First Fieldwork: The Misadventures of an Anthropologist
By Barbara Gallatin Anderson. Waveland Press, 1990, 150 pp.
What is it like to travel as an anthropologist, living in a foreign culture for a year, as both observer and participant?
As Barbara Gallatin Anderson says, the traditional anthropological monograph has done little to answer that question. With some exceptions, most anthropologists writing scholarly monographs about the societies they lived in have revealed little about their personal experience in the field. Indeed, as Gallatin observes, anthropologists were traditionally trained to suppress "extraneous personal reporting"—precisely the stuff that travel readers and newbie fieldworkers would want to hear about.
Anderson, an anthropologist who has written scholarly works, gives us something altogether different in her delightful book, First Fieldwork. Setting aside academic theory, fictionalizing names and places to protect privacy, and writing with a nice dose of self-deprecation, she chronicles in personal detail the challenges and mishaps of her first fieldwork in a small Danish fishing village.
As the author explains early on, she had initially hoped to do fieldwork in Ghana. But when she discovered that she was pregnant, she decided instead to go to Taarnby (not its real name) with her husband Thor, who was also an anthropologist, and their 5-year-old daughter, Katie.
This was clearly a safer choice, but it was not especially easy. The accommodations alone were a challenge. Their small cottage—available only because "no fisherman would live in it"—was equipped with only a potbellied stove to see them through the freezing northern winter, a two-plate burner for cooking, no indoor toilet or bathing facilities, and a very peculiar-sounding loft arrangement for sleeping.
For all that she was an observer, Anderson also knew that she was being closely observed, and that in Taarnby, as in any small town, her errors would be widely known with incredible speed. Not surprisingly, with no previous knowledge of customs and only a phrasebook knowledge of Danish ("Give my regards to your aunt and uncle"), she made many errors.
In hilarious vignettes, she describes destroying a meatloaf (with sugar!) in a local cooking class run by "Talia the Terrible"; bursting out with a completely inappropriate expression of thanks at one of the village's ubiquitous coffee hours (translation: "That tasted goddamned good!"); and offering garbled praise to a hostess that comes out as "Thank you for the snack. It was lovely and almost enough." She figures the villagers consider her a dolt.
Anderson does an excellent job conveying the strains of her situation while also revealing the gradual changes that take place as she becomes increasingly accepted in Taarnby. That her daughter is so comfortably part of the children's network helps: the village cares enormously about its children, taking them in and feeding them as they appear at kitchen doors. This growing acceptance leads to a poignant scene where Taarnby greets Anderson and her new baby with a banner that says, "Welcome to our adopted daughter!"
Organized by theme—"Culture Shock," "An Ethical Issue," "Acculturation: The Enduring Cold"--First Fieldwork offers insight into the anthropological process, and I'm sure the book would be extremely helpful to any anthropologist heading out to the field—if they still do fieldwork these days. Indeed, I wish my husband and I could have read it before heading off to New Guinea. We might have realized—as Anderson intends—that the messiness on the ground doesn't necessarily preclude the possibility that a well-organized monograph might follow.
But it is as a travel book that I recommend First Fieldwork. Anthropological fieldwork is, after all, a particular—and peculiar—form of travel, and Anderson captures it with intelligence, self-awareness, and a marvelous sense of humor.