Anthropology as personal transformation

I’ve just got back from vacation — sorry for the radio silence — and have been thinking about anthropology as personal transformation. There is a long and deep current of feeling in anthropology which sees doing anthropology as something that changes the person who does it and argues, in various ways, that this change itself is worthwhile, or a form of knowledge in itself, or philosophically or ethically important. Often this is framed in terms of fieldwork, and the way that long-term immersive fieldwork (often in ‘another culture’) transforms the person who undergoes it.

I’d like to write a series of posts exploring the different ways in which this current or impulse presents itself in anthropology and how it is often in conflict with another deep current in anthropological thought: the idea that anthropology ought be objective, and anxiety that our methods and writing are not objective enough.

Uh… whether I actually write that series of posts remains to be seen but in the meantime… anyone else have ideas about this topic?


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

16 thoughts on “Anthropology as personal transformation

  1. This reminds me of those places where Foucault talked about not necessarily knowing where he was going to end up when writing a book, and how writing the books were transformational for him. I can’t find the reference, but I did stumble across a non-confessional way to interpret blogging.

    This topic is also on my mind lately as I’ve just returned from a short stint of fieldwork in Tokyo, and have been talking to friends about how fieldwork has made me a different person.

    What I’m referring to is possibly less lofty than what you have in mind, but I found it interesting to think about having to develop this skill of networking and talking to complete strangers. It is especially interesting to me since I consider myself to be a shy person.

    I’m really supportive of this aspect of fieldwork, but I don’t feel like there is much room to write or talk about it in anthropology, even after the reflexive turn. I get the sense that it is perhaps a bit too “religious” or “spiritual” for others to be comfortable with, or maybe even a bit too narcissistic.

  2. Been thinking about similar issues, using anthropology teaching as the context for inter-personal transformation.
    Seems to me, a lot of the obstacles to discussions about the personal impact of anthropology have more to do with professional recognition in the Ivory Tower than a lack of sensitivity to the issues.
    Are our colleagues scared that they will be judged for even mentioning such things as personal transformation? Among Anglos, it does sound like they are. Among French-speaking anthropologists, it’s actually quite easy to discuss personal transformation.Thoughtful discussion is a cure for self-help books.

  3. The reflexive turn gave us so much autoethnographic crap and navel-gazing that it did a great deal of damage to the perceived legitimacy of the discipline, especially among the social scientists who already looked down their noses at qualitative methods. The lingering reluctance to talk about personal transformation (or one’s subjectivity or even acknowledging one’s motives for being interested in a given subject at all) are probably a result of the backlash over the virtual obsession with it during the 70s and 80s. This is unfortunate because personal transformation through anthropology is so essential to the ethnographic experience.

    Not coincidentally, with the rise of mass tourism in the 80s peaking in the 90s, suddenly there were all sorts of amateur ethnographers visiting “natives” in previously obscure locations, photographing natives, having sex with natives, etc and writing guidebooks, articles and eventually blogs about how transformative living in another culture is. I suspect (but have no evidence) that not gushing too much about how fieldwork changed our lives also keeps us from looking amateurish at a time when anyone whose ever done a study abroad program in college or spent a week on a safari in Kenya fancies himself/herself an anthropologist.

  4. Ah the tie-in with education is interesting — ideally education is supposed to be transformative of students so I suppose a liberal arts education could have some interesting similarities to ‘the fieldwork experience.’

    LFB — I think you are right that the ‘objectivity’ crowd kicked hard against late eighties work on reflexivity. But perhaps it also made professing a certain kind of transformative experience necessary in all ethnography? I always have a feeling people are simply not allowed to confess that they didn’t particularly care for the people they did their research on. So maybe it polarized the field into camps, one of which focused on objectivity, the other of which instituted mandatory love and respect for field communities?

    That’s probably too diagrammatic — one thing about 80s reflexivity is that it often focused on the ambivalence of field relationships. But hey, I’m brainstorming.

    As for authenticity in tourism and fieldwork — its a good insight. This is what Simon Harrison calls a ‘mimetic conflict’: anthros feel anxiety that tourists are becoming (imitating, hence ‘mimesis’) them too much. Interesting.

  5. This is the third time I have tried to submit this comment. Let’s hope I get it right this time.

    My immediate response to Jason’s query was to recommend a look at

    (1) Ruth Behar’s _The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Can Break Your Heart_ or

    (2) the winners of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology’s Victor Turner Prize.

    Am I alone in suspecting that for many of us “Anthropology” refers to the parts that we happen to be familiar with, given our own training and fieldwork?

  6. Yes — the Society for Humanistic Anthropology. Does anyone know the history of that section? It always seemed to me to emerge from the Roy Wagner/Edie Turner late sixties early seventies self expression thing.

  7. The door into anthropology is one-way. Once you enter, you cannot return. Or like Hotel California.

  8. That’s funny, I was thinking of writing a post titled “I am a Tool” which would discuss the ways in which anthropologists treat themselves as instruments in the investigation of social reality. I take exception to LFB’s characterization of reflexivity, though I certainly know of which crap s/he speaks, because done well, reflexivity is exactly this kind of self-objectification as a tool. By which I mean the exploration of how oneself is affected by, perceives, and desires to intervene in, a social situation. Such self-understanding is a route to explaining the objective reality being experienced. In this sense, the better one understands oneself, one’s social and historical location and one’s emotional and rational reaction, the more useful you are as a tool or instrument registering social reality (I also think this is similar to what Foucault meant in investigating the care of the self and the history of ethics as self-understanding). “Validity” therefore comes not only from the corroboration of observations, but the corroboration of self-understanding. I take this to be very close to the kind of objectivity that Boas tried to develop, and whenever I see that image of him doing the hoop dance, this is what I think of. I am a tool.

  9. Going back to Rex’s original question about personal transformation — rather than writing, e.g. about one’s self — Walter Sangree was exploring this in the 1970s from a fieldwork as psychoanalysis perspective. He started from the notion that the newly arrived fieldworker is comparable to a young child with no language or understanding of how to behave, and learns (some of) these things through the course of fieldwork. In the deep way in which this kind of fieldwork can represent one’s own early childhood experiences, the potential for psychoanalytic work is clear, and Sangree’s caution to read ethnographies as potentially partial projections of fieldworker neuroses has always been a good idea!


  10. Hello all, I’m not generally one to become engaged in blogs, but I happen to find this one very interesting and am at a loss for contact now that I’m not presently in school anymore. I also apologize in advance for being exhausted and not veyr good at waxing poetic here.

    What you’re getting at here is something I’ve been highly interested in myself. To respond to several posts at once; I agree that reflextivity is both a useful concept and a possible intellectual trap which can lead right to that navel-gazing crap. I also think that ckelty is spot on in calling anthropologists tools. Realizing how one is effected by their experiences is valuable in not only creating a certain sense of empathy with whatever people are being observed, but also in offering validity to research. If for instance, one realizes that they are superimposing their own beliefs onto a event than it is easier to step back and look at it from a different angle. The same applies to reading ethnographies… I always find it helpful to understnad WHO the author is, not just WHAT they wrote.

    The battle between anthropology as strictly objectivist or highly relfexive just reminds of a quote by Kroeber: “Anthropology is the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities”.

  11. I shouldn’t think any of this discussion would be occurring without reference to Evans-Pritchard. After all, he was the first to point the way to a humanistic and self-reflective anthropology. When I feel my perspective under assault from excessive navel-gazing or too much Popperian-inspired anthropology, I return to E-P to sustain me.

  12. I’ve been thinking about ethnography as a genre of personal transformation after watching several episodes of “30 days.” For those who don’t know, the premise of “30 days” is that an average-joe American citizen spends 30 days living a dramatically different life. Created and hosted by Morgan Spurlock, the mind-body behind Super Size Me, the first episode follows Spurlock and his fiancee as they try to live on minimum wage for a month in Columbus, Ohio. In the third episode, “Muslim in America,” an evangelical Christian from West Virginia moves to Dearborn, Mich. and spends 30 days living with an Islamic couple and studying the Qur’an. The event sequence and the over-narration presented a story of self-transformation, the bigoted Christian moving toward a deep understanding and compassion for Muslim Americans through intimacy and dialogue. But what I saw in clips and heard in the hard-edged voices was a defensive and exhausted man whose boundaries had become routinized — precisely through intimacy. Not that I blame the man: after 15 days, he looked so homesick and worn out, I felt only sympathy based on — who am I kidding — recognition. And it got me thinking about several things: What would a compelling narrative based neither on the success (conversion?) nor the full failure of personal transformation look like? Could — does — anthropology offer examples? How about the role of intimacy in anthropological knowledge — and how about its opposite. Ethnographies of contempt, anyone? What kinds of knowledge does contempt (not the rosy world of fieldworker delight) allow for, and how is that different from the knowledge generated through esteem?

  13. Coincidentally I just came back from a very brief piece of field work and have found my life enormously transformed. However, it wasn’t so much a direct result of the field work as it just happened to occur at the same time that my life was undergoing some severe changes. In the short time that I was gone, I returned to find myself in a new apartment, loosing a long term relationship, contemplating quitting my job, and generally on a whole new path in life. Needless to say, this was all pretty stressful to deal with while I was away, alone, and trying to focus on my work.
    Can any of you who are more experienced with fieldwork comment on how to deal with these kinds of stressful situations while being away in the field?

  14. A great thread that seems to have split into two inevitably related parts I think: when the self is being trained up (eg I’m learning calligraphy), and how closely we, as subjects, deal w/our research partners as subjects themselves. On the latter, an article just next door to O’Connor’s caught my eye so thoroughly that I read every word of it. Katherine Irwin “Into the dark heart of ethnography: the lived ethics and inequality of intimate field relationships” Qual Soc 29.2 (20060: 155-175). Excellent on how power inequities revolving around the role of the self-in-the-field are not addressed adequately by canned choices between “objective” and “subjective” stances, but by rigorously trying to grasp how either mode can re-enact in situ, and exacerbate, inequities. (She dealt w/her marriage and divorce from her main informant, a tattoo artist.) This is crucial bec self-reflexivity must move beyond “How I feel here” to grasping the self-as-tool in its own structured unfolding–as “subjected” to its own constraining histories.

  15. As a neophyte in the process of applying to graduate schools I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. Some enlightening discussion happening here (no pun intended) and Rex I hope you decide to continue it with further posts.

    Just to quickly add something. Ever since I started studying anthropology I’ve attempted to employ what I’ve learned in my everyday life. To invoke the core (and often paradoxical) tenets of anthropology–those of cultural relativity, participant observation, and holism–I’ve found it tremendously difficult to apply them appropriately in my own life. This process, which I feel helps me become more “human”, has been hard and, indeed, personally transformative.

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