The Dialectic of Fieldwork

Bridging the gap between self and other.

The anthropological method creates a social space through which one can bridge the gap between self and other, researcher and researched.  According to Paul Rabinow, pictured here  in a ‘reflective’ mode, we need to form an interpretation based on reflexivity rather than objectivity. Interpretation is the task of self comprehension through the understand of the cultural other.  As we learn about a new or different culture or society, we come to learn about our own culture and society.  Some anthropologists, and I would count myself among them, are critical of reflexive anthropology -we find that it has gone to far to the subjective (or intersubjective) side of the spectrum.  A reasonable reflexive anthropology links a self recognition of the subjectivity of the researcher, with our dialogue with our research participants, and with a willingness to think critically about all sources of data or information.

It is important to understand how our social location influences our capacity to comprehend the social reality we are trying to observe.  We should not, however,  lose our grip on reality in the process.

Strengths and weaknesses of the anthropological method

Anthropologists and research participants exist in close physical proximity.  Unlike other types of research anthropologists are seen with all of their warts and blemishes.  We come to form friend-like relationships with the people we work with and write about. This is simultaneously a strength and a weakness.

As a strength, this methodological approach creates an opportunity for a researcher to come to understand the nuances and details of everyday life that are rarely seen, let alone lived, by researchers employing other types of research methodologies.  Although the picture that emerges is often limited in its scope, it is still far more detailed and reflective picture of the reality of how people live than can ever be learned by a survey, a perusal of archival records, or interviews with leading members of a community.

The weakness of the anthropological method is twofold.  First, the proximity of anthropologists to the people we write about and the duration of our stay in the field can create an image of the anthropologist as biased in favour of the community.  Although it is true that most anthropologists empathize with the people among whom we have lived and about whom we have written, few anthropologists would agree that anyone’s interest is served through falsification.  A more problematic second weakness stems from the potential problems connected to living in a community for the purpose of research.  Despite living for a long period in a community, anthropologists do plan to return to their homes.  Irrespective of their intentions, desires, or the sincerity with which they proceed, the fact that they are only visitors creates social distance.  This distance creates a social context for community concerns about the sincerity of anthropologists.

Connecting reality to interpretation

Ultimately we need to be certain that we can connect our interpretations to reality.  Anthropology is a social ‘science’ and as such owes a fidelity to the real world within which we live, work, and play.  We need to constantly remind ourselves that interpretation divorced from the real world of facts, processes, situations, events, and the people we are studying and writing about might be better framed as fiction than as anthropology.


What’s the prof want anyway?

Figuring out how to study involves learning how to ask a good question. It’s not about second guessing the prof or trying to determining what he or she wants. Well, not really. What we -that is your profs- want is that you learn the material we present.

But there is soooooo much to read and learn. Indeed, there is. But there are some ways to figure it out.

First read the assigned readings.

Next, compare what is discussed in class with the reading assignments. Look for key words (I call them key words because they unlock knowledge and make learning a bit easier). Are there things (ideas, words, concepts, names . . .) that your prof repeats more than once. If so, take note of it.  If there are strong obvious overlaps between what is said in class and your readings -take note of it.

Now go back to your readings and ask yourself what does the author want me to learn?  What is the author’s point. Don’t be tricked by the desire to critique.  That’s not the point of learning -at least, not initially.  A good critique involves understanding the author’s point.  You should be able to rephrase the author’s points in your own words.

Finally you should recast the readings and lecture notes into questions.  These questions will help you make sense of the readings and lectures.  Consider the image in this post.  Bloom’s taxonomy shows an hierarchy of learning.  A good question, that is a question that helps you learn the material, will start around the analysis and synthesis levels.  Keep in mind that the higher levels build on the foundation of remembering and related lower level processes.

If you can ask an informative evaluative or synthetic question you will be well on your way toward getting what the prof wants you to get.  Learning isn’t a guessing game -it’s hard hard work and careful planning!


What is anthropology?

A quote from “Anthropology? Whatever” « ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY http://ow.ly/2EBR0

Anthropologists seek no less than an understanding of the nature of humankind, yet they are suspicious of any generalization at all. They idealize a holistic view; yet, by the very complexity of the systems they confront, they are forced to isolate small subsystems. They demand precise classification, yet may argue that typologies distort more than they clarify. In sum, anthropologists are torn between diametrically opposed demands: to be true to the intense particularity of their field experience, and to give meaning to that experience by generalizing it to the world at large.