During the 2018 AAA conference in San José, CA, several members of the Association of Senior Anthropologists participated in a conversation with a few younger anthropologists who recently completed or were in the process of completing their doctorates. I fell into the latter group. I am the daughter of an anthropologist who did her dissertation fieldwork not long after many of the senior anthropologists who participated in our AAA conversation. My mother referred to her own research in the 1970s, jokingly, as “real fieldwork,” in contrast to what I did, which was decidedly not.
I had completed my dissertation fieldwork only three months before the conference took place. Having done my fieldwork in New York City, though, the place where I grew up and currently live, it was tricky to say whether or not I was officially “done” with research. It was—and still is—easy for me to take the subway and gossip with key informants over lunch. Whenever something especially interesting happens at my fieldsite, a small City agency, I go back, my teaching schedule permitting. My experience of fieldwork and the writing up process, which continues as I write this now, contrasted in many ways with the fieldwork stories shared by the senior anthropologists who participated in our conversation. But there were many similarities, too, especially when it came to the challenges of our “returns from the field.”
Our conversation in San José revealed intergenerational overlaps and contrasts. Returning from fieldsites in far-flung places, Anita Spring said that she and her colleagues “would brag about how ‘in’ we were, what we ate. How off the charts all of those things were.” Bill P. Mitchell added: “And how sick we were!” I remember seeing my mom’s photos from her fieldwork in Borneo. There is one especially memorable picture of her when she was recovering from typhoid, shockingly thin, at a typewriter. Although the proportion of anthropologists who work “at home” may be higher now, the intergenerational divide has little to do with where anthropologists did and currently do their fieldwork. The challenges my mother and other anthropologists of her generation faced were different in degree from our challenges: more debilitation, even dangerous diseases, more isolated fieldsites, more difficulty in getting to the site, and more isolation. Communication has only recently become became so quick and easy in much of the world. At the same time, my colleagues and I continue to participate in the act of simultaneously boasting and complaining: The horrendous pollution we endured in New Delhi. The unusual New York City apartments we explored. The giant fish we caught in the Brazilian Amazon. The unexpected friends we made.
When I returned to my academic institution after two years “in the field,” my mother sympathized with my sense of alienation and acute discomfort with academic debate. She had experienced something similar, even more severely, upon her return from the field. During our AAA conversation, Bill E. Mitchell described the feeling of post-fieldwork alienation:
When I came back to my little rural town in Vermont, Wolcott, I remember going into the post office, and there was the postman, I’d known him for years, and he said, “Oh Bill, you’re back! How are you?” And I was stunned because I couldn’t even begin to tell him. He doesn’t even know who he’s talking to! He doesn’t even know me, I’m transformed!
For me it was not the reintroduction back into my home surroundings that was disconcerting—instead, it was the reintroduction into my other “home,” the university. This “home” required to me to say something theoretically meaningful about my varied, day-to-day fieldwork experience. How could I translate this experience into high-level anthropological theory while remaining true to what had happened? After I presented my “post-fieldwork talk,” a departmental requirement, as a series of stories with little explicit theorizing, a colleague approached me. “How brave of you,” they said, “to share something so unfinished.”
For a friend in my cohort, who moved directly from his fieldsite to our university town, his alienation, like Bill E. Mitchell’s, was double: traveling back to the other side of the world, he once again called the university his place of residence and work. One day this past fall, walking around campus, he told me: “I was in this amazing place for two years and nobody cares. They just want to hear something quick about it and then they change the subject.” It was not only that, as for Bill Mitchell, people did not know him anymore—he felt they did not care to know why he had changed. No matter what generation, alienation remains a trademark of how we do research and understand the world.
This brings me to where my colleagues and I are now: having struggled with feelings of displacement and alienation, we begin to write. We only broached the subject of “writing up” at the very end of our conversation in San José. Reflecting on his first fieldwork in Peru, and his many field experiences since then, Tim Wallace asked:
How do you convert the field experience to the writing experience? Because I think the field experience is only fifty percent of it. The other really creative part is in the writing. And there’s a black box and nobody really knows how to get inside that.
I suggest that we return to that black box at next year’s conference. It would be edifying for newly-minted anthropologists, and for anthropologists-in-training, such as myself, to discuss and learn from those who came before us about how writing practices have changed and stayed the same. For now, I will try to heed my mother’s advice: “Get it done faster than I did!”
Sofia Pinedo-Padoch is a PhD candidate in Princeton’s anthropology department. She recently completed fieldwork at a government agency that manages the estates of New Yorkers who die without heirs.
Cite as: Pinedo-Padoch, Sofia. 2019. “Anthropological Conversations Across the Generations, Part Two.” Anthropology News website, March 22, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1122