How to be an anthropologist: A critical exploration of the fieldwork method

Dr Chloe Nahum-Claudel

See this course profiled on the PKP 2015 blog!


Where in the world should an anthropologist go in their pursuit to shed light on human culture and society? Once there, how should they go about researching everyday life when they wake up in the morning? What should they eat and where should they sleep? How do they manage their relationships with those with whom they co-habit, sometimes intimately, and who are also the informants for their study? How do they cope with culture shock, frustration and loneliness, and would writing about such personal trials undermine the scientific status of their work or, on the contrary, add insight, empathy and truth to their accounts? How does make an ethnography out of lived experience and a mass of data? We will look at the changing ways in which anthropologists have answered these questions through guided reading of ethnographies and scholarly articles taken from all over the world, as well as sources such as anthropologists’ letters, photographs, personal diaries, and the novels and autobiographical memoirs that some have written to explore the emotional and experiential challenges of fieldwork.

Today, anthropologists are as likely to work among gamblers, gang members or government officials as Pacific islanders, Amazonian Indians or African pastoralists. Faced with such diverse subject matter, anthropology is united by its distinctive approach, classically defined as that of ‘participant-observation fieldwork’. As many have noted, this involves living closely with the community under study for a year or more, and being in the often uncomfortable position of establishing friendships with those who are the object of the analytical eye. There is a constitutive dilemma of being at once friend and stranger; participant and observer; insider and outsider. As we’ll explore in the course, this dilemmas is both enduring and conditioned by history, culture and geo-politics. So, whereas in the first half of the twentieth century the anthropologist was typically a white man closely tied to the colonial administration, today a Indian woman from Jaipur (though one of high caste and trained in Cambridge) works in Tribal Rajasthan and a Princeton graduate ‘pitches her tent’ in Wall Street. We will look at the ways in which, since its inception, anthropology has been trying to distance itself from the claim that unequal power relations are its condition of possibility. We’ll ask: Do all problems of power and representation go away when anthropologists work at ‘home’ in British or American towns, when they ‘study-up’ (by making the powerful their object of inquiry), or when University-trained native Amazonians write ‘auto-ethnographies’ of their own people?

These issues about the changing historical, epistemological and political dimensions of fieldwork take us into terrain shared broadly in the humanities, and especially with sociology, cultural studies, gender and race studies and postcolonial theory. Students will therefore gain not only an understanding of anthropology’s core aims, principles and methods, but also a specific disciplinary perspective on major intellectual shifts in the humanities such as the colonial critique of the 1960s and the coalescence of post-colonialism; the turn to feminist modes of theorising in the 1970s; the call for attention to experience and the emotions in the 1980s; and the post-humanist or multi-species wave since the 2000s. The course thus offers students new to anthropology, or already conversant with it, an iconoclastic approach to humanistic and social scientific enquiry.

This course is aimed at: Undergraduate level students from a variety of backgrounds, including the humanities, social sciences, cultural studies, gender studies, English and comparative literature, and philosophy.

Pre-requisite knowledge required: None required, but experience of social science or humanities approaches is valuable. Reading will be provided.

Transferable Knowledge and Skills: The course will encourage students to develop their analytical skills in response to a variety of kinds of texts (letters, diaries, ethnographies, theoretical articles) and there will be an emphasis on debate and creative presentation techniques. It will also offer experience of writing extended essays for examination.

Lecture Hours: 12 x 1hour 15minutes (total 15 hours)

Seminar Hours: 8x 1hour 15minutes (total 10 hours)

Performance Evaluation

1 X Final Exam – 50% (2 questions from three sections in a 2 hour exam)

1 X Final Essay (2,500 to 3,000 words) – 50%

Teaching Methodology

Teaching is by means of twelve lectures plus eight tutorial classes (seminars) for the period of the course. The lectures aim to present the material, while the seminars focus on discussion and debate of students’ reading, in addition to the material presented in the lectures. Seminars and lectures will include film clips, letters and diary entries, press cuttings and other media. Seminars are not assessed, but students will be asked to present readings to stimulate discussion and to develop their understanding of the topics covered. Readings to be discussed in seminars will be collated in a course reader. There will be a trip to the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology during Lecture 2.

Reading List

You should expect to read 3-4 articles or book chapters as part of your preparation for each of the eight seminars.

Lecture 1: Hospitality with strangers.

Starred readings are required for Seminar 1.

*Powdermaker, H. (1967) ‘A woman going native’ pp 66-75 in Robben and Sluka. (eds.) Ethnographic fieldwork: an anthropological reader (2007).

*Evans-Pritchard, EE. (1973) ‘Some reminiscences and reflections on fieldwork’ Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford 4, 1-12.

*Rabinow, P (1977) Reflections on fieldwork in Morocco. Introduction and Ch.3.

*Simpson, B. (2006) ‘‘You Don’t Do Fieldwork, Fieldwork Does You’: Between Subjectivation and Objectivation in Anthropological Fieldwork. In D. Hobbs and R. Wright The SAGE Handbook of Fieldwork. Pp. 126-139.

Dumont, JP. (1983) The Headhunter and I: Ambiguity and Ambivalence in the Fieldworking Experience. Excerpt.

Wagner, R. (1981) The Invention of Culture. Introduction and Ch.1.


 Lecture 2: The armchair versus the expedition. The Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Straits (1898)

Herle, A. and S. Rouse (1998). Cambridge and the Torres Strait: centenary essays on the 1898 Anthropological Expedition. Introduction and Ch 2.

Kuklick, B. H. (2011) ‘Personal Equations: Reflections on the History of Fieldwork, with Special Reference to Sociocultural Anthropology’. Isis 102 (1), 1-33.


Lecture 3: The man behind the method. Hero or Villain?

Starred readings are required for Seminar 2

*Malinowski, B. (2002 [1922]) Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. ‘The subject, method and scope of anthropology’.

*Malinowski, B. (1967) A diary in the strict sense of the term. Excerpt (read as much as you like of the long excerpt).

*Geertz, C. (1967) ‘Under the Mosquito net’ In The New York Review of Books September 14, 1967

*Powdermaker, H (1967) ‘An Agreeable Man’ In The New York Review of Books November 9, 1967

Stocking, G. W. (1968) ‘Special review: Empathy and antipathy in the Heart of Darkness: An essay review of Malinowski’s field diaries’. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 4 (2), 189-194.

Geertz, C. (1968) ‘Thinking as a Moral Act: Ethical Dimensions of Anthropological Fieldwork in the New States’. The Antioch Review 28 (2), 139-158.


Lecture 4: The emotional dimensions of fieldwork.

Starred readings are required for Seminar 3

*Beatty, A. (2010) ‘How did it feel for you: Emotion, Narrative, and the Limits of Ethnography’ American Anthropologist Vol. 112, Issue 3, pp. 430–443.

*Briggs, Jean L. (1974) Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family. ‘Kapluna Daughter’. Pembroke Library 440, 913

*Rosaldo, R. (1989) ‘Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage’ in Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis.

*Lutz, C. (1986) ‘Emotion, Thought, and Estrangement: Emotion as a Cultural Category’. Cultural Anthropology 1 (3), 287-309.


Lecture 5: Is fieldwork always a colonial or neo-colonial encounter?

Starred readings are required for Seminar 4

Asad, T. (ed.) (1973) Anthropology and the colonial encounter, Ithaca: London. Introduction.

*Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1969). The Nuer: a description of the modes of livelihood and political institutions of a Nilotic people. Introduction

*Rosaldo, R (1986). ‘From the door of his tent: The fieldworker and the inquisitor’ In Clifford and Marcus eds. Writing Culture: the poetics and politics of ethnography pp 77-98

*Baskow, I. (2006) The Meaning of Whitemen. Race and modernity in the Orokaiva Cultural World. Introduction.

*Robbins, J. (1997) ‘When do you think the world will end? Globalization, Apocalypticism, and the moral perils of fieldwork in ‘last New Guinea’’. Anthropology and Humanism 22 (1), 6-30.


Lecture 6: Feminism in action

Starred readings are required for Seminar 5

Moore, H. (1988) Feminism and Anthropology. Chapter 1.

Weiner, A. B. (1988) The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. Kings Library: KTJ GQ Wei

*Lila Abu‐Lughod (1990) ‘Can There Be A Feminist Ethnography?’, Women &

Performance: a journal of feminist theory, 5:1 pp 7-27

*Weston, K. (1993) ‘Do clothes make the woman?: Gender, Performance Theory, and Lesbian Eroticism’ Genders 17 pp1-21

*Tedlock, B (1995) ‘Works and Wives: On the sexual division of textual labor’ In R. Behar and D. Gordon eds. Women Writing Culture pp 267-287

Ardener, E. (1975a) ‘Belief and the Problem of Women’ and ‘The Problem Revisited’, pp. 1-17 in S. Ardener (ed.) Perceiving Women.

Bodenhorn, B (1990) ‘I’m not the great hunter my wife is’ in Inuit Studies.


~   Lecture 7: Progress exam  ~

Write one essay from eight questions.


Lecture 8: The Public Anthropologist: Can s/he make a difference?

Starred readings are required for Seminar  

*Benedict, R. (1946) The chrysanthemum and the sword: patterns of Japanese culture. Intro, Chapters 5 and 6.

*Abu-Lughod (2002) ‘Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others’ American Anthropologist 104(3):783-790.

 *Fissan, D Why Ethnography Matters: On Anthropology and its Publics In Cultural Anthropology Vol. 28, Issue 4, pp. 621–646

Greenhouse, C (2011) The Paradox of Relevance: Ethnography and Citizenship in the United States


Lecture 9: Shared experience? Can anthropologists claim to experience the world as their subjects do?

*Favret-Saada, J. (1980) Deadly words: witchcraft in the Bocage. Kings Library PXR 8FX B Saa

*Stoller, Paul and Cheryl Olkes (1987) In Sorcery’s Shadow: A Memoir of Apprenticeship among the Songhay of Niger. Pembroke Library 440,913

*Wacquant, L (2003) Body and Soul: notes of an apprentice boxer.

*Luhrmann (1989) Persuasions of the witch’s craft: ritual magic in contemporary England


Lecture 10: Does the ‘native anthropologist’ exist? Kinship ‘at home’ in the UK and USA.

Starred readings are required for Seminar 7

*Narayan (1993) How native is a “native” anthropologist’ In American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 95, No. 3. (Sep., 1993), pp. 671-686.

*Cassidy, R. (2002). The sport of kings: kinship, class and thoroughbred breeding in Newmarket. Preface and Ch. 7.


*Weston, K. (1993). Families we choose.

Schneider, D. (1968) American Kinship: a cultural account. Intro and Ch. 1.


Lecture 11: Studying up and down: negotiating power, race and privilege

Starred readings required for Seminar 8

Nader, L. (1969) ‘Up the Anthropologist: perspectives gained from ‘studying up” pp. 284–311 in D. Hymes (ed) Reinventing Anthropology.

Mosse, D. (2006) ‘Anti-Social Anthropology? Objectivity, Objection, and the Ethnography of Public Policy and Professional Communities’. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 12 (4), 935-956. Reader p. 775-796

*Ho K. (2009) Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. Introduction.

*Bourgois, P. (1995). In search of respect: selling crack in El Barrio. Introduction, Ch.1.

*Goffman, A. (2014) On the Run: Fugitive life in an American City. Prologue, Preface, Ch. 1, Methods Appendix.


*Online readings about the ‘Goffman controversy’:

Betts, D (2014) ‘The Stoop Isn’t the Jungle’ In Slate

Lubet, S, (2014) ‘Ethics On The Run’ In The New Rambler

Goffman, (2014) A ‘A reply to professor Lubet’s critique’.


Lecture 12: Anthropology beyond the human?

*Wilkie (2015) Multispecies Scholarship and Encounters: Changing Assumptions at the Human-Animal Nexus Sociology 2015, Vol. 49(2) 323–339

*Eduardo Kohn (2007) ‘How Dogs Dream: Amazonian Natures and the Politics of Transspecies Engagement’. American Ethnologist, 34: 3-24. Reader p. 849-870

*Candea, Matei (2010) ‘“I Fell in Love with Carlos the Meerkat”: Engagement and Detachment in Human-Animal Relations’. American Ethnologist, 37: 241-258. Reader p. 871-888



Seminars will involve structured discussion and debate, for which the lecture material provides background. Students will be expected to respond to specific orienting questions based on their reading of 3 or 4 texts. This will be assessed through their preparation of presentations and points of debate as well as through the submission of short pieces of written work.

1. What are the ins and outs of participant observation as method?

2. Do Malinowski’s moods undermine anthropology’s heroic foundation myth?

3. Why and how can we make emotion part of the science of what it means to be human?

4. Is anthropology the handmaiden of war and colonialism?

5. What difference does it make to be a woman in the field? Do we need feminist ethnography?

6. What are some of the challenges for anthropologists intervening in public debates?

7. Does the “native anthropologist” exist?

8. Is high finance ‘the new exotic’ while the subaltern is out of bounds? Assessing a recent anthropological ethics controversy.


Required Pre-Arrival reading

I would like you to sample from these ethnographies in which the fieldworker’s relationships with those who have hosted him/her are the subject of explicit reflection. I have also chosen these books for their readability and I hope you’ll agree with me that they’re as entertaining as the best novels. I’d like you to read two, one older and one more recent, so that you can begin to get a sense of the contrasting ways fieldwork is lived and has been reflexively explored.


Most of these books can be found in Pembroke Library at class marks 440, 913 and upwards and many of them are also available to buy as cheap paperbacks.


Brilliant classics

Briggs, J. (1974) Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family.

Barley, N. (1983) The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut.

Rabinow, P. (1977) Reflections on fieldwork in Morocco

Bohannon, L (1964) Return to Laughter: An anthropological novel

Powdermaker, H (1967) Stranger and Friend: The way of an anthropologist

Stoller, P. and C. Olkes (1987) In Sorcery’s Shadow: A Memoir of Apprenticeship among the Songhay of Niger.


Newer books

Bourgois, P. I. (1995) In search of respect: selling crack in El Barrio.

Beatty, A (2015) After the Ancestors

Abu-Lughod, L (2013) Do Muslim women need saving?

Vitebsky, P. (2011) Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia.