Tuesday, December 13, 2011

On “Fieldwork,” “Science,” and Meaning: Reflections on Two Months (and counting) in Poland

(Originally written for the departmental newsletter, but re-posted here.)


For a little over two months, I’ve been living in Poznań, a city in west-central Poland, conducting fieldwork on the presentation of national identity in new, multi-mediated museums – and the viewpoints of the museum workers and volunteers on this – here and in several other cities in Poland. Poznań is the fifth largest city in Poland, with a population of about 556,000, and according to legend, may or may not be the site of the founding of the Polish state.
Most of what I’ve been doing so far has involved meeting people here (by means of my admittedly limited Polish language skills – fortunately, many people here speak English fluently, and my Polish is improving!) and navigating life in Poland (including the unpredictable public transit system, which, like much of urban Poland, is under construction in preparation for the Euro 2012 soccer matches in June). Formal “research” has been a bit slower in getting started, and this has perhaps been the most surprising thing to me about fieldwork so far. On one hand, to an anthropologist, everything – from shopping in the grocery store to conducting formal interviews and surveys – is in a certain sense “research,” because by doing it, we learn more about the culture in which we are immersed. In practice, it’s a bit more complicated, as I discovered while trying to refine my formal research plan for my project. Where do we draw the line between life and fieldwork? When does a friend become a research informant, and vice versa? When do we step back from just being and pull out our field notebooks or voice recorders?
As social and cultural anthropologists, our most important research instruments are our empathy, our curiosity and openness, and our humanity in general; our research results and theories develop less out of rigorous lab tests than out of unpredictable, and often serendipitous, interactions with fellow humans. Anthropology is, as a quote often attributed to anthropologist Alfred Kroeber puts it, “the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities.” Indeed, I envision what we do as scientific. We come into the field with our “hypotheses” – not only our formal predictions about what our fieldwork will yield based on data gathered from previous experience and reading, but our own culturally conditioned assumptions, biases, and perspectives – and have these tested and, more often than not, challenged, through our life experience in the field. Our “experiments” are the stuff of everyday interaction – the stories, conversations, insights, and inevitable silly questions and “communicative blunders” (Briggs 1986) that come about not only through the formal research activities specified in our project descriptions, but through simply living. We work according to ethical standards and commonly accepted, time-tested fieldwork methods – although when one’s research concerns people, who are both research participants and interlocutors, the practice of research is often as much a matter of bricolage (Lévi-Strauss 1966) – specifically, of constructing meaning and insight out of available cultural materials – than of rigidly following a defined plan. And the significance of our research? In the best-case scenario, a genuine deepening of intercultural and intersubjective understanding – a recognition of not only the differences, but the commonalities, between ourselves and our culture and that of our research informants, and a development of theoretical understandings about human behavior and the world that cross and transcend cultural boundaries. In a time when politicians in the U.S. and other countries frequently discount the merits of humanistic disciplines – some using “anthropology” as a metaphor for a useless education (Savage Minds 2011) – this is, I believe, the necessary insight and importance our humanistic, and scientific, discipline can offer.
My question about how to draw the line between “life” and “fieldwork” raises a further insight for me: Formal fieldwork is, in a way, a sort of magnified, reflexive version of the processes we go through in encountering, and making meaning out of, any social and cultural environment in which we find ourselves. Fieldwork is, it seems, less a matter of drawing a strict line between life and research than of reflecting on, and finding the meaning in, what we encounter. As I still have at least ten months left here in Poland, I’ll keep you posted on my adventures, and on what I learn from them.


Briggs, Charles.
1986 Learning How to Ask: A Sociolinguistic Appraisal of the Role of the Interview in Social Science Research. New York: Cambridge.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude.
1968. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Savage Minds.
2011. “Governor of Florida: We don’t need no anthropologists.” Accessed 4 December 2011 from here.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The triumphant return of the famous and brilliant Research Blog™!

(Okay, so in reality it’s neither famous nor particularly brilliant. But it has in fact returned.)
First, a brief update on what I’ve been doing for the past year, research-wise. I put together a more or less concrete project (specifically, I’ll be interviewing museum and cultural center employees/volunteers in several different Polish cities), finished writing up my proposal and position papers, passed my qualifying exam as of May 18 of this year, and just last week, received the go-ahead from the Institutional Review Board to start collecting data (although I still need to translate my forms into Polish). Progress!
Unfortunately I have not yet managed to secure funding for my project, beyond a departmental grant. Faced with the choice between putting off fieldwork despite having finished all my other requirements, leaving grad school after 4 years due to lack of funding, and doing the fieldwork one way or another, I chose option #3, which meant more student loans than I want to think about. Hopefully it’ll pay off, and in the meantime, I’m continuing to apply and re-apply for grants. Wish me luck, and send me any successful-grant-writing tips you may have!
As of today I’ve been back in Poland (this time in Poznan) for one month, one week, and three days. I’ve been mostly getting used to everyday life here, taking classes, and meeting people, and just got back from an amazing trip to Bialystok and the Podlasie area in eastern Poland, where we visited a variety of Catholic and Orthodox churches and Tatar Muslim mosques, other historic and cultural sites, and the Bialowieza Forest (oldest original forest in Europe!). My Polish is (slowly) improving, although I still have a way to go before I’ll be anywhere near fluent. I’m working on an article that’s due at the end of this month (I’ll probably post a summary/brief sketch of what I’m planning to submit on here within the next few days). I’m also going to a conference in Warsaw on memory in Central and Eastern Europe in a few weeks (I’m not presenting, but still should be interesting). And hopefully I should be able to start interviews and meetings in the next few weeks.
Off to get some reading done! Further updates coming soon.