Anthropologists in the Field: Cases in Participant Observation

By Lynne Hume; Jane Mulcock | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
"And I Can't Feel at Home in This
World Anymore"
Fieldwork in Two Settings

Jim Birckhead

Ordinary everyday life is full of awkward moments: misunderstandings, conflict, pain, sorrow, feelings of unease and dread, boredom and ennui, depression, and even despair. This is the human condition, given the basic dialectic between self and other(s), the tension between precept and practice, the "state of the world," the uncertainty and brevity of life, and the ultimate existential problem of what it all means. If existence in one's home lifeworld is not challenge enough to endure, doing ethnographic fieldwork serves to heighten the vagaries, contradictions, and pleasures of "normal" life as we attempt to absorb others' experiential worlds and deepest meanings in the name of anthropology.

I reflect here on my long-term fieldwork with fundamentalist Christian serpent-handlers in the southern United States (commenced in 1970), and on my more recent consultancy work with native title claimants in Australia,1 to elucidate the awkward and fraught spaces as well as the creative and productive aspects of my ethnographic experience. Many of my more awkward moments in the field have derived from the fact that my basic focus as an anthropologist has been largely "existential" rather than "formalistic" (Henry 1964:xviii); that is, I have concentrated on the deep meanings people create and those realms of experience that suggest a "'real' life beyond academic analysis" (Stewart 1996:73).

The serpent-handling work, at the beginning of my career, reflects a more traditional academic focus on pure research and theory, such as is required for a Ph.D. dissertation in anthropology. Although I successfully completed this research, I often felt awkward and self-conscious as I plied my trade among the "saints"2 and anxiously struggled to find an "authentic" self or role among "them." Native title research, on the other hand, which I began some twenty years after receiving my Ph.D., is anything but pure; it is circumscribed and forensic, and very much implicated in racial

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