the flap over science to the Napoleon Chagnon memoir, could be seen as the slow roll-out of the public relations disaster.

  • “We keep telling all sides: You’ve got it wrong. But a lot of it they got from us–not only through our epiphany of culture but also through our clinging to a space where we feel conceptually safe. If some Afrocentrists today believe that an inner-city Chicago kid is culturally closer to a Kalahari bushman than to her white counterpart on the North Side of town, and if the inequalities between the two are ascribed to culture, however misdefined, anthropology has to take part of the blame” (2003:113-114).

    One of my favorite quotes, an epigraph for my cultural anthropology syllabus. In this context, it relates to Ryan Anderson’s comment on Gang Culture: as much as I want the courtroom anthropologist to be able to yell out “but I’m an anthropologist and culture just doesn’t work like that,” it would have little effect for how far culture has moved out of orbit. Anthropological expertise no longer counts in those contexts, if it ever did.

Update: Thanks to Ryan Anderson for further thoughts and links on Savage Minds: Trouillot on rethinking “culture” (via Living Anthropologically).


To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2013. “Adieu Culture: Fetishizing Fieldwork on Road to Essentialism.” Living Anthropologically website, https://livinganthropologically.com/adieu-culture-fieldwork/. First posted 15 October 2013. Revised 22 September 2017.


Please consider contributing to Living Anthropologically. Contributions fund ads to bring anthropology to public debates. Not tax-deductible. For more information, see Support Living Anthropologically.

For updates, please subscribe to Living Anthropologically. Living Anthropologically is also on Facebook & Twitter.





  • hummingbird604

    Great piece, Jason. I’m not an anthropologist but I strongly respect the work of environmental anthropologists (anthros in general, but environmental anthropologists have really made me turn my conceptual frameworks upside down).

    I do, however, privilege fieldwork. I believe that there is unique insight to be gained from going deep into the field, observing phenomena, tracing the processes and understanding populations. I may be doing this mixed-methods thing wrong 🙂

    • Hi, and thank you. I’m realizing I may have overplayed a bit here–fieldwork is absolutely essential to anthropological practice. However, the warning is to be careful when fieldwork becomes a “rite of passage” or the ethnographic monograph is equated with anthropology. But indeed, anthropologists need to be doing fieldwork, and continuing to work with people. As Ingold puts it (and I think very much in line with your environmental anthropologists):

      I have argued for a discipline that would return to these [great questions of social life], not in the armchair but in the world. We can be our own philosophers, but we can do it better thanks to its embedding in our observational engagements with the world and in our collaborations and correspondences with its inhabitants. What, then, should we call this lively philosophy of ours? Why, anthropology, of course!

      –Tim Ingold, Being Alive 2011:243

  • r.a.

    Good stuff Jason. I started posting a comment here this morning, but it started getting long so I just posted it SM here instead:

    http://backupminds.wordpress.com/2013/10/15/trouillot-on-rethinking-culture-via-living-anthropologically/

    • Hi Ryan, many thanks–I’ve included an update in the post above to complete the loop. Hopefully this will encourage people to read and think about the issues, and I’ll try to pop in a comment there. I’m also encouraged that long comments can turn into independent blog-posts, which is often a good thing.

  • Juliet H. Foroughi

    It seems to me, that while Trouillet is entirely correct about the generalizations and changes in the definition of culture, the main issue here is that the appropriation of terms such as culture and race stem from the overarching bigotry of those in power continuously finding outlets for that inequality. As much as anthropologists may attempt to correct the usage of such terms, why focus on the symptoms when one could be working on the cure? “Anthropology’s primary response as a discipline cannot be a political statement, however tempting or necessary that solution is in critical circumstances” (page 114). But WHY not? Trouillet himself says that it may very well be necessary. So why should anthropologists not criticize and voice their findings in a political setting?

    • Hi Jay, you’ve hit on a complex and thorny issue. You may want to look at some of the things I wrote during the Obama-Romney campaign: Anthropology & Politics in an Election Year. I think basically it is that anthropologists can and should have a political project, but that project is not inside the classroom but in the political sphere, and that just doing anthropology is not the equivalent of a political project. Hope that helps!

  • Jessica Hannah

    On page 99, on the introduction to “A Political Move in Theory” Trouillet how human behavior is patterned and historically we see these patterns reoccurring also he points out that these patterns are learned. I think this is interesting because it relates to a ceramic class I am currently taking in which we were learning about how things we construct may be found in the ground thousands of years from now and a lot of the work we build we create of of historical pots from thousands of years ago. I think this relates to Trouillet’s thoughts on how humans behavior has reoccurring patterns that we learn from our past.

  • Jessica Hannah

    On page 99, on the introduction to “A Political Move in Theory” Trouillet how human behavior is patterned and historically we see these patterns reoccurring also he points out that these patterns are learned. I think this is interesting because it relates to a ceramic class I am currently taking in which we were learning about how things we construct may be found in the ground thousands of years from now and a lot of the work we build we create of of historical pots from thousands of years ago. I think this relates to Trouillet’s thoughts on how humans behavior has reoccurring patterns that we learn from our past.

    • Hi Jessica, that’s a great passage, thank you. Indeed the concept of culture for Trouillot (2003:99) is vital–however, might caution here that he is talking about specific patterns in particular regions and times.

Share
Share
Pin
Email
Tweet