For several weeks I have been trying to figure out if I could write anything on the topic of workplace abuse of power and sexual harassment in anthropology that has not already been said more eloquently by others. I also face a fundamental issue of positionality, given that as senior white male I am one of the privileged and this status has offered some protection while making me complicit in silence over injustices I have witnessed, particularly during my training and early in my career. While I cannot speak to direct solutions to such a deeply embedded structural and cultural problem, I do want to point out some of the collateral intellectual and scholarly practices in our discipline, deeply-held core beliefs which help create the situations and imbalances that enable harassment in that crucial terrain we call “the field.”
My understanding of gender in the workplace, and my sensitivity to imbalances of power has been shaped by a 32-year marriage-based seminar with feminist anthropologist, Anne Pyburn. We met and decided to get married while we were working in Belize, where we had both been introduced to the idea that “the field” was a place of special license; we were told “what happens in the field stays in the field.” The overt ethos was work hard, play hard, but the actuality was there was a lot of drinking, and various forms of sexual transgressions were tolerated or even encouraged and modeled by senior staff. The extent to which this meant that volunteers and students have been preyed upon and abused has been documented now by a number of brave anthropologists. What bears further scrutiny, though, is the way this license depended on a division between “home” and “field” which has always been a fiction, but has now become untenable.
In one sense this division is a misappropriation of the concept of cultural relativism. The central message of the introductory anthropology courses I took as an undergraduate was understanding and tolerating otherness. So if the space of the “other” had different customs, we should not extend “our” own rules into that space, right? We were also taught something of the romance of that otherness, an aesthetic delight and absorption that was reflected in the “native” clothing and adornment some of my professors wore to class, and which appeared as kaleidoscope of superficial diversity at the AAA Annual Meeting, which looked like a costume party in the early 1970s. But some carried that romance a bit further. In graduate school I had male professors who had married into the groups who they did fieldwork with, and brought their brides home (which opens up a whole other set of questions about sexual behavior in the field, a topic the discipline has only begun to take seriously.
The concept of the field as a separate space with its own rules is truly a colonial vestige from an era when all anthropologists were male, white and Euroamerican, and all research subjects were dead, fossilized, and/or darker-skinned. In cultural anthropology, and to a lesser extent in the other subdisciplines, we still expect students to do “fieldwork” even though it is obvious that there is no longer any such place. If a Belizean graduate student wants to do her dissertation research in Belize or in Belizean-American communities (and why do so many still assume that that is where she should work?) she is going home, not to some distant place “on the ground” in the “field.”
Am I doing fieldwork when I post photos from 1980 on the facebook page of the village where I lived long ago, and learn something from their insightful responses? Was I doing fieldwork when I was teaching this year in Singapore, and asked my students to speak and write about topics I was interested in? If this place called “the field” is imaginary, why should a graduate student have to worry that they will have trouble on the job-market because their research has been an integral part of their life over four years in workplaces, including, hundreds of conversations, and deep engagement with online communities? And let’s not forget how the space of the field has been gendered in archaeology and bioanthropology for so long, when women were given the “safer and more delicate” work of the lab, where they were protected from the harsh conflict of the trenches and pits.
The melting of the ice-dam between life and the field is reflected in the language I have used in the classroom. When I started teaching, I said “us” for myself and my putatively Euroamerican students, “we” for anthropologists and “traditional people” or “the third world” for the objects of study. By the early 1980s I had Belizean students in classes both in the USA and Belize, and it was clear I could no longer make categorical presumptions about who I was speaking to, for or about. While many anthropologists once shielded their research behind the presumption that the subjects of our research would never read what we wrote, today they are not just reading, they respond on social media, and are teaching their own anthropology. My “wake-up” moment was during an interview with a village council member in a small village in northern Belize in 1984; before answering any of my questions he wanted to know if I was a cultural materialist or a structuralist.
Changing the way we speak in the classroom, or eliminating the concept of “fieldwork” as a special category of research is not a direct or immediate way to address specific cases of abuse and harassment. But as we teach our students, language shapes practice and thought in subtle ways, and when those ways silence some kinds of speech, suppress legitimate complaints and shield perpetrators from blame, we need to take action. Consider it an easy first step in chipping away at the foundations of privilege and unwarranted power.
Richard Wilk is Distinguished Professor and Provost’s Professor Emeritus at Indiana University.
Cite as: Wilk, Richard. 2017. “Fieldwork/Fieldplay?” Anthropology News website, November 17, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.699