As the professor in charge of teaching introductory anthropology at the University of Adelaide, she enthusiastically told students in the lecture hall that participant observation basically involves some “deep hanging out” with people. Many chuckled, as if they were amused to hear that, after all, one of the main ways of doing research in anthropology closely resembles relaxation.
Outside the lecture hall, the professor asks me as the teaching assistant: “So Max, when you did fieldwork, did you collect any genealogies?”
Max: “I don’t normally gather people’s kinship data when I am hanging out with them.”
He was being asked, after his presentation on folksonomies (how Web users tag particular items such as videos, music clips, etc., thereby creating their own taxonomy), about doing fieldwork. The person asking this was an anthropologist wrapped in disciplinary armour. The person answered: “I would like to,” he wipes his brow, “but I have never been trained in the techniques of observation.”
Guess what? Neither have we anthropologists.
Guess what? Your whole research was based on observation anyway, so don’t now concede “observation” itself to anthropology or we will never hear the end of it. Or we will in fact hear the end of it: if there is one thing about research methods in anthropology is that very few anthropologists actually care to talk about their “field experiences” in the open. Too many secrets to hide? After all, how could so many socially maladapted, humourless, antagonistic and bitter snobs ever be great at establishing rapport? Please don’t tell me I am the first one making this observation, that individuals who are abrasive toward students and snide with colleagues are, suddenly, wonderfully warm human beings in places and among people that they aseptically call “the field”, where “hanging out” is an exercise motivated by calculation and then talked about among strangers as a “research method.”
(Revised, slightly, 05 May, 2008)