The Anthropology of Islam

By Gabriele Marranci | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
From the Exotic to the Familiar: Anamneses
of Fieldwork among Muslims

INTRODUCTION

Fieldwork has been the central feature of anthropology at least since Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922/1978). Since the 1970s we have witnessed a proliferation of epistemological discussions about fieldwork: from what fieldwork means, to the role of the fieldworker in the field and on the field;1 discussions about the impact that gender,2 age3 and ethnicity4 may have on fieldwork as well the impact the fieldwork may have on the fieldworker's emotions.5 Other reflections of fieldwork have paid attention to the ethical and political challenges which fieldworkers may face since they do not operate in a social vacuum.6 More recently a great number of anthropological textbooks have provided practical instructions on how to plan and conduct fieldwork, how to collect fieldnotes7 and how to transform the experience of fieldwork into meaningful ethnographies.8 In other words, fieldwork has been discussed from every imaginable viewpoint and through a plethora of examples derived from various theoretical positions and ethnographic experiences. Because of such diverse typologies of experiences of fieldwork, one might expect that those who have researched Muslim societies had contributed profusely to this 'fieldwork epistemology'. A review of the diverse ethnographic examples provided in these 'know-how' guides to fieldwork leaves that expectation largely frustrated. Beyond the anecdotes offered in the now classic studies of Muslim societies (e.g. Crapanzano 1980; Dwyer 1982; Gilsenan 1982; Geertz 1995; Rosen 2002) or short introductions to specific ethnographies, anthropologists of Islam have refrained from discussing and reflecting upon their own experiences of fieldwork, as well as those of others. The reasons are various; for instance, some anthropologists consider fieldwork among Muslims no different from, say, fieldwork among Eskimos. However, I expect that the strongest reason remains the fact that an explicit focus on Muslims as Muslims (instead of as villagers or members of a certain national or ethnic group) is rather recent.

When I was a student and realized that I could not find any epistemological reflections concerning fieldwork among Muslims, pending my own experiences of conducting research, I could only ask senior colleagues and teachers for insights. The answer I received from experienced scholars, with years spent in their fields,

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