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FIELDWORK AND ITS INTERPRETATION

Theory without data is empty, but data without theory are blind. — C. Wright Mills

FIELDWORK Anthropology distinguishes itself from the other social sciences through the great emphasis placed on ethnographic fieldwork as the most important source of new knowledge about society and culture. A field study may last for a few months , a year, or even two years or more, and it aims at developing as intimate an understanding as possible of the phenomena investigated. Many anthropologists return to their field throughout their career, to deepen their understanding further or to record change. Although there are differences in field methods between different anthropological schools, it is generally agreed that the anthropologist ought to stay in the field long enough for his or her presence to be considered more or less ‘natural’ by the permanent residents, the informants, although he or she will always to some extent remain a stranger. Many anthropologists involuntarily take on the role of the clown when in the field. They may speak strangely with a flawed grammar; they ask surprising and sometimes tactless questions, and tend to break many rules regarding how things ought to be done. Such a role can be an excellent starting-point for fieldwork, even if it is rarely chosen: through discovering how the locals react to one’s own behaviour, one obtains an early hint about their way of thinking. We are all perceived more or less as clowns in unfamiliar surroundings; there are so many rules of conduct in any society that one will necessarily break some of them when one tries to take part in social life in an alien society. In Britain, for example, it is considered uncultured to wear white socks with a dark suit; still, it happens that people who are not fully conversant with the local dress code do so. In the field, anthropologists have been known to commit much more serious mistakes than this. A different, and sometimes more problematic, role that can be assumed by the anthropologist in the field, is the expert role. Many fieldworkers are treated with great deference and respect by their hosts, are spoken to in extremely polite ways and so on, and can thus run the risk of never seeing aspects of society which the locals are ashamed of showing to high-ranking strangers. 24

Fieldwork and its Interpretation

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No matter which role one takes on in the field – most ethnographers are probably partly expert, partly clown, at least in the early stages – fieldwork is extremely demanding, both in professional and in human terms. The tidy, systematic and well-rounded texts written by anthropologists are more often than not the end-product of long periods in the field characterised by boredom, illness, personal privations, disappointments and frustration: few anthropologists can state squarely that their fieldwork was a continuously exciting journey of exploration, full of pleasant experiences. In a foreign setting, one will usually master the language and the codes for behaviour poorly at the beginning, and one will feel helpless in many situations. Besides, one runs the risk of encountering suspicion and hostility, and it can be profoundly unpleasant for the body to have to cope with an unfamiliar climate, strange food and a different hygienic standard than one is accustomed to. Last but not least, it can be very trying for people with a middle-class ‘Western’ background (which is that of most anthropologists) to adapt to societies where being alone is considered a pitiful or pathological condition. Plainly put, in many village settings one is never left alone. This problem does not usually exist for the growing number of anthropologists who carry out their fieldwork in modern urban settings. In their case, the problem may be the opposite: in societies where people have TV sets and cars, and where time is considered a scarce resource, an ethnographer may quickly discover that his or her...
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