Ryan Schram's Anthrocyclopaedia

Anthropology presentations and learning resources

User Tools

Site Tools

View page as slide show

Anthropologists are professional strangers—The method of “fieldwork”

Anthropologists are professional strangers—The method of “fieldwork”

Ryan Schram

ANTH 1001: Introduction to anthropology

Monday, March 16, 2020 (Week 4)

Available at http://anthro.rschram.org/1001/2020/2.1.1

Required readings

Thomas Hylland Eriksen “Fieldwork and Ethnography,” in Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology (London: Pluto Press, 2015), 32–51.

My arrival in Auhelawa

I arrived in the middle of the night. I was taken along a path in total darkness. I was shown into an empty room of a house lit only with a kerosene lantern….

Culture and “culture”

In the early days of my fieldwork, I spoke in English with people and found that most adults were fluent. This doesn’t mean that we always understood each other. For instance, for my research on “culture,” people suggested that I:

  • interview the newly-trained kindergarten teachers in village schools
  • collect the oral histories of people’s matrilineages, and find a solution to all of the current disputes over land ownership
  • conduct surveys on people’s food production and income

Observation and participation

I was interested in things that people take for granted

  • Participant-observation
  • Rapport

Sometimes, it felt like everything I did was a mistake!

  • “Where are you going?”

Gardens and funerals

Based on my previous study of this region, I knew I wanted to learn about two things.

  • Mortuary feasting, that is, the ceremonies associated with death, mourning, burial.
  • Gardening, especially yam gardening.

One seemed like it would require genuine rapport with my hosts, but the other seemed like it would be pretty easy.

Things did not work out quite how I expected them to work.

The story of “fieldwork”: Malinowski in the Trobriands

  • W. H. R. Rivers and expeditionary methods (e.g.  Rivers 1914)
    • Survey questionnaires and diffusionist hypotheses
    • Salvage ethnography
  • Bronislaw Malinowski and the Cambridge expedition of 1914 (Malinowski [1922] 1932, especially pages 1-25)
    • Immersion in one place
    • First-hand observation of actual happenings
    • Imponderabilia of everyday life and typical pattern of behavior
    • Key words, technical terms, verbatim quotations

Another story of fieldwork: Layard on Atchin

  • Rivers and John W. Layard on Atchin (Tsan) island in the New Hebrides islands (today in Malakula, Vanuatu) (Layard 1942)
    • Abandoned by Rivers, who got frustrated
    • Left alone to make friends
    • Adopted by another outsider: Maki
    • Participated in a big collective project: The revival of the Maki

Yet another story of fieldwork: Gomberg-Muñoz and The Lions

  • Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz wanted to understand the ways in which undocumented immigrants from Mexico made a living in Chicago (Gomberg-Muñoz 2011)
  • Met with her fellow workers separately and in social occasions outside of work
  • Worked in a restaurant, as a waitress, not a busboy
  • At work, she used “head notes” and expanded on them after hours
    • Work in the restaurant is “The Busboy Show” (Gomberg-Muñoz 2010)
  • Her informants (that is, research subjects), their restaurant, and the collective name for them are all pseudonyms

Survey questions

I did ultimately conduct a household survey about people’s gardens, food, and income.

I thought my questions were quite simple. I wanted to ask

  • Who were members of the household?
  • What kinds of food did people grow?
  • What did they do to earn money?

Even what I thought was basic was actually more complex

  • Garden: oya, or yaheyahe (or, yaʻwayaʻwala)?
  • Family and/or household: susu (but this concept also refers to a matrilineage).

Survey: How long should fieldwork last?

For the lecture question today, go to Canvas and answer a survey question asking for your opinion (scrolling down if needed). Any answer counts for this question.

How long should a fieldworker be immersed in the field?

The password will be announced in class.

Learning how to ask

I had to learn to listen before asking.

But if I only listened, then a lot of what I needed to know would remain unstated, so I had to ask.

  • Example: tetela (lineage history)

Fieldwork methods are all based on an ongoing conversation between the outsider and the insider.

Writing ethnography

Ethnography is a a form of writing that cultural anthropologists use to help people understand a way of life as a cultural system.

An ethnography is (usually) a book written by someone who has conducted participant-observation fieldwork

Ethnographic writing must always balance etic and emic descriptions.


Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. 2015. “Fieldwork and Ethnography.” In Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology, 32–51. London: Pluto Press.

Gomberg-Muñoz, Ruth. 2010. “Willing to Work: Agency and Vulnerability in an Undocumented Immigrant Network.” American Anthropologist 112 (2):295–307. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1433.2010.01227.x.

———. 2011. Labor and Legality: An Ethnography of a Mexican Immigrant Network. Oxford: Oxford University Press. http://books.google.com?id=9tb0SAAACAAJ.

Layard, John W. 1942. Stone Men of Malekula. London: Chatto and Windus. http://books.google.com?id=Z6etvQEACAAJ.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. (1922) 1932. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd. http://archive.org/details/argonautsofthewe032976mbp.

Rivers, W. H. R. 1914. The History of Melanesian Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

A guide to the unit

1001/2020/2.1.1.txt · Last modified: 2020/03/12 22:36 by Ryan Schram (admin)