Stories of the field: Some bibliographic notes

When I was a graduate student ‘common knowledge’ was that anthropologists were notoriously private when it came to talking about their field experience, and part of our socialization was the stories about famous fieldworkers which passed down orally from generation to generation (the stories, not the fieldworkers). One of the things I want to make sure to do in the course on ethnographic methods that I’ll be teaching next semester is have my students read a short piece every week in which an anthropologist describes what their fieldwork was like. I think having some examples of fieldwork under your belt is probably the best way to help figure out what is unique (or not) about your own fieldwork.

I have some favorites that I will probably write a post about later on, but today I went to the library looking for more and I was, frankly, shocked at the tremendous number of anthologies that anthropologist have produced in which they have written short, informal pieces discussing their fieldwork. So here is some biography.

De Vita’s Stumbling Towards Truth is a classic account with a strong Baby Boomer Pacific Islands Studies vibe to it. A more recent volume, Dispatches From The Field is much more recent and written by people just finishing writing up. The chapter by Graham Jones on doing fieldwork with professional magicians in France is fun. There are other generic volumes as well, including Social Experience and Anthropological Knowledge as well as Anthropologists In The Field, Anthropologists In A Wider World, and The World Observed.

The other major topic that anthropologists love to talk about is sex and gender (‘gender’ here mostly meaning ‘being a woman in the field’). There are at least four volumes addressing this topic — Gendered Fields: Women, Men, and Ethnography (Martha Macintyre has a piece in here), Sex, Sexuality, and the Anthropologist, and Taboo:Sex, Identity and Erotic Subjectivity in Fieldwork (a Don Kulick production). On a related note, Out In The Field covers lesbian and gay field experiences.

Another popular topic long-term field research that fall in the ’emeriti remember’ category. An early and rather dry collection is entitled Long-Term Field Research In Social Anthropology. A more recent volume which includes issues of generational transition, is Chronicling Cultures: Long Term Field Research in Anthropology. A series of longer and sometimes more abstract essays is Others Knowing Others.

I think it is also worth giving some shouts out to people who have written about being both ‘native’ and an anthropologist. In particular I want to draw people’s attention to my colleague Ty Tengan’s Unsettling Ethnography: Tales of a ‘Oiwi in the Anthropological Slot, an article that is OPEN ACCESS AND FREE FOR DOWNLOAD which talks a little bit about being a Hawai’ian anthropologist. Anthropological Journeys covers similar ground, although with a strong focus on South Asia. Racing Research and Researching Race also deals with some of these issues, but as you can tell from the title the focus is more on racial identity than indigeneity.

The ethnographic tradition in sociology has produced even more literature than this, but I’ll stop there for now. Does anyone have any favorite essays which reflect on a concrete field research that they’d recommend?


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

14 thoughts on “Stories of the field: Some bibliographic notes

  1. I like the related genre of retrospective portraits of important fieldwork consultants, usually built around reflections on the (unfolding) relationship that was established between ethnographer and “key informant.” My favorite here is the (now-old) edited collection _In the Company of Man_. This sort of thing is predicated on the elderly cultural expert/young ethnographer dynamic, a pattern that remains as strong as ever in some kinds of research and is utterly absent from other kinds.

    Related here is the largely lost custom of scholars publishing obituaries (in places like the American Anthropologist) for long-term ethnographic consultants whose efforts represented major contributions to the discipline and its literature. When my students find these, they are powerfully shaken out of their assumptions about the old days.

  2. I like Ruth Behar’s collection “The Vulnerable Observer” -some of the chapters on her fieldwork experience are just superb.

    p.s. i am trying to leave this comment but the machine tells me that “eleven” is not the correct sum of ten plus one!! (the test that i am not a robot – wouldnt my inability to get the right sum be a proof that i am a human?)

  3. Been a while since I read it, and I am not sure if it is what you are looking for (it seems to me those stories that pass around the department are interesting, I know what you’re talking about, but I didn’t necessarily find them useful for envisaging fieldwork)…

    Anyway, for me, Doing Fieldwork in Japan was useful. Very region specific though I would imagine 😉 Can’t say how applicable it is for others…

    Hrmm, Actually, I think I might need to look at it again…

  4. Thank you Rex for sharing these bibliographies. “Dispatches From the Field” is a good choice. You can check “Tales of the Field” by John Van Maanen; it is a nice book. Also, “Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes” by Robert M. Emerson is as I assume a good one for this course. And, Lila Abu-Lughod wrote two very interesting ethnographic books “Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society”, and “Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories”, which you can assign some of their chapters.

  5. A couple more recent books in this genre:

    The Shadow Side of Fieldwork: Exploring the Blurred Borders between Ethnography and Life. Athena McLean and Annette Leibing, eds. Wiley-Blackwell: 2007.

    Being There: The Fieldwork Encounter and the Making of Truth. John Borneman and Abdellah Hammoudi, eds. U California Press: 2009.

  6. Beware: Shameless plug ahead!

    _Comanche Ethnography_ (Kavanagh, U Nebraska Press, 2008) is the compiled and edited (made readable) field notes of the 1933 Comanche field school (Waldo R. Wedel, E.A. Hoebel, Gus Carlson) along with Robert Lowie’s 1912 notes. It includes a number of appendices which cross reference the notes and the various publications derived from them.

  7. I used the Blackwell anthology in my methods course last semester with success. It is a nice, well balanced group of essays.
    Robben, C.G.M. and Jeffrey A. Sluka. Ethnographic Fieldwork: An Anthropological Reader. ($28.00) ISBN-10: 1405

  8. Thanks for these recommendations folks, some of which I’ve heard of and some of which are new to me. I’ll try to keep blogging some additional pieces as I find them. Does anyone have recommendations on chapters within these edited volumes I might focus on? I am sort of judging them based on what I know about the anthropologists who are writing them, and don’t want to skip a great piece by someone just because I don’t know who they are.

  9. While it’s neither short nor casual, you might find the discussion of field experience in “Never in Anger” an interesting addition to these readings. Briggs discusses her fieldwork experiences very frankly in chapter 6, in which she details the events that led up to her ostracism in a small Eskimo camp, and the ethically dubious way she got herself out of that problem.

    These experiences are integral to her overall analysis and argument, and having read it as an undergrad has really helped me in my more difficult moments of fieldwork to think about the ways in which problems and even disasters can be important sources of data. They have some of the chapter excerpted on Google books.

  10. Not so far afield from these many rich ethnographic reflections, is Susanna Kaysen’s novel “Far Afield” (Yes, Kaysen of Girl, Interrupted fame). As far as I know, it’s the product of her time accompanying a husband to the Faroe islands for his fieldwork (so sort of fieldwork-memoir-at-one-fictional-remove), and it is half academic satire, half bildungsroman (well, the anthros version thereof, full of struggles with language, solitude, and bizarre cultural practices). I read it after my fieldwork and suddenly all the anomie seemed worthwhile somehow–the satire helps.

  11. Of those mentioned already, I really like Briggs too.

    I’d like to plug one issue of the Anthropology Matters journal in which PhD and early-career anthropologists reflect on their fieldwork experiences:

    Especially the first four articles deal with different aspects of the emotional experience of fieldwork (culture shock, the emotions of participant observation, dealing with emotional research subjects, and falling in love in the field).

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