Sociology and Anthropology

Toward Islamic Anthropology: Anthropological Fieldwork

The work of the anthropologist is to study other cultures. Through them he learns to understand his own culture, and equally important, himself. He remains essentially a seeker. In the distant village and among strange people he comes face to face ith himself - a chilling prospect. In that encounter is reflected his true self. His writing too reflects the encounter. The Pukhtuns say, "What we see in ourselves, we see in the world." Perhaps anthropologists would do well to keep the Pukhto proverb in mind.

Progress in the natural sciences often involves setting up experimental situations in the laboratory, and then seeing whether what happens confirms or disproves hypotheses previously formulated. Social scientists cannot usually test their hypotheses about human institutions in quite this way. Their laboratory is society itself, and where a researcher is dealing with human beings, other considerations besides the desire for knowledge, such as the subject's general well-being, legal and moral standards, and the national interest must have primacy. For this reason it is rarely feasible in social science to set up experimental situations on the natural science model. It is even less feasible to arrange that such situations are repeated under conditions which are for all practical purposes identical, as natural scientists do. The human experience is unique and not transferable to the chemist's experimental laboratory.

AkhSocial anthropologists must test their hypotheses about social and cultural institutions and their interconnections in the course of fieldwork in societies and situations which they have no power to control. Their tools are observation, interpretation, and comparison rather than experiment. This does not mean that anthropologists can do without theory. It is as essential to anthropology as it is to other scientific disciplines.

Whether we like it or not, social anthropology has become a specialist subject. It has its own theoretical equipment, some account of which has been given in preceding sections, and it has by now a considerable body of comparative material to draw upon. No one who writes about the social institutions of a small-scale community without knowledge of contemporary theory in social anthropology, and without some knowledge of the social and cultural institutions of comparable societies elsewhere, can hope to produce a scientifically adequate account. Without specialist training he cannot know the most important things to look for, the most useful questions to ask, or the best techniques for obtaining answers. In Victorian times there was no such body of sociological theory and comparative ethnography, and there was hardly any difference between the professional and the amateur. Today anyone who wishes to contribute significantly to the growing body of knowledge about the social and cultural institutions of small-scale and unfamiliar communities must acquire some theoretical training in social anthropology. At this preliminary stage, if the community and its culture differ greatly from his own, the anthropologist feels utterly bewildered and confused. The experience is a daunting one, and it can last for a long time.  Most anthropologists have known the feelings of frustration and despondency - even of desperation - which go with the early stages of fieldwork in an unfamiliar culture. Anthropologists describe fieldwork as "an extremely personal traumatic kind of experience" (Leach 1971:91) which can be "painful and humiliating" (Wax 1971:19), and which can influence their work (Winter 1973: 171).

Slowly, often imperceptibly, the early period passes. Living in a hut or tent within the village, the anthropologist gradually begins to understand what is happening around him. As his knowledge of the language and his acquaintance with the community advance, things begin to make sense. An overheard conversation is understood; a pattern of behavior is fitted to a learned social relationship. With luck he now has a few friends in the community, people who are willing to take time and trouble to explain things to him, to take him around the neighborhood and to introduce him to others. From this point onward, the pace accelerates. The anthropologist gets to know most of the members of the community as separate individuals, differing in temperament and in social status (and in their degree of interest in his work). He learns their often intricate ties of kinship and marriage; he comes to understand what they think about one another, about the world they live in, and about him. He learns not only what are the appropriate questions to ask, but of whom to ask them. He begins to feel "at home" in the community. He now knows it in some respect more thoroughly than he has ever known any community, even the one he grew up in. He has made the breakthrough into another culture: as a field anthropologist, he has arrived. He has accomplished the major characteristic of anthropological "participant observation".

To a Western anthropologist, probably born and brought up in an urban culture, this can be a vivid, almost traumatic, experience. The fieldworker who spends a year or more of his life as a member of a group of hunters and gatherers in Borneo, or of a tribe of African peasants or pastoralists, lives in more intimate contact with the basic conditions of human existence than has been possible for generations in the modern world. Birth, illness, and death, the daily effort to win food from the environment with the simplest equipment, the smell of the hot earth, the wind and the rain, the urgent, first-hand awareness of these things is something new and yet familiar to the visitor from a city culture. It is easy for anthropologists who have worked among such peoples to romanticise their experience and many do. The experience is an unforgettable one. The ideal social anthropological fieldworker is adaptable, tactful, good humored, and possessed of a sense of perspective. Above all, he is patient and considerate.  He is, after all, a guest (though usually an uninvited one) in the community he is studying, and he must show the same respect and courtesy to his hosts as he expects to receive from them.

This is not the place for a detailed discussion of the various mechanical aids to field ethnography. Sound recording and photography may provide valuable supplements to the written record, and air photography can save weeks of labor where such matters as the dispersal of agricultural plots or patterns of village settlement are important. Mechanical aids, however, are not a substitute for the long and sustained personal contact upon which any comprehensive understanding of the community and its social and cultural life must be based.

The intensiveness of modern fieldwork, and the social anthropologist's increasing specialization, imply that he must become more and more dependent on other workers. In the communities which he studies, there are nearly always a few people who can read and write, and most fieldworkers engage one or two assistants, sometimes more, and pay them salaries. These assistants may not only serve as permanent informants and advisers; often they can make useful local contacts as well as collecting information and carrying out surveys under the anthropologist's supervision. The social anthropologist must participate as fully as he can in the everyday life of the community he is studying; he must live in it and get to know its members as people, as nearly as possible on equal terms. Evans-Pritchard claims that when he was studying divination among the Azande of the Sudan, he found it expedient to order his daily affairs by constant reference to the oracles, as the Azande do. He found this a more satisfactory way of making decisions than might be imagined.

No foreign anthropologist can ever be wholly assimilated to another culture; he can never quite become one with and indistinguishable from the people he is studying. Nor is it desirable that he should. "Stranger value" is an important asset. People often talk more freely to an outsider, so long as he is not too much of an outsider. Also, in a society where there are distinct social groups or classes, and especially when these are hierarchically arranged in terms of power and prestige, too close identification with one group or class may make easy contact with others difficult or impossible.

This problem is particularly acute when societies like the caste communities of India are being studied, but it also arises in countries like Bunyoro and others in East Africa and elsewhere, where there is a marked difference between an aristocratic ruling class and the peasant population. One has to start one's intensive research at one level, and this may make it difficult later to achieve entry into the other. Plainly a great deal depends on the personality and temperament of the investigator.

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