From Anxiety to Method
in Anthropological Fieldwork
An Appraisal of George Devereux's Enduring Ideas*
The subjectivity inherent in all observations [is] the royal road to an
authentic, rather than fictitious, objectivity… defined in terms of what is
really possible, rather than in terms of “what should be.”
From Anxiety to Method in the Behavioural Sciences (1967:xvii)
THIS CHAPTER is INFORMED BY THREE ASSUMPTIONS. First, I take the view that there are no emotions that are unique to anthropological fieldwork, which means that our task is one of identifying situations both in and out of the field that may be usefully compared and that shed light on one another. Second, I contend that emotions are but one aspect of any human experience and that we do violence to the complexity of lived experience when we make analytical cuts between emotion and thought, or emotion, the senses, thought, and action. Third, I repudiate the prevailing view that the most significant thing that anthropologists have to say about emotions is that they are socially constructed and performed, for the brute reality is that many overwhelming feelings simply cannot be reduced to either culture or phylogeny.
My starting point here is the ambivalence and anxiety that I experienced when beginning fieldwork among the Kuranko in northeast Sierra Leone more than thirty-six years ago. My initiation into anthropology, however, depended not only on fieldwork but also on the intellectual mentorship of George Devereux, whose work proved crucial to the evolution of my approach to comparative method, anthropological theorising, and ethnographic writing. I therefore begin this chapter with a personal reminiscence of my relationship with Devereux, whose work, in my judgement, remains fundamental to any exploration
* Material in this chapter was adapted from “From Anxiety to Method: A Reappraisal,” in Michael
Jackson, Excursions (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).