Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Anthropology Musings

The following is a brief excerpt from my application for the University of California Press book prize, intended for anthropologists who propose to write a book about their research for a general audience(which would be my dream):

I propose to write a book about my experiences conducting research for my doctorate in cultural anthropology from New York University. I am currently wrapping up fieldwork on female street prostitution in Quito’s historic center in Ecuador. My intention in writing a book about my fieldwork experience, including the personal battles I struggled with in the field, is to break the silence surrounding this rite of passage that we must all undergo to become anthropologists. I would like to have the opportunity to publish the rich stories I have collected on the streets. I propose to write an experimental memoir that interweaves the dramatic vignettes I have gathered while working in Quito’s red-light district, with how this experience affected me as a person. I feel confident that a general audience would not only enjoy the narratives of the everyday life of sex workers, but how my participation as a fieldworker fundamentally challenged me as a person. I would like to share the struggles I have faced as an anthropologist, such as the negotiation of my relationship with my “subjects,” whom I truly consider my closest friends in Quito. Such a space, in which I could address the dialogical role anthropologists perform in the field, is denied to me in academia. I want to write about my process of fieldwork rather than skip directly to the execution of my final product in the form of a dissertation and then ideally, an academic book, simply because I have learned more about myself during this experience than any other in my life.

Fieldwork was a particularly intense time for me, not just because I spent my days with sex workers and other marginal figures on the streets in the style of Philippe Bourgois, but because of the personal battles I faced. An unexpected challenge presented itself when I relapsed during my second week of fieldwork with my informants after eight years of sobriety from drugs and alcohol. But I do not want this to be a drug memoir, the narrative of which we could all recite by heart. In fact, to me, my relapse represents one of the least interesting things I experienced because I knew I was an addict before I went to the field. What shocked me more is the other lessons I learned about myself, especially the challenges the sex workers confronted me with about my identity as a woman. I would like to write this account to encourage our discipline to value the human lessons we learn in the field as much as our academic contributions. Furthermore, I believe a wide range of readers would be fascinated by an example of what anthropologists actually do, an account equally denied to them as to fellow academics.

Fieldwork is shrouded in mystery. We do not talk about our experiences in depth. Anthropologists are not encouraged to write a “behind-the-scenes” account of their fieldwork because as professionally trained fieldworkers we follow a set of ethical behaviors, the disclosure of which could damage our professional careers (in fact, I am positive that my advisors at NYU would highly discourage the publication of my personal fieldwork account). Naturally, Malinowski decided to omit his “unethical” behavior and human reactions in the field from his manuscript, which when finally published in all its glory after his death, shook our discipline to its core. Even though Malinowski would be horrified to know that his “actual” fieldwork experience was exposed, I believe that this publication was the first step in preserving the integrity of our discipline. As would be expected, we struggle with the same character defects in the field that we battle at home and therefore, at times behave in ways that our discipline would find unacceptable. At times it feels like being a professional fieldworker is to deny one’s own humanity within the experience. I am willing to take the risk to put my professional career on the line because I hope my publication would help change how other anthropologists process and value their fieldwork experience--not just for the important intellectual contributions it provides, but for the pertinent life lessons it teaches us as humans.

As anthropologists we go to the field, gather information pertinent to the theoretical questions prompting our research, come home and distill our fieldwork experiences into brief vignettes used to help illustrate the conclusions we reached about our original ponderings. We ignore that human piece in order to present the academic contribution that provoked our trips to the field in the first place. To write a book solely about one’s experiences in the field and to admit that we learned more about ourselves than about our subjects would be frowned upon as a self-absorbed and irrelevant exercise. Such a confession would fundamentally challenge fieldwork, as we would be admitting to diverting from our primary roles as observers of another culture and instead to becoming conscious students of that culture. Although I’m positive that not one anthropologist could admit that s/he returns from the field as same person as when s/he entered it, the exploration of our human experiences in the field is beyond the purview of our discipline, for now.

The irony of such a view plays out with grand flare within my university. First of all, at NYU we do not have one class that addresses fieldwork—not even on methodology, what to expect, how to negotiate our relationships with our subjects, etc. etc. When I questioned one of my professors as to why one would omit such a basic course, she declared that each field experience is too unique to generalize and it’s something we learn in the process of doing it. Indeed, it might be difficult to generalize about such singular experiences, but surely it’s worth addressing the basic struggles we all face as anthropologists. Perhaps such a conscious exercise of how we transform throughout the process of our investigations would be unsettling to anthropology because it could invert the customary power dynamics we maintain in the field. As anthropologists, we have long ago come to terms with our imperialist history and the birth of our discipline as integral to colonial enterprises. We address the unbalanced social relations that exist in the field as we maintain our privileged outsider status, but silence reverberates on how these incredibly complex relationships actually play out on the ground.

I’m not sure anthropology is ready for such a conscious disturbance in power dynamics that the conscious embodiment of the role of student would provide. We are not meant to reflect upon ourselves and what our subjects teach us, but focus on extracting “data” from the communities we study. The point of fieldwork is to provide an intellectual contribution that addresses a theoretical body of work, rather than to reflect on ourselves as human beings. This is something I would like to change by writing a book that a general audience could appreciate, as well as fellow academics within my discipline.


  1. I sincerely hope you get to write this book, because I would absolutely love to read it.

    I'm so impressed with your work, Anna. Your writing on this blog is amazing and I've just caught up with it again after a few months. I love the way you have opened up and expressed yourself about your experiences - in a very personal, thoughtful and well-balanced way.

    Though anthropology as an academic discipline may not be ready for such a book, the rest of the world most definitely is - which may reveal how removed anthropology is now from the real world and human experience (ironically since it should be the study of that!).

    I find it shocking as well that NYU didn't offer even one course on fieldwork, or at least a seminar or workshop or something. It seems to me that what you have experienced in the field would be rather common, not shocking at all, and yet it is like the elephant in the room - for some reason, cannot be spoken of. I'm so glad that you are not letting that stop you, and you are speaking of it.

    P.S. I'll be in Ecuador in a few weeks, maybe I can see you! I'll email separately.

  2. Thanks Abby--I really appreciate your thoughtful comments. Thanks for the encouragement :) and yes, I MUST see you! It would be fun to catch up