Long back, in the 1940s, Evans-Pritchard referred to this debate and said that when anthropologists study primitive people with a theoretical bias, it distorts the account of savage people. As a matter of fact, a practical man goes with no such bias.
He brings out an impartial record of the facts as he sees them. This observation of Evans-Pritchard was based on the fact that some five decades back there was a gap in anthropological theory and fieldwork. But, it appears that the current orientation to theory and empiricism has undergone much transformation; they have, in fact, come closer.
Evans-Pritchard makes a compromise between the anthropological theorist and the layman who conducts fieldwork. In fact, both have theories: one variant of the theory is scientific and the other popular. Without theory the empirical fieldwork cannot go ahead. Evans-Pritchard writes:
The difference between them is really of another kind. The student makes his observations to answer questions arising out of the generalizations of specialized opinion and the layman makes his observations to answer questions arising out of the generalizations of popular opinion. Both have theories-the one systematic and the other popular.
When a social anthropologist conducts his fieldwork he works within a body of theoretical knowledge and he makes his observations to solve problems which derive from it.
This emphasis on problems is, of course, a feature of any field of scholarship. Lord Acton, the renowned historian, told his students to study problems and not periods.
Collingwood, the noted archaeologist, asked his students to study problems and not sites. The anthropology students should study problems and not peoples. Thus, the method of social anthropology is fieldwork and its theme of study is the peoples.
Fieldwork is not an easy job; it is very demanding, both professionally and in human terms. A researcher has to remain in the field for long periods, say, for months together.
He has to bear boredom, illness, personal privations, disappointments and frustration. It is only for a few anthropologists that fieldwork is an exciting job.
Besides, one often has to face the risk of suspicion and hostility. Despite all the hardships that a social anthropologist faces in the field, there is no escape from this work. It is considered to be an authentic source of generating data.
Social anthropology has a rich tradition of conducting fieldwork. The nature of fieldwork has changed from time to time. There are large numbers of social anthropologists who have conducted protracted fieldwork among the tribals. Evans-Pritchard has lived several months among the Azande tribals of southern Sudan.
He also worked among the Nuers of South Africa. Paul Bohannan worked for a long period among the Tiv tribals of eastern Nigeria. The Tiv tribals are traditionally farmers who have just been introduced to money as a medium of exchange.
In India, S.C. Dube has conducted fieldwork in a village called Shamerpet of Andhra Pradesh. M.N. Srinivas has worked for about two years in Rampura village of southern India. Andre Beteille remained for a protracted period in his study of caste, class and power in Sripuram village.
Thus, we have enough instances to support the point that anthropologists have lived in their respective fields of study for months together. Recently, we have a study by Paul Hockings who studied the Badaga people for months together.
Thus, it is obvious that fieldwork is a dependable source for generating data and, therefore, a dependable method of social anthropology. It is the tradition and culture of anthropological methodology.