My field methods seminar is wrapping up today and something happened in it this semester that has happened in it before.
I usually get a substantial segment of the class from other disciplines — graduate students who want to do ethnographic work in education, business, sociology, or whatnot and want to see how The Anthros do it. Even though other fields have been doing fieldwork as long or longer than us, we somehow capture the imagination of other disciplines as doing the ‘real’ or ‘most intense’ version of ethnographic work. In fact, often we have a bit of a mystical aura around us since no one can figure out exactly what we do, they just know we do it in some extremely ineffable way. Which, too often, is anthropology’s self-understanding as well.
When we read Marcus-and-Clifford postmodernism in my fieldmethods class, non-anthropology graduate students find their ideas not only uncontroversial, but actually the most scientific of the stuff on the syllabi. While the anthropologists consider postmodern reflexivity to be narcissistic, the non-anthros consider it to be the closest thing our discipline has produced to a ‘methods section’: something in the ethnography that describes what we actually did in the field. While the anthropologists approach collaborative anthropology and the decentering of their epistemological authority with a mixture of erotic longing and dread, the non-anthros consider it to be a sensible attempt to check the validity of research results against the intuitions of research respondents.
I think there’s something deeply ironic — and also very insightful — about this take on anthropology’s now-canonized apostates. But I’m not sure what. That anthropology was so far down the rabbit hole that postmodernism looks like an attempt at answerability? That postmodernism is just common sense about the research process with an -OfTheContemporary suffix attached at the end? Or something else?
Let me know what you figure out.