Lecture 5: Fieldwork as Method and Experience
Before we continue with talking about ethnographic fieldwork as a method, let us take a look at
the results to which it can lead, for example in Bronislaw Malinowski’Argonauts of the Western
Pacific, arguably the most important single work in the history of modern anthropology.
1. Description of the Kula exchange system:
Circular exchange of two kinds of valuables (vaguy’a):
-arm shells (mwali) are highly coveted and traded at high prices (M. speaks of 30 pounds for
certain shells!), so they are expensive and yet M. calls them meaningless and useless! But what
then is money?
-necklaces (soulava) are made of small discs of red spondylus shell which are a widespread
element of ornamentation in the region.
-kula-objects (vaygu’a) are not meant for being worn, and if they are, not by their temporary
owners, but by people to whom they have been lent for the occasion.
Passage 92/93: Description of the Kula system from the participants’viewpoint: Mwali shells
come from the North and the East, Soulava necklaces from South and West. One receives them
from one direction with one hand and passes them on into the other direction with the other.
Passage 95/96 rules of exchange: “The main principle underlying the regulations of actual
exchange is that the Kula consists in the bestowing of a ceremonial gift which has to be repaid
by an equivalent counter-gift after a lapse of time, be it a few hours or even minutes, though
sometimes as much as a year or more may elapse between payments.” (95)
– the second important rule is that the equivalence of the counter-gift is left to the receiver and
cannot be imposed on him. What is at stake is his reputation, and he might be called someone
who does his Kula like bartering, that is without dignity. Conversely, success and grace in Kula
builds prestige: “Success in Kula is ascribed to special, personal power, due mainly to magic,
and men are very proud of it.Again, the whole community glories in a specially fine Kula
trophy, obtained by one of its members.” (95) – material object, selfhood, magic and society are
interwoven in the kula, making it total social fact in the sense of Mauss.
-Kula partners are in a life-long relation with each other, and exchanges can only be done
between partners. Exchange is therefore strictly regulated and limited.
1 -exchange relations are an indicator of prestige: a commoner has only a few kula partners, an
important chief hundreds. But not every man (and it is a male affair, although the Trobrianders
are matrilineal!) is involved in the kula, but only a certain portion of the population.
-vaygu’a are almost never kept permanently but have to be passed on; if this passing on takes
too long, one is called niggardly: “Thus every article moves in one direction only, never comes
back, never permanently stops and takes as a rule some two to ten years to make the round.” (94)
-Malinowski describes the Kula as contradicting the conventional definitions of economics
(based on need, self-interested, profit-oriented etc.).
“After all, it only consists of an exchange, interminably repeated, of two articles intended for
ornamentation, but not even used for that to any extent. Yet this simple action – this passing from
hand to hand of two meaningless and quite useless objects – has somehow succeeded in
becoming the foundation of a big inter-tribal institution, in being associated with ever so many
other activities. Myth, magic and tradition have built up around it definite ritual and ceremonial
forms, have given it a halo of romance and value in the minds of the natives, have indeed created
a passion in their hearts for this simple exchange.” (86) Why does he call it simple when has just
described it as complex.
Other associated activities:
- Organization of seafaring expeditions in large canoes which often must be built for the
purpose, or at least prepared.
-secondary trade: a sort of import/export trade is going on with overseas traders taking the
goods and resources with them they know the people at their destination are lacking, and in
exchange for which they get what the others have to offer and they themselves lack.
-ceremonies and feasts at the beginning and the end of an expedition.
-magical rites (for examples over the canoes, so that they reach their destination safely)
-rich Kula mythology
To summarize the ceremonial character of the Kula:
“We can well imagine that articles of wealth might pass from hand to hand without ceremony or
ritual, but in the Kula they never do. Even when at times only small parties in one or two canoes
sail overseas and bring back vaygu’a, certain taboos are observed, and a customary course is
2 taken in departing, in sailing and in arriving; even the smallest expedition in one canoe is a tribal
event of some importance, known and spoken of over the whole district.” (102)
2. Introduction to Bronislaw Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific: “Subject,
Method and Scope of this Inquiry”
I want to discuss the text and using its main points to demonstrate the notion of fieldwork in
anthropology, its problems and continued relevance.
-the text in which Malinowski laid out for the first time a systematic program for doing
anthropological research. Fieldwork had been done before, but never before in the manner set out
by M., with a specific method (participant observation designed to arrive at defined goals
(“native’s way of life”).
At first Malinowski compares ethnographic fieldwork with the scientific standard of the time,
laboratory experiments, and says that no one would dream to hope for his results to be
acknowledged without giving an account of the arrangements of the experiments. He says that in
the case of ethnographic fieldwork where the personality of the researcher informs crucially the
kind of material and interpretations he or she gives, candor is even more important:
“I consider that only such ethnographic sources are of unquestionable scientific value, in which
we can clearly draw the line between, on the one hand, the results of direct observation and of
native statements and interpretations, and on the other, the inferences of the author, based on his
common sense and psychological insight.” (3)
He then starts to talk about his arrival in the region, the South-West of Papua New Guinea and
how his first attempts to establish contact and working relationships with the local people
(“finding good informants”) were made difficult by his association with other white people. This
leads him to formulate three principles of ethnographic research, that is fieldwork , calling the
second the most elementary:
“first of all, naturally, the student must possess real scientific aims, and know the values and
criteria of modern ethnography. Secondly, he ought to put himself in good conditions to work,
that is in the main, to live without other white men, right among the natives. Finally, he has to
apply a number of special methods of collecting, manipulating and fixing his evidence.” (6) (the
language seems a little odd here, but probably just repeats the scientific jargon of the time;
3 “fixing”, for example he seems to use in the sense of “recording”, “documenting”, but still, the
terms feel a little ambivalent when applied to ethnography)
These principles are to be distinguished from the goals discussed later in the text (statistic
documentation of tribal organization, documentation of imponderabilia of life, collection of
He starts with discussing “proper conditions of ethnographic work”. First, he describes the
situation of the fieldworker as unnatural, because he would “naturally” seek the company of his
own kind, rather than that of “savages”.As his diaries have shown, Malinowski clearly talks
about himself here, but he also set the standard for generations of fieldworkers: the first stages
of fieldwork are a sort of proof by fire, an ordeal in which one has to overcome loneliness and
depression. This kind of experience which is indeed very frequent and has given rise to the term
“culture shock”, which was coined by an anthropologist, has also been instrumental in calling
field work a “rite of passage” or “initiation” into the profession of anthropology. Fieldwork
was and is something an anthropologist has to go through, like a soldier has to go through war, to
know what the whole thing is about. Otherwise he or she (in this case it is probably appropriate
to talk of “he”, since this is predominantly a manly affair. British social anthropology as a whole
was,American cultural anthropology less so) just don’t know what the talk is about and is not
Because it was seen as a personal experience which ritually transformed the individual into an
anthropologist, it was also claimed until relatively recently that fieldwork couldn’t be taught.
You either had it, or your didn’t; to immerse yourself into another way of life seemed to be so
intimately connected with one’s whole personality that it didn’t seem to make sense to teach
rules that applied to everyone.
Malinowski suggested that the intense longing for human company would force one, in absence
of alternatives, to seek out the presence of the natives to have social contacts at all. The social
instinct was to be stronger than the cultural conditioning to associate with members of one’s own
culture. Over time everybody, fieldworker and natives would get used to this unnatural
arrangement, which is in a way indeed comparable to a kind of social laboratory and the local
life would unfold before the ethnographer as if he or she wasn’t there.
This is also one of the standard claims of ethnographic fieldwork/participant observation, the
belief that the ethnographer can blend in, that he won’t alter the ways in which the local affairs
4 are carried out. This has probably to be called a myth. The presence of a stranger, and especially
a stranger with an agenda such as the ethnographer must have a profound influence on everyday
life, and particularly on how the group studied relates to this life. For when the anthropologist
(when he or she is in the process of “data collection” we call him or her “ethnographer”) asks
questions about social life and culture, the people under study are forced to adopt an outsider’s
perspective on things they had until then been doing without reflecting on them. They have to
seem their own culture as if it was another culture, they have to meet the ethnographer on a turf
that lies between them. In this very important sense anthropology never studies the other culture
as it is lived but only as it is interpreted for them.
This leads to absurd and funny situations which are nevertheless, or precisely because of their
absurdity deeply interesting anthropologically: Harry Wolcott, who did research in the 1960s
among the Kwakiutl who had already been studied by Boas tells how one of his colleagues told
him about this fantastic informant he had found who had this profound knowledge about
traditional Kwakiutl culture. One day this colleague came back after an interview with his
informant, deeply disappointed: He had asked the person a specialist question on an aspect of
Kwakiutl culture and he or she had responded something like: “I don’t know, I’ll have to look it
up in the book”. It turned out that the informant had been so great because she had quoted back
to the anthropologist from a book another anthropologist has written a long time ago.
This funny anecdote, however, points to the more serious issue that anthropologist inevitably
influence the group they work with by forcing them to see themselves with the anthropologist’s
eyes, or at least adopt a position from which they can speculate about how the anthropologist
sees them. Today might not be so much of a problem anymore because after colonialism and
globalization everybody knows already about this “Western”, “objectifying” gaze and knows
what it is like. Take for example the proliferation of Western beauty ideals which brings
people to whiten their skin, have their eyes surgically altered, their legs lengthened, etc. It is
permissible to ask what harm an anthropologist can do under such circumstances asking people
about their culture. But in the time of Malinowski this was different, and he, or any other
anthropologist of his time, was unwilling or unable to see it.
Another ethical aspect about participant observation arises from the degree to which it might be
successful, the degree to which the people studied actually might forget that the anthropologist is
an outsider who only stays temporarily and leaves again. The ethnographer covets such situations
5 because in them he gets the “real thing”, the “dirty linen”, the intimate details which often
revolve around conflicts and tensions in the society. When this happens, betrayal is never far
away, in some sense it is even built into the project of participant observation and ethnographic
fieldwork. For the anthropologist intends to use these kinds of insights for his understanding and
even to publish them in his ethnographic account. Horace Miner has expressed this quite clearly
in his Nacirema piece: “These body rituals were secret but I gained the natives trust. Now I am
going to describe them for you.” The anthropologist is always on duty, and it gets problematic
for the people they study should they forget that this is the case; luckily they hardly ever do.
(see also Rabinow’s use of symbolic violence in “Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco”).
Malinowski then proceeds to show how anthropology has revised the image of “savage” or
“primitive” life as without rules or simple and crude.Anthropology has demonstrated without a
doubt that other, Non-Western, non-literary cultures possess complex social organizations,
complex systems of religious beliefs and very intricate forms of etiquette. He also says that their
artistic products often show aesthetic beauty. Malinowski is very convincing in his argument for
the achievements of modern anthropology and it is in passages such as the following that he
produces a new self-confidence for the emergent science: “The times when we could tolerate
accounts presenting us the native as a distorted, childish caricature of a human being are gone.
This picture is false and like many other falsehoods, it has been killed by science.” (11) The
science which he refers to is ethnography and Malinowski establishes here the claim of
anthropology to become the only specialist science for the culturally Other. This was his most
important achievement in Argonauts, and it is in this sense that he might indeed be the single
most important figure in the early history of the discipline.
The first task of the ethnographer is the study of the principles of social and cultural organization
and this is to be achieved by what Malinowski calls the “method of statistical documentation
by concrete evidence”. From a collection of a significant number of concrete cases, for example
crimes that have been committed, one can conclude to the underlying principles that inform
jurisdiction in the society studied, the “tribal law”, and accordingly for other institutions. The
result of this method is visualized in results such as diagrams, plans, tables, betraying again
Malinowski’s background in the natural sciences. But even today there is tendency towards
6 regarding quantitative data as “more scientific”, more like the “real thing”, than qualitative
Inferring general rules from concrete cases is necessary, says Malinowski, because the native is
not able to see the systemic context, the “organic whole” of which he is part; in this he is just like
the Western member of a modern institution like “the state”.After this truly relativizing
statement follows one of those which betray how Malinowski himself was unable to transcend
the historical context of his own time, right after claiming that the ethnographer possesses that
ability for the native: “The difference (between modern and native society) is that, in our society,
every institution has its intelligent members, its historians, and its archives and documents,
whereas in native society there are none of these.” (12) I don’t think Malinowski consciously
means to say that native people as individuals are intellectually inferior to the Western people,
but he expresses the typical stereotype of a superiority of Western civilization which inspi