“The Field”: Doing “Anthropology” (1.2)

“How was the field?”

“Are you going to the field?”

“I just got back from the field.”

“I’ll be away, in the field.”

One of the striking features of MIT’s Doing Anthropology video (see the video sidebar), an attempt to market and pitch anthropology, is that it actually looks and sounds an awful lot like sociology, except for one thing: its insistence on only one particular methodology, one with the very peculiar name of “fieldwork.” Otherwise, the content of the research projects is far ranging, far reaching, and not especially distinctive (marine biology, immigrants, cheese making), and without much to hold them together that would be apparent in any way to a novice, apart from the idea that we talk to people in person. And if it tries too hard to be distinctive, it can end up looking like “Cannibal Tours” with its voyeuristic “fieldworkers” (as in the photograph). The language of the MIT video sometimes sounds borrowed from other disciplines, for example, when speaking of “authoritative knowledge,” or otherwise lacks a definite shape beyond generalizing statements that anthropology allows you to look beneath the surface and to make connections, to ask questions, to see the links between social and cultural life (which surely is neither the monopoly of anthropology, nor is it something that it “allows” as such). This is not to criticize the video. I think it is good, and when examined with some distance it appears as an accurate and quick rendition of what is the “shape” of contemporary anthropology, what it says about itself to attract new recruits perhaps.

One positive feature, from my perspective, is that it shows the great degree to which anthropology has become open to other disciplines, and opens itself out onto them, in a manner that becomes routine and taken for granted. I am tempted to believe that with a few shifts in naming practices and organizational design, anthropology can easily bleed into all other disciplines and vice versa, and may even be a pioneer in de-disciplining itself. (There are other forms of opening anthropology, and I am not yet ready to get into that.)

And why is that openness “good”? One reason is that it shows a declining need to continue to uphold irrelevant traditions that do not make any sense. Anthropology arose out of a nineteenth century European structuring of knowledge in the social sciences that saw the radical separation of the social, economic, political, cultural, and historical. Upholding this as if it were sacred, besides being too obedient for my tastes, is an abdication of the social responsibility of the full time thinker (because one hopes that they are thinkers and not just researchers). Anthropology is itself an arbitrary invention, rendered conventional, and we should never forget that, especially when we lecture others about the constructedness of their communities and traditions. We should be asking some hard questions about ourselves, and not just others.

What is distinctive about anthropology today is precisely that it is not distinctive. What is special about anthropology is not that it has any particular content or meaning, but rather that it does not. And in that there should be great freedom, freedom to undertake virtually any kind of study that is imaginable. That is, unless, one wants to stop and insist on speaking in terms of “an anthropological contribution,” or “the anthropological perspective,” in the defensive and uncertain manner that this is often done, as if one has to become one’s professional identity, as if we cannot do, say, or think anything unless it redounds to the credit of “anthropology.”

Where some sense of “anthropological” distinction is manufactured usually is in the notion of “fieldwork.” Unfortunately, for all of our famous questioning of the taken-for-granted, and our careful scrutiny of naming practices and the intersection of knowledge and power arising in labeling, we seem to be little prepared to question our own labels and names when it comes to our sacred cow: fieldwork. We can even talk about how “field sites” are “constructed” as units of analysis, but not about how we construct peoples, communities, and cultures as “fields” to begin with.

The start of the video above features an anthropologist beginning with discussion of “the field” noting that the term came from the natural sciences, and was meant to signal a difference from lab work. He is right in noting these distinctions, and that really is the basis for marking the difference between experimental and naturalistic science. We tell students that traditions are constantly changing, the world is in flux, everything is on the move … everything and everyone except us? So why hang on to this peculiar way of labeling people and their lives? Are we still trying to show off that we too can be scientific? Do we still need to objectify and dehumanize the people we research, turning them into static and inanimate “fields,” lest anyone accuse us of being too subjective, too partial, too human?

(And if we choose to persevere in maintaining certain traditions, and to hold them beyond the pale of questioning, then why we do we continue to deny “stillness” to others as if it were beyond their human capabilities? Can there even be movement without stillness as its backdrop? This will take us off track for now, but it is worth mentioning that we still live in a world where — in spite of all the “immigration studies” — the vast majority of people remain where they were born [only 3% of all humans live in a country other than the one in which they were born].)

The hangup here is not just one of natural science, but of colonialism as well, and it’s not surprising to see that pair together again. Decolonizing knowledge ought to involve a reconceptualization of where others stand, and to show some basic respect. When those we write about can now read what we write with much greater ease, I wonder how many are surprised to learn that their anthropologist “friend” refers to them and their homes in cold and dry terms as a “field.” Moreover, as came out during an exchange in my story about Daniela Rubin, there is something definitely proprietary, turf-like, and territorial about the notion of “the field” like something that is to be owned and cultivated by the anthropologist.

“Field” also echoes the notion of terra nullius, of an empty land ready to be appropriated by those arriving from outside. That the Human Terrain System should implicitly invoke the field image, by referring to social and cultural life in terms of territory, is not surprising, especially as the program involves colonialist fieldwork on behalf of an invading and occupying power, the United States.

I hope that eventually we will grow out of these scientistic and colonialist hangovers and hangups.

Note: the MIT video is also hosted on the AAA Public Affairs blog, and can be seen below:

4 thoughts on ““The Field”: Doing “Anthropology” (1.2)

  1. Anna Stewart

    Thanks for this post. I’m about to start doctoral research on the Internet and constantly bother myself with the idea that because I’m not able to discuss or approach the networks I want to study in terms of neatly bounded ‘fields’ I’m not doing ‘proper anthropology’.
    It’s always great to come across writers who critique these disciplinary structures, and point out the ways in which they can become unhelpful. I read your ‘another revolution missed’ article some time ago and found it tremendously useful. I’ve only just come across this site but you’ve certainly gained another reader here!

  2. Maximilian Forte

    Anna, thanks very much for your kind words, and especially for visiting. I look forward to hearing from you, or about you, again and I think you will find a growing number of people who are very much interested in the kind of research you are doing.

  3. Anna Stewart

    Much more likely to hear from me than about me for the time being, I fear… But I can pretty much guarantee the former.

  4. Pingback: anthro.pophago.us » “The Field”: Doing “Anthropology”

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