It’s almost taboo to broach “what is anthropology” so far into my research as I prepare for some closure on my doctoral project. Seven years later, I should know what makes something “anthropological.”
I start with Jonathan Inda’s introduction in Analytics of the Modern for some guidance.
He writes: “[This book] has two general orientations. One is anthropological. What this means, simply put for now, is three things. First, it means that the essays gathered here treat modernity not in abstract terms but tangibly as an ethnographic object. Their aim, in other words, is not to come up with some grand, general account of modernity but to analyze its concrete manifestations. Second, it means that these essays examine the materialization of the modern not just in the West, as tends to be the case in most disciplines, but worldwide…Finally, to be anthropological in orientation means that at the stake in the analysis of modernity is the value and form of the anthropos or human being (Collier and Ong 2003; Rabinow 2003). Said otherwise, the book is centrally concerned with the modern constitution of the social and biological life of the human.”
When I was studying for an M.A. in sociocultural anthropology, terms and phrases like “ethnographic object” and “modern constitution of the social life” and “concrete manifestations” really confused me because I could not conceive of the opposite. What is a non-ethnographic object or an ethnographic non-object? What does it mean for social life not to be constituted? Besides citing the “right” people and reading different claims to the definition of anthropology, I don’t think I arrived at an understanding of my discipline until fieldwork and post-fieldwork. The defining feature of anthropology, I believe, is fieldwork.
Bronislaw Malinowski, named the father of fieldwork, was given credit for establishing it as a systematic method for collecting data. For Malinowski, the anthropologist had to have a scientific goal, collect data such as genealogies, choose key informants, analyze the data, participate in activities with the informants while taking extensive notes, and be aware of one’s emotional state during fieldwork (Thomas Weaver SfAA Malinowski Award Papers 2002). When I read and taught Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), I was perpetually in awe of the details of his observations (some of it veering into gossip territory), his crystal-clear writing and conclusions that challenged assumptions about an economic system like the kula exchange among the Trobriand Islanders that relied on status, symbols and networks beyond the self-interested and rational individual. Malinowski defined anthropology as a science based on the systematic method of participant observation and other ethnographic methods used to shed light on and possibly, solve social problems. He was also a champion of practical anthropology (or applied anthropology) and stressed the intended use of knowledge for practical purposes. I am fortunate to have been trained as an applied anthropologist with the major aim of applying it to social problems and the world at large.
Anthropology’s defining feature is fieldwork — coming into close contact with the people we study. What separates us from other academics is that we must toggle between the introverted, analytical and isolated existence and the thick-skinned, extroverted and adventurous self. Even the shy or reticent anthropologists I’ve encountered have been adept at establishing rapport in the field and actually caring about the people they study. There is an element of empathy and natural curiosity about people. Some anthropologists do fieldwork domestically and others do it abroad. I think it is fair to say that many of us (myself included) were drawn to the discipline because of the lure of fieldwork. I was drawn to anthropology because of an ethnography I read written by an anthropologist/journalist and because I wanted to go back into the field. It’s the field that continues to beckon me. I spent 13 consecutive months in my fieldwork from 2011 to 2012 in addition to three-month spurts in 2007, 2008 and then 2010. Like the great Dr. Elizabeth Colson and my inspiring dissertation committee-members, I would like to spent a lifetime in the field — and with the practical aim put forth by Malinowski and anthropologists interested in addressing social problems.
The aim is a significant one. Many of my fellow anthropologists may be eccentric, a bit macho, and even hard-nosed, but they also tend to have tremendous empathy for others and a sensitivity to suffering, pain and injustice. Most importantly, every anthropologist I have met have a keen interest and curiosity about people; they are some of the most astute observers of human behavior.
That is why our methods have been used by so many other professionals and in the service of advertising/marketing, medicine, development work, social work, and in my research, business and the corporate setting. One can come to a better understanding of a problem or phenomenon by using the anthropological method of becoming an insider, gaining rapport from the people one is studying, and collecting all sorts of interesting and useful data, from what they eat to their responses to certain colors, smells and products to gathering their stories, backgrounds, family trees to observing and participating in their everyday lives. Any suggestions or recommendations made in a report using anthropological methods will have the advantage of having insider knowledge about human behavior. This ensures better decision-making at upper levels and where it matters.
And for my fellow anthropologists and myself, we get to do what we love. It’s fieldwork all over again — with its nascent discoveries, the close-knit relationships formed, the ups and downs of being an insider and outsider at different times, and the glimmer of hope that what we do will be of use and make a difference in people’s lives in some way.