ASA Conference 2004, Durham - Locating the field


Title: Locating the field: metaphors of space, place and context in anthropology

Contemporary anthropologists are confronted by social processes and theoretical perspectives that are said to be transforming the dimensions and scale of fieldwork. Globalisation and cultural commodification are depicted as disrupting connections between culture and place. The locus of ethnography has apparently shifted to include forms of human organisation and sociality that transcend fixed geographical locations: diasporas, social movements and virtual realities. Architectural and spatial metaphors of analysis -- structures, territories, contexts -- are therefore being challenged by more fluid images of touring cultures and cultural pluralities. 'Locality' itself has been highlighted as a problem for both informants and fieldworkers, on the grounds that it must be maintained and reproduced in relation to widening (and fragmenting) social frames and networks. Such developments have raised questions concerning the nature of ethnographic co-presence and scales of comparison. Must we now engage in multi-sited projects that reflect the mobilities and expanded agencies of those whom we study? Can we assume that it is no longer the job of the ethnographer to search for order and coherence in the ramifying social and symbolic worlds of informants? Does the development of new electronic means of communication, involving cyberspace and the creation of virtual communities, require the fieldworker to stay on the verandah and switch on a computer? Or are reports of the death of conventional fieldwork greatly exaggerated?

We wish to take a critical look at the developments summarised above. Do they actually present profound shifts within anthropological theorising and methodology? Rather than taking 'globalisation', 'space-time compression' or 'mobility' for granted, anthropologists are well-placed to examine the totalising, often homogenising, assumptions behind these notions (which often reintroduce spatial metaphors in modified form). In defining their 'field' and their 'region', anthropologists should be able to go beyond simple dichotomies of 'local' versus 'global', 'parochial' versus 'cosmopolitan', or 'static' versus 'mobile'. The older spatial metaphors that have sustained anthropological theorising require our constant and questioning attention, but need they be abandoned?