UGC ACADEMIC STAFF COLLEGE, RANCHI.
Dr. Vijay Prakash Sharma
Senior Advisor. USAID Projects
One major goal of fieldwork is to understand the systems of
meaning on which a culture operates. Human beings unlike
other species live in a culturally constructed world of
meanings. Nothing makes sense in a human world apart from
the meaning that is ascribed to it by culture. Humans are least
guided by their genetic characters, all interpreted by culture to
mean some thing or the other in different societies. Thus even
things as basic as what is edible, what is animate and what
is inanimate, what it means to be a man and what it means
to be a woman, how does one understand ageing, all these
are culture specific.
"Anthropology demands the open-mindedness with which
one must look and listen, record in astonishment and
wonder at that which one would not have been able to
Anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978)
“The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe
for human differences”
Anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1887-1948)
“Anthropology is the most humanistic of sciences and
the most scientific of the humanities”
Anthropologist Alfred L . Kroeber (1876-1960)
The term ‘fieldwork’ is used to describe research
in all areas of research from social and cultural
to medical or biological. The practice of
‘fieldwork’ can be done in a variety of different
settings such as an urban or virtual
environment, a small tribal community, a
museum, library, cultural institution, business,
or a primate conservation area.
There is a general consensus amongst anthropologists today that fieldwork
came to be considered part of the practice of social anthropology with the
work of one of the founding fathers of British anthropology, Bronislaw
Malinowski advocated, instead of studying other peoples from the comfort
of university libraries, going ‘into the field’: that is, living with the people he
was studying, engaging in their community, learning their language, eating
their food, and taking part in their everyday life.
Since Malinowski’s time, fieldwork – traditionally, away from one’s own
society – has been regarded as an essential and necessary part of an
anthropologist’s professional training. Fieldwork over an extended period –
typically 1-2 years - has been thought of as particular to social anthropology,
and part of what distinguishes the discipline from other social sciences.
Today, some anthropologists still consider that doing fieldwork in the
traditional Malinowskian sense is an essential and distinguishing aspect of
Fieldwork can take many different forms, shaped by factors
such as: the topic of investigation, questions guiding the
research, where the research will be carried out, who is
funding it, external political or economic factors, the age, sex
or ethnicity of the researcher, the technological facilities
available. Newer formats for research, such as use of multiple
sites and the study of large-scale centres of power such as
intergovernmental organisations, are becoming increasingly
common; as is the use of visual technologies and methods of
presentation such as film, photography and digital media.
Fieldwork is among the most distinctive practices anthropologists bring
to the study of human life in society. Through fieldwork, the social
anthropologist seeks a detailed and intimate understanding of the
context of social action and relations. Fieldwork in a previously
unfamiliar setting has among its aims a deep understanding that
encompasses as much as possible of an ‘insider’s’ perspective. Conducted
in a more familiar setting, it can lead the anthropologist – and those for
whom he or she writes – to look at everyday reality in new and
Where fieldwork is conducted within museums, archives, or cultural
institutions, the process can be similar in that the social anthropologist
seeks to understand the underlying symbolic and cultural meanings of a
text, or a collection of objects. Equally, biological anthropologists
frequently base research projects on human remains or artefacts held in
Social researcher may assemble data in numerous ways. They may
gather quantitative information by conducting surveys or analysing
records such as historical archives, government reports and censuses.
Quantitative data is often useful for biological anthropologists in
mapping physical traits within a population, or making cross-
population comparisons. Quantitative information is also useful and
often necessary for interdisciplinary projects with other specialists.
However, for the most part social anthropologists concentrate on
gathering qualitative data. They do so by conducting individual and
group interviews, by undertaking oral histories, through online
discussion forums and, most importantly, through the Malinowskian
tradition of ‘participant observation’.
Participant observation enables the social researcher to
undertake detailed, lengthy and often complex observations of
social life in fine detail. It may be directed to such disparate
groups as a virtual network, a tribal village, or an activist group
in an urban environment. By participating in the fabric of daily
life as well as more formal ceremonies and rituals, and
discussing his/her developing ideas with willing members of
the community (sometimes termed ‘informants’) the
fieldworker builds up a progressively deeper understanding of
what is happening. Many fieldworkers find this a personally
Social researcher may write up their data in
reports, articles, or journal contributions.
Where the project is interdisciplinary or
team-based, these may be co-authored.
Alternatively, they may describe their
experiences and findings in the form of
•LH Morgan did his own field work among
Iroquis which led to his book League of the
Iroquis in 1951.
•Franz Boas in America and Malinowski in
Great Britain set up field work tradition in
social research among the primitive cultures
towards the beginning of 20th
•Malinowski stayed in Australia for six years
and made three extensive field work-
•One to Mailu in 1915
•Two to Trobriand Islands -1915-16 and 1917-18.
•He lived like a native.
•He further made study in US – Zapotec of
• In India, ARR Brown conducted fieldwork in Andman
islands in 1921 and published the book “The Andman
Islanders” in 1922.
•This study represents a landmark in ethnographic
•This was the first attempt by a Social anthropologist to
describe the social life of a primitive society in such a
manner as to represent a test of current theory of
•FRANZ BOAS trained A.L.KROEBER,
R.H.LOWIE, M.J. HERSKOVITS, MARGRATE
MEAD, RUTH BENEDICT, CLARK WISSLER etc in
fieldwork and sent them to field.
•These modern masters- Boas, Radcliffe-Brown,
Malinowski FOUNDED THE TRADITION OF
FIELD WORK in social Research.
Since 1986, Field work has been included in curricula
of all social research disciplines and management as
an essential tool in conducting qualitative researches.
It includes following Tools & techniques of data
1. Ethnography 2. Focus group discussion(FGD)
3. Observation 4. Key informant interview
5. Case study.
Fieldwork by non- anthropologists
Non-anthropologists such as doctors and even engineers
also use fieldwork techniques when they need to interact
The role of anthropologist in implementing policies and
projects where people are involved has been recognized to
the extent that now a –days there can be no project that
does not require having an anthropologist as advisor on its
The empathetic understanding gained through fieldwork
is the only manner in which a humanistic approach can be
Is a study conducted at a single point in
time, ignoring historical factors.
An ethnologist is a historian-uninfluenced
by any bias for or against historical
regularities, as an ethnographer, we shall
attempt to determine what are the facts and
what has been their actual sequence.
Today the concept of multi- sited ethnography is
becoming a necessity to study complex social
phenomenon. The notion of a bounded system is
now realized to be unrealistic and therefore the
kind of systemic relationships visualized by the
structural – functional school is become obsolete.
Moreover fieldwork itself is transforming its
character and we have transnational societies,
diasporas and the notion of a “global village” that
makes the isolated study of any field area both
unrealistic as well as unfruitful.
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