I’m a big fan of books about doing fieldwork and my essays reflecting on field experiences are an important part of my methods class. So I was interested to read a new volume of essays from Indiana entitled Returns to the Field: Multitemporal Research and Contemporary Anthropology.
Returns has a very straight-forward, baby-boomer agenda: all of the authors did their first fieldwork in the late 1960s or early 1970s, worked with ‘exotic’ or ‘peripheral’ people, and have gone back regularly ever since. The goal of the essays is to defend this approach from ‘postmodernists’ and to emphasize the importance of long-term commitment to the field. In sum, they seek to rehabilitate their projects and repudiate those who think there is something wrong with a white, first-world anthropologists becoming a sharing carer and caring sharer with brown, third (or fourth) world people.
Like a lot of reaction against postmodernism, there isn’t a very deep engagement with it in this volume – its the implied backdrop and the charges leveled against the authors are never made clear. This is perfectly appropriate because most of the book is dedicated to descriptions of fieldwork and host communities themselves. The key term here is the one they used in the title: ‘multitemporal research’ which is just means going back regularly to your field site.
The authors of the volume emphasize the way that a career of fieldwork in the same location enriches anthropological understanding. I’m not sure who would really argue against this idea since, at least in theory, everyone should agree with this fact even if very few of us actually have the gumption to do it. And although the idea is repeated (perhaps a little too often) throughout the papers, we never really get a full account of what anthropological prudence is and how it develops over time. Instead, we get a series of papers that agree with each other and present their own unique takes on the value of multi temporal work. A focus on multitemporal research, in other words, serves as a frame to hold the collection together rather than becoming a topic to be theorized at length by the contributors.
This is fine with me, because the papers — and the careers described in them — are pretty interesting. All of the authors have long-term relations with some group of peripheral people, and all of them emphasize the way that growing old and growing wise with these communities has improved their ability to write about them. Most authors also emphasize the unpredictability of social change: what looks like a big deal on one trips often peters out by the time you return for your next visit, when something that no one saw coming ends up being the most important force in people’s lives. But other than these commonalities, the papers really are a mixed bag. Some people have developed second field sites in addition to their first one. Some papers deal almost exclusively with the changes and challenges that their communities face over time, while others are much more concerned with the development of the anthropologist rather than the anthropologized. Some have witnessed their host communities’ resilience in the face of change, while others have seen ways of life irrevocably destroyed.
The careers of the anthropologists themselves are impressive. While many of the papers reflect on the authors youthful naiveté and discuss their early shortcomings, none of the papers are narcissistic or self-absorbed. In fact, they reveal a group of anthropologist fiercely committed to their host communities: people who have written works in the local language, supported locals in their careers as anthropologists, and who have done everything from radio interviews to political demonstrations with their respondents. Many of the careers on display here are remarkable, and help to remind us that ‘collaborative anthropology’ is not a new phenomenon, it is simply anthropology done well.
Each of the authors does have a unique take on multitemporal fieldwork. Alan Barnard sees it as a way to think about one’s site as a region, rather than a discrete place. Edvard Hviding is concerned to demonstrate that ‘villages’ are always globally connected and there is nothing wrong with ‘village studies’ once they are understood in this light. Peter Metcalfe takes on post colonialism (as he always does) by emphasizing how much better life was for ‘his people’ in the colonial period. In one of the highlights of the book, Aud Talle describes her shock and helplessness watching a woman resist circumcision, and traces her own relationship over the years with that woman as they re-meet years later and their opinions on the practice change.
If you are interested in the contributors or the areas they study, the essays in this book serve as an excellent skeleton key. You can read Terry Turner’s piece in here, for instance, to help orient yourself to his work and decide what to read next. Alternately, if you are reading (or teaching) and of the ethnographies that these people have written, including a chapter from this volume either before or afterwards would be a great way to contextualize the material.
Overall, this is a great collection of essays that hang together well and — for once! — address the common theme that the edited volume is ostensibly about. At the same time, each is strong enough that it could be read separately. If you are interested in the topic or the contributors, it is definitely worth picking up — especially since the book is only US$10 on kindle.