Fieldwork in Anthropology
Fieldwork is an essential aspect of all areas of anthropology because it is used to gather primary data, in other words fieldwork is how anthropologists collect the information used for their studies. Historically anthropologists tended to focus on ‘the exotic’ so fieldwork would be carried out in remote and distant locations such as tribal communities, but today it can be done in a huge variety of settings from urban areas, small communities, cultural institutions, primate conservation areas or even in virtual spaces. This article will examine where the concept of fieldwork originated, why it is important and how anthropologists ‘do’ fieldwork.
When did anthropologists begin doing fieldwork?
In the early days of anthropology scholars conducted their research from university libraries, relying on reports from travellers, missionaries and colonial officers instead of going into the field themselves, leading to them being referred to as ‘armchair anthropologists’ (because they did their research from the comfort of home). This way was challenged by Bronisław Malinowski (see 10 Famous Cultural Anthropologists), one of the founding fathers of anthropology, who advocated the importance of actually travelling to live and interact with a community and living with, speaking with and taking part in the everyday lives of the locals. Although anthropologists had been going into the field for quite some time before Malinowski’s ideas, their methods and attitudes to fieldwork were quite different, so the general consensus amongst anthropologists is that Malinowski is responsible not for the creation but promotion of the new ‘intensive personal fieldwork’ methods that “revolutionized the content and practice of anthropology” (Wax, 1972, pp.2-3). Over the years the nature of fieldwork has changed and updated but essentially follows the same core ideals that personal experience is necessary for painting an accurate picture of peoples’ lives.
Why is fieldwork important?
Through their work in the field anthropologists are able to not only build the essential skills needed to be an effective anthropologist, but to gain an intimate and detailed understanding of the lives of the people they study. This understanding comes from an individual’s experiences of social actions and relations in context, there is no way to gain the same effect from reading reports or hearing the information second hand. It allows the anthropologist to inhabit and convey situations from an ‘insider’s perspective’ and offer the information for anthropological interpretation. So it is extremely important within the academic field, but it can also be a very eye opening process possibly leading outsiders (the anthropologist and their readers) to look at the world in new and unexpected ways.
It can also be important for biological anthropologists and especially archaeologists whose research may not focus on a social group but could require them to enter the field. Primatologists may benefit from travelling to study and better understand a species either in their wild habitat or conservation area, or may conduct research in facilities such as sanctuaries, zoos or museums. This provides an opportunity to study primates in person and could allow for a far greater understanding of the lives and habits of a species. Archaeologists may often go into the field of course to either excavate or study a site (I won’t mention Indiana Jones here, oops) which is obviously integral to the way archaeology works as a subject. Simply having a site excavated by a non-specialist team could lead to artefact damage, loss (or could simply be overlooked) and the archaeologist would not be able to consider the context to which the artefact belonged.
However, fieldwork can never be perfect. The very nature of fieldwork itself leaves it vulnerable to flaws and oversights, whether they are down to the anthropologists themselves, or uncontrollable external conditions. It takes an extraordinary amount of effort to de-familiarise oneself, but is a skill that can provide new perspectives without the limits of one’s own cultural experience and ways of thinking.
How is fieldwork done?
Fieldwork can be done in a number of ways depending on a variety of factors including the topic of investigation, where it will take place, funding and politics, the anthropologist themself and the facilities or resources available to them. As it was mentioned before, even though the core principles of fieldwork are the same there have been changes and there are newer methods being explored all the time, for example the introduction of multi-sited ethnography which allows the anthropologist to consider cultures in relation to the global processes which connect them. One thing to always remember is the place of ethics in fieldwork studies; anthropologists must be sure to conduct themselves according to sets of ethical regulations to protect and respect the privacy of others.
The main concept to mention (in terms of social anthropology) should be the idea of ‘participant observation’ which is described by Eriksen (1995: 27) as “staying in an area long enough to be considered ‘natural’ by the natives”. Essentially it means living alongside and taking part in the daily activities and formal events of the people you are investigating to try and understand their perspectives. Not only this but the observations you make can be discussed or developed with members of the community (often called ‘informants’) to build a progressively detailed in depth understanding.
You may think that this kind of observation is limited to social anthropology but a somewhat similar method is practised in biological anthropology; researchers may spend extended periods of time living with and observing the activities and social lives of primate groups to further their understanding. The key difference here is that social anthropologists can talk to and discuss ideas with members of a community.
Data collected by anthropologists is either qualitative or quantitative (see glossary) with both sides offering pros and cons. Social anthropologists tend to utilise qualitative collection methods such as semi-structured interviews to explore in more detail, but quantitative methods such as surveys may be used to deal with larger sample populations. Biological anthropologists often make use of quantitative data collection methods because they are useful for analysing population traits or making comparisons between groups.
I hope this short article has been useful, I’m hoping to put together something in the future to help readers understand the actual processes that go into planning and going through with fieldwork, but that will have to wait! Don’t forget to follow this website for more helpful resources, and check out Harris-Jones Anthropology on Facebook, Twitter and Google+ too, thank you.