Anthropological Fieldwork

Anthropological fieldwork was introduced above in connection with cultural anthropology, it is characteristic of all the anthropological subdisciplines. Archaeologists and paleoanthropologists excavate in the field.

A biological anthropologist interested in the effects of globalization on nutrition and growth will live in the field among a community of people to study this question.

A primatologist might live among a group of chimpanzees or baboons just as a linguist will study the language of a community by living in that community.

Fieldwork, being immersed in another culture, challenges the anthropologist to be constantly aware of the ways that cultural factors influence the research questions.

Fieldwork requires the researcher to step out of his or her cultural comfort zone into a world that is unfamiliar and sometimes unsettling.

Anthropologists in the field are likely to face a host of challenges—physical, social, mental, political, and ethical. They may have to deal with the physical challenge of adjusting to unaccustomed food, climate, and hygiene conditions.

Typically, anthropologists in the field struggle with such mental challenges as loneliness, feeling like a perpetual outsider, being socially clumsy and clueless in their new cultural setting, and having to be alert around the clock because anything that is happening or being said may be significant to their research.

Political challenges include the possibility of unwittingly letting oneself be used by factions within the community, or being viewed with suspicion by government authorities who may suspect the anthropologist is a spy.

And there are ethical dilemmas: what to do if faced with a cultural practice one finds troubling, such as female circumcision; how to deal with demands for food supplies and/or medicine; the temptation to use deception to gain vital information; and so on.

At the same time, fieldwork often leads to tangible and meaningful personal, professional, and social rewards, ranging from lasting friendships to vital knowledge and insights concerning the human condition that make positive contributions to people’s lives.

Something of the meaning of anthropological fieldwork—its usefulness and its impact on researcher and subject—is conveyed in the following Original Study by Suzanne Leclerc-Madlala, an anthropologist who left her familiar New England surroundings 20 years ago to do AIDS research among Zulu-speaking people in South Africa.

Her research interest has changed the course of her own life, not to mention the lives of individuals who have AIDS/HIV and the type of treatment they receive.

Unlike many other social scientists, anthropologists usually do not go into the field armed with prefigured questionnaires. Though they head into the field having completed considerable background research and some tentative hypotheses, they still recognize that many of the best discoveries are made by maintaining an open mind.

As fieldwork proceeds, anthropologists sort out their observations, sometimes by formulating and testing limited or low-level hypotheses, or by intuition. The anthropologist works closely with the community so that the research process can become a collaborative effort.

The results are constantly checked for consistency, for if the parts fail to fit together in a manner that is consistent, then the anthropologist knows that a mistake may have been made and that further inquiry is necessary.

Another issue in scientific fieldwork is validity. In the natural sciences, the reliability of a researcher’s conclusions is established through the replication of observations and/or experiments by another researcher. Thus, it becomes obvious if one’s colleague has “gotten it right.”

In anthropology, some researchers self-monitor through constantly checking their own biases and assumptions as they work and presenting these self-reflections along with their observations, a practice known as reflexivity.

Traditional validation by others is uniquely challenging in anthropology because observational access is often limited. Access to a particular research site can be constrained by a number of factors.

Difficulties of travel, obtaining permits, insufficient funding, or social, political, and environmental conditions can hamper the process, and what may be observed in a certain context at a certain time may not be at others, and so on.

Once an archaeological site has been excavated for the first time, the site is forever changed. Thus, one researcher cannot easily confirm the reliability or completeness of another’s account. For this reason, anthropologists bear a special responsibility for accurate reporting.

In the final research report, she or he must be clear about several basic things: Why was a particular location selected as a research site? What were the research objectives? What were the local conditions during fieldwork? Which local individuals provided the key information and major insights? How were the data collected and recorded? How did the researcher check his/her own biases?

Without such background information, it is difficult for others to judge the validity of the account and the soundness of the researcher’s conclusions.

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