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.