In the Field: An Introduction to Field Research

By Robert G.Burgess | Go to book overview

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From Coral Garden to City Street: Field Research ‘Comes Home’

For social anthropologists, the conduct of field research in another culture and preferably in another country is an essential rite de passage (Van Gennep, 1960). Originally this research in some other society was seen as an ordeal; a test in which anthropologists had to engage. This style of anthropological work is well summarised by Fried who writes:

Fieldwork remains central in cultural anthropology. Basic data come not from laboratories but from living cultures. An anthropologist goes to live in another culture. He settles down amidst unfamiliar surroundings and, if he is successful, his status slowly changes from clumsy alien to friendly stranger. Ideally, he speaks or will learn to speak the local language but inevitably he will rely on certain people more than others as teachers, interpreters, or informants. To some extent the anthropologist lives like his hosts, as well as among them. This is quite variable depending on the culture, the personality of the fieldworker and the situation itself. In any event, the fieldworker participates in activities as well as he is able and as far as he is permitted. He observes whatever he can of the endless series of events and the tangle of relationships which surround him. He maps, questions, records, photographs, jokes, mourns, and gets drunk at local blowouts. Sometimes he gets sick because he may be exposed to hazardous sanitary conditions. (Fried, 1968, p. 136)

In such situations, the anthropologist becomes socialised by the people who are studied and produces a monograph about ‘their’ culture. In these circumstances, a relationship is established which results in ‘a gulf, a social chasm between those who study and those who are studied’ (Cassell, 1977a, p. 412). Indeed, the social distance between the anthropologist and those who are studied is revealed in the subsequent books which bear titles such as Other Cultures (Beattie, 1964). However, as Srinivas (1966) and Firth (1981) have shown, anthropologists are as likely to engage in field research within

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