(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.
1986 Learning How to Ask: A Sociolinguistic Appraisal of the Role of the Interview in Social Science Research. New York: Cambridge.
1968. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
2011. “Governor of Florida: We don’t need no anthropologists.” Accessed 4 December 2011 from here.