ASA Conference 2004, Durham - Locating the field

Writes de passage

‘You don’t do fieldwork, fieldwork does you’: between subjectivation and objectivation in anthropological fieldwork

Bob Simpson, University of Durham

In recent decades much effort has gone into ‘locating the field’ with the general trend being to question the appropriateness of the metaphorical ‘field’ as a discrete, far-away place that one enters and leaves after data has been harvested. Such questioning is driven on the one hand by a critical re-evaluation of the us/them, primitive/ civilised, north/south dualism which evolved out of earlier models of anthropological praxis. On the other hand, it is also seen as an inevitable consequence of the rapidly changing world in which we live. The cluster of technological and economic developments which we tend to subsume under the heading of globalisation create ever more complex patterns of social and cultural interpenetration. Such developments invite multi-sited and distributed approaches to the field as well as the identification of altogether new ‘fields’ such as cyberspace. Thus, ‘fields’ change in their size, shape, location, content and in terms of the repertoire of techniques one might use to access them. However, in the midst of these changing fields the anthropologist appears to remain strangely and, in my view, problematically constant.

In this paper I set out not so much to locate the anthropologist in changing fields but to locate these fields in the anthropologist. The starting point for this exercise is a consideration of Bourdieu’s notion of participant-objectivation and his attempt to theorise a ‘scientific-reflexivity’ based on a careful accounting of the ways in which the anthropologist is assimilated through densely textured interaction into the micro-social and political worlds that constitute his or her field. In other words, how cold reflection on the personal circumstances of fieldwork is pressed explicitly into the business of making sense of different social and political realities and then rendering this sense into more or less coherent ethnography.

By way of illustration of this process I recount two episodes of ethnographic fieldwork each in a very different context in Sri Lanka. The first was in 1978-80 when I undertook doctoral research into the transmission of ritual traditions among the drummer caste [beravayo]. The second, carried out over several visits [2000, 2002, 2003] and totalling five months was among doctors, clinicians and other professionals involved with debating and devising strategies for the regulation of new reproductive and genetic technologies. The first ‘field’ was of a more or less conventional character and was made up of a community set in a particular location. The second had no such community but focussed on a network of specialists with different professional and intellectual interests in the new reproductive and genetic technologies. These pieces of work are compared and contrasted with particular reference to my own positioning in relation to each of the research contexts. In each instance I demonstrate how the ‘field’ is in certain senses activated by the presence of the ethnographer and, as a consequence, the act of ‘locating the field’ becomes an exercise which deals not merely with the externalities of space, place and context but also with the internal world of the ethnographer as this perceived through categories of age, ethnicity, gender and status.

Biography as field: Reflections on method and the field as location in anthropological research

Sigríðdur Dúna Kristmundsdóttir, University of Iceland

What happens to our traditional methods and field concepts when the locus of anthropological research becomes an already lived individual life? How can the insights derived from such research contribute to the reshaping of anthropological methods and our concept of what constitutes an anthropological subject. The paper is based on my research of the life and work of dr. Bjorg C. Thorlaksson (1874-1934) published as a Life and as a Collection of papers in 2001 and 2002 respectively.

The tyranny of empiricism

Dr Paul Yates, Sussex Institute, EDB, University of Sussex

Within anthropology there has been an implicit assumption that social reality and the empirical are in some sense coterminous. This belief is grounded in a realist and positivist construction of the social and has survived the rationality versus relativism debates of the mid twentieth century and the more recent extensions of social anthropology into non-linguistic semiological arenas, for example, emotionality, dance and photography. What I shall argue is that the employment of empiricism as a legitimating mythology for accounts obscures the place of the writer and of the significance of writing as opposed to fieldwork as anthropological practice. This is significant because it is the empirical that privileges the concrete metaphors of space and place whereas it is writing that celebrates the more fugitive presence of context.

The Construction of the Empirical

Fieldwork as rite de passage and as distinctive though not exclusive is central to anthropology as social practice and so to the identity of anthropologists. Thus, empiricism is foundational to the construction of much anthropological knowledge. This sits uneasily with a range of theoretical interests that do not rest on a clear modernist and realist foundation: from structuralism to more recent concerns with globalization and postmodernity. In this section I will elaborate this lacuna through an examination of the nature and development of empiricism as fieldwork practice and the issue of its continued foundational role where its key features are becoming more faintly perceptible.

The Reconstruction of the Writer

In this section the focus will be partly on the relationship between data and account, an issue that has been central to anthropology in recent decades since the crisis of representation. This served to focus attention on the nature of empirical fieldwork and the status of subsequent accounts largely through problematizing the Other. I shall argue that the soi disant crisis can be understood as an unresolved tension between, on the one hand, a prescriptive and proscriptive realism inherent in the conception of fieldwork and on the other, ways of understanding both writing and the text drawn from philosophy and literary theory that are distinctly post-positivist or postmodern in mood. Finally, I shall argue that while there is no requirement to abandon an anthropology rooted in modernity that privileges the empirical nonetheless a reconceptualisation of the value of metaphors of space and place could release the anthropological writer from the historical burden of empiricism.