Mad fieldwork skills

Posted By Chris Kaplonski on Dec 5, 2016

There is one aspect of anthropological fieldwork which I do not think I have ever seen discussed. That is fieldwork skills. By this, I do not mean, however, research skills or interview techniques. You may or may not get taught them as an anthropology student. (You should get taught them, of course, but ‘Ought’ and ‘Is’ aren’t the same thing.) Nor am I talking about languages, or learning to take acceptable videos or photos. No, what I am referring to here are all the little skills and abilities you pick up during participant-observation. As I mentioned in my last blog (here, for those who missed it the first time around) the ‘participant’ part of participant-observation is about living with, and to some degree, like, the people you are working with. That usually means learning some of their skills, from doing the same work they do.

What amI talking about? I once went to a talk by someone who, as part of his research, had worked on a fishing vessel. I believe his job was sorting prawns by size. Someone else I know, during his PhD fieldwork, worked in a fish cannery. In other words, in the course of anthropological fieldwork you often end up learning to do things that most academics probably wouldn’t be able to list on their CVs. To be fair, we don’t either, but I sometimes think perhaps we should, just to see what sort of reaction it would elicit. (And then I tend to roll over and try to go back to sleep, but that’s a different story.) I’m not claiming we are necessarily very good at most of the things we learn to do, but that’s not really the point. I don’t have a major theoretical or moral point to make. Rather, I’m merely highlighting what is to me an interesting side effect of being an anthropologist. You learn to do things you’d never thought you’d find yourself doing.

So, what are some of the skills I’ve picked up over the decades? A non-exhaustive list, in no particular order includes: Making buuz (Mongolian dumplings), including properly sealing them; not falling off a horse, Mongolian-style (my skills can’t quite be called ‘riding a horse’); writing very sloppily in Mongolian (which for some reasons, impresses some Mongolians); harvesting grapes; spitting out grape seeds whilst walking and not hitting your own shoes (note to self: must write that article on seed spitting contests in deepest, darkest Sussex);  cleaning various bits of wine cellar equipment; punch-downs (as in wine cellar activity, not bar fights). You get the idea. It’s probably not even a particularly impressive list by some standards. But that’s not the point. The point, rather, is simply that if you ever need a grape-seed-spitting wine equipment cleaner who can also not fall off of a horse, and leave people illegible notes in Mongolian, I’m your man. And I really should put that on my CV.  


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