‘How short can fieldwork be?’
Version of Record online: 28 JUN 2008
2007 European Association of Social Anthropologists
Volume 15, Issue 3, pages 353–357, October 2007
How to Cite
MARCUS, G. E. (2007), ‘How short can fieldwork be?’. Social Anthropology, 15: 353–357. doi: 10.1111/j.0964-0282.2007.00025_1.x
- Issue online: 28 JUN 2008
- Version of Record online: 28 JUN 2008
For me, this is less a question of methodological implication than one that concerns anthropology's professional culture, with the inculcation of particular emblematic research practices as the core of its identity. These practices are regulated by a deeply committed aesthetics of craft, and they have been subject to a variety of challenges over the past two decades. So, I take this question to be one of mainly pedagogical implication, and want to move it in the direction of a recently completed volume of essays that James Faubion and I have edited on the projects of first fieldwork in graduate training, and the design, or lack of it, in the crucial training process at the beginning of careers, which then evidence great variations and departures from the regulative ideals of Malinowskian first fieldwork (Faubion and Marcus 2007). From our own long experiences of graduate training, and particularly its conditions today, at least in the United States, we are frankly reformist in intention.
So, ‘How Short Can Fieldwork Be?’ is a symbolic question and makes most sense to me in thinking about the training model. Later projects of many, if not most, anthropologists I know are never so Malinowskian again in the canonical sense. Certainly, traditional training can be preserved by defining projects that are sized and bounded accordingly. The craft is learned, but the scope of nearly every project I negotiate today with students is a pull against the conventions. Rather than coming to terms with this scope ethnographically, many training projects are self-limiting in relation to it. There is a virtue in this, but what it forestalls is a serious rethinking of the professional culture of method which operates more by aesthetics than technique. A sustained reflection, ethnographic in character, on how fieldwork now defines training, and offerings of different models and variations of the classic process to suit the variety of research interests that define anthropology today, even as it preserves elements of that process (e.g. the imperatives to cross distinct cultural boundaries and study ordinary people), are badly needed today. As an ethnographer of my own experiences as a supervisor, I have learned to look for such alternatives to the training model in the critical post-doctoral period when many dissertations are remade by processes that both rethink and redo what dissertation fieldwork was. Herein lay the most interesting responses in practice to the question posed.
Here, I want to offer just a few fragments of our work.
The exercise of the decoupling of fieldwork in its enduring classic construction as an essential and defining characteristic of doing anthropology is crucial in being able to think differently about fieldwork in broader contexts of inquiry today. In his essay in our volume, James Faubion argues for freeing fieldwork as we have known it from the heavy symbolic, identity-defining load that it has carried. For Faubion, what is distinctively anthropological are ways of problematising inquiry and conceptually defining its objects, rather than the practices of a particular conduct of inquiry. To quote him:
If anthropological (field)work today thus looms as the specter of a Sispyhean labor, endless and never redeemed, it does at least permit of functionally distinct divisions that give it a rather different look from fieldwork of the past. Neither the extended sojourn nor the serial return to the same or closely related physical sites yields a correct model of its physiognomy. Good anthropology will always take time. Yet, I can see no reason for concluding that the time it takes must in every case be spent in its bulk in a physical field site … The ethical profile of the good anthropologist, in short, yields no methodological a priori concerning the appropriate duration of a project. Everything hinges on the terms and requirement of the question of research itself. (Faubion 2007)
Just so … . The turning of an anthropologically conceived question into research requires different ways of thinking about the actual design or practices of research that are free to roam from the deeply inculcated aesthetics of fieldwork by a professional culture of craft. Faubion continues:
Given the marked inertia of granting agencies, the anthropological (field) project of the future … may well end up looking in fact much as it has looked for several decades: one roughly year-long, more or less continuous encampment at a primary physical site, a few satellite trips here and there, and probably a two- or three-month mop-up before the dissertation or monograph is complete. Yet, in a less conventional understanding of what constitutes an anthropological project, a seriality comes to light that is not merely that of the repeated return to the same physical site (classically, in order to develop an ever richer and deeper comprehension of the people inhabiting that site) but more frequently that of a concatenation of legs – some passed in what we still customarily expect a site to be, but others no less integral a part of the project itself, passed at the library or in conversation with students and colleagues, legs in which the primary but still altogether integral activity is not that of encounter but instead that of the evaluation, articulation, thinking and rethinking of what one has already encountered and what one is likely to encounter on the next go. (Faubion 2007)
Thus, Faubion makes it possible to see classic fieldwork as a variable component of a broader process of research, and thus to see the need for distinctively anthropological understandings of this broader process.
Finally, here in broad stroke are two specific and related ideas for reshaping the crucial training process at the beginning of careers through which anthropologists learn both practices as well as an aesthetics or embodied ideology of method to think about them. They are about strategy (meta-method, directed toward the pedagogical process), rather than tactics of inquiry (research techniques – e.g. how to do interviews, how to count things).
A design process
While acknowledging that anthropological research is mostly composed of projects of individual conception and execution and are about defined cases – this much is guaranteed by the discipline's mythic construction of fieldwork – virtually everything else about research these days pulls a project into collaborations, collectivities, institutional arrangements and networks of various kinds that are not simply its objects, but are integral to the process of making knowledge out of the traditional individual, case-bounded project of fieldwork.
My candidate for a concept that conceives of research practice in a way that provides the long view, encompassing the phases of research today in a coherent way, retaining the focus on individual research while incorporating and making visible and accessible to the professional community the complex relations that compose it, is that of the design process. I am not thinking of the idea of formal research design, which is a standard category in the implementation of social science methods, but design as it is defined in studio fields like art, design itself, and architecture (the latter of which I have experience as a process, and think of as a model in making this suggestion). In design processes with which I am familiar, the individual and collective as agents of knowledge production are constantly in play. There is conceptual and practical rigour in applying ideas. There is reporting and constant feedback by diversely composed audiences from beginning to end. The final result has multiple accountabilities which are thought about and through the entire project, and so the final result is not final, at least conceptually – there is an ideology to design of open-endedness and of a work being a solution that is subject to revision by later and other work.
It seems to me that anthropological research today rethought as a design process would encompass and preserve classic fieldwork perhaps still as a core modality. It would, however, both relativise its functions and blur its beginning and end in conceiving it within the broader contexts and operations that so much research now entails. This would lead to three other issues, only one of which I address further in the limited space available here: incompleteness as a norm, at least of the dissertation-phase of a project; the more complex role of collaborations in producing individual projects; and the more formal or conceptualised incorporation of the receptions of the project into its design and doing.
A model of a design process would map easily onto the research process that we have today and serve as the framework for a practical discussion of many of the workings of the present informal culture of meta-method in anthropology, most visible in the pedagogy of first research leading to the production of dissertations, but not ending there. Moving to understand this venerable disciplinary process according to one or another model of a design studio would bring into the open – for anthropologists, students, anthropology's publics and for institutional supporters demanding accounts of its methods in return for funding – the long-standing distinctiveness of the experimental ways that anthropologists have produced ethnographic knowledge. It would usefully displace the mythos of fieldwork and the informal professional culture that supports it, which no longer offers sufficient clarity either to anthropologists themselves or to their subjects and publics. It would finally give this experimental dimension of anthropological research full expression as a framework of practices rather than remaining just a professional ethos and set of regulating aesthetics.
A design process is open-ended. It incorporates scenarios of anticipation and changing course, requires the presentation for review of an ethnographically sensitive research imaginary before the undertaking of fieldwork that overreaches it and is revisable in terms of it. Research conceived as a design process keeps attention focused on material – data sets – all along the way and insists on results that are closely accountable to it. Thus, it encourages theoretical work at the level of material – the stuff of fieldwork as I call it – and privileges found concepts that emerge from it. It also looks beyond the confines of its own production to response and revision. While still preserving the responsibility of individual work, it recognises collaboration as a normative principle, incorporates broad receptions and finds a place for the anthropological community in this.
A norm of incompleteness
Any traditional fieldwork project defines a massive task compared to what a researcher can practically hope to do with the time and resources available. Thus, a rhetoric of incompleteness is very common in finished ethnography. It is sometimes a hedge for inadequate evidence or analysis, it is sometimes a pro forma apology. It sometimes reflects a certain edge of anxiety or tension about the way an individual researcher handles both the limitations and the possibilities of the discipline's regulative culture of meta-method. Both under present conditions and in research imagined as a design process as just discussed, incompleteness would be a positive norm of practice, even a theorem of practice, expected of kinds of inquiry that remain open-ended even when they are ‘finished’. Incompleteness is a dimension of thinking about what can be said about what one has done. It is not about incompleteness in relation to the general and future unknown, but in relation to a design or research imaginary that has been thought through ethnographically but investigated only in part (e.g. the dissertation-phase of research that produces first projects). That partial knowledge, so to speak, which is the product of first fieldwork, is not partial in relation to some unknown or vaguely conceived larger whole (in my view, this leads all too often to the justifying, dominating moral discourses of so many ethnographies today), but to a known and carefully conceived incompleteness, a ground or terrain of possible ethnography that is deeply imagined as such and in terms of which the partial results of fieldwork are specifically argued. Incompleteness thus defines a norm for contextualising conditions of fieldwork research today at a thoroughly imagined ethnographic level for which the researcher should be responsible.
For example, the state or economy is not the context for a bounded site of fieldwork; certain ethnographically imagined processes and their connections to the foci of fieldwork are. The anthropologist may not do fieldwork in these contextualising realms, but she projects an ethnographic imagination upon them as if she had. I would say most, if not all, objects of interest today can be known in this speculative way. And some degree of so doing could be part of a norm of incompleteness and the pursuit of research projects as they are today. The processes of a design studio would simply make this operation of incompleteness as a practice visible, indeed normative, and meta-methodological in a formal way.
Design processes thus call attention to such edges of a project and develop contexts of discussion for them in the same terms and styles that characterise the work of the focused individual effort of fieldwork and its defined objects of inquiry. But even without the imaginary of research today as a design process, a norm of incompleteness under current practices could provide context, ground theory and calm anxieties in researchers who move recursively around a field of inquiry and are uneasy or hedging about the partiality of what they are doing. They might otherwise embrace incompleteness as defining knowledge of something also in a speculative way. Scenarios are the instruments for dealing with the specificities of incompleteness by the informed imagination and they can be implemented to good effect now or within some future regime of anthropological research as design studios.
So, I have approached the initial question by defining parameters or a context for its consideration that have not so much changed the question but assumed something about its motivation. In my view, asking the question in other than a narrow methodological way is about the clear and present challenges to fieldwork as we have known and learned it in the training model. It is that model that needs to be questioned and constructively rethought today.
- 2007. ‘The ethics of fieldwork as the ethics of connectivity, or the good anthropologist (isn't what she used to be)’, in JamesFaubion and George E.Marcus (eds.), Fieldwork is not what it used to be: anthropology's culture of method in transition. Unpublished manuscript.
- Faubion, James, and George E.Marcus (eds.) 2007. Fieldwork is not what it used to be: anthropology's culture of method in transition. Unpublished manuscript.