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Chapter Outline

What Is Ethnographic Fieldwork?

Why Do Fieldwork?

The Fieldwork Experience

A Meeting of Cultural Traditions

Ethnographic Fieldwork: How Has Anthropologists’ Understanding Changed?

The Positivist Approach

Was There a Problem with Positivism?

Can the Reflexive Approach Replace Positivism?

Can Fieldwork Be Multisited?

What Is the Dialectic of Fieldwork?

How Are Interpretation and Translation Important Aspects of Fieldwork?

How Can Anthropologists Move beyond the Dialectic?

The Dialectic of Fieldwork: Some Examples

What Happens When There Are Ruptures in Communication?

The Effects of Fieldwork

How Does Fieldwork Affect Informants?

How Does Fieldwork Affect the Researcher?

Does Fieldwork Have Humanizing Effects?

Where Does Anthropological Knowledge Come From?

How Does Knowledge Produce?

Is Anthropological Knowledge Open-Ended?

Main Points:

  1. Anthropological fieldwork traditionally involved participant-observation, extended periods of close contact at a single site with members of another society. Anthropologists were expected to carry out research in societies different from their own, but in recent years increasing numbers have worked in their own societies. Each setting has its own advantages and drawbacks for ethnographers.
  2. Early anthropologists who wanted to be scientific tried to remake fieldwork in the image of controlled laboratory research. According to positivist scientists and philosophers, laboratory research was the prototype of scientific investigation. Following this positivist model, anthropologists systematically collected highly accurate data on societies in many parts of the world.
  3. When human beings study other human beings, scientific accuracy requires that they relate to one another as human beings. Successful fieldwork involves anthropologists who think about the way they think about other cultures. Informants also must reflect on the way they and others in their society think, and they must try to convey their insights to the anthropologist. This is basic to the reflexive approach to fieldwork, which sees participant-observation as a dialogue about the meaning of experience in the informant’s culture. Fieldworkers and informants work together to construct an intersubjective world of meaning.
  4. When communication between anthropologist and informant is ruptured, learning about another culture is often greatest. Ruptures occur when current intersubjective understandings prove inadequate to account for experience. A rupture always carries the possibility of bringing research to an end. But when the reasons for the rupture are explored and explanations for it are constructed, great insights are possible.
  5. In recent years, a number of anthropologists have begun to carry out fieldwork that takes them to a number of different sites. Such multisited fieldwork is usually the outcome of following cultural phenomena wherever they lead, often crossing local, regional, and national boundaries in the process. Such fieldwork allows anthropologists to understand better many cultural processes that link people, things, metaphors, plots, and lives that are not confined to a single site.
  6. Taking part in ethnographic fieldwork has the potential to change informants and researchers in sometimes unpredictable ways. In some cases, anthropologists have worked with their informants to effect social change, although not all anthropologists agree that this is appropriate. In other cases, anthropologists argue that their main task is to figure out and explain to others how people in particular places at particular moments engage with one another and with the world.
  7. Because cultural meanings are intersubjectively constructed during fieldwork, cultural facts do not speak for themselves. Those facts speak only when they are interpreted and placed in a context of meaning that makes them intelligible. Multisited fieldwork complicates this because it involves the anthropologist in cross-cutting commitments in different contexts, where the same cultural facts may be differently understood or valued.
  8. The ethnographic record of anthropological knowledge is perhaps best understood as a vast, unfinished commentary on human possibility. We may never learn all there is to know, but we can always learn more.


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