“At the Heart of the Discipline”
Critical Reflections on Fieldwork
“WE HAVE A JOB TO Do, so LET'S GET ON WITH IT.” These are the words of one of the most down-to-earth, most pragmatic anthropologists I have ever known. Mervin Meggitt and I were driving back to New York from Princeton, where I was teaching. Meggitt had given a talk there, and though I can no longer remember his subject, I remember our conversation vividly. He was describing how surprised he was when he came to the States by all the talk, the anguish, about fieldwork. “I never heard the word 'culture shock' in Australia.” Culture shock was very much in fashion then, in the early seventies. It was with some impatience that Meggitt went on to say: “We have a job to do, so let's get on with it.”
I remember thinking at the time how lucky Meggitt was. I was just beginning to write Tuhami and was struggling with the intricate dynamics of my encounter with a Moroccan tilemaker who believed himself to be married to a jinniyya—a she-demon (Crapanzano 1980). With some trepidation, I began to describe my project. Before I could finish, Meggitt interrupted: “I suppose it all depends on with whom you're working. The Aborigines and the Papuans are a very pragmatic people. The Moroccans don't seem to be.” Clearly Meggitt had not read Geertz's “Islam Observed” (1968) or was simply dismissing Geertz's portrait of them as Wild West pragmatists. Meggitt had some unkind words to say about participant observation as well, but I don't remember exactly what he said.
I don't believe there was ever much fuss made about the nature of fieldwork, at least its psychological dimensions, in the United Kingdom. Nor was there in France. Nor, I believe, was there ever so much concern about methodology.