Fieldwork from Afar

As anthropologists are stymied during the COVID-19 pandemic by our inability to get to field sites and conduct the immersive ethnographic field research that has come to define at least some of the field of cultural anthropology, it may be helpful to recognize that this challenge has been encountered in different forms in the past. While we elevate and almost fetishize in-person, long-term fieldwork, celebrating the dangers overcome and the intrepid who persevere, this is not the only way to conduct research. As we recognize the privilege that enables such fieldwork—whether based in finances, reproductive and caring status, health status, levels of employment, or being unconcerned about one’s carbon footprint—we might elevate alternatives that negate the importance of those privileges, even after the pandemic.

Recently I spoke with colleagues and graduate students about how to proceed in this emergency, since so many had built their research plans around the assumption of a year of fieldwork, often overseas or at least away from home. Few were aware of the many ways anthropologists have always conducted field research “at a distance.” There are many reasons for this, including dismissal of older anthropological work because it carries colonialist baggage we rightly reject. When approached with a critical eye however, there may still be valuable lessons to learn.

Learning to understand “at a distance” is going to be like avoiding handshakes and hugs—a new normal.

Nineteenth-century anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan not only gave us the now-dismissed stages of savagery, barbarism, and civilization, he also conducted impressive research into kinship systems. This resulted in his magisterial Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family, where he sent surveys, or what he called “schedules,” out to missionaries, officers, and others throughout the colonized world, taking years to receive replies. The searchable catalog of cultural information, eHRAF World Cultures, with all the changing debates about comparison, provides information beyond what anthropologists can produce through being there themselves.

During World War II, it was impossible for US-based anthropologists to travel, yet Ruth Benedict, using the notion of the study of “culture at a distance,” wrote The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, working extensively with Robert Seido Hashima and relying on prisoner of war interrogation reports, newspapers, interviews, literature, and feature films. Discussing the Margaret Mead and Rhoda Metraux edited volume The Study of Culture at a Distance, Metraux explains “how…Mead, who cared so deeply about intensive fieldwork, became a key figure in organizing this research carried out at a distance,” though she later moved away from it.

Field sites can be cut off by conditions beyond war. For example, US-based anthropologists largely lacked access to the People’s Republic of China from the time of its founding in 1949 until the early 1980s. These limitations didn’t prevent all research though, as many did research in nearby societies, Taiwan or Hong Kong. Fieldwork-focused sociologists, such as William L. Parish and Martin King Whyte, conducted interviews with Chinese emigrés to Hong Kong, as did Anita Chan, Richard Madsen, and Jonathan Unger. Later, Chan, Madsen, and Unger were able to visit the village from which their consultants had come. Others, such as my late teacher Norma Diamond, lived by the CIA’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service, FBIS. When local restrictions made travel to rural field sites impossible, Ann Anagnost read and published analyses of newspaper accounts of “folk religion” and “superstition.”

Many anthropologists such as Marshall Sahlins, John and Jean Comaroff, and James C. Scott relied on archival sources for their analyses of societies and problems past. Linguists and linguistic anthropologists use corpora of recorded language or searchable social media such as Twitter, as does Gretchen McCulloch in Because Internet. Some, such as Betsy Rymes, embrace “citizen sociolinguistics”—using people’s own perspectives, posted online, about their own linguistic and communicative practices. Recordings over time, such as Queen Elizabeth’s annual Christmas address, give evidence of phonological change.

In the 1990s, before any social media and even before robust internet search, a dean asked me in a job interview why in the world I’d need to get to China myself, when we could get anything we needed online (we couldn’t then, not at all). In the 2020s, we have resources far beyond anything Morgan, Mead, or Diamond (or this dean) could have dreamed of. Check out the crowdsourced resource Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic. It turns out, anthropologists have been creating dazzling arrays of methods beyond the prototypical required long-term personal presence. There is an abundance of varied ways to learn about human experience, from local on-the-ground daily diaries, photos, and food logs, to the photovoice method. Visual anthropologists have many methods of creating and analyzing images. We can do Zoom interviews or focus groups.

It’s never been easier to amass huge amounts—overwhelming amounts—of anthropological and ethnographic data. We may someday return to our field sites, though climate change will make some reluctant to travel by air and the approaching financial restrictions will make travel more limited for more of us, and not just the many without travel budgets.

Learning to understand “at a distance” is going to be like avoiding handshakes and hugs—a new normal. The inability to conduct in-person ethnographic research may lead anthropologists to a sense of inadequacy. It needn’t. For equity, for the planet, for our safety and sanity, for our budgets, we can go on with our work, but at a distance.

Susan D. Blum is a professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame and is the editor of the forthcoming book Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead).

Cite as: Blum, Susan D. 2020. “Fieldwork from Afar.” Anthropology News website, September 10, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1483

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