By Paul Rabinow
In 1968, a young graduate student set out from the University of Chicago under the direction of Clifford Geertz to do ethnographic fieldwork in Morocco. He saw fieldwork as an extremely important transformational event; certainly that's what his professors had indicated. "In the graduate anthropology department at the University of Chicago," he explained, "the world was divided into two categories of people: those who had done fieldwork, and those who had not; the latter were not 'really' anthropologists, regardless of what they knew about anthropological topics" (p.3). Indeed,
I was told that my papers did not really count because once I had done fieldwork they would be radically different. Knowing smiles greeted the acerbic remarks which graduate students made about the lack of theory in certain of the classics we studied; never mind, we were told, the authors were great fieldworkers. At the time, this intrigued me. The promise of initiation into the clan secrets was seductive. I fully accepted the dogma. (p.3)Yet, he notes, anthropology presents a double bind.
As graduate students we are told that 'anthropology equals experience'; you are not an anthropologist until you have the experience of doing it. But when one returns from the field, the opposite immediately applies: anthropology is not the experiences which made you an initiate, but only the objective data you have brought back. (p.4)Rabinow's book tries to break that double bind. In his previous book, he presented a standard ethnography based on his time in Morocco. But in this book, he tells us his experiences in trying to do fieldwork, warts and all. The result is poignant and frequently hilarious. Rabinow bungles along, trying to find informants, trying to learn the language, trying not to alienate people or burn bridges. As he works his way into the situation, he finds that some informants, though eager for attention, are too peripheral to be useful; that most informants see him as a means to their ends as well, and have no problem taking advantage of him or shutting him off from people in other factions; and that if he doesn't take advantage of power differentials, he can't get any sort of cooperation at all. For instance, he befriends an excellent informant, only to learn later that (a) the man is marginalized because he's a pimp and (b) the man, like others, plays domination games with him.
"I had to clarify where I stood," he realizes at one point. "If the informant was always right, then by implication the anthropologist had to become a sort of non-person, or more accurately a total persona. ... This was the position my professors had advocated: one simply endured whatever inconveniences and annoyances came along. One had to completely subordinate one's code of ethics, conduct, and world view, to 'suspend belief,' as another colleague was proud of putting it, and sympathetically and accurately record events" (p.46). But Rabinow soon realized that this meant being dominated, walked over, and in his situation it meant performing ethnography poorly. "As confidence is built up, the informant judges and interacts with the anthropologist in his own habitual style" (p.47) - and that means that he will test the anthropologist. Who can respect someone who lets himself or herself be bullied and dominated?
Rabinow gradually realizes that anthropology must mean participating in a culture on the terms of the informants. But it also means cultivating informants, helping them to see things differently as well so that they can explain them. Informants necessarily have to have that critical distance, so frequently the best informants are on the fringe of their culture. "Culture is interpretation," he tells us in the conclusion (p.150). In the conclusion, he discusses and evaluates all of his informants, examining why they behaved as they did and discussing how they could and couldn't help him.
Overall, this book is Rabinow's account of learning to understand fieldwork - and learning to understand his informants as real people who are changed by, and who change, the ethnographer who comes to study them. It's thoughtful and highly entertaining. If you're interested in fieldwork, and especially if you haven't done fieldwork yet, take a look.