Writing about research methods in social anthropology may have several functions. An anthropologist presents a mass of information about some issue, with reflections upon its significance; it may be of prime importance for his colleagues to know how the information was collected, its representativeness, the manner of communication between all the parties, the type of systematic record, in order that the author’s interpretation may be fairly judged. An account of research methods can also stimulate comparative interest, and aid in the evaluation of similar or contrasting views on a problem. It can perhaps serve a most useful function in suggesting to a prospective or actual fieldworker more fruitful ways of tackling an enquiry.
This Research Methods series is designed to cover a wide range of interest,including that of colleagues outside the discipline of anthropology wholegitimately want to know what is the justification for what we so’broadly and confidently say about the human condition. But understandably, it is directed strongly towards fellow anthropologists who are grappling with problems of this fascinating, exasperating, rewarding, always unique experience known vaguely as “the field”.
Writing about research methods in anthropology is a bold undertaking. While it may be gratifying to the ego either to explain one’s own procedures or to tell other people how to improve theirs, an account of method does mean often an exposure of the self from which many anthropologists have shrunk. Social anthropology in its fieldwork phase demands a commitment of the self to personal relationships of a wide variety, with qualities hard to define, often ranging from casual encounter to prolonged and serious communication, perhaps of an emotional character which can be characterized Properly as friendship. Data are collected by observation and discussion, not in neutral situations of mechanical action, but in situations of vivid human interaction in which the anthropologist is often directly involved in a complex interplay of judgement, sympathy and personal statement. To generalize from this in terms of more abstract procedures or even practical rules for conduct is not easy. Nevertheless the attempt at generalization has to be made if anthropologists are to retain credibility in the face of charges that their work is primarily a series of aesthetic constructs, a set of ego-trips into the exotic.
In social anthropology we are faced by a fundamental dilemma: we work at three levels or in three dimensions. The declared object of our study is some aspect of the ideas and institutions of society – often exotic but not necessarily so – and there is a professional obligation upon us to describe, represent or interpret such ideas and institutions as accurately as possible. Whatever be the talk about models or the social conditioning of perception, whatever the obsturity in relation between portrayal and portrayed, we are trying to perceive and make statements about the order of an actual, not an invented society. But our perceptions and statements must inevitably pass through a personal lens, with all the individual assumptions and mode of thought which our specific upbringing and our general literate training have helped to establish. The individual component in the study of the actual society is involved in an historical time-flow, a series of particular incidents which in themselves may be trivial and unilluminating. Yet anthropologists deem themselves to be concerned with more than a record of past events; their work should relate to more general human issues. So while a contribution to social anthropology can be rendering of personal experience in an identifiable social milieu, it should not be purely idiosyncratic; it must carry an implication of generality. As I see it, this dilemma is ultimately not resolvable. But it is not unique – there is something akin to it for example in the efforts of Asian or African novelists to write about their own natal societies. It is inherent indeed to some degree in any relationship of the Self to the Other. In all human relationships we operate with sets of assumptions if not about the reality at least about the viability’ of our observations and inferences, and with convictions that however approximate our models of other people’s character and behaviour may be, at least some fair degree of consistency in relations with the Other is predictable.
This ASA Research Methods series has been and is being composed in clear realization of the difficulties faced by anthropologists in these and allied sensitive areas. With sophistication and without dogmatism the volumes aim to face the problems and indicate where some solutions may be found. In this way they attempt to reduce the burden of uncertainty that often lies on anthropologists facing the fieldwork situation. Each book sets out in varying detail the framework upon which our work has been built so far, and indicates the kinds of lines on which improvement is needed if our conclusions are to hold their validity. One can always argue about the value of such guides, which have a long history in our discipline. Some anthropologists of great experience have argued that it is useless to try and teach the craft, that each neophyte must find his or her own solution. I myself have never held this opinion. Not only have I tried to publish at least some brief account of my field condition and methods in Tikopia and again in Kelantan (and Rosemary Firth has given more extended and more penetrating examination of some aspects of our joint work in the latter field), I have also collaborated with Jane Hubert and Anthony Forge in a systematic expose of the methods adopted in a team research project in North London. Again, in cooperation with colleagues at the London School of Economics and University College, London, I was involved for upwards of 20 years in seminars on fieldwork methods. Anthropologists in other institutions have done likewise. But I think we have all shared the view of the uniqueness and intensely personal character of a field experience, and that any training for the field is therefore not injunction but example, not prescription but suggestion.
This seems also to be the spirit of these volumes. What I can say here is that looking back over my own experience, I am very aware of how much my own enquiries would have benefited from use of monographs such have been prepared or are planned in this series. They combine theoretical stimulus and practical suggestion in fertile ways, and though I may not agree with all their formulations I find them definitely thought-provoking. Of some vocal economic historians R. H. Tawney once said “I wish these fellows who talk so much about methods would go and do some of it”. The contributors to volumes in this series have already completed a great deal of field research, and the methods they advocate are a distillation from a very wide experience.
I look at these research method volumes much as a cook looks at a recipe book. They are no substitute for individual ingenuity and skill, but they can offer a range of alternative suggestions about procedure, and warnings about pitfalls, that are most unlikely to have occurred in such fullness to the practitioners. To change the analogy, if I can conclude on a light-hearted note, their role is parallel to that ascribed by a Kelantan religious man to his ritual and formula for securing fish. In terms almost reminiscent of Malinowski he said he could not turn an unskilled fisherman into a skilled one, but through the bounty’ of Allah he could “help” a competent fisherman to get a better catch. Fisherman or cook – and figuratively an anthropologist is sometimes both – any one in our profession should keep these volumes to hand.