Anthropologists in the Field: Cases in Participant Observation

By Lynne Hume; Jane Mulcock | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 14
Not Quite at Home
Field Envy and New Age Ethnographic Dis-ease

Stewart Muir

ORGANIC FARM, OCTOBER 2000

Twelve people assemble inside the hexagonal "Temple of All Faiths." In the
anteroom, we take off our shoes then grab prayer mats and giant pillows. In
the temple proper, the Aboriginal elder, G, is sitting cross-legged opposite
the door, a small possum-skin pouch and a wooden staff with emu feathers
beside him. He doesn't speak but nods at each person as they enter… to
my discomfort the others remind him that I'm an anthropologist, although I
don't think he hears them over the ringing of his mobile phone.

On the wall above his head there is a quilt with symbols (Christian
cross, Arabic crescent, Yin and Yang) … a stained-glass skylight and an
assortment of oil burners provide the only light. The room smells like san-
dalwood. We sit in a large semicircle facing G. His wife and her sister sit
on either side of him like acolytes. I try to sit cross-legged on the pillow,
as I imagine you are supposed to do, but my knees crack and I slide off.

My field notes from the event described above conclude with the reflection that this was "one of the most ridiculous experiences of my life." I would like to think that such a response to fieldwork does not make me a bad anthropologist, but I am wary of admitting my ambivalence to colleagues nonetheless. After all, ethnographic fieldwork is what anthropologists do (Stocking 1992:13), and many continue to believe that personalizing field accounts with angst-ridden "confessional tales" (Van Maanen 1988:73) risks undermining the validity of the ethnographic endeavor (Howell 1990). If negative experiences in the field are discussed, they are usually treated as essential experiences, grist for the ethnographic mill (e.g., Briggs 1970).1

-185-

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