Fieldwork Trinity

One Fieldworker, One Village, One Year

This was a comment page in Cultural Anthropology 2016 for readings about anthropological fieldwork and linguistic anthropology:

  • Bowen pp. 1-115 in Return to Laughter.
  • Welsch & Vivanco, chapter 3, “Linguistic Anthropology” in their Concise Introduction to Cultural Anthropology

For Cultural Anthropology, I returned to the subject of fieldwork in 2018-2019.

Rough notes below, followed by Disqus comments.

Began with a review of material from the class on Global Flows, noting that these flows in certain respects peaked in the early twentieth century (1910-1930), at precisely the time anthropology was launching itself as a field discipline, based in ethnographic fieldwork.

Meanwhile, the world was re-imagined as composed of nation-states with defined borders. Anthropologists began similarly, with ideas of cultural wholes, Structural-Functionalism, bounded societies. But the books anthropologists would write were usually not about nations but ethnic groups: The Yanomamo, The Tiv, The Balinese. This focus tended to become a mimic of nation-states, but on a smaller scale, as evident in the Map of Nigeria’s linguistic groups. Anthropologists often saw themselves as the defenders of ethnic groups oppressed by nation-states (see Welsch & Vivanco:57). Still, such maps reinforce the assumption of one language, one culture, one territory, when in fact most people who lived in these regions grew up multilingual from the beginning.

Fieldwork as anthropology’s job

Fieldwork should be anti-racist, anti-hierarchical, anti-determinist: The evidence of the Boasian culture concept.
One of our assumptions is that Laura Bohannan, as a fieldworker, could give us what Ruth Benedict did not.
Fieldwork should be an anti-reification device.
Fieldwork should be transformative, a growth process for openness and tolerance.
Does this happen in Bohannan’s novel?

Traditional Fieldwork Trinity: 1 fieldworker, 1 village, 1 year

One fieldworker: Forces immersion (74). There seemed to be so many villages, so little time, since anthropology was just beginning.
One village: based on idea of isolation. Can know everyone, not too big (105)
One year: Full cycle, agricultural, seasonal, religious

What do we tend not to see in fieldwork trinity?

One fieldworker: What they don’t want you to see (43). How does your presence affect? Difficult to see man’s world if you are a woman (78-79)
One village: Don’t see people who aren’t there, who have migrated or been taken. Difficult to see outside influence, colonial structure.
One year: How much can you really learn? History: Are there archives? What language? Global flows–Corn & Tobacco (Tomatoes, Potatoes, Horses).

What do you think of Bowen’s character?

What’s different about fieldwork now versus Bohannan’s era?

An anthropologist comes to her senses (99-100)

“One cannot make friends with a community. One has to make friends with individual people. . . . I knew this of my own world. I had been incredibly naïve to think it would be different here. Frank sincerity on one topic—among them as among us—does not imply a loss of reticence over everything else. . . . There was no short cut. (99-100)