Out of their element

Anthropology students describe the challenges of living and learning in other cultures

Dispatches from the field

Dispatches From the Field: Neophyte Ethnographers in a Changing World
Andrew Gardner and David M. Hoffman
248 pages, Waveland Press,

Bronislaw Malinowski—an early 20th century anthropologist and an influential figure in the field—urged all budding ethnographers “to live amongst the people one wishes to study, to participate in their everyday life, to communicate with them in their native tongue, and to remain isolated from one’s own cultural emissaries.”

Co-edited by Gardner, an assistant professor of anthropology at Puget Sound, Dispatches From the Field is a collection of essays describing such experiences. The book, which is intended primarily for an academic audience, focuses on the unexpected difficulties the essays’ authors encountered in the field. And unlike in other, similar collections, the essays here were written while the events were occurring, without the editing of hindsight, to capture the immediacy of the experience and “the ethnographer’s struggle to keep him- or herself together.”

Take Hoffman, the book’s co-editor. As a student at the University of Colorado, Hoffman drove to Quintana Roo, Mexico, to study conservation management and the political ecology of the local fishing industry. Instead, he found himself out on a fishing boat, searching for packages of cocaine while evading Mexican gunships, with a crew more interested in smoking marijuana than fishing.

“I am suddenly thrust into an awkward anthropological position; what are the limits of participant observation?” Hoffman asks. By refusing to take part, he risked losing the trust of his informants and being perceived as “a wimp, a teetotaler,” or, worse, a narc.

As it turned out, the community itself was deeply immersed in the Mexican drug trade and had made a big score just prior to his arrival. Many of the locals were too busy celebrating and counting their money to bother with fishing, only complicating Hoffman’s research. The whole experience, he says, forced him “to drop my preconceived notions about right and wrong behavior.”

Graham Jones also struggled with issues of trust and peer pressure, though of a legal variety. Studying French magicians in Paris, Jones began attending several magic club meetings as a way to infiltrate “the most secret society in the world,” as one person described it. Soon, the magicians insisted that Jones start practicing magic, too. “You need to start performing more, and making use of what you learn,” one magician told him point-blank. “We’re not sharing all this with you just for fun.”

To help earn his informants’ confidence, Jones scoured his native New York for items his French friends could use in their magic tricks. “I learned to see the material excesses of consumer society,” he says, “as I thought a magician might: an inexhaustible and scarcely tapped source of artistic raw material. … So far, I have conveyed goods ranging from hundreds of paper lunch bags, jumbo ziplock baggies, Listerine breath strips, yards of reflective contact paper, Sharpie markers, ‘Iraq’s Most Wanted’ playing cards, and three collapsible laundry hampers.”

Conversely, Gardner, researching the Indian guest-worker community in Bahrain, raised suspicions not because of his lack of participation but his nationality. Widely seen as the Middle East’s most culturally accommodating country, Bahrain was nevertheless “vaguely hostile,” says Gardner, due to U.S. foreign policy and the pending war in Iraq. In fact, he was repeatedly asked when President Bush planned to start the invasion, “as if we Americans were keeping some common knowledge a secret.”

Eventually, the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain began a voluntary evacuation for all nonessential personnel, including Fulbrighters like Gardner. For a while, whenever he drove, he kept a close watch on his rearview mirror, “ever-vigilant for a motorcycle-terrorist making his approach.”

For other students, though, the struggles were more maternal. Kate Goldade, a student at the University of Arizona, took her husband and 3-month-old daughter, Sonia, with her to Costa Rica to study Nicaraguan migrant women. Just as many of her colleagues had predicted, Sonia’s presence helped Goldade establish a bond with her informants, all of whom were mothers, too.

But Goldade soon found herself racked with guilt for having brought her daughter to a foreign place at such a young age, with spotty access to health care, and with malaria and tuberculosis distant yet distinct threats.

Coincidentally, many of the Nicaraguan mothers she was studying were caught in the same excruciating position. One woman, with little else to do with her 3- and 7-year-old children each day, had them trail behind her while she picked coffee. “Having Sonia brings me a deeper understanding of working motherhood,” Goldade says, “the situation many of my informants face.”

Elly Teman, of Hebrew University, also bonded deeply with her informants—in this case, Israeli surrogate mothers, each contracted to bear a child for a couple, usually in exchange for money. Teman learned that surrogate and intended mothers often become very close to one another, and that intimacy soon seeped into Teman’s studies. “I feel the need to prove to them that I don’t only think of them as research subjects,” she writes, “and to show them that I care about them because of who they are.”

Teman was especially sympathetic to the surrogates, who eventually had to surrender the babies growing inside them, and noted the similarities to ethnographers conducting fieldwork. “In many ways, anthropology itself serves as a variation on surrogacy. Because you get into a relationship with the field for a specific purpose, and you know that it is temporary, that eventually it will end.” — Andy Boynton

Other new releases

We are the cat

We Are the Cat: Life Through the Eyes of the Royal Feline
Terry Bain ‘89
176 pages, Harmony Books,

In his 2004 book You Are a Dog, Bain charmed readers with musings about day-to-day life from the point of view of man’s best friend. This sequel continues in the same vein, only this time the narrator is Bain’s cat, Swiper—a detached, high-minded feline taken with tuna from a can and naps on the computer monitor, yet often perplexed by humans. (“We suggest he stop writing this ridiculous book and come let us out before it is too late. We have to go out. Does he not know this?”) As anyone who lives with one knows, cats are not exactly forthcoming with their motivations in life, but Bain gives it his best shot, even explaining the meaning behind meowing. (“At the door, it means In or Out, or, at the very least, Open. Near the food dish, it means Fill. In your lap, it most certainly means Scratch behind ears.”) — AB

Fly Fisher's Craft

The Fly Fisher’s Craft
Darrel Martin ’63
296 pages, The Lyons Press,

All anglers eventually wonder how people ever managed to go fishing without graphite rods, synthetic lines, and nylon leaders. But up until the past few decades, gear included hand-wrought steel hooks, carefully selected furs and feathers, gut leaders, furled horsehair lines, and wooden loop-rods lashed together. In The Fly-Fisher’s Craft, noted angling author Darrel Martin ’63 brings decades of research, hundreds of color photographs, and years of experimentation to bear on the evolution of fly fishing contrivances. Martin shows where technologies were first documented, why they came to be, and details how even today we can burnish our own handmade hooks and fashion a functioning rod from readily available wood. He also documents the art and evolution of fly tying, from the earliest known methods and materials to some of today’s most modern patterns.

Pearson Field

Pearson Field: Pioneering Aviation in Vancouver and Portland
Bill Alley ’76
128 pages, Arcadia Publishing,

Located in Vancouver, Wash., along the Columbia River, Pearson Field was established at the dawn of aviation and today is one of the country’s oldest operating airfields. In its early days, stunt pilots and wing walkers held huge crowds of onlookers spellbound, and the open spaces at Pearson Field were especially attractive to daredevils testing their experimental aircraft. Alley, manager and curator at the Pearson Air Museum, has collected more than 200 photos documenting the history of the facility. Standouts include Lincoln Beachey delivering a letter to the commandant at Fort Vancouver in his Baldwin airship and the Land of the Soviets, a Russian monoplane that made an emergency stop at Pearson during its landmark flight from Moscow to New York in 1929. Another picture shows Silas Christofferson taking off from the roof of the Multnomah Hotel in his primitive aircraft while 50,000 spectators watched, “many undoubtedly expecting to witness a disaster.” — AB