The Restless Anthropologist: New Fieldsites, New Visions

The Restless Anthropologist: New Fieldsites, New Visions

by Alma Gottlieb

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What does a move from a village in the West African rain forest to a West African community in a European city entail?  What about a shift from a Greek sheep-herding community to working with evictees and housing activists in Rome and Bangkok?  In The Restless Anthropologist, Alma Gottlieb brings together eight eminent scholars to recount the riveting personal and intellectual dynamics of uprooting one’s life—and decades of work—to embrace a new fieldsite. Addressing questions of life-course, research methods, institutional support, professional networks, ethnographic models, and disciplinary paradigm shifts, the contributing writers of The Restless Anthropologist discuss the ways their earlier and later projects compare on both scholarly and personal levels, describing the circumstances of their choices and the motivations that have emboldened them to proceed, to become novices all over again. In doing so, they question some of the central expectations of their discipline, reimagining the space of the anthropological fieldsite at the heart of their scholarly lives.   

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226304977
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/05/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
File size: 524 KB

About the Author

Alma Gottlieb is professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is also the author of The Afterlife Is Where We Come From and Under the Kapok Tree and coauthor of Parallel Worlds: An Anthropologist and a Writer Encounter Africa, all published by the University of Chicago Press. 

Read an Excerpt

The Restless Anthropologist


The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 Alma Gottlieb
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-30490-8

Chapter One

Unexpected Ties: Insight, Love, Exhaustion

Virginia R. Dominguez

Alma Gottlieb has a vision, a hunch that those of us who have done long-term anthropological fieldwork in more than one country or region of the world are unusual, and may have a role to play in becoming less unusual. Alma's enthusiasm is infectious. I also trust her sense that there is something here worth exploring. But I want to open with an admission. I went into this project not at all sure that there would be much to say about my having worked in very different parts of the world over the course of an anthropological career. I had grown up moving from country to country—six of them by the time I was eighteen—and added another three as an adult. Many anthropologists I know in the United States had far fewer border crossings in their childhoods and find mine somewhat exotic. But like many others who have grown up with extensive border-crossing experiences, I find moving around a fairly standard way to live one's life and pursue one's career. So initially, the thought of writing a full-length essay on my own scholarly experience, entailing fieldwork in the United States, Surinam, and Israel since the early 1970s, did not seem all that intellectually interesting. I remember thinking that something might "come out" if someone interviewed me and I interviewed them, but that we'd end up with a conversation that ranged far wider than Alma's original focus. I should have trusted Alma more. When I sat down to see if I had anything to say, I apparently did—and what "came out" partly surprised me.

Instead of writing a chronology of my field experiences or comparing them, I found myself charting an emotional landscape—I wrote about intensity and attachment, leaving and returning, exhaustion and survival, and even about dancing the unconventional tango. I always knew I had intellectual reasons for starting serious fieldwork in the Middle East after years of concentrating on the Afro-European societies of the Western hemisphere. Over the years, I had also noted the intensity of my connection to people in Israel and the life I led when I was there (my non-Jewishness notwithstanding). But in chronicling my field life, I found myself connecting the two sites and thinking about reasons for leaving the first and taking a break, pulling back, staying away, returning, and allowing every nerve cell in my body to feel it all and think it all. This essay is about fieldwork, then, but it is also about inexplicable ties that have much to teach.

* * *

I began to write this piece in early June 2008. I had just returned to the United States a week earlier from a brief work trip to Israel, and I was in many ways still in Jerusalem. The view from my hotel room in Jerusalem had been familiar. It was also haunting.

After returning home to the United States, I sat in my study recalling the sensation of looking at Jerusalem, breathing the air of Israel, trying to tap into my connections to that place. The hotel had been closer to Arab East Jerusalem than to most of Jewish West Jerusalem, and I knew it was officially on land occupied by Israel in 1967 during the Six-Day War. Hebrew University administrators had put me there. I remember wondering if I should feel something because of the hotel's placement, and then I tried to see if I still felt anything at all for the country, the people, its seemingly irreconcilable competing visions and claims to land and rights. Jerusalem and Palestine—and, really, all of Israel separately and together—are places of violence and disconnectedness. Yet for many years, Jerusalem had been more than a fieldsite for me. Both arriving and leaving were hard. And for me, as for millions of people for whom it is or has been home, Jerusalem was as much a place of vivid connectedness, of intense living, as a place of dying.

Family ties explain nothing in my case. Some acquaintances erroneously assume I am Jewish simply because I learned Hebrew in the early 1980s, or because I seem to "feel things" that feel familiar to many in Israel, but the source of my connection is not so easily explained. I was not born Jewish, nor did I start learning Hebrew in order to marry a Jew, as many do both in Israel and elsewhere. And there is little in the thirteen years I spent in various Catholic schools up and down the Western hemisphere that would provide a logical or meaningful explanation for my affinity for Israel. But I feel a depth of familiarity, angst, caring, even exasperation for Israel and many things in Jewish life—and it is a feeling that does not go away. Of the many places and societies in which I have lived over the past sixty years, Israel got under my skin the fastest, rooted me in ways that other people often find inexplicable—and that never seem to go away. Of all the sites I have cared about while living there, this one ranks very high, with only my natal Cuba having a similar hold on me (and those links seem more explicable, with generations of Cuban minds, hearts, behaviors, laughter, sorrows, smells, and joys preceding me in the most embodied of ways).

I have, of course, cared deeply about other places while living there, studying there, or trying to figure them out as an anthropologist. This was especially true of Montevideo in my teens, and New Orleans in my twenties and early thirties; but the "legs" I grew in these other places eventually grew harder to see and feel. Something about Israel—its landscape, its struggles with peoplehood, its ongoing shtick—draw me more deeply, as a person with multiple friendships, a life full of sadnesses, loves, and political reactions, and an analyst of human collectivities and noticed and unnoticed social processes. I think the mix of how my body feels while I am in Israel—alive, complex, comfortable—and what my brain is trying to figure out and say about groupness and peoplehood in human experience through the Jewish case, combine to produce in me a more powerful feeling of place than (with the possible exception of Cuba) any I have ever experienced.


Thinking back on my long engagement with Israel, two long pieces of writing come to mind—both dated entries spread out over weeks and months, but neither of which I have ever published. I wrote the first set in summer 1982, when I recorded and commented on Israel's invasion of Lebanon; I wrote the second during fall and winter 1986 while watching my Israeli-American partner, E., become terminally ill and then die. I believe I began writing both pieces mostly to keep track of things, and to stay sane. Something told me I would want to remember the details long after the events.

At some point in the writing, it occurred to me that others might want to read them, too—but who, when, and where? Some two to three weeks into the summer of 1982, I sent my first set of "entries" to two acquaintances: someone I knew who worked at the New Republic, and a fellow anthropologist in the US whom I respected and who, I knew, had strong though complex feelings for Israel. Eventually, both wrote back. The New Republic, I was told, had other sources on the Israeli invasion of Lebanon; they thanked me, but they weren't interested. My fellow anthropologist wrote to say that it was clear I was in the midst of something intense, and feeling it all, but that my pages were not well written.

My writing was no doubt too raw, its detailed documentation overwhelming and puzzling to someone in a calm, faraway place; the rawness of the feelings was probably even off-putting. It was neither journalistic writing nor "creative writing," let alone recognizable anthropological writing. But it was "alive." It was troubled, and it communicated the frenzy and the impatience I saw in myself and in everything around me, and it was what I wanted to communicate to "the outside world." I had a different presence, an embodied and only partly guarded one. It wasn't packaged, formal, conventional, or restrained.

It was writing for myself, but from a world I had joined and thought I could show others, at least in part. Like a good anthropologist wanting to understand a place, its people, its issues, and its debates, I was also a body caught in a whirlwind, buffeted by the wind yet carried by it, kept intensely awake by its power and ubiquity. These were not data entries or logs in field journals, at least not in the common sense of those words. They were full of detail, blow-by-blow entries overflowing with information that came close to excess. They were about war and ceasefires—endless, innumerable ceasefires that came and went—and about following it all, like most others in Israel on the "home front": watching on the TV alone or with friends; listening to the news on the radio, every hour on the hour, along with everyone else on the buses; reading stories almost obsessively in the newspapers; sighing and waking up, eating, not eating, and overeating, worrying and arguing, watching dozens of planes flying north to Lebanon from "somewhere" near friends' homes, public swimming pools, and favorite restaurants.

The first set of notes I wrote while sitting in my apartment in Jerusalem as the Israeli military first bombed and then invaded Lebanon, beginning June 6, 1982. I had already been in Israel for over a year. I had friends and colleagues. My fieldwork was going well—though I had partly redirected it. My initial plan to interview Israelis in "mixed marriages" seemed flat; the interviews I did felt shallow, not capturing the intensity of love, argument, fear, distrust, and being that I sensed all around me. The outbreak of war that June exacerbated my sense that my original research project was beside the point—but I had already begun to feel this the previous fall, when I'd noticed even my assertively secular friends and colleagues paying a great deal of attention to the Jewish High Holidays. My interviews with "mixed" couples just didn't capture the depth I was acquiring in other parts of my fieldwork. I had begun to realize that the frenzied debates, the connectedness, the internal comings and goings, the talk, the writing, the humor, the shtick all around me were more interesting than the conception of some marriages between Jews in Israel as mixed—and I needed to figure out how to think about, analyze, capture, and describe all this to others.

The war in 1982 left me with no doubt that my research needed to be refocused. The problem was that I didn't want to write a book on the war—I didn't think I had all the facts, or even that I could get them, and in any case, I didn't want to become a war correspondent. At the same time, I didn't know what kind of book I would write, could write, or wanted to write. Only two things were clear: first, what I was doing in the field was not exactly what I'd promised to do in the grant application I'd submitted to the Social Science Research Council, and second, the "whole" I felt and wanted to understand with some depth, as a person and as an anthropologist, was bigger, more palpable, more multisensual, and methodologically harder to grasp than I had envisioned when I plunged into the research. It was also more embodied and stirring—literally, in my muscles, bones, and skin—than any research I had done before, including an ambitious New Orleans- based project that also refused to limit itself to face-to-face interviews, a neighborhood, or a named "group" of people (Dominguez 1986).

I captured that rawness all too well in the second set of "entries" I wrote some four years later, during the fall and winter of 1986. Anger and love, admiration for some and something close to contempt for others—these were all present in that writing, colored by the inevitable and profoundly personal loss of my partner, which I first anticipated and then very deeply experienced. I was not in Israel when I wrote these notes. But looking back at them now, I am convinced that I allowed myself, in 1986, to write about such deeply felt emotions—the experience of rawness and connectedness, living and dying, exasperation and growth—because of the deeply felt emotions I'd previously allowed myself to write about in chronicling the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Dated entries—one set about killing (institutional), the other about dying (individual). Watching it all, knowing I could be little more than a spectator in both cases, I also knew that I could not avoid total immersion. My writing about both experiences was not so much about feelings themselves as it was about being overwhelmed by feelings—and trying to step back, note, record, and hold on to some ground. In the second set of entries, I now read anger, disbelief, expectation, and eventually impatience. When you know someone you love is going to die in the foreseeable future and there is nothing you can do about it, you resign yourself to it, while wondering if you should. Though on a very different scale and distance, the earlier war entries, I now see, are similar. Caught in whirlwinds not of my own making that affected people I cared about, who themselves could do little but be thrust into the vortex, I watched and listened as a way to cope, and I coped because I was there—a participant-observer to the core.

It would be much easier to write about places and "whirlwinds" that had not so completely "caught" me. Those are always easier to describe. They are the ones I do not mind talking about with animation when someone asks me to tell them about "my trip." But I know that I react with quiet impatience when asked about certain other places, and they are all the ones that grew legs for me. They are the ones I know and feel too much about. They are my relationships and their entanglements. They are not postcards or "interesting places" or objects of study or even subjects of research. They are home. They are me.

My relation to these writings reminds me of Susan Harding's experience of being "caught by the spirit" as she worked to understand the appeal of evangelical Protestantism in the United States, and specifically the evangelical church of Jerry Falwell (2000). Surprisingly, Harding's US research had made the earlier, international research that she had undertaken (in Spain) look easier, even though that had required command of a different language, working in a foreign country, and the courage of first-time research. But it is different when one feels "caught."

How many of us have experienced such genuine intensity and immersion in the field that we get speechless when asked "how it is" in our "fieldsite"? More significantly, how many drop out of doctoral programs because they cannot bear the thought of creating enough distance to analyze something and write about it maintaining such distance? Or fail to consider exploring another issue in a different locale, and with people they do not already know, because they cannot bear the thought of reexperiencing the intensity, commitment, entanglement, love, frustration, and rootedness that they had as fledgling anthropologists? Is there room in one's life for more angst, more people, more sighing, more reason to want to be away from the institution that employs us? Some who felt "caught" in their first, long-term fieldwork will relate to the level of intensity I recount from my experiences in Israel (and those of Susan Harding in the US) but forswear the possibility of beginning again elsewhere for fear of developing such a level of intensity all over again. Yet Alma's vision is a vision of rekindling, and I think my Israeli "legs" illustrate that well. It takes courage—and perhaps a bit of folly—to shed light and warmth on things even when we are fundamentally tired or already full of duties, friends, habits of the heart, and habits of the mind ... but the payoff is worth it.

The stories we tell in this book might well just be good stories about specific people, aging anthropologists with track records that younger anthropologists can see and consider—like good stories told about anyone by those with a knack for storytelling. I remember being there myself—reading Margaret Mead's fieldwork letters (1977) and Bronislaw Malinowski's diaries (1967) much earlier in my career, relishing the details of their everyday lives in the field, their struggles and joys, the stuff rarely discussed as attentively as the finer points of theoretical debates. But I hope that anthropologists picking up this book—in a sense, second-order participant-observers—will assess the payoffs as well as the risks of picking up and starting fieldwork all over again elsewhere. Perhaps the risk is really that of stasis rather than of flightiness or being perceived as ungrounded.


Excerpted from The Restless Anthropologist Copyright © 2012 by Alma Gottlieb. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction The Challenges—and Pleasures—of Switching Fieldsites
Alma Gottlieb
Chapter 1 Unexpected Ties: Insight, Love, Exhaustion
Virginia R. Dominguez
Chapter 2 From Local to Global Ethnographic Scenarios
Gustavo Lins Ribeiro
Chapter 3 Field and Home, Self and Memory in Papua New Guinea and California
Maria Lepowsky
Chapter 4 Two Visions of Africa: Reflections on Fieldwork in an “Animist Bush” and in an Urban Diaspora
Alma Gottlieb
Chapter 5 Passionate Serendipity: From the Acropolis to the Golden Mount
Michael Herzfeld
Chapter 6 Traditions and Transitions: From Market Women in the Andes to Adoptive Families in the United States
Linda J. Seligmann
Chapter 7 Around the World in Sixty Years: From Native America to Indonesia to Tourism and Beyond
Edward M. Bruner
Paul Stoller
Work Cited
About the Authors

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