The origins of this column began over a year ago, in the liminal space of London’s Heathrow airport. Marissa was on her way home to the United States after nearly a year of historical and ethnographic fieldwork in Uganda. Derek was on his way to Copenhagen for a conference that featured his dissertation research in Brazil. While sipping pints in an airport pub and waiting for our respective flights, we began talking about the disjuncture between our training, which prepared us to be “participant-absorbers”—passive observers that gather information from a singular field “over there,” and our actual on-the-ground experience of being constantly called upon to dialogue with multiple fields that we never really leave. In this column, we share a synthesis of those insights, maintaining the dialogic format in keeping with the spirit of that exchange, as well as those of countless other graduate students who have no doubt expressed similar sentiments over coffee or a Skype call.
Marissa: Since I study the ongoing transformations of a cancer research hospital, from a forty bed ward to a key site of global oncology research, my fieldwork process was drawn out. I conducted my research over a five-year period, including a total of twenty months in Uganda. In conducting my institutional ethnography, I spent most of my Ugandan time as a “participant-absorber,” doing everything from hospital ethnography to archival research with patient records. While I expected to absorb experiences and cultural knowledge from the field and then leave —a longstanding model in ethnographic research—in reality, I never fully left.
For one, I am still connected with informants through Facebook or text messages or seeing them at professional conferences. But the other reason is that fieldwork is ongoing, rather than one period of research for 18 to 24 months, followed by disengagement and monograph writing. Fieldwork is punctuated by a series of arrivals and departures. When I return to the field, I am greeted with two questions: “Did you remember to bring the chocolates?” and “Are you ready to share the research yet?” The traditional time scale of ethnographic knowledge production, where it may take five to ten years for the book to come out is, it seems, at odds with the expectations at my field site about timely dissemination of results.
Derek: I had a similar experience during my fieldwork in a Brazilian biofuel research institute where I aimed to understand my scientist subjects’ cultural frameworks of “sustainable energy.” When I arrived, I found there were things they wanted from me as well. I wanted to work with them, but balked when they asked me to collaborate on a small project studying the social impacts of biofuel, because I knew it would not lead to publications valorized by anthropology departments. I initially stammered when they probed me about my methods, because I had been taught to “figure it out” as I went. I also found that I was trained to primarily collect information from my subjects, and was ill-prepared to engage with them on a time scale and register that made sense to them.
Upon returning to Philadelphia, I found myself in the same position, but this time with even more exotic subjects: recruiters in private-sector firms. As I began to dabble in the non-academic job market, I found myself in new field sites with other “informants” who also wanted to know what I could tell them about my research and what insights I could give their companies about this “culture thing.” I became more adept at these acts of translation by the time I was consulting for my own corporate clients. But these similar experiences made it clear that the cultural understanding we are known for is too often a one-way process due to how we are trained and incentivized to be participant-absorbers.
Marissa: I think what Derek is saying is that there is pressure from both the field-realities and in the non-academic sector to change the model from anthropologists as “participant-absorbers” to “participant-engagers.” I’ve been asked to share my social capital, access to networks, grant writing skills, and co-publishing opportunities with my interlocutors, as cancer becomes a more visible public health concern in Uganda. It is relatively easy to do so when skills and concerns from the academy touch the needs and desires of the field site. I am working with my colleagues to preserve my field site’s archival records, which need to be cleaned, boxed, and cataloged. How to bring complexity to the media’s increasing coverage of “the cancer epidemic in Africa,” which often highlights my research site, is an open question.
Derek: Our ability to answer these open questions is all too often a haphazard byproduct, rather than the focus, of our training. Instead, departments should move toward professionalizing students under a more engagement-oriented model. They should provide grant writing seminars that help us speak the bureaucratic language of funding agencies, career development workshops that prepare us to translate our experience for a variety of potential job recruiters, and explicit methods courses that enable us to communicate the validity of our work to peers across disciplines. These are just a few examples of how we can move from producing participant-absorbers to training participant-engagers. Regardless of the particularities, the overall shift in anthropology must be in the direction of preparing students for a world in which they will be required to translate their work to a variety of audiences across multiple fields, and giving them the tools to do so skillfully.
Marissa Mika has training in history, anthropology and public health. Her dissertation is titled “Surviving Experiments: Political Oncology in Uganda.” Derek Newberry, CoPAPIA’s student member, is completing his dissertation on cultural barriers to organizational change in the Brazilian biofuel industry. Both are PhD candidates at the University of Pennsylvania.
Barbara Rylko-Bauer is contributing editor of Anthropology Works, the column of the AAA Committee on Practicing, Applied, and Public Interest Anthropology.