Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology

By Roger Sanjek | Go to book overview

ROGER SANJEK


Fire, Loss, and the
Sorcerer's Apprentice

As Jean Jackson's anthropologist natives revealed to her, the very thought of fieldnotes is "fraught with emotion ... both in the field and later." Fieldnotes may "reveal the kind of person you are." Their existence summons up feelings of professional and personal competence and obligation. Destruction or loss of fieldnotes is the worst thing that can happen to an anthropologist.

How appropriate, then, that the image of fieldnotes afire came up in so many of Jackson's interviews. This has its feared but practical side: "If the house were burning down I'd go to the notes first," one anthropologist told her. Yet I suspect that with such deep, emotional feelings about identity involved, the purging by fire also conveys a lure of finality where one must live with ambivalence. 1

The shackles that fieldnotes may be to an anthropologist and the release the anthropologist might feel when they are gone are ingredients in the wild scene of fieldnote burning near the end of Barbara Pym's novel Less than Angels ( 1955), mentioned by one of Jackson's informants and epigraphed by David Plath for his essay in this book.

____________________
1
Fire does bring finality. When Margaret Mead received a letter in Samoa from Edward Sapir telling her he had fallen in love with someone else, she burned all his letters to her. This was uncharacteristic; Mead's habit was to save all her letters, from nearly everyone ( Howard 1984: 73).

-34-

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