Re: Real Fieldwork

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Sat, 25 Feb 1995 09:18:32 JST

sam beck writes,

"While you don't want to be hung up on definitions, your idea of what
fieldwork is is an anachronism. It no longer fits into the paradigm of
critical and reflexive anthropology. It is not an anthropology that is
sensitive to people being researched."

I wonder how he knows that. Seems to me that sensitivity, or lack thereof,
is a function of the person doing the fieldwork.Also, it's important not
to confuse sensitivity with new styles in collecting information and in
analyzing and presenting the results. Provocatively speaking <g>,I have
yet to read an advocate of "critical and reflexive anthropology" who comes
close to being as sensitive to what was going on around him/her as
Malinowski. He was not, to be sure, given to commiserating with the
miseries of the people he worked with; nor was he in retrospect sufficiently
concerned with the historical moment in which he was working. But I
challenge anyone to actually read _Coral Gardens and Their Magic_ or
_The Sexual Life of Savages_ and show me someone more recent who paid more
attention or learned more about the people with whom s/he did his/her

For a more recent example, I'd offer my teacher Victor Turner.One can niggle
about his theories and methods (that's what academic debate is about). But
who can doubt that people will still be reading Turner on the Ndembu when
the latest contortions in theory are as dead as Renan or Fr. Schmidt.

It is probably also worth noting that different researchers are "sensitive"
to different degrees at different times. Mike Taussig, for example: _The
Devil and Commodity Fetishism_ is a powerful and moving piece of work.
_Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man_ is shocking...and powerful.
The later work becomes increasingly self-indulgent and, noticeably, more
dependent on browsing in libraries that first-hand encounters with the
people he's talking about. Someone asks about _Mimesis and Alterity_. For
a "sensitive" introduction to Kuna culture, I'd choose Joel Sherzer any day.

Over to you, Mr. beck (Lower case because you seem to prefer it that way.)

John McCreery