Anthropological Fieldwork

Fieldwork and Ethnography

We read chapter 3, “Fieldwork and Ethnography” in Kenneth Guest’s Cultural Anthropology and discussed anthropological fieldwork:

This was for Cultural Anthropology 2023 after doing Fieldwork on College Consumers. Next class was on Language.

Summary: Anthropological Fieldwork

The Power of Living with Others

Fieldwork involves living with others over an extended period to “seek to understand their experiences through their eyes” (Guest 2023, 80). Sidney Nintz described the experience of fieldwork as a “traditional anthropological catechism” of studying what you can see and hear, recording everything (even inconsistencies), listening intently, and embracing the “ancillary blessings of discomfort” (Mintz 1982, 186). Though these practices may not always seem to be a formal methodology, Mintz believed they “nonetheless helped to reveal worlds otherwise hidden or unimagined” (186).

Fieldwork Goals & Transformation

At its best, fieldwork aims to document lifeways and reveal hidden realities, providing evidence for the culture concept. It aspires to the cultural relativism of Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, countering ethnocentrism, racism, and determinism. Fieldwork should be transformative, enabling growth in tolerance and empathy (Guest 2023, 81). It is “studying with” people (Tim Ingold) and “begins with people” (Guest, 81), relying on key informants and colleagues (94).

The “Fieldwork Trilogy” & Its Limitations

Anthropology long held to a “fieldwork trilogy” of one fieldworker immersing themselves for one year in one village. The solo fieldworker is forced to engage deeply. A single village of a few hundred allows the anthropologist to know everyone in depth. One year covers a full seasonal cycle of agriculture and festivals.
However, this model has limitations:

  • The single fieldworker provides just one perspective, influenced by factors like gender that limit access
  • Focusing on one village misses the wider society, interconnections, migration, and outside influences
  • One year provides a snapshot but misses deeper historical context, archives (often in other languages), and global flows

The Danger of Generalizing

The biggest pitfall is assuming one year in one village reveals all you need to know about a people. Many ethnographies described groups as if locked in timeless customs, becoming a “write-up of non-Western customs” and “the ticket to a job in academe.” Public perception still imagines anthropology studies isolated, exotic locales. Instead, ethnography should capture internal diversity, contestation, and change.

Moving Beyond the “Trilogy”

Anthropologists now seek to transcend the fieldwork trilogy:

  • A “turn to the global” examines how local societies are embedded in wider contexts (Sidney Mintz & Eric Wolf)
  • Feminism and reflexivity reconsider classic studies from new angles (Annette Weiner’s return to Malinowski’s Trobriand Islands)
  • A “turn to home” brings anthropological methods to the anthropologist’s own society (Barbara Myerhoff)

New Imperatives for Fieldwork

Today’s fieldwork must consider global issues and be attuned to where people actually are, whether that means Facebook (Guest 2023, 108) or TikTok in addition to in-person engagement. Anthropologists should consider feminists and reflexive approaches, and be attentive to positionality. While anthropology should not fixate solely on the exotic and far-away, there is still value in studying those ignored by the mainstream; you need not travel far to find the overlooked. Sadly, despite more diverse undergraduate enrollments, doctoral-level cultural anthropology remains too White and too male.

The core power of anthropological fieldwork endures as a practice of revealing hidden worlds through patient listening, recording, and embracing discomfort to understand others’ experiences through their own eyes.

Recap: Anthropological Fieldwork

We read chapter 3, “Fieldwork and Ethnography” in Kenneth Guest’s Cultural Anthropology and discussed anthropological fieldwork:

This was for Cultural Anthropology 2023 after doing Fieldwork on College Consumers. Next class was on Language.

Related

I have attempted to discuss anthropological fieldwork in a number of classes. On this website:


Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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