Re: BA's, "disability" and anthropological fieldwork

William Bangs (wbbangs@U.WASHINGTON.EDU)
Fri, 24 Feb 1995 20:36:23 -0800

> This has been a really interesting thread for me, as a student about to
> complete his BA in anthro (well, doubled with religion) who is applying to
> grad programs and wrestling with the notion of fieldwork. Like John McC.
> has noteds,
> there are varieties of fieldwork. That's the first variable.
> Second, different interests and different programs impact what your options
> are: there is virtually no fieldwork provision here at UMB for cultural
> anthros, but ample opportunity for archaeological work ( a field school every
> summer) and options for "fieldwork" for forensic anthropologists. Of the last
> four honors candidates, only one has tried to do a fieldwork-based project,
> projects, and (b) is hard to support given our resources. That is another
> consideration. Third is this whole ethical/professional question of who should
> do what: i.e., are students capable of doing fieldwork, what sort should they
> do, what if they screw up, etc. Do undergrads *have* to do fieldwork? Heck,
> is fieldwork necessary? If you're in applied work, is it more important to do
> fieldwork, and what happens with your results? If you're in "non-applied"
> anthropology (and I'm not enamored of the distinction, since by definition what
> I want to do is not as 'practical' as applied anthro as currently defined),what
> is the "right" sort of fieldwork to do?
> I ask these questions because. . . I want some answers, goldarn it! I have had
> l implications to just wondering if I'm enough of a "people person" to pull it
> off. Also, my interests are equally strewn across several disciplines: do I
> "need" to do fieldwork, and how much less of an anthropologist will I be if I
> do none, or just do interviews, or whatever? I would be (surprise, surprise)
> interested in discussing these sorts of questions. Whaddya all think?
> Peace, love, kittens to all (esp. Robert Johnson),
> 8859jstev@UMBSKY.CC.UMB.EDU
> University of Massachusetts at Boston

The above is quite a provoctative comment. It gets at the heart of what
it means to train anthropologists, and I hope everyone reads and responds
to it seriously. As a partially sighted student, I was discouraged from
majoring in anthropology at my old school (before the UW where I am now);
the assumption (I think) was that I couldn't see well enough to do
fieldwork! As I see it the "professional standards" question really
boils down to pride vs. responsibility: the more of one a professor who
could supervise -- or just plain encourage -- undergrad field research
has, the less (s)he will have of the other. That is: if the faculty are
willing to see all serious students (regardless of age or aparant
disability) as potential valued contributors to knowledge, then they will
encourage those students to "do" anthropology from the start. In my
linguistic ethnography class students were given a choice: go out there
and do actual fieldwork among the Seattle community or something more
library-based. I chose the latter because of my interest (in that case
it was in how an author got her ideas across in book form). But the
point is: ethical issues were introduced in class, and for the most part
only interviewing or recording and transcription of conversation was
expected, not something so invasive as to have to even go through a
HSRB. Though naieve undergraduates, we were expected to be civilized and
moral in our interactions with our informants (subtle distinction, but
let's remember they're not really "subjects" in the hard sciences,
experimenting "on" them sense). But as I say, that's here at the UW. At
the school my original B.S. is from the head of the anthro department
herself discouraged me from pursuing it as a profession, wondering out
loud how a poor blind ethnographer would cope. Well I'll tell you how:
by using all five senses -- just relying a little less on that sight
thing. At issue is whether we assume undergrads to be adults, or just
out of high-school, and not very on top of things or mature. What better
way to have them mature than to have them go out into the "real" world to
help solve real problems? You grow up in a hurry when you know how much
impact your research might have on a living community. Finally, let's
remember: grad school's expensive! Other disciplines start their
training freshman year or before: if we (undergrads) are allowed to jump
in with both feet from the begining then those who are really interested
will ripen that much more quickly -- benefiting the faculty of our
graduate institutions with the poise that can only come from having the
self-confidence of one who has actually done it.

Ben Bangs

We each must decide which values are worth saving,
which satisfactions are worth sacrificing,
what ultimately we wish from life.

I fear many do not give this proposition
the sufficient thought it deserves:
until they become too engrained in a superficial life,
too far removed to find such harmony again...