Academic journal article Polish Sociological Review

Evergreen Ethnographies

Academic journal article Polish Sociological Review

Evergreen Ethnographies

Article excerpt

Abstract: The article promotes the argument that anthropological or ethnological knowledge is primarily produced through ethnographies that present fieldwork experience. As publications that appear after returning home, they provide the social sciences with the most recent information about the present reality. Moreover, that is where we can find new methodological approaches and new theoretical concepts. Our contemporary experience in such a fast-changing world shows the uselessness of the formerly applied analytical notions, forcing us to search for a new form of description and new interpretative categories.

The article is actually a survey of the best known fieldwork monographs presented through theories, schools and trends in cultural and social anthropology that have been constituted or overcome by these very monographs, which are milestones in over a century of ethnological/anthropological research. As the last ones are from the 21st century, they present not only the newest research results, but also the most up-to-date methodologies.

Keywords: Fieldwork, ethnography, methodological approaches in ethnology and cultural anthropology.

Evergreen Ethnographies

As a teacher who over the span of many years now has been concerned with introducing students to the most important issues in the field of ethnology/cultural anthropology, I have inevitably observed that when discussing different approaches, their assumptions and understandings, the enthusiasm expressed by students is mediocre to say the least. However, the moment I introduce excerpts from fieldwork monographs, the situation is completely different. Even the oldest ones, after a hundred years, have lost nothing of their original charm both for students and their teachers. Those fragments of classical anthropological texts have for the former the attraction of a novelty, while for the latter it is usually yet one more reading that reveals something new, a dimension not observed before. In the face of such observations, there appears the following question: why do fieldwork monographs better withstand the test of time than theoretical solutions?

At this point it is worth mentioning that in English-language works the term ethnography implies both fieldwork and the effects of this activity, that is a publication. Such a publication is thus always linked with "the central ritual of the tribe of anthropologists" (Hastrup 1995: 20) because, as James Clifford wrote, "the community [of anthropologists] does not simply use (define) the term 'fieldwork', it is materially used (defined) by it" (1997: 55). Moreover, anthropology is "a subject whose central rite of passage is fieldwork" (Gupta, Ferguson 1992: 6). In noticing the significance of research experience for the identity of the academic discipline defined by the name of ethnology or cultural anthropology, it is necessary to acknowledge that fieldwork monographs, i.e. texts directly concerned with research practice, are the very core of this discipline. In theoretical reflections and works of different kinds, including textbooks, monographs are summarized and commented on, with what is known as anthropological knowledge being, in this way, as if a commentary to them (Clifford 1988, Herzfeld 2001, Kuper 1999, Lewellen 2003, and many others). Observing the significance of works recounting ethnographic research, it is ironic to see that many Polish libraries prefer to buy English-language textbooks or dictionaries rather than monographs. The reasons for this are probably financial, but may also be due to the librarians' own views on which books will be most often read. The library of the Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology is one of the few exceptions to this rule.

So as to fully appreciate the importance of fieldwork publications for the development of anthropology, it is worth tracing, albeit in brief and somewhat selectively, their development from the first published works of this type until contemporary times. …

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