Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Doing Fieldwork in Anthropology

Last week Darla and I went to Montreal where the American Anthropological Association was holding its annual convention. Montreal is an interesting, bilingual city where store clerks routinely greet customers with “Bonjour Hi!” so as to cover Francophone and Anglophone bases all at once.

Since Darla speaks French, she could launch into an involved conversation with the clerks, most of whom seemed to be at home in that language. Meanwhile, if they tried to address me, all I could do was toss out the few French words I know in order to make the best impression possible: “Bonjour! Mon Dieu! Breezheet Bardot!”

By coincidence, while the anthropology conference was in session, a review of three books on Afghanistan came out in the New York Times Book Review under the title “Applied Anthropology” The review praised Noah Coburn’s Bazaar Politics: Power and Pottery in an Afghan Market Town for its clear-eyed, detailed and complex description of power relations in the town of Istalif, and noted that Coburn did not consider foreign intervention helpful to the local Afghans, no matter how well-intended. I haven’t read Coburn’s book yet, but I did hear him discuss it at last year’s AAA meetings, and I gather that it is an example of cultural anthropology at its best: meticulous, even-handed, and based on careful, long-term research undertaken in the community described.

Istalif: Famous for Its Pottery

(Photo by Noah Coburn)

This long-term-residence-based research is known as participant observation, and is a hallmark of cultural anthropology. Its appeal is that, assuming the researcher establishes rapport with the local people, he or she comes to see the world largely through the same lens or lenses as they do, an accomplishment that may not be possible in any other way. I know from my own experience that living in the People’s Republic of China in 1993-94 gave me an understanding of life in that country that the reading of many dozens of books had failed to provide. Not that the reading was a waste of time; it just didn’t quite cover some of the details and subtleties of life in China that authors ordinarily don’t think to mention.

Engaging in participant observation is referred to as “doing fieldwork,” and in graduate school, we regarded those students who had completed their fieldwork with a kind of awe that in the military is reserved for combat veterans. And sometimes fieldwork can feel like combat, given the insects, diseases, unfamiliar food, rough living conditions, and intricate local customs to which the fieldworker must often become accustomed. Admittedly, anthropologists are rarely shot at while doing fieldwork, but during the most trying days of field research, being shot at would seem to be little more than one more irritation making life barely livable.

But really, for the most part, fieldwork is enjoyable. It involves learning about a way of life that you are interested in and it almost always gives birth to friendships that can last a lifetime.

Of course there are those scholars who criticize participant observation as too subjective to be useful. These critics may have a point. Or, they may just be too chicken to spend a year living in a bug-infested thatched hut learning about kin groups and subsistence among the Nambikwara.

Having spent most of my time doing urban anthropology, I’ve rarely stayed in thatched huts, though some of the Hong Kong dives I lived in during the 1970s had their share of bugs. Really big bugs, as a matter of fact.

My friends, Clay and Carole Robarchek, did live with a couple of forest-dwelling tribal peoples and have written about their experiences in a series of articles and books. For over a year they participated in and observed the lives of the Semai, a famously gentle group of rain-forest cultivators in the mountains of Malaysia. As likeable as the Semai generally are, Clay did say that he sometimes lost patience at being teased by them about his lack of such basic survival skills as the ability to procure food from the jungle. “I got to the point,” Clay once told me, “that I wanted to bring some Semai back to California, put them in front of a vending machine and say to them, ‘OK, feed yourselves.’”

Semai Kids

But honestly, fieldwork experiences tend to be very rewarding. And these days they are extremely varied. Vanessa Fong, an expert on China’s youth, talked about her current research at this conference. Since many of the young people she has been writing about for the past few years have left China, she has undertaken research by purchasing “round the world” plane tickets. These allow her to go from city to city virtually without limit, as long as she travels in one direction, and with them she is tracking down young Chinese in the U.S., Japan, Australia, Britain, Ireland and other places. The world, it seems, is her field site.

Despite the criticism that participant observation has been subject to, I expect its usefulness will live on. Bill Jankowiak made an interesting observation during his AAA presentation this year, when he quoted the late, great British anthropologist, E. E. Evans-Pritchard as follows: “If the Romans had written about social theory and had also done ethnography (i.e., participant observation) in their day, what would we be most anxious to read today? Not the theory, but the ethnography.”

Bloody likely, that.

Professor Evans-Pritchard, Colonial Era Anthropologist,
with Azande Friends, ca. 1930

Saturday, November 12, 2011

GOP 2012

The GOP debates are starting to feel like media enhanced waterboarding. If they go on much longer, I can see myself in the not-too-distant future screaming, “Stop! Stop! I’ll tell you anything you want, just call off Bachmann, Cain and Company!”

On the other hand, I have to grant that the torture has helped reveal the candidates’ characters and personal quirks. They haven’t really clarified much about policy differences, though, since all of the Republican candidates are slavish followers of the same handful of principles:

1. Barack Obama is unworthy to be president because he is (choose all that apply): socialistic, Muslim, Kenyan, wrong about EVERYthing, just plain evil.

2. “Obamacare” is a communist scheme designed to deprive us of all our customary liberties.

3. The government is the enemy of freedom. Only when we shrink the government and let Goldman Sachs, BP, ExxonMobil, R.J.Reynolds, and so on be themselves, will we be free once more.

4. The money we pay in taxes to the (evil, alien) government never does us any good (except when it pays for bombs to drop on Middle Eastern people).*

5. The economy was in great shape until Obama ruined it.

6. Abortion is murder and so are many forms of birth control. And so is Obamacare.

7. Ronald Reagan descended from Heaven to lead us to the Promised Land and if we keep saying his name over and over, we may get there yet.

But back to the candidates’ characters: for starters, Michele Bachmann is just plain dumb. Admittedly she does have a kind of cleverness, the kind that enables you to say things that appeal to the grossly ignorant, i.e., her base. But this won’t save her. What's truly amazing is that Bachmann believes that she can be president, even though she understands less about the world than a bright fifth grader does. How dumb is that?

Rick Perry, ditto. Although, to his credit, he seems to have proven that you can be Governor of Texas while understanding less about the world than a bright fifth grader does. Hmmm.

Herman Cain. Wow. The fact that he still commands a respectable following says something about the human capacity for self-deception. The self-deception I’m talking about is that of his followers, not Cain himself, who, I believe, knows what he did vis-à-vis the women who have complained about him. OK, there has been no trial, but the evidence made public so far, and his ever-changing explanations, are compelling enough that only an absolutely self-deluded fan could believe his claims of innocence. If he were to get on the GOP ticket (very, very unlikely), we could look forward to the pleasure of him on the campaign trail saying “I did not have sex with that woman. Or that one. Or that one either. Nor those two. Nor…”

Ron Paul, Mr. Ten Percent, has the most devoted coterie of followers in the GOP. I wish his unique foreign policy ideas could get more play in the media, but his economic notions are just as doctrinaire and irrational as those of his fellow Republicans. Like them, he claims that he wants to shrink government and thereby give Americans more freedom; he doesn't seem to understand, however, that the ones who will fill the power vacuum if our government is weakened will be those very undemocratic institutions that control the nation’s wealth: e.g., ExxonMobil, Citigroup, etc.

Newt Gingrich is, for me, the scariest of all the GOP candidates. He’s an intelligent man, but one who seems to think ethics are for wimps. I won’t take the time to go further into details about him here, but whenever I hear Gingrich’s words, I’m reminded of what Lily Tomlin once said: “No matter how cynical you become, it's never enough to keep up.”

Not with Newt, anyway.

Which brings us to John Huntsman, a smart and seemingly decent guy. He doesn’t have a chance.

Mitt Romney is almost certain to get the nomination. He does have problems, many of which stem from his having run for governor on a reasonable platform in Massachusetts, but now having to back away from its most sane principles in order to conform to the right-wing nuttiness that dominates the GOP primaries. This makes him look like a champion flip-flopper, a problem he could have avoided had he been smart enough to start his career in, say, Mississippi or Oklahoma, where right-wing nuttiness is the equivalent of comfort food.

Assuming Romney does get the nomination, he’s going to have to pick a right-winger for his running mate in order to secure the GOP base. He certainly will not pick Bachmann, Perry, or Cain, which means he just might go for Gingrich. Is America ready for such a ticket? A classical stuffed shirt that spins this way and that in the wind, backed up by a conniving schemer of Nixonian proportions? Time will tell.

Suburban Americana

*Ron Paul gets a pass on this parenthetic clause, which is probably why Republican voters aren’t going for him.