Is fieldwork over-rated?

A provocation from the past:

I am the last to decry field work… But when I reflect on the broad generalizations that have emerged in the history of our science, I find that the most stimulating have come on the whole from armchair students, who saw no tribe though they studied European society: Van Gennep’s analysis of rites of passage, LĂ©vy-Bruhl’s of pre-logical collective representations, Durkheim’s of division of labor, Hubert and Mauss’ of sacrifice and offering, and the many works of Tylor, Frazer, Marett, Engels, Freud, Pareto. When I consider the type of data with which they worked, I can only wish that they might be here again to use the data provided by modern field-research in even more fruitful hypotheses. This is not to deny that some modern field workers have produced as stimulating hypotheses: but, if we are to learn from our history, I hope that some of them will forsake the savage for the study.

(Max Gluckman, An analysis of the sociological theories of Bronislaw Malinowski, 1949; and see Manners & Kaplan, “Notes on Theory and Non-Theory in Anthropology,” 1968).

6 thoughts on “Is fieldwork over-rated?

  1. It is hardly fair to characterize Geertz as an anthropologist who foresook the savage for the study, given his distinguished career of ethnography in Java, Bali and Morocco.

  2. isn’t the provocation here that there is a bad collaborative hierarchy in anthropology– i.e. that the choice is between good fieldworkers creating good theory with their own fieldwork, and good benchwarmers creating good theory with other people’s fieldwork? Or even worse: an indictment of fieldwork as a “distinctive form of epistemological encounter” (pace Marcus) in which the knot of theory and research can’t be untied? Then again, from a certain perspective this is not exactly the series of distinguished thinkers I would allow into my tent 🙂 (Marrett??!)

  3. Could it be (I don’t claim to know) that Gluckman was thinking of what Evans-Pritchard would later call “the dead hand of competence,” the sort of fieldwork that produces a respectable ethnography but adds little to our understanding of either ethnographic facts or the human condition writ large?

  4. Essentially, the dispute boils down to an age-old debate: Plato vs. Aristotle, or, in other words, metaphysics vs. Empiricism. The field workers produce the evidence, without necessarily putting it in perspective, so that much of it sits waiting for future interpretation. Granted, there have been exceptions, but not a barrel full.

    Nevertheless, the proponents of Empiricism routinely argue on behalf of procuring the evidence; guesswork doesn’t count. But bones don’t talk. Ochre doesn’t reveal universal truths. Sacramental ornaments refuse to be empirically demystified. Interpretation is required. From an armchair, or the halls of a museum. There’s no way around it.

    And for all the illustrious minds mentioned, Nietzsche’s study of the raw instincts, ancient habituation, and evolution of values proves more relevant than a truck load of sample gatherers collecting artifacts. That’s not to demean the hard working crews. But gathering samples is merely one component of reaching fuller understanding.

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