Fieldwork is Not What it Used to Be

Cornell University Press just published Fieldwork is Not What it used to Be edited by James Faubion and George Marcus. If I might be so bold (since I have an essay in the volume), this is a fascinating little book. It’s full of essays by students from Rice University’s anthropology program, all of whom entered in the late 1990s or early 2000s. It’s really rare to see a publication like this these days, not least because of the difficulties of getting anything at all published in an edited volume. Though it might seem either indulgent or aggrandizing (“The Rice School of…”), this is actually a snapshot of the state of socio-cultural anthropology today. All of the issues raised both by the Writing Culture critiques of the 1980s and the critiques of those critiques are present in these essays. It’s rare that a book gives one a peek into recent graduate work in this way.

I think the book will make a great pro-seminar object for a couple of reasons. One is that it has a mix of valuable stuff: the core of the book is a set of diverse essays derived from dissertations, which can be compared and contrasted by graduate students entering the field (Kris Peterson, Jae Chung, Jennifer Hamilton, Deepa Reddy, Nahal Naficy, Lisa Breglia); reflections on pedagogy in anthropology (in the articles by me, Kim Fortun and George Marcus); and an erudite and no-holds barred attempt at theorizing the nature of ethnographic fieldwork as a topology of connectivity (Faubion’s article). The other, I hope, is that it should be read as a spirited defense of the method (ethnographic fieldwork) and the core concept of culture–one that shows in several ways how new objects and new problems are created and explored through this research methodology.

A couple words about the book and website: Cornell University Press was willing to go halfway towards open access. I won’t hide the fact that I was disappointed that they wouldn’t make the volume fully open access, but I do think they deserve credit for willing to take the first step. It helps that I agreed to create a website for the book, since they didn’t really know how to do that… and I hope anyone here interested in using the book in class will let me know, and I would be happy to try to help use the website to facilitate discussion (e.g. if students want to post reactions, I consider that fair game, and would happily add them to the site).


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

17 thoughts on “Fieldwork is Not What it Used to Be

  1. I’m sorry if this is off topic but what happened to the dates on comments. I’m pretty sure that comments had dates after the reorganization of the site, but I don’t see them anymore. Is there something that can be done to correct this.

  2. Didn’t Marcus recently say in Cultural Anthropology that ethnography is dead?

  3. No, so why should people rush to read a book by someone who claims all ethnography — apart from what his students are doing — is boring? Isn’t that a little precious?

  4. who let all the trolls in? between the people with a Jared Diamond tipped axe to grind and the people out to misinterpret shit at any cost…wtf?

    focus people… focus. The introduction by GM is on the web site… maybe bored ethnography guy, or someone serious, could actually *read* something.


  5. Assume for the moment that ethnography is boring. Why should that be? It’s not hard to figure out.

    1. Back when Malinowski was writing about the Trobrianders or Evans-Pritchard about the Nuer, their analyses spoke to and against prevailing opinions concerning the ways in which families, economies, politics and religion have to work. The evidence they offered was surprising, thus interesting. Now the fact that people can behave in wildly different ways and believe the strangest things is pretty much taken for granted; dare we say a clichĂ©. What Mary Douglas called the “not in Bongo-Bongo” argument has lost the zing it once had.

    2. The grand narratives, “progress,” “the primitive,” “social science,” that once made any new ethnographic detail at least a contribution to something bigger than itself have been critiqued literally to death, and nothing has been found to replace them. “Scarification,” “spirit money,”susto,” pick whatever you like. Its on the same level as who was last in the American League in 1947 or which U.S. president was renowned as a great farter. Great for people who like to play trivia games or have an esoteric hobby. For the rest of us, nothing more than any other odd thing in the great intellectual midden than Google now makes instantly accessible.

    3. The replacement of the grant narratives with the notion that anthropology is, after all, writing has the uncomfortable implication that it better be good writing or, yes, it is going to be ignored. The fact is that most writing is crap and most people who claim to be writers should look for another trade. There is nothing new about that; it is only the background noise produced by the endless sifting that separates classics from compost. Anthropologists are not, because they are anthropologists, exceptions to this rule.

  6. On the other hand, Kelty’s _Two Bits_ is not only a good read. That “recursive public” idea it presents is timely, provocative, and I can’t get it out of my head. A great example of that rare beast, non-boring ethnography.

  7. thank you very much, John. You are reliable as ever, our star commentator and Trollbuster 🙂

    the exoticism thing strikes me as just as present as ever though… it’s just that anthros no longer have a monopoly on it. There are certainly some extreme forms of human behavior still out there for the delectation… but it seems more likely you will see them on Travel Planet or some reality TV show than in Cultural Anthropology. But I don’t think it was ever the exoticism that drove Malinowski or Evans-Pritchard precisely… that was just a means to an end… maybe we need to cultivate it once more in order to get heard in the global ecumene?

  8. “Exoticism” isn’t what I was driving at. There is always an audience for a geek show. To me what Malinowski, et. al., were doing was using ethnographic data to address issues of pressing public and scholarly concern at the time that they were writing, using that data to challenge received opinions—and because the kinds of examples that they were able to offer were still rare, they had a lot of impact. The problem now is that there is that stuff that was once exotic is now just another example of weird—and the world is full of weird. To which I can’t help adding that if ethnography is nothing more than a faithful account of what some people tell you about themselves and how they see the world they inhabit, it isn’t necessarily interesting. Why should I, for example, care about the world of the Yanomamo when I live in Yokohama and find myself riveted by historian David McColluch’s biography of Harry Truman because of what it tells me about my Scotch-Irish ancestors who moved to Georgia from Missouri? Without a grand narrative through which their lives touch mine, why should I bother about them at all?

    Oh, yes, I know that they, too are human. But so are a 127 million Japanese, about whom I think I know less every day. Not to mention a billion-plus Chinese, the people I was trying to understand when I was starting out as an anthropologist. Where do I find the time, and why should I bother?

  9. I just bought it–this book looks like a good one. It’ll be to take with me over the summer during field work. I also like how the site you made looks–nice job. Nice and graphic. And it’s great that you were able to convince the publisher to put some chapters online. Another step in the right direction! I am looking forward to reading this…

  10. I’ll second ckelty’s applause, John – you’ve got two awesome moments right there to my reading:
    1) I had no idea Mary Douglas coined that ‘bongo-bongo’ meme, which I have loved forever. and
    2) I am enjoying thinking about what the “grant narratives” of anthropology are. I’m not teasing, I think that’s a potentially really interesting thing, right?

  11. A great speller I have never been, especially when the fingers seem to develop minds of their own. Thus, a ‘than’ where there should have been a ‘that’ and a ‘grand’ that becomes a ‘grant’ That is why (hint, hint) I do wish that SM allowed retrospective editing.

  12. In a previous message I wrote,

    bq. Back when Malinowski was writing about the Trobrianders or Evans-Pritchard about the Nuer, their analyses spoke to and against prevailing opinions concerning the ways in which families, economies, politics and religion have to work. The evidence they offered was surprising, thus interesting.

    Then, in a later message I wrote that Chris Kelty’s _Two Bits_ is timely and provocative ethnography. Here I’d like to elaborate a bit.

    What Chris does in _Two Bits_ is to give us an inside look at a community that is very much on people’s minds these days. It sits on my shelves beside Yochai Benkler’s _The Wealth of Networks_ and Jonathan Zitran’s _The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It_. Another name that comes to mind is Lawrence Lessig. These authors are all lawyers deeply involved in discussing the challenges that the Internet and the Free Software and Open Source communities pose to established notions of intellectual property, the commons, and the notion that people must be either paid or coerced into participation in great, world-changing projects. Thus, I can say with confidence that Chris has done what Malinowski and E-P, and also Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead did in their day, bringing ethnography to bear on issues of concern that extend far beyond the parochial boundaries of anthropology itself.

    Serendipitously, Ruth and I have got ourselves committed to giving a paper on city planning in Yokohama at the SEAA meeting in Taipei next month. So yesterday I started reading Setha Low and Denise Lawrence-Zuniga’s _the anthropology of space and place_. The collection begins with a collection of classic articles, Edward Hall “Proxemics,” Miles Richardson “Being in the Market Versus Being in the Plaza,” Nancy Munn “Excluded Spaces,” Alessandro Duranti “Indexical Speech across Samoan Communities.” I found myself reading with pleasure and remembering why anthropology had once been so exciting. Here is Hall, building on Sapir and Whorf, and demonstrating how to extract cultural rules of which informants themselves may be only dimly or obliquely aware. Here is Richardson, taking off from Heidegger (thought you’d like that) and exploring how being there in particular places works in Latin America. Nancy Munn writes about the way in which Walbiri avoidance of sacred/taboo spaces defines negative spaces with fluid and sometimes mobile boundaries. Duranti writes about the issues raised when Samoan words for “sit down” (which means to sit down on the floor with your legs crossed and your back straight, a sign of respect in Samoa) are spoken in LA, in spaces with chairs, sofas and TV sets. I note, as I read, that none of these articles stop with reporting what the anthropologist was told. All grapple with the issue of how to interpret behavior when what the anthropologist hears people say falls short of adequate explanation of what is going on. Mysteries are probed. The ideas sizzle. The issues are ones we all confront: How close is too close? How does this place (a church or classroom, for example) affect who we are? How does what we avoid define our world? How do we show respect when the rules are in flux?

    I note, too, the absolute absence of the agonized moralizing that occupies such a prominent part in so much anthropological discourse these days. Might be worth thinking about.

  13. For those who don’t read Japanese: The previous message is an ad for a free dating service. High probability of connection with the sex industry.

  14. Too bad the website for this book is much like the book itself—i.e., nice cover, but don’t bother delving too much, as there is little of substance.

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