What is Fieldwork? What does it mean, and how is it done?
As anthropology students know, ethnographic methods courses require them to read an assortment of texts and articles that provide a glimpse into the everyday reality of fieldwork. Students are exposed to everything from postmodern texts on the decolonization of anthropology, the social constructions that define perceived realities, texts that provide a historical glance at pre-post modern perspectives, and the impossibility of "universal reliability" of scientific methods to produce universal truths about something as nebulous, but real as culture.
While such readings help prepare students to think about the concept of doing fieldwork, they don't prepare you for the realization that as a researcher, YOU ARE THE RESEARCH INSTRUMENT. Your ability to question what, why, and how you experience and interpret the observed world IS your microscope. Without the ability to understanding the mutability of observed phenomenon as "a view," conditioned by senses that have been well trained by cultural perspectives, theoretical and methodological tools will do little to bring into focus the processes by which individuals and collectives produce cultures. As students of anthropology, you have all read Clifford Geertz (Interpretations of Culture, Renato Rosaldo (Culture and Truth), Writing Culture (James Clifford and George Marcus), and many others – all of them discuss the issues facing post-modern ethnography and the problematic of doing ethnographic methods. Below are some interesting web sites about doing ethnography:
http://www.alanmacfarlane.com/DO/filmshow/film30.htm (video on doing fieldwork)
Ethnographic Methods – A tool? A Skill? A Science?
In truth, ethnographic methods do not reflect precise methods, but rather prepare the anthropologist for the complexities of observing and comprehending the human experience. Not only does ethnography teach us how to be participants in the daily lives of those we study, but to also how to examine ourselves as observers. This is not easy work, and often it requires that the researcher extend beyond their limits of comfort, both physically and emotionally.
For me, ethnography requires patience, with myself and my perceived abilities. It also requires me to be persistent and determined, even when I realize that the experiences of everyday life are extraordinarily complex, and are probably beyond any researchers ability to completely capture. I have learned that if I'm to understand anything while in the field, it will be because I have learned how to questions what I perceive. For example, behaviors that appear odd or uncomfortable to me as an observer are opportunities to shift my perspectives and ask myself why I am experiencing my observations in this way.
The experience of participating in the field also pushes the anthropologist to be involved in practicing what they observe. Noting behaviors (both physical and social) through observation and participation also allows for theorizing a range of possible explanations for individual and collective behaviors, and the methods of grounded theory can assist in developing fresh theoretical perspectives. Essentially, grounded theory requires the researcher to begin with a set of specific questions, which are studied and observed through the use of participant observation and the use of extensive memos and use of coding skills. When data becomes saturated, that is when you begin to receive the same kind of information again and again, it is time to ask a new question, and the research continues in this manner – from the ground up. Eventually, the researchers potentially can develop fresh theoretical perspectives about their subjects.
While American ethnographers in the early 20th century assumed culture to be tied intrinsically to ethnicity and location (for example: all Japanese are…, or all French are…), binding all who lived in its presence to share and express themselves as people from "a culture" - current ethnography understands that while "culture" exists, it is individuals and their agency that create, pass-on, and modify culture, and in doing so, are not simply passive recipients of an organic set of cultural forces, but are active social agents in constructing the cultures in which they live. This means that culture is both local and global, and that there are cultures within cultures. Hence, ethnographers can study any group or organization, such as the culture of a university system, the culture of North Dakota agro-business, or any other area of interest.
Ethnography is the "tool" used by the ethnographer, and the method most commonly used is participant observation, which requires the ethnographer to become immersed in the culture being studied, and to be an active participant in the culture while recording extensive field notes.
Questions: Help me answer these questions
How does the anthropologist become a participant observer? Can she or he just arrive one day in the field, say with indigenous people in Brazil, and begin living and recording daily activities? How do I gain access to the group of people I want to study, and how do I introduce myself to them? What do I tell them about the research I want to do? How do they understand my research? Is it important for the anthropologist to understand how the people they are studying understand his/her work? Why? Are there ethics involved in my work while doing ethnography as an anthropologist? If so, what are these ethics, and how do I make sure I am following them? Are ethics universal and the same across all cultures? If not, what does this mean about the ways in which current anthropology constructs its ethical foundations? (Here is the web page for the American Anthropological Association's Statement on Ethics: http://www.aaanet.org/_cs_upload/issues/policy-advocacy/27668_1.pdf). And, probably the most important of all - how do I decide what and who is important to study?
What I would like for students to do is to try answering some of these questions on your own, before I tell you my understandings and experiences of fieldworking. Don't be afraid to take one of the questions above and write down what you think/feel about the questions. For example, how would you answer the question "how could I gain access (get into, get introduced, get to know) the people I want to study? Or, how would you know what you wanted to study? What are your reasons for wanting to study a particular group and/or situations and why is it important to know what your reasons are?
I'll write more tomorrow on this very important topic. It is an important topic because ethnography is a qualitative research process that is not rooted in seeking universal truths - that is "factual reality." If the ethnographer is not after "facts" what is she/he after?