Fieldwork aphorisms

Those kernels of wisdom imparted to students leaving for the field. These are often conveyed in the hallway, or on the phone, or in office hours, from mentor to student; they seem most frequently to circulate after the formal presentation of a research proposal. And I think they often have much more impact than the sophisticated advice transmitted through ‘official’ channels. Sometimes they are very telling. Two off the top of my head:

‘Don’t eat unwashed lettuce.’ (Marilyn Strathern actually published a piece under this title in that symposium that Rena put together on IRB issues in Æ™.)

‘Never refuse an invitation.’ (This is attached to Chicago I believe {apparently, a few of our readers live, or have lived, there}.)

As concerns the relationship between anthropologist and informant, these two pieces of advice would seem to be diametrically opposed: one cautioning distance, the other refusing it. Anyway, recently a student here was presenting his final research proposal concerning Istanbul and modernity, and we staff were giving advice. Afterward, I realized that I had forgotten to tell him my new idea. The idea occurred to me, actually, in Bangalore International Airport: “Note the titles for sale in the business section of the airport bookstore.”

9 thoughts on “Fieldwork aphorisms

  1. From Frank Cancian, in a field methods course at Cornell, circa 1968: People are almost always willing to talk to somebody who shows a serious interest in what they are doing.

    What I’ve found myself, working with Chinese and Japanese, is that while there are always things that people don’t want to talk about–we have to respect that–Cancian’s advice is generally sound.

  2. “Don’t bring any novels to read.” That from my advisor at UT Austin, who seemed to be convinced that if a young fieldworker brought any escapist reading material, they would spend all their time curled up with it in their mosquito net, instead of out recording fascinating but obscure speech events in the wee hours of the morning.

  3. My favorite aphorisms are collected in Appendix IV of E-P’s “Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande.” He writes: “I first sought advice from Westermarck. All I got from him was ‘don’t converse with an informant for more than twenty minutes because if you aren’t bored by that time, he will be.’ Very good advice, if somewhat inadequate. I sought instruction from Haddon, a man foremost in field-research. He told me that it was really all quite simple; one should always behave as a gentleman. Also very good advice. My teacher, Seligman, told me to take ten grams of quinine every night and to keep off the women. The famous Egyptologist, Sir Flinders Petrie, just told me not to bother about drinking dirty water as one soon became immune to it. Finally, I asked Malinowski and was told not to be a bloody fool.”

    Except for the quinine, I think they’re all quite generally applicable.

  4. I tried to live under the ‘no novels’ rule for a long time in highland Papua New Guinea. At some point however, I realized that the real problem with my dissertation fieldwork was not whether I would record enough ‘goings on’ or not, it was whether or not I would _ever have a second to myself_. Fortunately, I had advisers sensitive to the issue. One of them in fact *mailed* me novels (I am forever indebted to you for this kindness, Emily), including Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, which I believe I exchanged with Rex for a copy of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest at some point. A PRIZED find for me was the Raymond Chandler omnibus tucked away in the corner of a thrift store in Goroka. It was great to read by lamplight, with embers in the fire pit smoldering, and the rain pattering on thatch: LA couldn’t be further away or a more welcome escape. Loved that book.

  5. What kind of ethnographic fiction is being promoted here? When I was having email correspondences with my PhD advisor about fieldwork anxieties, he told me and wrote me several lessons that stick in my head (or could be dug out of email archives).
    – Don’t bring ethnography. Bring science fiction!
    – Lesson Two: Fieldwork sucks. It always sucks. And it sucks for everyone. Don’t believe the people who tell you its all about wonderful insights, defining moments, growing as a person, establishing rapport, enabling cross-cultural dialogue, or that fieldwork is about freedom from the constraints of academia, that fieldwork is the best thing about being an anthropologist, etc., etc. Fieldwork is only as good as the lattes you can get while doing it.

  6. “Always lie to customs officers.”

    “Peruse bookstores. If you don’t know which novels are at the top of the bestseller list in the country, you don’t know the discourses of your own field site.”

    “Carry money for the muggers. Put the real cash not in your shoes, which they will check, but in your socks.”

    “Never take the initiative in bribing a military police officer. They will signal you when it is time to offer it.”

  7. “Don’t get into any fights.” Was advice given to me before I went to China for the first time in 1990. Turned out to be more prescient than I had imagined …

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