The instructions for this Cultural Anthropology 2020 assignment were from the “Fieldwork Activity: Being a Participant Observer” which appeared in the Instructor Resources of Essentials of Cultural Anthropology. This was always a classic assignment for a Cultural Anthropology course, but in 2020 it got redone as “Coronavirus Fieldwork” or doing anthropology in a pandemic. See Public Space 2021 for a follow-up, and then in 2023 a return to the classic Mapping a Block assignment.
In the time of coronavirus fieldwork, we made the following modifications:
- Do not go into any public space that you would not have normally gone into.
- Avoid being “in the center of the action.” Take up a peripheral observation point.
- It is fine to do this assignment looking through your window or from a safe vantage point onto a public space.
We considered these questions during observations:
- Do you notice any physical modifications to this public space since the advent of coronavirus?
- Do you think there are any social differences with how people use the space now as compared to fall 2019?
Instructions: In Chapter 3, Guest discusses one of the most important techniques in the anthropologist’s toolkit: participant observation (81). Now, it is your turn to practice this technique for yourself. Spend 10 minutes in a public space nearby (outside an elevator, a busy hallway, lobby, the cafeteria or a coffee shop). Find a place within this location that puts you in the center of the action, but lets you observe what is going on around you. Sit for 10 minutes and write down what you observe, paying attention to the following questions:
- Who is around? What are people wearing? Are there more men than women, or vice versa? Are people alone or in groups?
- What are people doing? What activities are they partaking in? What are people talking about?
Try to note as many details as you can—be specific!
After the 10 minutes are up, take another 2 or 3 minutes to document your experience as a participant observer, answering the following questions:
- Do you think people noticed you?
- How did you feel?
- Was it challenging to take field notes in the moment?
Coronavirus Fieldwork Discussion
Part 1: A brief write up of observations in the comment section.
Part 2: Returning to observations and notes, “reply” to previous post. To what degree did your activities match your previous ideas of what anthropological fieldwork should be? Or put differently, if someone you knew who had never taken an anthropology class were to read your observations, would they think it was good “anthropological fieldwork”?
What I was hoping to address is what I think is an ongoing stereotype that to be good, exciting, anthropological fieldwork it should be done in “seemingly isolated, small-scale, nonindustrial societies” (Guest, 73). Anthropology has been trying to break that stereotype for at least 50 years, but to what degree is that stereotype still with us?
Image Credit: Anthropology News, see especially Fieldwork from Afar by Susan D. Blum.