Locating the Field: Space, Place and Context in Anthropology

Locating the Field: Space, Place and Context in Anthropology

Locating the Field: Space, Place and Context in Anthropology

Locating the Field: Space, Place and Context in Anthropology

Excerpt

Pick up a copy of Evans-Pritchard's The Nuer (1940). Ignore the text and look at the maps. Opposite the first page we find Africa, with a small, shaded area indicating the part of the continent that E.R will describe. A couple of sides later we gaze at a specific region in the Sudan that is punctuated by the White and Blue Nile. Finally, four pages further along there is a sketch-map of the place where the larger Nuer tribes are to be found. In a book that so brilliantly describes 'local' understandings of landscape, time and space, Evans-Pritchard brings us into the field not only with text but also with images that successively sharpen and frame our focus on the ground. It is as if we were on a plane from another continent, watching the ground and its people hurtle towards us as we come in to land after hours of distanced contemplation (cf Coleman 2002).

In his analysis of the ethnographic state of 'being there', Geertz (1988) has famously argued that Evans-Pritchard presents the anthropologist as both pilgrim and cartographer, inserted into place by ethnographic artifice. Certainly, landscape has provided a powerful tool of framing description in classic monographs of the British school and beyond (Hirsch 1995): tropes of place, constructing the sense of a 'there' to 'be' in, simultaneously describe and constitute an epistemological attitude often perceived to be central to our discipline. If in subsequent years the self-effacing authorial signature of an E.R or a Firth establishing the identity of the writer before disappearing into scientific omniscience (Shore 1999: 29) - has been replaced by a more self-conscious and fretful presence of the ethnographer throughout the work, the process of demonstrating the physical connection of researcher and text with place has remained of prime importance. Even Rabinow's Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco, published nearly four decades after The Nuer and with a very different ethnographic sensibility, displays some familiar framing techniques. Interposed between an account of the callow ethnographer setting off from Paris and his encounter with the deceptive 'field' of the Hotel de Oliveraie in Sefrou, there is a verbal sketch . . .

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