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These letters from the field are one record, a very personal record, of what it has meant to be a practicing anthropologist over the last fifty years.
Field work is only one aspect of any anthropologist's experience and the circumstances of field work the particular circumstances of any one occasion are never twice the same nor can they ever be alike for two fieldworkers. Yet field work the unique, but also cumulative, experience of immersing oneself in the ongoing life of another people, suspending for the time both one's beliefs and disbeliefs, and of simultaneously attempting to understand mentally and physically this other version of reality is crucial in the formation of every anthropologist and in the development of a body of anthropological theory. Field work has provided the living stuff out of which anthropology has developed as a science and which distinguishes this from all other sciences.
Field work is, of course, very ancient, in the sense that curious travelers, explorers and naturalists have gone far afield to find and bring home accounts of strange places, unfamiliar forms of plant and animal life and the ways of exotic peoples. Ancient records refer to the unusual behavior of strangers, and for thousands of years artists have attempted to capture some living aspects of the peoples and creatures evoked in travelers' tales or the sacred mythology of some distant, little-known people. A generation ago students still were given Greek and Latin texts through which they not onlylearned about high civilizations ancestral to our own but also gained a view of exotic peoples as they were described by Greeks and Romans in their own era. In fact, generation after generation, philosophers and educators, historians and naturalists, polemicists and revolutionaries, as well as poets and artists and storytellers, have drawn on the accounts of peoples who seemed more idyllic or more savage or more complexly civilized than themselves.
But only in this century have we attempted systematically to explore and comprehend the nature of the relationship between the observer and that which is observed, whether it is a star, a microscopic particle, an ant hill, a learning animal, a physical experiment or some human group isolated for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years from the mainstream of the world's history as we know it. Throughout my lifetime the implications of the inclusion of the observer within the circle of relevance have enormously widened and deepened. Einstein lectured at Columbia University while I was an undergraduate at Barnard. I read Erwin Schrödinger's Science and the Human Temperament when it appeared in English in 1935. And of course I belong to the generation of those who learned from Freud that observers of human behavior must become aware of how they themselves have become persons and respond to those whom they are observing or treating. This kind of consciousness was systematized in psychoanalytic theory and practice as transference and counter-transference; analysts, attending intensively to the slightest change in the rhythm of their analysands' speech or movement, learned to attend at the same time to their own flow of imagery and to grasp the relationship between the two.
As these insights became widely known and were incorporated in scientific thought and practice, a counter-tendency also developed among certain scientists concerned with the study of human behavior. Having discovered how deeply the observer is involved in what is observed, they made new efforts to ensure objectivity and to systematize methods of observation that would minimize the effect of observer bias. Sophisticated statistical methods were developed that effectively eliminate the individual observation as well as the individual observer. Experiments were devised using double-blind methods and observers were given formal check lists on which to note, for example, the behavior of infants in such ways that no hint of intuitive response would be preserved in the records that eventually saw the light of day.
In the natural sciences students were carefully trained to cast every experiment within a rigid framework that controlled the development of hypotheses, the use of methods of recording and analysis and the limits of the conclusions a style of research recording that for a long time almost completely disguised the actual complexities of scientific advance under a mask of uniform orderliness. Following this precedent, social scientists elaborated the paraphernalia of objective social science. Their methods, identified as "science," were pitted against what were called "impressionistic" methods, in which the records of the human observer were presented without the sanitizing operations which appeared to remove the observer from the scene.
In this conflict between those who attempted to mechanize the intelligence and skills of the observer and those who tried to make the most of the idiosyncratic skills and intuitions of the observer, by enlarging and deepening the observer's self-awareness, anthropologists occupied a middle ground.
We were slowly devising ways in which our reports on the culture of a primitive people could be made objective in the sense that another fieldworker, comparably trained, might be expected to elicit the same order of data from members of the same culture. This was particularly the case in linguistics, since methods of standardized phonetic recording can be used to reproduce the regularities of an unwritten language in such a way that the data can be analyzed and used for comparative purposes by other linguists. In this work the sensitivities of the individual human ear are fully enlisted, both the ear of the native speaker of the language to whom the field linguist must present alternative sound sequences and the ear of the fieldworker who writes down the language. Today this can be supplemented by tape recordings of the process, which allow another listener to hear and compare.
With less initial precision for language has the special advantage of being coded by speaker and listener in the same way cultural anthropologists learned to record the kinship usages of a people by fitting the terms to the biological phenomena...
Letters from the Field, 1925-1975. Copyright © by Margaret Mead. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.