Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: The ‘Field’


Where do anthropologists do anthropology? Where do they participate and observe and collect data from which to write ethnography (link)?

The field!

Fieldwork is what anthropologists do, alongside constructing and analysing cultural theory, in order to answer the questions they construct. The field can be a village, a town, a city, a neighbourhood, a country, a border, a journey, a combination of any of these things simultaneously, a political debate, an archive, a multi-player online game, a social media platform; it can be anything where people are, physically or otherwise. It can be a literal field, if that is where people are doing something interesting. Some academics defy even that caveat of human presence, exploring multispecies ethnography to tackle anthrocentrism (Kirksey and Helmreich 2010), or probing the possibility of an anthropology of absence and the ‘spectrally resonant spaces of culture’ (Armstrong 2010).

Gupta’s writing on ‘the field’ as constituting site, method and location in anthropology is useful for unravelling the various dimensions of this term. Gupta argues that locations in anthropology are political and epistemological, rather than a physical locality (1997, p.38). A conscious construction of this kind of conceptual location by a researcher proves more useful for understanding complex contexts than an assumptive geographical location, which a researcher relying on the empirical might set their ‘field’ to be. The mobility of the anthropologist is also crucial to describing ‘the field’, because of the intent that shapes a researchers moving in and out of the field. Gupta describes this intent as a ‘motivated and stylized dislocation’ (p.37). The field is as much constructed by the positionality (link??) of the researcher entering it as it is defined by geographical location.

Gupta claims that the idea of the field is in constant change due to its different manifestations in ethnographic practice, regardless of conscious debates in the discipline, which makes an un-wielding adherement to Malinowskian fieldwork traditions futile and unproductive (p.39). The traditions referred to here are that of early anthropology and colonial contexts; the Western scientist sailing to some isolated island and learning the ways of the ‘primitive’ people in order to better understand their own societal development. In the 21st century the possibilities of the field are now seemingly limitless, and rightly so.


Armstrong, J. (2010) ‘On the Possibility of Spectral Ethnography’, Cultural Studies, Critical Methodologies, 10(3), pp. 243–250.

Kirksey, S. E. and Helmreich, S. (2010) ‘The emergence of multispecies ethnography’, Cultural Anthropology, (4), p. 545.

Gupta, A. (1997) ‘Discipline and Practice: ‘the field’ as site, method, and location in anthropology’, In Gupta, A. and J. Ferguson (eds) Anthropological Locations: boundaries and grounds of a field science, p. 1-46.

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