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Monday, December 18, 2017

My Apprenticeship: An Intellectual Journey

My Apprenticeship: An Intellectual Journey
Karla Poewe
Anthropology and Fieldwork (an excerpt)

By its very nature anthropology is a risky enterprise. The profession takes “a poor primate, a beast with nerve-endings all over it, a creature with a stomach that wants to be filled, a breeding animal that wants its mate, and (says), ‘Now get on with it. Become (a professional anthropologist)’ ” (adapted from Lewis (2001: 72).

“Field work is field work,” wrote the anthropologist Harry Wolcott (1929–2012). It draws on both art and science thereby making “a contribution uniquely its own” (1995: 252). True, but why does anthropology, being a social science, need art?

An important part of the answer is that field work does not only raise the “how” question as in how do field workers experience their first encounter with different people in an unknown or unpredictable part of the world. It also raises the “why” question. Why do we go to the field in the first place, and why for such a long time risking alienation from our own society and, even more, the loss of friends and spouses back home? Why do we make heart-breaking decisions to leave those we love, when we know that we cannot calculate unexpected consequences down the road? Why do we expose ourselves to amalgamations of “sophisticated” with “primitive” worlds, of eating what we do not recognize as food at home, of coping with unexpected nightmares about distant pasts when we need the light of reason each morning? To recognize the turmoil suggested in these questions, and to understand the coping and overcoming it requires, field workers need resources they didn’t even know they had. They need philosophy, imagination, courage, resilience, creativity, indeed, their very person.

Lewis, C. S.
2001 (1961) A Grief Observed. New York: HarperCollins.
Wolcott, Harry F.
1995 The Art of Field Work. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.


Some of these questions surely apply to many people that work in the field sciences.