In The Field: Life and Work in Cultural Anthropology, by George Gmelch and Sharon Bohn Gmelch

Fascinating autobiographical experiences make a practical guide for those embarking on immersive research, says Mark Jamieson

August 16, 2018
arctic fishermen
Source: Getty
Take the bait: the authors’ own fieldwork experience in anthropology included the study of Alaskan fishermen

What makes social anthropology so distinctive in its methods is its emphasis on the importance of intensive fieldwork, in which the researcher becomes immersed in a quite alien cultural or subcultural milieu.

The purpose of this is not only to obtain data about the group under study but also to shake the researcher out of his or her own cultural presuppositions and prejudices through both culture shock and, on return to the original group, reverse culture shock. Through this process, one’s assumptions about what is cultural and what is natural become destabilised and interrogated. The anthropologist, having emerged from the Promethean fire that is fieldwork, is thus reforged as what Michael Agar famously called “the professional stranger”, able to look at other cultures and his or her own with an informed detachment.

In the past 40 or so years, a number of books and articles have examined this process of relativisation. Most, however, have been written either for professional anthropologists anxious to situate this phenomenon within theoretical discussions addressing epistemological questions about anthropological knowledge, or as methods handbooks advising students and professionals about positionality (how “they” see “us”), ethics, research design, applications for funding and research permission, advocacy, writing proposals and so on. In the Field is a rather different kind of book. It is an account of several different kinds of fieldwork carried out by the authors and their students that is written for those on graduate and undergraduate programmes who may be preparing for their own fieldwork-based study.

Each chapter focuses on a different kind or aspect of fieldwork in which the reader is invited, through a series of discussion questions in the appendix, to consider the lessons being offered. The earlier ones describe real fieldwork situations from the authors’ own experiences with Irish Travellers in the Republic of Ireland; Gypsies in the UK; fishing people in rural Alaska and townspeople in the Alaskan town of Sitka; sections of the mobile workforce from Newfoundland; suburban Japanese; and baseball players in North America. The later chapters consider the experiences of the authors’ students in rural Barbados, Hobart in Tasmania and the town of Moshi in Tanzania.

Taken as a whole, the book demonstrates that the very different kinds of fieldwork demanded by the particular locations, populations, sponsor interests and research questions produce very different methodological and personal challenges. By presenting and inviting discussion of these challenges, the authors offer students and their teachers food for thought, not through abstract presentation of the issues but through mainly reflexive accounts of experiences in the field. As such, In the Field is less emphatically autobiographical than might be suggested by the subtitle “Life and work in cultural anthropology” (although there is clearly much in it that is autobiographical) and more a workbook for students taking research methods modules. Considered as such, it provides teachers and students involved in such modules with what I regard as a very useful textbook.

Mark Jamieson is senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of East London.


In The Field: Life and Work in Cultural Anthropology
By George Gmelch and Sharon Bohn Gmelch
University of California Press
304pp, £66.00 and £24.00
ISBN 9780520289611 and 9780520289628
Published 19 June 2018

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