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.’”
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
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