Some of the attributes that characterize excellent fieldwork – Essay

Evans-Pritchard once recalled his first attempts to learn about fieldwork in the early 1920s. He has asked a number of renowned an­thropologists how to do it. And he had received various answers.

First he asked the famous Finnish anthropologist Westermarck, who said: “Don’t converse with an informant for more than 20 minutes because if you aren’t bored by that time he will be.” Evans-Pritchard com­ments: “Very good advice, if somewhat inadequate.”

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Alfred Haddon said that “it was really all quite simple; one should always behave as a gentkman”. Evans-Pritchards’ teacher Charles Seligman, “told me to take 10 grams of quinine every night and to keep off women”. Finally, Malinowski himself told the novice, “not to be a bloody fool”.

Evans- Pritchard himself emphasizes later in the same account, that facts are themselves meaningless; in other words, “one must know precisely what one wants to know”. And “then fashion a suitable methodology from the available techniques”.

There is alas no simple recipe for field- work. It is a method where the researcher’s most important ‘scientific instrument’ is himself or herself.

In this section, we have tried to list some of the attributes which characterize excellent fieldwork. These are presented below:

(i) Knowledge of local language:

One of the essential rules for good fieldwork is the familiarity with the language which the local people speak. Language is nothing but an arrangement of signs and symbols.

These signs and symbols hint about the structure of a society. The new structuralism which draws heavily from Saussare argues that a society can be perfectly under­stood through symbols of a language.

For perfect communication, therefore, the researcher should speak in the language of the people. The earlier professional fieldworkers were always in a great hurry.

Their quick visits to native peoples sometimes lasted only a few days, and seldom more than a few weeks. They did not come face to face with the real life of the people. Local language needs to be learnt be­fore going out to the field.

(ii) Familiarity with people’s culture and social life:

Morris Carstairs, who conducted his studies among the Bhil tribe of southern Rajasthan, has narrated his experiences with this tribe: Dur­ing the 1940s, the Bhils of this region had a tradition not to allow any stranger to sit on the cot where the tribal couple slept.

Not aware of this tradition, Carstairs occupied one of the corners of the cot. It meant for the tribal people to have sex relations with the wife. He was immediately assaulted by the husband and was not only turned out of the house but was also made to flee the village at the earliest.

Field- work, therefore, requires that the researcher should have familiarity with the culture and traditions of the region. We have similar in­stances which show that a minor flaw on the part of researcher has resulted in bitter experiences.

Andre Beteille made his first approach in Sripuram village among untouchables. In the latter part of his field- work acceptance by the high caste Hindus became very difficult. In any fieldwork, the first objective of the researcher should be to under­stand the people and establish a rapport with them.

(iii) No ethnocentric bias: Stress on cultural relations:

The idiom of any fieldwork is to understand the society on its own terms. Each society has its cultural and social milieu. It has its history. In such a situation, the researcher should not apply his own cultural scale in the evaluation of the primitive society. Admittedly, there is a macro scale of evaluation.

But, there cannot be any shared universal scale. For instance, a scale pertaining to gross national product (GNP), democratic rights, literacy rates, which bear longevity, should not be adopted to the study of tribals.

Whenever in African studies, Euro­pean scales were applied, the results were disastrous. In India, the national scales of norms and values, or input-output, if applied to tribals, would draw a blank.

(iv) Study society from insight:

Each society has its own understanding. The perceptions of the soci­ety are conditioned by historical and socio-cultural forces. What we call the good life might not apply to a tribal society.

As a matter of fact, a social anthropologist cannot provide an answer to a question like-which society is better than others-simply because the disci­pline does not ask it.

If asked-what is the good life-the social anthropologist will have to answer that every society has its own defi­nition of the good life. What is vital is that the social anthropologist should try to understand the society from inside, that is, and how the society evaluates itself.

(v) Cultural relativism as against cultural ethnocentrism:

Bias for the superiority of one’s own culture is termed ethnocentrism. Such an approach to primitive society has been condemned by social science tradition. What is considered to be useful for understanding of a primitive society is to analyze it through cultural relativism.

Some­times cultural relativism is posited as the opposite of ethnocentrism. A doctrine in social anthropology states that societies or cultures are qualitatively different and have their own unique inner logic, and therefore, it is scientifically absurd to rank them on a scale.

Eriksen has stressed the importance of cultural relativism as a reli­able tool of methodology. He observes:

Cultural relativism is an indispensable and unquestionable theoretical premise and methodological rule of thumb in our attempts to under­stand alien society in an unprejudiced way as possible.

As an ethical principle, however, it is probably impossible in practice, since it seems to indicate that everything is as good as everything else, pro­vided it makes sense in a particular society.

(vi) Rejection of positivism and application of critical enquiry

The new social anthropological researches that we find today reject the constraint of positivism. Positivism means Scientifics. If social anthropology attempts to study social reality among the tribals, such a positivistic approach is not helpful. It must be accepted that reality is not unified. It varies from group to group and society to society.

In such a situation, what we find is a set of multiple realities, constructed by people in different ontological positions. It is also certain that an­thropological field research tries to probe into multiple realities and identify a unified truth.

What is meant by social anthropological re­search is to explore and study each multiple reality. To attain this objective social anthropology has to focus less on positivism and more on the researcher’s self-critical capability.

Amita Baviskar, in her study In the Belly of River, argues that in the fieldwork pertaining to tribals one must stress on the social reali­ties as the people themselves understand it. It is a question of stress and focus. She observes:

If the world consists of many contested realities, all of them backed by different groups of people, which version do we privilege? I have mainly chosen to ignore the various ways in which the state regards adivasis, favouring a view that focuses on the ways in which adivasis regard the state.

Baviskar has really stressed on the importance of self-critical in­quiry. How does the state perceive the adivasis, and contrariwise how do tribals perceive the state? The question is important. The field- worker must understand that what is important in the research is that what people think of the content of social reality.

(vii) Culture is autonomous:

When a social anthropologist goes to the field, he is confronted with a dilemma: on one hand, he has his ideology, and on the other, there is the autonomy of the culture of a group under investigation. Cultures, as we have stressed elsewhere, cannot be compared; each culture has its origin and development.

It is conditioned historically. With this as­sumption we must state that the culture of a society is autonomous. But, the researcher does not go to the field in a vacuum. He has his own ethnocentrism; his own ideology.

It is possible that he is a Gandhian, a Marxist or a supporter of capitalism. In such a value- loaded ideology, how would he behave in the fieldwork? The situation is challenging but there is a solution also which is traditional.

The common good of the people who are subjected to study is upper­most. The researcher, therefore, is advised to remain neutral as far as possible. But, on the other hand, he should focus on the independent or autonomous status of the group under study.

(viii) Physical proximity:

One of the obligations of the social anthropologist is to establish as much physical proximity as possible. He is required to stay in the field. During his stay, he should physically and morally be a part of the community. He should keep his ears and eyes open all the time. It is advised that while doing fieldwork the researcher should observe everything which is of seemingly routine matter also’.

It is possible that the routine affairs are not published at a later stage, but they may help comprehend the society in some way. Evans-Pritchard, who has been credited to have studied African tribals by conducting intensive fieldwork, advises:

He must live as far as possible in their villages and camps, where he is, again as far as possible, physically and morally part of the commu­nity.

He, then, not only sees and hears what goes on in the normal everyday life of the people as well as less common events, such as ceremonies and legal cases, but by taking part in these activities in which he can appropriately engage, he learns through action as well as by ear and eye what goes on around him.

It would be wrong to think that a social anthropologist in the field is a catalyst. The missionaries were catalysts, for they wanted to seek con­version of the tribal people; the British administrators-turned- anthropologists very much wanted to consolidate colonial power in India and Africa.

A social anthropologist should in no case work among the tribals as an agent of change. He is in the field to under­stand the people. Someone else might use his data for changing the people. Stressing on the status of a social anthropologist in the field as a learner, Evans-Pritchard writes:

Unlike the administrator and missionary, he has no authority and status to maintain. And, unlike them, he has a neutral position.

He is not there to change their way of life but as a humble learner of it; and he has no retainers and intermediatries who obtrude between him and the people, No police, interpreters, or catechists to screen him off from them.

(x) Not only familiarity but friendship also:

Bohannan, in his study of African tribes, observed at one place that the tribe does not think much of anything which comes from a person who is not himself a Tiv. Kinship is the key aspect of a tribal commu­nity.

In such a milieu, the social anthropologist is supposed to be a friend and a kin of the community under study. When the researcher finally leaves the village, it should not be a goodbye affair.

There should be a marked sorrow of parting in both the sides. In his Remem­bered Village, M.N. Srinivas gives details about his experiences, that is, empiricism of the Rampura village. On the day when Srinivas had to catch the bus for his final return from the field, he was invited for meals not by one but by several families, preceding the farewell.

Band music and a procession was arranged by the people to give a pleasant but also painful departure to Srinivas. He had, in fact, become a friend of the people. He also officiated at a number of negotiations in disputes pertaining to civil and marital life.

(xi) Holistic study:

Since fieldwork is all-pervasive, covering different aspects of village so­cial life, the researcher should have functional relations of the people in mind. When he observes the functioning of different social institu­tions of the village, he should always think in terms of holistic study.

As a matter of fact, it is impossible to understand clearly and compre­hensively any part of a people’s social life except in the context of their social life as whole. The fieldwork in all respects should be char­acterized by wholism.

(xii) Fieldwork diary:

The popular portrait of a social anthropologist in the field is that of a man wearing trousers and a long kurta with a jhola hung on his shoul­der. It is in this jhola that he keeps his diary wherein he writes all the details that he observes during his visit to the study area. In fact, it re­cords all the happenings of the day in minute details.

He is expected to write down even the most commonplace activities, for example, how a cow is milked and how meat is cooked. Also, though he may decide to write the book on a people’s law or their religion, or on their eco­nomics, describing one aspect of their life and neglecting the rest, he does so always against the background of their entire social activities and in terms of their whole social structure.

Fieldwork is the major tool of data collection for the social an­thropologist. It has long been their methodological tradition or culture. It is true that any educated, intelligent and sensitive person can get to know the primitive people well and write an excellent ac­count of their way of life.

Perhaps, this non-social anthropologist gets to know primitive people better and writes a better book about them than many professionals do.

We have instances which indicate that ex­cellent ethnographic accounts were written long before social anthropology was even heard of. Dubois, who was not a social anthro­pologist, has written authoritatively on Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies in 1816.

There are other examples also. But, there is a cer­tain insight in the writings of the professional. Actually, anthropological fieldwork requires, in addition to theoretical knowl­edge and technical training, a certain kind of character and temperament which is non-existent in a lay writer.

As a matter of fact, the social anthropologist identifies himself with the study of primitive people. During the course of the fieldwork, he himself becomes the part of native society. There is no separation between the two. Such an approach to the primitive society distinguishes a professional social anthropologist from other lay writers.

There is no better way to end the discussion of fieldwork in social anthropology than to refer to the statement of Evans-Pritchard:

The native society has to be in the anthropologist himself and not merely in his note book to succeed in this feat a man must be able to abandon himself without reserve, and he must also have intuitive powers which not all possess.

Most people who know what and how to observe can make a merely competent study of a primitive people, but when one has to estimate whether a man will make the study which will be on the deeper level of understanding one looks for more than intellectual ability and technical training, for these quali­ties will not in themselves make a good anthropologist any more than they will make a good historian.