The Field work experience is personal. Is this good or bad? Dana Ljubicic

9 Feb

Napoleon Chagnon and a tribe, photo from

Napoleon Chagnon is an anthropologist who is well known for his field work experience with the Yanomamo tribe. Some controversies about him are that he was accused of exacerbating a measles epidemic among the Yanomamo people and he was believed to have shown harmful information of the tribe without their consent. Chagnon is a good example of making the field work experience personal. He said that he thinks it is very important to do field work in anthropology and not only to observe but to observe while participating. He practiced participating by doing drugs the Yanomamo people do, trading cigarettes and knives and participating in some other traditions.

Before watching a bit of Napoleon’s video, I thought fieldwork was really cool and essential. After watching the video, my thoughts changed. He brought in knifes, cameras, and cigarettes into their culture. This can obviously make a huge impact on the culture of the people and on how he experiences the culture. And the way they are being “studied” and tape almost seems wrong to me. I feel like it’s almost treated like studying animals. He did participate in the traditions but even then I was kind of negative because I thought how rude of a well off white man to go into cultures and half-assly participate in their culture and traditions and call it their job. And after all he will never become truely part of the culture because if he gets sick, he can get medicine, if he is starving, he can get food, unlike the people who are really in the tribe.

So this got me thinking, how can you do field work as an anthropologist while still not doing wrong?

On one side of the spectrum, you can make this experience personal by going to the culture and study them, acknowledging that you are different from them, not trying to become one of them and keep your customs going (like eating your own food, using your medicine, etc.) This way, you don’t get the full effect of being there and your attitude could be perceived as rude. It could also cause problems in that you could change the culture by keeping your customs (therefore introducing them to the culture.) This way would be personal because you are immersed into a culture and since tht experience is personal, you stay within yourself.

On the other side of the spectrum, you can make this experience personal by completely doing everything the culture does without any restrictions. This causes problems for many reasons. One reason is that to me it seems very inauthentic. If you are so evidently different to others and you try to act as if there is no difference, it could cause issues. Another reason is that it could cause the anthropologist to experience things or witness that she/he would think is unethical. And the question arises that what happens in critical situations like if someone is sick? Or if something that you feel is really bad is happening in that culture?

It seems that in both sides of the spectrum, the problems arise from the experience of field work being so personal. So in this way, field work being personal is bad. But if it was not personal, then why would we study others?



One Response to “The Field work experience is personal. Is this good or bad? Dana Ljubicic”

  1. Alicia Maldonado February 9, 2011 at 9:27 pm #

    I agree with you. I feel that as an anthropologists you have to study and be apart of the culture and in in order to do that eventually it does get personal. Being apart of some one else’s culture means that you would have to be apart of their customs which can be be doing drugs or something else. To you drugs are illegal but to them it is not so to feel welcomed you would have to take part in it and so it becomes personal.

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