From the Andean highlands to Appalachia, anthropologists from across the discipline open their field bags to reveal favorite pens, recording equipment, emergency granola bars, and—of course—scarves. What’s in your bag?
My backpack often serves as a mobile office, so it always includes fieldwork/travel essentials like basic office supplies, consent forms, a notebook with a stitched cover my mamaw made, and some combination of electronic devices. Depending on where I’m going and what I need, I have an iPhone (can you find it in the picture?), a laptop, and, most recently, a tablet. I’ve used all as audio recording devices at some point, and the iPhone is indispensable for high-resolution photos, recording voice memos, and scanning documents. Other digital accessories include headphones, chargers, flash drives, and an ethernet cable for high-speed internet connections. Survival tools include a multi-purpose knife, water bottle, and Tide-to-Go stick; and small comforts range from Emergen-C, mentholated lip balm, and a tea tree/peppermint oil “headache stick,” to a repurposed AAA mint tin for aspirins. Not pictured but equally important when travelling at night/overnight: headlamp (because cell phone flashlights are not handy or clutz-proof), menthol/camphor rub (night-time breathing relief/relaxant), and Calmes Forte (homeopathic sleep aid). Finally, I might not play for months or years at a time, but I almost always carry a hacky-sack, which can be a great way to meet people, have fun, and share mutual accomplishments.
Tammy Clemons is a PhD candidate at the University of Kentucky. Her dissertation research focuses on the cultural productions of young media makers in Appalachia. You can read more on her work here.
This is my daily bag and contents for fieldwork in disaster-affected villages and disaster-induced resettlements around Mt. Tungurahua, in the Andean highlands of Ecuador. After years of experimentation, I’ve settled on the research gear listed below, whether I’m doing fieldwork in Ecuador, Mexico, or the United States, and I tend to keep things simple. In the Andean highlands, the weather changes drastically over short distances and short periods of time, so some additional field gear is necessary.
Bag: Camelbak Mule with three-liter water bladder (Timbuk2 messenger bag for urban contexts)
Research gear: Sony PCM-M10 Digital Voice Recorder; two extra AA batteries; Google Pixel smartphone/camera (not pictured because I used it to take the photo); Muji 3 x 5″ lined notebook; Pilot G-2 .07 black pen; Muji .05 mechanical pencil; folder with interview scripts and informed consent forms
Field gear: UNIQLO water-resistant, hooded windbreaker; Champion PowerCore fitness sweatshirt; Nike Tailwinde Dri-Fit cap; Ray Ban Wayfarer sunglasses and case; Cotton scarf; NASA compactable tote bag (for the market, but also because people frequently give me lots of fruit as gifts); OxyLED flashlight; basic first aid (Band-Aids, antibiotic ointment, and antiseptic wipes).
A.J. Faas is associate professor and graduate coordinator in the Department of Anthropology at San José State University.
Taylor R. Genovese
Aside from items that I keep in my pockets (keys, cell phone, pocket knife, charging cable, and lip balm), these items are always stuffed into my Timbuk2 Hudson briefcase. Four of these are my must-haves for fieldwork: 1) my old, trusty Canon T2i with attached battery grip and 50mm prime lens (I also carry the standard 18-55mm zoom lens); 2) my Minolta X-370 35mm film camera (with 45mm lens capable of f/2.8), usually loaded with Tri-X 400 ISO black and white film; 3) the Midori traveler’s notebook, which is really just a strip of leather outfitted to contain 3–4 notebooks—I usually install a lined notebook, a blank notebook, and a dot-grid notebook; 4) the Zoom H4N portable digital recorder for recording interviews, soundscapes, and notes to myself. My laptop is another item that is always nearby; I use it for photo editing, transcribing, and entertainment. Some periphery items include a bandana, keffiyeh, business cards, writing utensils with spare lead and erasers, chargers, (sun)glasses, a small tin with ibuprofen, tissues, a pen light, and a book.
Taylor R. Genovese is a doctoral student in Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology at Arizona State University. Follow him at @trgenovese.
Opening my shoulder bag, I remove a notebook and black rollerball pen, locate a blank page, and begin to sketch. I tend to draw on the spot and like the challenge of catching different aspects of everyday life in thin, inky lines and painterly brushstrokes. Putting down lines that are not words also gives me a break from more conventional note-taking, and the drawings themselves—as well as ephemera glued alongside—are important sites of memory when I want to recall details or puzzle over ideas. As for the typical inhabitants of my bag, I have various rollerball pens and a notebook—purchased or handmade—with a sturdy cover that can serve as a work surface and pages that are thick enough to withstand enthusiastic writing and drawing on both front and back. In addition I carry a Winsor & Newton travel watercolor set (slightly modified to hold more pans of paint), water brushes (with water-filled plastic tubes that allow the brush to self-clean), pencils (graphite and watercolor), pencil sharpener, ruler, glue stick, and scissors. It’s not that any item is particularly special but rather that all the pieces are there, in my bag, ready to use.
Carol Hendrickson is professor emerita of anthropology at Marlboro College. Drawing as part of fieldwork has allowed her to finally figure out what to do with her art training.
Alejandro Ponce De Leon
Time is an integral axis of my works. My clock and watch are the first things that I pack. I’ve been wearing Casio F91W watches since the early 1990s. I got this one the first time I went to do fieldwork in rural Colombia. It’s a good luck charm. My clock serves as a timer and daily alarm. I love how loud it is. To keep track of my schedule, I use a Moleskine daily planner. To track of my notes and ideas, however, I use a handmade notebook made by the Colombian bookbinder Ricardo Aguirre. I write with MUJI 0.38mm pens. Minimalist design, lightweight, ink that does not bleed on the page—it’s the perfect pen. I carry my readings in my Amazon Kindle. In my work, I have been exploring modes of grasping the ethnographic moment through instant photography. There is something in the uniqueness and immediacy of these cameras that cannot be replicated with their digital counterparts. My main camera is the Lomo’Instant Wide, which is great for experimenting with multiple exposures and apertures. The Kodak Printomatic, on the other hand, lets me make snapshots in a small format. Finally: my passport and sunglasses—because they need to be there. Always.
Alejandro Ponce de Leon is an interdisciplinary ethnographer. His work is concerned with the experience of being-at-home in context of migration and forced displacement.
Clockwise from top left:
- first aid kit
- water bottle
- wallet and change purse
- pens, sharpies
- local cell phone
- protein bars
- sunscreen and hand sanitizer
- eye drops (frequently requested by community members)
- iPad and notebooks for data collection (including old census data for comparison)
- baby wipes
Brooke Scelza is associate professor of anthropology and vice chair of Graduate Studies at the University of California Los Angeles.
For archaeological fieldwork, I empty my purse into my field pack, a waterproofed bag that must be red so I can find where I set it in the forest. Pointed and square trowel handles are also painted red (old nail polish). The field pack already has compass, string, line level, leather work gloves, paint spatula or cheese spreader, pocketknife, folding pliers, sharpies, plastic spoon and bamboo skewers for digging, ziploc bags, tape measure, orange or neon pink flagging (anything visible against the trees), emergency granola bar, waterproof notebook. Also important are waterproof mascara (you never know whom you might run into in the woods), since it rains a lot in the field (though the waterproof kind clings to more spiderwebs than the regular); compact with mirror (for shiny nose and emergency signaling); and chapstick. My kid’s toy magnet is useful to see if an orange glob is rusted iron. Also included are a spare bandanna, tiny first-aid kit, ¼ roll of duct tape (flattened to save space), toilet paper half-roll (also flattened). A bottle of kids’ liquid benadryl is great for stings; a couple swigs and it acts immediately, although of course you are useless for fieldwork the rest of the day.
Nancy White is professor of anthropology, University of South Florida, and researches the archaeology of the Apalachicola-lower Chattahoochee valley region.
Instead of minimalism, I pack items well-suited for reciprocal anthropology. I always have one notebook and a handful of others, extra pens and colored pencils, sharpies, highlighters, pencil sharpeners, paper clips, safety pins, tape, hairbands, lighters, rubber bands, zip ties, and other items that can be given, lent, and borrowed. I throw it all in a mesh case. I pack ear plugs, chapstick, tiger balm, green goo, a face mask, headlamp, poncho, scarf, and a thick, warm pair of socks—with these I can sleep and pee anywhere. I have copies of business cards, consent forms, project information, and family snapshots.
I carry with me two recorders: one oral-history ready professional grade recorder and a smaller more portable one. I carry a smart phone, juice pack, cords, batteries, headphones, and earbud splitter. My smart phone acts as an extra recorder, notebook, camera, and assistant. I download favorite podcasts that make me laugh and cry—RadioLab, Still Here, and the Moth. My phone has ESRI collector, Adobe capture, iAnnotate, GeniusScan, and WhatsApp, along with music to share. I use a Canon DSLR. I pack external drives, SD cards and usb drives. I bring my laptop, and a rain-ready trash bag for the unexpected.
Laura Zanotti is an interdisciplinary social scientist and engaged environmental anthropologist in the Department of Anthropology at Purdue University.
When travelling to church services in the Johannesburg area, I always bring the same Bible I’ve had since I was a young boy. I can cross-reference biblical citations and read along with scriptural readings and exegesis, and I often pick up other literature from the congregations I visit, from evangelistic tracts to weekly service programs. I always carry at least one notebook—old-fashioned pen-and-paper works best for me, especially the small pocket-sized pad I’ve taken a special liking to for taking down contact information and important jottings. A handheld voice recorder is usually nestled somewhere in my backpack to take advantage of impromptu interviews. In this photo I also have two library books to keep abreast of South African scholarship, one by Jean and John Comaroff and another by sociologist Sharlene Swartz. Finally, I always carry a supply of the hormone insulin and hypodermic needles required to inject it, as well as the accoutrements needed to correct for its iatrogenic effects and to test my blood every day. Taken together, they form a medicinal complex akin to, in a phrase borrowed from Horace Miner, those “charms and magical potions without which [this author does not believe] he could live.”
Douglas Bafford is a doctoral student at Brandeis University, where he studies evangelical Christianity and its spread in post-apartheid South Africa.
This is my everyday carry for anything further away from my house than the grocery store.
- Galaxy S9 (not pictured, son’s phone is standing in as a prop).
- Swiss Army knife with paracord and carabiner
- Black case is my mobile office
- Memory sticks
- Auxiliary cord
- Business cards
- Portable charger
- USB cord
- Tiny scissors
- Starbucks card
- Yellow pouch holds contact lenses, cases, solution
- Hand sanitizer
- Hand lotion
- Sewing kit
- Lens wipes
- Nail clippers
- Lipstick (2)
I figure I can pretty much restart civilization with what is in my bag, and I can survive impromptu business meetings, long days at conferences, transit delays, even being stranded somewhere overnight. I used to have more, but my son is off to college in three weeks!
Susan Mazur-Stommen is a practicing anthropologist and founder of Indicia Consulting. She also teaches at Goucher College.
I work in Islamic boarding schools for girls in urban Indonesia, which requires that I look modest and professional in the field. A headscarf is a must—to pull on when entering school grounds or a mosque. Closed-toe shoes are the only acceptable footwear for offices and classrooms but they also have to be easy to get on and off for shoe-free spaces like teachers’ homes and religious study groups (where they usually get trampled by students). Aspirin, a reusable cup, some make-up, a comb, tissues, and sunglasses help keep me fresh in the heat of traffic. I can’t forget a wallet with extra business cards for new contacts. I never leave home without my trusty Lumix for snapping pictures and taking videos around town. Despite the fact I often carry more than one phone (plus a charger) in the field, I find my digital voice recorder to be the most reliable for interviews. For field notes, I stick to pens and a small notebook—I went through at least a dozen for my dissertation research. I would never use a phone for note taking since I wouldn’t want a teacher to think I was texting while observing their class!
Claire-Marie Hefner, PhD is a visiting assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Manhattanville College. She works on Islamic education, morality, and women’s achievement in Indonesia.
Michael T. Balonek
Here’s my bag, used for my ethnomusicological/cultural anthropological field research here in North India.
All inside the very large BSA backpack.
- Zoom H4N audio recorder, with wind-shield, mic stand adaptor, and waterproof case (which goes inside the backpack)
- Flip Video camera
- Multiple sets of extra AA batteries for each of the aforementioned devices
- Extra SD card(s)
- Nikon D3200 (not pictured, because it was being used to take this photo), with case (also goes inside the backpack), extra battery, charging adaptor, external microphone, extra lens
- Reading material in case I am sitting around (today, it happens to be the New Testament in Hindi)
- Backpack’s rain cover
- BSA pocket knife (always good to Be Prepared)
- Toilet paper
- Snack (today: “Khatta Meetha namkeen)
- Water purity tester
- Field journal (AAA), and one extra notebook; multiple pens
- Manjeera (small cymbals), since I will invariably be asked to sing something at some point
Not pictured: phone charger. Let’s hope I remember it!
Why do I have a camera which takes still photos AND videos, and a video device, and an audio recorder, all at once? It pays to have backups or alternate devices to use in case of unanticipated, unexplainable equipment failure!
Michael T. Balonek is a PhD candidate at the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad, India. His research is looking at the music of Bhojpuri-speaking villages as a source of qualitative data for anthropological research.
Cite as: Clemons, Tammy, A.J. Faas, Taylor R. Genovese, Carol Hendrickson, Alejandro Ponce De Leon, Brooke Scelza, Nancy White, Laura Zanotti, Doug Bafford, Susan Mazur-Stommen, Claire-Marie Hefner, and Michael T. Balonek. 2018. “What’s in Your Bag, Anthropologists?” Anthropology News website, July 18, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.929
Last updated August 10, 2018, to include entry submitted by Michael T. Balonek.