Ascetic Practice and Participant Observation,
or, the Gift of Doubt in Field Experience*
LONG-TERM PARTICIPANT OBSERVATION enables the learning practice at the heart of anthropological enquiry. Unsurprisingly, such a task brings its own doubts and anxieties. If such anxieties are recognised when they occur they may be used as an enabling aspect of the field experience rather than something that inhibits research. In this chapter I put forward the argument that consciously viewing doubt or anxiety as a part of fieldwork can enable further learning while also ameliorating some of the anxiety of the novice anthropologist. Rather than reducing emotion to an unfortunate impediment, such an approach allows the anthropologist to understand her field experiences in ways that provide insight into the conditions of the field. The application of local interpretive models to the anthropologist's own interiority may provide the anthropologist with a crucial source for learning culture that is not limited to previously internalised directives or pre-defined modes of understanding. My aim is to show that considering methodology as open-ended and incomplete may enable the researcher to explore local understandings of self and emotion.
I draw an analogy between the learning involved in becoming a mae chee (Thai Buddhist nun) and that transpiring in anthropological research. Both ascetic practice and fieldwork are structured learning processes, and up to a point, the Buddhist attitude toward doubt—to acknowledge and observe it rather
* The research upon which this chapter is based was conducted over fifteen months in a
monastery in North Thailand with the support of an ESRC Award for Postgraduate Training.
Further support was generously provided by a British Academy Small Research Grant. I am
grateful to Susan Bayly, Matei Candea, Laura Jeffrey, James Laidlaw, and Nick Long for their
comments on earlier drafts of this chapter.