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. Read More