Locating the field

Reflections on Introduction: ‘Being…Where?’ Performing Fields on Shifting Grounds, Simon Coleman and Peter Collins, pp1-21 in: Coleman, S. and Collins, P. (eds) (2006) Locating the Field: Space, Place and Context in Anthropology, Berg, Oxford.

Coleman and Collins start their introduction to Locating the Field by reflecting on the way the physical landscape of the places in which anthropologists have historically studied frames the very way anthropologists understand being in the world. Early studies of tribal people have tended to think of “place as a container for culture” (p2). The ‘field’ then operates as a delimited area in which research could be conducted.

A range of factors seem to have led to a change in the way ‘the field’ and place are understood by anthropologists, notably, the rapid acceleration of processes of globalisation. Globalisation has made mobility and communication between places blatantly obvious and has made it difficult to draw neat boundaries around research sites even in remote locations. But at the same time that globalisation has resulted in the blurring of boundaries, it’s drawn academic attention to the ways in which place itself is a given its meaning through social processes.

This in turn has led to proposals for new ways to do fieldwork – including ‘multi-sited’ studies, studies focused on ‘routes’ of movement rather than ‘rooted’ places, studies that follow their subjects rather than statically remaining in place.

The move away from understanding place as a kind of closed system leads makes a couple of traditional research techniques tricky; by blurring the edges around places, comparisons between places become problematic; and it becomes increasingly difficult to get a handle on the ‘context’ of social actions when the (spatial) context of social relationships is hard to identify. In our highly connected world, anthropology may find itself limited if it continues to privilege information about people acting face-to-face with one another, and to privilege information collected by a researcher in place watching those events unfold.

Coleman and Collins also reflect on a turn within anthropology to do research ‘at home’. That is, to turn their attention to Western social life instead of communities on other parts of the world and to reflect critically both on the powerful as well as the powerless.

Not only do Coleman and Collins suggest that recent decades have seen a re-think on the way anthropologists understand place and space, they also suggest they have seen a re-think on the impact of history. That is, historically, anthropological works have tended to report ‘culture’ as something relatively static, or at least traced the continuity of meaning attached to symbols among particular people groups. In the same way that places have been ‘dislocated’, they suggest cultures have been ‘destabilised’.
This has sparked a range of questions for me in my project:

  • I’m interested in Christian migrants…should I focus on all the Christian migrants within a particular locality in Melbourne? Or, should I focus on Christian migrants from a particular locality abroad that may have settled across the city?
  • If research subjects are involved in remote networks, surely we need research methodologies that can reflect, capture and assess the significance of such connections? How can the researcher ‘be present’, not just at either end of a communication conducted via email, skype or chat, but actually observe and analyse it as it’s taking place as you might be able to do with ritual in a tribal setting?
  • Am I doing research ‘at home’? I intend to work with people outside my particular ethnic heritage, but we live in the same city – perhaps even suburb. Does it matter? I’ve heard lots of other social science researchers talk about the problem of shifting between being counted as ‘insider’ and an ‘outsider’. Surely this is just another version of the same problem?

Any thoughts?

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5 responses to “Locating the field

  1. thanks! i’m really looking forward to watching this blog unfold.

  2. Hi! I’ve just taken a bit of time to have a deeper look at your posts and thank you, it’s a really interesting blog.

    I have spent this afternoon playing around with the nifty new skills you taught me and looking at maps trying to work out what I am going to do about defining a field, but it is easy for me because ultimately I am looking at a community defined by place. I really don’t envy your position in trying to work out a way to ‘be there’.

    As for research at home, last year I quite liked this article about the risk of missing things.
    Madden, R. (1999) ‘Home Town Anthropology’, TAJA 10(3): 259-270.
    I agree with your point about thinking about it all more generally through notions of insiders/outsiders.

  3. Natalie Swann

    Hey Tracey — I hope CData Online and TableBuilder prove most enlightening! It was fun to have someone to get excited about them with. And thanks for the tip about Madden, I’ll be sure to look it up. Any thoughts about how it might affect the way you ‘do’ anthropology in the field?

  4. It makes me think of all those lines in Avatar about the human being like a baby. How do you learn if people do not think you need to be taught? Also, I wonder how much of what anthropologists find out is a result of their research subjects thinking they are a bit of a novelty?

    I suppose collaborative research is a way to make the most of research ‘at home’, but I wonder if such research calls for total flexibility on the part of the researcher when it comes to research objectives. I wonder if such research must accept that it will have a limited capacity to move past public representations and to explore the contradictions that exist in society?

  5. Natalie Swann

    Such interesting questions! I’ve often heard researchers (in anthropology and other disciplines) talk about the advantages of being seen as an ignorant outsider, a novelty. It can be a position that allows them to ask dopey questions and helps them access explanations for phenomena that ‘insiders’ would be expected to inherently understand. So, yeah, I think a lot of knowledge is transferred to us by people we work with because we actually start from a place of real/perceived ignorance. We are the ones who need to be educated!

    The tension between saying what you believe and representing other people authentically and serving their interests is really fraught. I’m working on some reflections on a book on collaborative ethnography that will hopefully explore this a little further!

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