Twenty-first Century Fieldwork

Malinowski in the field

A lot has changed for anthropologists in the field since the days of Malinowski and Evans-Pritchard, and mostly in a good way.  With the advent of internet technology and cell phones, it’s virtually (pun-intended) impossible for us to feel isolated, perhaps most saliently evidenced by my ability to post this blog entry from China.  There are a lot of great things about not being the only foreign tent in an isolated village, but there are also unique challenges that come with twenty-first century fieldwork.

For instance, while it’s comforting to confide one’s experiences of cultural clash with other foreigners, it’s also difficult to know how to balance these respites with both cultural sensitivity and cultural immersion.  As an anthropologist, I feel particularly sensitive to the rants we foreigners are known for in China, which include a running commentary ranging from disdain for Chinese etiquette and hygiene, to broader critiques such as China’s senseless traffic patterns, antiquated education philosophy, and of course, corrupt politics.  What’s difficult in these conversations is that I am having my own experience of being a foreigner, and I resonate with some of these reactions, but I’m also a believer in cultural relativism, and a student of culture, who wants to seek to understand cultural ideologies and systems before I form any sort of moral critique.  But my fellow expats aren’t going to wait a year for me to make an informed critique-they’ve got one right now, and if I’m going to be a good friend, I’ve got to lend a sympathetic ear!

Additionally, sometimes I worry that the frequent stepping in and out of  total cultural immersion that spending time with other foreigners threatens to disturb my genuine experience of Chinese culture altogether.  Ultimately, however, I know that all these experiences are genuine ones of living and doing fieldwork in China, and no navigation of them, whatever the practice or the conviction, will produce “perfect” results.  The difficulty is to get beyond the pursuit of perfection, live in a way that is true to myself and my academic training, and find a way to balance the beauties and the challenges of twenty-first century fieldwork.

If you’ve done fieldwork in the twenty-first century or live in a foreign country, what are your challenges with cultural immersion and cultural sensitivity, and how do you navigate them?


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