Putting the meth back in Methods

I’m teaching fieldwork methods this fall, for the third time. As some who know me by my works might well suspect, this is unusual because I have never been trained in so-called fieldwork methods in anthropology. I was raised by anthropologists, but also by historians and sociologists, an engineer and one architect who worked for DARPA; so this is an odd role for me. I’m looking for other experimenters to compare and contrast with. If you teach methods, especially this fall, or you know someone who is trying to experiment with this kind of class, I’d love to know about it.

My class is structured roughly around the idea of the architecture studio–students are expected to work together, but on individual projects, and to present regularly and receive criticism from other students. I think of it as more fieldwork tactics than fieldwork strategy (or fieldwork techniques rather than fieldwork design), because I don’t expect students to actually do an ethnographic project in a single (albeit unfairly long) semester. Nonetheless I think students can learn a lot by trying out various things (observations, notes, interviews, audio, video, archives and public sources, transcriptions and codings and annotations, and collaborative writing and so on). I usually have them end the semester with a mini-AAA panel, in which students are responsible both for presenting their own research, and for actually writing something about a classmate’s project as well.

I am avowedly obscurantist about this class, because I don’t want it to be mistaken for a qualitative methods class that deals with inference, small-N issues and other problems of generalizability and representativeness. These are valid concerns for those who want to do qualitative survey research, but they don’t do justice to the difficulty of treating ethnographic fieldwork as an epistemological encounter. I teach ethnography as if it were a tool for testing and re-framing concepts and methods–not only for collecting data. I would much rather challenge students to come in with some familiar anthropological canard and use the ethnographic encounter to de-canardize it (to coin a term) by turning it into a concept that allows students to communicate across diverse topics, sites, areas, or problems. If students can figure that out, then I let them worry about N.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

5 thoughts on “Putting the meth back in Methods

  1. Can’t someone like you just shout “Rhizome! Rhizome” and wave their hand andthen send the students home for the day ;?)

    Seriously, though: I’d HIGHLY reccomend _Learning How To Ask_. Then I play the Terry Gross/Gene Simmons interview.

  2. I second the call to (critically) read the Briggs, and hasten to add that one shouldn’t feel that a lack of formal training in ethnographic field methods is a hindrance to teaching them. After all, many if not most of us (anthropologists) never in fact receive training in research methods. Or has that changed?

    Btw, has anyone discussed graphic design in syllabi on this site? The one for your class is very cool. And I thought making the paragraph borders on my syllabi magenta was edgy…

  3. briggs yes briggs. thank you rex and strong. Rhizome! RhiZome! class dismissed.
    btw, i learn graphic design from my architecture students. I highly recommend getting some…

  4. Oh also, this is slightly off the beaten track, but if you are into films I really think all anthropologists should see Grizzly Man and Lawrence of Arabia before they go off to the field.

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