Anthropological fieldwork – What makes it so distinctive and how is it different from a mainstream fieldwork?

Generally, when we hear the term ‘Fieldwork’, we think about field trips. But a fieldwork is different from a field trip.
A fieldwork is the whole process of field study which involves collecting data from the field in order to conduct a research. A field trip, on the contrary, is just an educational activity that occurs outside the respective educational institutions, like visit to a field site, which is done for the conduct of a fieldwork.

A fieldwork is conducted both in natural and social sciences but anthropology, being a holistic science conducts such a type of fieldwork which is different from the ones conducted in any other discipline. We know that the discipline of anthropology itself emerged from the field when the European thinkers became interested to study about the Non-European cultures. That’s when the concept of fieldwork came into existence in academics. This means that anthropologists developed the method of fieldwork for the first time in the history of any discipline.

Although Edward Burnett Tylor was the first person who emphasized the need of direct data collection in anthropology, Franz Uri Boas is the pioneer to begin with the practice of fieldwork. In 1897, Boas conducted the Jessup North Pacific Expedition, which was the first attempt of fieldwork. The second attempt of fieldwork was done in England under the joint leadership of Charles Gabriel Seligman, William Halse Rivers Rivers, Alfred Cort Haddon, Edward Westermarck and Bronislaw Kasper Malinowski. However, the most outstanding method of fieldwork tradition was developed by Bronislaw Malinowski.

But WHAT MAKES ANTHROPOLOGICAL FIELDWORK SO DISTINCTIVE? The answer is the METHOD OF PARTICIPANT OBSERVATION, which is used to gather data in socio-cultural anthropology.

Bronislaw Malinowski developed this fieldwork tradition in anthropology. In the year 1914, when he was accompanying anthropologist Robert Ranulph Marett to New Guinea, World War I broke out. Since Malinowski hailed from Austria, he became an enemy of the British Commonwealth and couldn’t travel back to England. Later the Austrian government did grant him permission and funds to conduct an ethnographic fieldwork. Malinowski chose to go to the Trobriand Islands in Melanesia, where he stayed for several years, studied the culture of the indigenous people and came to a conclusion that the various aspects in the lives of people were interrelated. So, to produce a balanced picture of the native people, the anthropologists must visit the natives. Further, he insisted on living with the native people, engaging in their community, learning their language, eating their food and taking part in their everyday life. This is called participant observation. Only after conducting minimum one year of fieldwork in an alien culture and writing a report on the people belonging to that culture, one can qualify as a professional anthropologist. This process of collecting first hand data of the natives and writing it in the form of a report, where the results of the same ethnographic fieldwork are included is called Ethnography. In 1922, when he finally returned to England, he wrote the book ‘The Argonauts of the Western Pacific’, where he stressed on fieldwork as a primary way of anthropological data gathering.


The answer is reflected in the steps of conducting a research in anthropology. These steps are –
•Selecting and defining the topic or formulation of problem
•Selection of the area of the field of universe or selection of study area
•Review of literature or literature search
•Hypothesis formulation
•Pilot study
•Research methodology and collection of data
•Classification and tabulation of data
•Analysis of data and its interpretation
•Report writing

Now, since most of the steps are similar to the ones conducted in a typical research, so, my focus is only on the distinguishing steps.

Sometimes during the field entry or during the first few weeks in the field, when the anthropologist meets the natives for the first time, the problem of initial impression is created, especially when the research appears as a potential threat to the people. This is where establishment of rapport comes in hand. A rapport is a good cordial relationship with people. To establish a good rapport, one must have a friendly personality or at least make efforts. These efforts must be within a limit and not go against the norms of the society. Basic efforts such as learning the native language and addressing the people in their language makes the researcher confident enough to face the native people or at least the informants and also helps in impressing them. This is why, establishment of rapport is also called impression management. It is a time consuming process as it is difficult to win the hearts of people, so, it continues during the entire process of research. It does not come to an end with the end of the research. Because an anthropological fieldwork is a long term study, so, sometimes a close relationship is developed with a few key informants which can turn into lifelong relationships. This means that in order to make a research successful, having a good rapport is essential for an anthropologist.

Another important step is the selection of informants. Anthropologists call their research participants as informants. These informants may be of two types- key informants and specialised informants. Key informants are those people who know a lot about their culture and are also willing to share their knowledge with the anthropologist. Specialised informants have extensive knowledge in some particular domain. Anthropologists shouldn’t choose key informants too quickly. They must check on the people’s roles and statuses in the community and make sure that the selected key informants don’t prevent them from gaining access to other important informants. But in the field what happens is that the anthropologist doesn’t choose the key informant, the key informant and the anthropologist choose each other over time. Thus, selection of informants and building a good relationship with a few people acts as a pillar of an ethnographic fieldwork.

Conducting a fieldwork in a human society comes with many ethical dilemmas such as inequality, control, power, privilege, competence and so on. Anthropologists need to overcome these issues in order to maximise the benefit from the research and to refrain these issues from letting the anthropologist collect data in a responsible way. In light of these issues, the following ethics need to be kept in mind-
*The anthropologists must take proper consent from the village authority and obtain necessary permissions to conduct the fieldwork.
*The data collected must not be hidden. It must be stored and archived for further research.
*The anthropologists must do no harm to the natives in any way.
*They must be open about their research to the people and not give any sort of false information regarding the conduction of that research.
*The anthropologists must also maintain respectful professional relationships. For example, if they are using an interpreter, then, they must make sure that the interpreter gets paid from time to time and must also make sure that interpreter gets recommendation for further future work.

These are the major differences between a fieldwork conducted in anthropology and other sciences. Overall, it can be said that the distinctiveness of an anthropological fieldwork is due to the outstanding method of participant observation developed by MALINOWSKI, for which, not to mention, that he is regarded as the FATHER OF FIELDWORK.

Fieldwork makes the discipline so distinctive that anthropologists have incorporated it as one of the four main perspectives that is central to the discipline of anthropology, the other three being Holism, Comparative method and Cultural Relativism.

Article by:- Sabita Devi

© Alysane Society

© Sabita Devi

7 thoughts on “Anthropological fieldwork – What makes it so distinctive and how is it different from a mainstream fieldwork?

  1. Interesting. Probably adventurous and dangerous too. In a world of increasing self-centredness, I hope we are able to continue these studies.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks a lot sir,
      Your comments means a lot to us.

      Yes, for that purpose we have established our society, to promote Anthropology and it’s dynamic aspects to world.
      Keep visiting us and please do share your views and comments.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m reading a fictional book right now that involved the anthropological research. It’s amazing what one can find out from bones.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Anthropology is amazing yes, and you are right about bones, the Archaeological excavations in which bones and artifact’s and numerous other traces found tells us the story of our past, the story of ancestors of humans.


  3. […] Anthropological fieldwork – What makes it so distinctive and how is it different from a mainstream… […]

    Liked by 2 people

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