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Romancing the Methods

It used to be that the skills for doing fieldwork were mysterious and unteachable, something you just learned, out there in the field. In the 1930s, John Whiting and some of his fellow anthropology students at Yale University asked their professor, Leslie Spier, for a seminar on methods. ‘‘This was a subject to discuss casually at breakfast,’’ Whiting recalls Spier telling him, not something worthy of a seminar (Whiting 1982:156). Tell this story to seasoned anthropologists at a convention today, and it’s a good bet they’ll come back with a story of their own just like it.

It’s fine for anthropologists to romanticize fieldwork—vulcanologists and oceanographers do it, too, by the way—particularly about fieldwork in places that take several days to get to, where the local language has no literary tradition, and where the chances are nontrivial of coming down with a serious illness. Research really is harder to do in some places than in others. But anthropologists are more likely these days to study the impact of television in culture in Brazil (Kottak 2009), the meaning of hair styles among African American women (Dione Rosado 2007), the everyday culture of the English (Fox 2004), the formation of Croatian identity in Croatia and in Toronto (Winland 2007), how basic training in the U. S. Army transforms young people into soldiers (Bornmann 2009), consumer behavior (Sherry 1995), gay culture (Boellstorff 2007), or life on the mean

BOX 12.1

PARTICIPANT OBSERVATION AND APPLIED ANTHROPOLOGY

Participant observation has long been used in product applications research, where the object is to solve a human problem. One area of applied anthropology that's getting a lot of attention is product development. Panasonic thought it had a winning idea in 1995 for an electric razor that women could use in the shower—but none of the women they observed using the shavers during home visits took it into the shower. The women (who were in bathing suits) all said that (1) they didn't believe a razor could be waterproof and (2) they were afraid of dropping the razor in the shower and cracking the porcelain. The shiny, smooth material used in making the razor was interpreted in Japan as an indicator of quality but was interpreted by American women as an indicator of fragility. And thus the Panasonic Lady Shaver was rebuilt for the American market with a then-new kind of rubbery material that looked (and was) non-slip and waterproof (Rosenthal and Capper 2006:228).

streets of big cities (Bourgois 1995; Fleisher 1998) than they are to study isolated tribal or peasant peoples. It would take a real inventory to find out how much more likely, but in Hume and Mulcock’s (2004) collection of 17 self-reflective studies of anthropologists about their fieldwork, just three cases deal with work in isolated communities (Further Reading: street ethnography).

And although participant observation in small, isolated communities has some special characteristics, the techniques and skills that are required seem to me to be pretty much the same everywhere.

 
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