Emotions in the Field: The Psychology and Anthropology of Fieldwork Experience

By James Davies; Dimitrina Spencer | Go to book overview

6

Tian'anmen in Yunnan
Emotions in the Field during a Political Crisis

Elisabeth Hsu

THE METAPHOR “FIELD” OFFERS A CONVENIENT if not a partially misleading image of the site in which anthropologists work. It is misleading insofar as this geographical metaphor (suggesting the solidity of a set and settled physical domain) underplays the less predictable and controllable aspects and events of ethnographic research. While an emphasis on the field as a “clearly bounded space” suits a vision of fieldwork in which using systematic methods has its dominant place (codified methods, after all, are always best realised in socalled bounded and controlled settings), it not only elides the “unexpected” in ethnographic research but subtly discourages how experiencing the unexpected can have valuable heuristic significance. This chapter explores how unexpected events interrupted well-organised field research, and how these events, while hindering access to certain domains of fieldwork, nevertheless offered the opportunity to gain an anthropological understanding different from the usual that we are taught to garner in classes on conventional fieldwork methods.

I will explore this claim that fieldwork consists of a particular form of living rather than a set of methods through my experiences before and after the military crackdown on Tian'anmen on June 4, 1989, while I was doing ethnographic fieldwork in a college of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). On the one hand, I discovered that I now have forgotten almost all of the events I had then recorded in a personal diary. On the other, I note that the interviews I had with young acupuncture teachers towards the end of my fieldwork, six months later, were unusually personal and moving. I shall ask whether the subdued but undeniable repression of the spring events in autumn 1989 meant

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