Work, Lives, and Research

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Tue, 13 Feb 1996 17:42:31 +0900

Jim Martin writes,

"I'll stick by my opinion about the value of long-term field
research and the unique ability of academic anthropologists to
perform it."

I'll stick by my own opinion that long-term field research can
be extremely valuable, but the second half of the proposition
"the unique ability of academic anthropologists to perform it,"
is debatable.

Concerning the value of long-term research, the case made by
Paul Stoller in _The Taste of Ethnographic Things_ is, to my
mind, impeccable. Repeated visits over a period of many years
brings a maturity of observation that can simply be savored in
no other way.

One might add, too, the value of that remarkable luxury, one
or two years in the field paid for by someone else. Here I speak
from personal experience.

When Ruth and I settled in Puli, the small market town in
central Taiwan, where we did our first fieldwork, we quickly
found our way to the rectory of Maryknoll Father Clancy
Engler, the priest of the local Catholic mission. Clancy's
generosity with whiskey and not-too-well-aged Newsweeks
provided a welcome break now and then. What I still
remember is a conversation that we had early in our two years
in Puli.
"What," asked Clancy, "can one of you people who come for
just a year or two possibly hve to teach me?" At that point,
Clancy had lived in Taiwan for 17 years. His Taiwanese was
impeccable. It seemed an all too reasonable question. By the
end of our time in Puli, however, I had numerous answers for
him. The reason was simple. His seventeen years had been
spent, in the main, on his job, being a priest. Ruth and I had
been blessed with those two wonderful years in which we were
free to poke around and investigate whatever caught our
fancy. Now he had much to teach us, and we had much to
teach him.

Why, then, do I doubt the second half of Jim's proposition? My
observation of academic friends suggest that they spend most
of their time teaching, serving on committees, meeting with
students, engaging in social and family life. At the end of the
day, they don't have that much more time for research and
writing than I do, working in an advertising agency. The one's
with drive and discipline get a lot done. Others don't.

Changing the subject a bit: I am sensitive, too, to Mike Cahill's
observations about the need for anthropologists to get more
experience inside the organizations that dominate modern life.
If we want to engage constructively with the corporations and
governments that affect the other groups we study, we need to
know a great deal more about the people inside them.
Headhunter, peasant and corporate warrior--all are "Others"
whose lives are part of the human condition, and the last is
not the least of those we need to understand.

John McCreery
February 13, 1996.