The Position of the Anthropologist: Field Notes from a Field Trip

By James O’Donoghue • BSc Anthropology

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There we were one winter night, half-naked and barefoot in a muddy West Country field, stood amongst fellow first-year anthropology students staring into a fire, all the while our lecturer stands in his speedos spinning a bull-roarer under the starry sky. This, for many of us, was our first hands-on experience of anthropology, and for all of us, an unforgettable one.

That lecturer was Dr Jerome Lewis, Reader in Social Anthropology, who once a year for new-coming anthropology undergraduates, organises a field trip into the West of mainland Britain, to push us out of our comfort zone, to create some ‘anthropological bonding’ and to show us that we don’t need to travel 8,697 miles to Papua New Guinea to meet a shaman.

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I will be purposely vague in my description of the field trip, so as not to spoil the surprise for the next first-year students awaiting their very own otherworldly experience (located just East of the M5). What Jerome wanted to show us in this unassuming place, was that something so foreign could exist so close to home. A place where we could, in his words, ‘realise that even when things appear the same they may not be the same’, due to the all-mystifying, all-complex phenomena that is ‘culture’.

For four days around forty of us lived, breathed and—very memorably—ate in the ways of our warm and welcoming hosts. Each day provided us with a new experience, teaching us valuable lessons in anthropological study. The first evening saw us introduced to the ‘plain-clothed shaman’, Great Grandfather Jem, a traveller and teller of stories. There we sat, like Nursery school children, gathered around at story time, listening to the tales that Great Grandfather Jem had acquired through his interaction with peoples across the world. Day two saw half of us engaging in heated staring competitions, to gain the approval of an appointed monarch, and the other half of us swapping pleasantries and line dancing—all with the ultimate aim to experience and understand the role of an ethnographer in an alien culture. On day three, we walked into the past and tried to connect and dance with our ancestors under the gaze of a large, looming papier-mâché dragon. The final day held the culmination of our experiences, where we put into practice all we had learnt over the few days. In a few words, it involved amateur architecture, slippery muddy floors and glowing hot, red rocks—a health and safety nightmare.

By Kyri Antoniou (top left), anonymous (top) and Lana Hall (bottom)

However, the ultimate purpose of this trip was not what we had whilst we were there, but what we would take away. Post-trip, the Anthropology group-chat was alive with people pitching in to give their experience of the trip, and what it was to them. Everyone had their own unique interpretation and stance on what we went through, and one way this was expressed was in the poems we were asked to write just before we left, to personally sum up our experiences. I have selected four of said poems for this article.

The trip brought up what Jerome considers ‘one of the biggest struggles’ one would face as an anthropologist – how does the anthropologist negotiate their position in what they are observing and experiencing? Sometimes as an anthropologist you may experience or witness something you believe is ridiculous or untenable from your worldview, but as Jerome says, ‘we still have to study them, we still have to learn about them’. Do we try to understand what we are seeing ‘from their perspective’ or do we ‘report what we see as faithfully as we can’? Perhaps we may just see it all as people ‘pulling wool over peoples’ eyes’.

By @hdword (find more of their work on Instagram)

The specific questions raised on this trip are far too complex for me to get into at this moment, and, frankly, beyond my field of knowledge for now. But what I can understand and explain was Jerome’s main reason for organising these trips. He tells me, ‘at the basic level’, it’s for some anthropological bonding; some bonding for people who may well pass through three years of study on the same course and never get to know each other. An opportunity to get to know each other through being put through some unusual situations—unusual situations that do push us a bit, and through that pushing, we become more closely connected to those we pushed through with. This was surely one aspect where everyone didn’t differ on opinions.

Overall, a lot was taken away from this trip: imperishable memories, closer friendships and of course, full stomachs. But, we also learnt a lot, not just on the trip, but also in the revelations that came afterwards. We now know that in the field, we won’t turn up with just pen and paper, but a whole history of personal experience that will shape the way we understand and interpret what we see in front of us. The anthropologist’s position is never set—it should be plastic and fluid—as we must contest our own position as much as we try to understand the lives of others.

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