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'Fieldwork Is Not What It Used to Be'

June 19, 2009

Fieldwork -- central to anthropology since the discipline's founding -- is changing. In the Internet era and a time when most of the world has been explored in depth, anthropologists no longer discover unstudied groups in the way that the early giants in their field did. The essays in a new book -- Fieldwork Is Not What It Used to Be: Learning Anthropology's Method in a Time of Transition (Cornell University Press) -- explore the implications of this shift. The editors of the volume (who are also contributors to it) are James D. Faubion, professor of anthropology at Rice University, and George E. Marcus, professor of anthropology at the University of California at Irvine.

They responded to questions about the themes of their book.

Q: Why look at fieldwork now?

A: In anthropology, fieldwork has been at the core of its craft-like professional culture of method that has been a signature of the discipline. Training in fieldwork is still guided in spirit and design by such classic statements as expressed in Bronislaw Malinowski’s introduction to Argonauts of the Western Pacific, published in 1922. What constitutes fieldwork has become quite diverse in fact, as have the objects and subjects of anthropological research, but the anchoring pedagogy of the profession remains true to an expectation of before, during, and after conditions. And this in turn suggests specific alternative ways of teaching it.

Q: How did your early fieldwork shape your careers?

Faubion: My first fieldwork labored with a question -- could modern Greece be considered genuinely modern and, if so, in what did its specific modernity consist -- that was precisely one of those questions that reached beyond the bounds of fieldwork alone, that was incompatible with any ideal of total description and that had nothing to do with a culture in its totality. It had to do instead with a cosmopolitan practice of the continual reimagination and reform of the present. Yet, I brought the established expectations of fieldwork to Greece with me. I consequently returned home with the predictable conviction -- that my fieldwork wasn't worthy of the name.

Marcus: My first fieldwork concerned the relations on the land between commoners and nobles in the Kingdom of Tonga. Thus, in the classic way, I grew up being a specialist in Polynesian and Oceanic cultures. But alongside that conventional path, I was vexed, productively so, by my inability to discuss the most interesting material recorded in my field notebooks, either in terms of the dominating arguments of the period (defined by the magisterial work of Marshall Sahlins) or by the form available to me: the ethnographic report. While I have gone on to other topics that have mainly concerned the study of elites, this original excitement of fieldwork, accompanied by intellectual frustration, led me first to be in involved with others in the 1980s critique of ethnographic writing, and then at the turn of the century and beyond, to a critical interest in the practice of fieldwork itself,and especially its teaching, as most younger anthropologists no longer study peoples and places as such.

Q: How do you see the Internet changing the nature of fieldwork?

A: The Internet -- the technologies on which it depends and the communication that it makes possible, its virtuality, its political potential and provocativeness and so on -- is itself the object of an increasing array of objects and subjects of anthropological inquiry. It is the means of novel social and cultural exchange and invention and of new modalities of communication -- and also of inquiry into them. As a multitude of new sites, it has yet to be brought even remotely to anthropological terms. As an element in the fieldworker's toolkit, as a means of inquiry into other subjects and objects and sites besides itself, it is useful, but so far of less return that some of its enthusiasts would like to believe. A sense of the ‘state of play’ in this arena is given in our book by the essay authored by Chris Kelty and his students. It demonstrates that fieldwork, while retaining many of its conventional features, also demands structures of collaborative and coordinated effort to an unprecedented extent.

Q: Did the initial conception of fieldwork in anthropology depend on the notion of unstudied peoples? Does the lack of such peoples change fieldwork today?

A: The heroic vision of fieldwork has long been that of a venture into the unknown and an adventure of discovery. The fieldworker could easily serve that vision in taking up residence among a people already known in most cases, but yet to be anthropologically studied. The discipline continues to encourage discovery; one could hardly imagine it doing anything else. Peoples change, of course, but even their not changing can amount to quite a discovery to the fieldworker who follows in the footsteps of a predecessor -- which is not as much of a rarity as one might presume. Moreover, anthropologists have increasingly been posing questions that have little to do with one or another people per se. The messy, busy, intermingling world in which we currently live turns out to permit of new anthropological discoveries everyday. It's just a matter of observing it for what it is, and not through the lens of older, outdated assumptions about what the proper subjects of proper anthropological inquiry are or should be.

Q: As more anthropologists do work in the United States, how does that change fieldwork?

A: Anthropologists have been doing fieldwork in the U.S. from the foundations of the discipline -- if perhaps not among populations from which they have themselves hailed. The issue is perhaps doing fieldwork among "one's own." Lots of anthropologists are doing it -- and by no means in the U.S. alone. Doing so has the double face that it has always had -- the benefit of insider knowledge, of native familiarity with one's sites and subjects, and the liability of just such familiarity, which can make one struggle to see the anthropological forest among the many particular trees one knows so well.

Q: Do you have any predictions for the state of fieldwork in the next generation?

A: Like other social scientists, anthropologists shouldn't make predictions. We would prefer to offer a scenario -- in which fieldwork comes to conform to an increasingly refined, rigorous and concrete model of just the sort whose crafting we are pursuing in Fieldwork Is Not What It Used to Be. If it does so, it will among other things stand in rough analogy to the architectural model, crafted and recrafted in the studio from one critical pedagogical encounter to the next.

 

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