I am just about ready to give up on the idea that culture shock is an important part of anthropology’s method. What is the point of this concept? For some anthropologists, experiencing ‘a different culture’ or, to put it another way, ‘cultural difference’ is key to being an anthropologist. Why I’m not sure. I think a lot of it has to do with anthropology’s surge of babyboom growth, which accentuated some aspects of the discipline over others. It also rests on the insight — important, I’ll argue — that anthropology is valuable because fieldwork transforms the person who undertakes it in a valuable way. But to argue that it is culture shock that triggers this transformation is to focus on the bathwater and not the baby.
The downsides of making anthropology necessarily a culture-crossing encounter are legion. It reifies the notion of cultural boundaries, for instance, driving us further away from the Boasian recognition of culture’s fluid nature. It makes people who study themselves a tremendous problem, rather than recognizing that such a thing is perfectly natural — whether it be ethnographies of white urban first worlders, or Native anthropologists who are Taking The Theory Back. In so narrowly imagining the field as rich whites visiting poor browns, it reduces an ethics of connectivity (thanks for this phrase James Faubion) to an impoverished series of debates about how best activist anthropologist can help those poor, poor people. And, of course, saying that it is the culture shock rather than fieldwork and participant-observation that gives anthropologist insights is, implicitly, a vote of no confidence in our methods. Our discipline is worse off, I believe, when we claim that our method amounts to ‘hanging out’ but that’s ok because we hang out in ‘really strange places’.
How different this is from the ethnographic tradition in sociology. A standard textbook in that discipline (‘Analyzing Social Situations’) begins its first chapter with the exhortation to ‘start where you are’, and provides a list of a dozen sociologists who turned their careers as truckers or pet enthusiasts into monographs. For them, the issue of ‘studying your own culture’ is simply nonexistent. Neither is the notion of culture shock. Ethnographic sociologists have faith in their method (this comes from having to defend it from the quants they share their department with), and are willing to say that ethnography is a unique way of seeing and knowing, such that it is the method and not the location that makes knowledge. And as people who are attuned to issues of race and class, they recognize that there are lots of different lifeworlds to be explored, all of which are finely textured, unique, and deserving of description.
Now, I have to admit that one of the most valuable things about my own fieldwork in graduate school was living in a place where people reproduced their lives: building their own houses, growing their own food. The difference between that and my upper-middle class American childhood was staggering. And I also recognize that I am not the first person to criticize anthropology for constructing a ‘field’ or taking as its object of study ‘the natives’. But in posing the issue in terms of physical location or object of study, rather than culture shock, these critcisms create imaginary problems which they bend over backwards to solve.
If we believe fieldwork to have some sort of methodology which produces a unique and valuable form of knowledge, and we think anthropology is some sort of distinctive analytic les (or, dare we even say it, have some unique theories of the world), then issues of “what is fieldwork if not about ‘a village’” “can one study one’s own culture” and so forth become not fascinating theoretical issues, but simply contradictions caused by the wreckage of anthropology’s own self-induced aporias. So rather than giving up on fieldwork as a method, or giving up on single-site research, or giving up on the culture concept, what I think we really need to give up on is the underlying notion of grounding our discipline in the phenemonology of culture shock. If we did so I think we’d find much of the gunk cleared away, and several areas of ethics and so forth, connected in ways we hadn’t seen previously.