Art, Science and Real Work, or: I have no idea what I’m doing.


I’m back on fieldwork at a place just a shade north of the famous Namibian Red Line, a veterinary barrier that separates communally-worked farmland to the North, never conquered by colonial forces, and the more ordered and familiar farmland to the South, the former territory of Boers and Germans in years past. Despite being but two hours’ drive from where I sit now, in a hotel with an internet connection that I have previously called The Last Homely House of Elrond, the site feels more isolated than my last one. I have almost no mobile signal there, and trips back into the domain of Wi-Fi bring me up to speed with two weeks’ worth of news in a day, making me feel like the world is moving on very fast without me. It’s an odd feeling. I’m doing fairly well, though, and while I only have six weeks or so at this site, thanks to a much-needed trip back to Europe in May, and the increasingly pressing need to prepare for my participation at the Eleventh Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies (CHAGS) in Vienna in September.

I’m slated for an appearance on the panel “Research and Activism among the Kalahari San” and have submitted an abstract saying, thankfully vaguely, something about fresh field data from my work at Mangetti West and Ekoka. I have ten minutes plus a Q and A, and should probably say something mildly provocative to get remembered, though the thought of Richard Lee, Akira Takada and other Kalahari anthropologists I have been reading since first year undergrad questioning me on my fieldwork and its contribution to the field fills me with a mounting sense of awe and dread. Hopefully I won’t have to reference too much literature, given my focus on fieldwork and the conference’s enthusiasm for new researchers with mud on their boots, as it were. Given that the time between my leaving Namibia and speaking there is measured in weeks rather than months, is quite probably literally true. I leave on the 24th August, when my last visa runs out. I can’t come back until 2016, having used up my 90 day tourism allowance as well, and it’s going to feel very strange. That’s next month, now.

The three weeks of research at my second site in the Mangetti farms has yielded some interesting comparisons, I think, and I’m able to get a good deal more data in a shorter time. My translator is excellent, and knows or is related to almost everyone there, meaning that the two weeks of building up a trusting relationship that had to happen in the North was cut down hugely here. I’m camping right in the village, and it means I’ve been able to get involved in events as they happen, the “participant observation” part of my work, and data-gathering is by comparison to my other site, effortless.

I even accidentally adopted a puppy, who in fact belongs to the community’s traditional healer. I started feeding the small furry family in the hope that they’d hang around camp to deter other would-be explorers (wild dogs, jackals and even hyenas are not unheard of), and the puppy I’ve named Xoriab (“hunter” in the local dialect of Khoekhoegowab, a joke on the fact he’s tiny. Say the “X” like the “ch” in loch, or the “G” in Grootfontein, for Afrikaans-speaking readers) has got rather attached to my fire and the fact I insist on teaching him to play fetch, which he does not understand.

Xoriab sitting by the fire, expecting something to happen. Probably food.

Xoriab sitting by the fire, expecting something to happen. Probably food.

I have to say I’ve grown rather attached to him, as he seems to have done for me, though I do harbour some suspicion it is cupboard love in some ways.

Some of the food is my fingers.

Some of the food is my fingers.

This post isn’t about that, though, nor is it about CHAGS. What I want to write about a bit are some of the problems that I’ve run into data-gathering for my PhD.

It’s a mammoth task, but the problems do not revolve around mere size. You’ve got to know your parameters, your variables, what questions you wish to answer, before you set out on any kind of scientific research. The problem with conducting anthropological fieldwork, or any kind of social research really, is that it isn’t really possible to know that beforehand. I was advised, before setting out, that I should have a question in mind, then be prepared to change everything about that when confronted with the field. I understand this. Better to have a plan that you later change, than no plan at all. But when the field actually presents itself to you, in all its chaotic splendour, involving as our research does the single most unpredictable organism on the face of the earth, no amount of planning can prepare you for being back at square one. As a result, I made a vague plan, knowing it would not stand up in the field. I knew the areas I would be considering: “folk knowledge”, “traditional skills” and so forth, but no more than that. I did not even have any research techniques in mind.

The problem starts with my discipline itself. It doesn’t like putting people in boxes, a strange habit for a subject concerned with primarily that upon its inception. Our ancestors measured people’s boiled skulls as well, though that is Something We Don’t Talk About any more.

Social anthropology is often said to walk a fine line between the arts and the sciences, some, rather more hardened to cliche and aphorism than I might say it is “the most artistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the arts”. I dislike this forced symmetry, but doubtless social anthropology operates on a strange bridge somewhere between the two, blurring lines and deconstructing dichotomies itself in the same way its practitioners adore doing with cultural events and ideas. During my undergraduate degree, the idea that dichotomies could be permitted to exist at all was somewhat blasphemous, and always we were encouraged to think about the outliers, the spaces between, and the borderlines. We’ve moved on from Levi-Strauss’s oppositions in the house, so to speak.

There’ve been several traditions in anthropology that have tended towards the artistic and the surreal. The undergraduate favourite (at least at Edinburgh class of ’12, represent), Clifford Geertz’s 1960s idea of “Thick Description”, posited anthropologists less as scientists but more in the way of literary critics, picking apart and interpreting culture as one would a paragraph of Tolstoy, or a stanza of Keats. I loved this. It meant we were free in some respects from the tyranny of The Scientific Method, which in my mind always smelled like antiseptic. We were artists, writers, creatives, we had sculptors’ clay under our fingernails and because we studied human culture it was the very stuff Adam was made from that we were working with. It was all Very Important. I tapped away at one thousand five hundred word essays, due at the tutorial tomorrow afternoon, about how Science (Big “S”, always) was a closed-minded, Euro-American-Centric (God forbid we say “Western”) way to think about the world, and interpretation was better, more democratic, and less white, either in coat or complexion.

From there I read (or tried to read) Michael Taussig’s Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man, a foray in what you might call “surrealist anthropology”, and to be honest I do not remember a great deal about it. There’s a long, unpleasant bit about torture, which I think is an illustration about colonialism, and much of the rest of it that I read felt faintly like being led through someone else’s dream. There were definitely psychoactive drugs involved, as well there might be, given that it’s about shamanic practice among Amerindians. I remember writing a very bad essay on the subject about how there was a place in anthropology for something I really am not sure I ever understood. It’s about the limit of the really artistic stuff I ended up getting into, and I teetered on the precipice before settling back into regularly quoting the sort of things I think Geertz would have said about culture, literature, description and interpretation.

Above all else, it made me feel better. I had occasional wanderings into the bleak, sterile world of neo-modernist positivism, but I did that with most of the -isms at university, and I doubt it’s a rare crime. The idea of the anthropologist as a literary critic was attractive to me because it meant that nobody ccould ever accuse me of being wrong about anything, as such. This was just how I saw it. Great. It seemed, if I’m honest, like less work, too.

Yet here I am in Namibia on German (of all countries!) scientific money gathering data ostensibly used to flesh out a computer model of the movements of ancient hunter-gatherers, as well as fuelling some book or other and getting the very hard to obtain D before my name, followed by an elusive R and a positively impossible to pin down “.”. I write “Research Scientist” on things asking my occupation. I’ve actually had to start doing the job I’d been writing about the theory of doing for about four years.

At the root of this job is data. Data I need to gather. Questions I need to first find, then answer, as well as dealing with the practicalities of asking those questions of a very poor community, who live very far away from me, and who don’t speak any languages I do.

A lot of anthropology relies on something called “Participant Observation”, which is part loitering, part nosiness, inserting yourself into someone’s life in an attempt to learn about them. This is prime venue for the “Thick Description” side of anthropology. When I’m on fieldwork, I write. I write a lot. I’m scribbling in my little notebook when something interesting happens, and I’m writing up, scratching it all out in my bigger notebook like it’s trying to escape from my biro, when I can find two or three hours in the day that something else scribble-worthy isn’t happening.

It has its flaws, though. How do I know whether what I am seeing is reflective of the whole community? How can I accurately reflect The Truth about what is going on? I can, and have, argued for many years that there is no such thing as objective truth, but even I will concede that there is a difference between saying that the people in my field site all drive Lamborginis and saying that they place hunting as very important to their way of life when it isn’t really. As with everything, it’s a question of degree rather than kind, and I have a huge incentive to identify as closely as possible what is really going on, even if I never truly (whatever that means) know, and that is simply because I want to know, to get closer.

I can’t very well judge people solely on observation alone, then. So what about interviews? They’re another anthropological staple. Well, they work, too, but one has to be prepared for the fact that people do not blurt facts like robots. They have an interpretation, too which makes it a great tool to have in the toolbox, but not the only one.

This is where the problem starts. The anthropological toolbox is vast, and can encompass any sociological tool you like, from surveys to free-lists, psychological experiments to marriage statistics, but to the PhD student starting their research the vastness of the available tools, and the wide range of possible uses reflected in anthropology which range from systematic analyses of kinship diagrams to surreal passages about drug-fuelled shamanic rites in the Amazon Basin, the primary problem is figuring out what anthropological research is actually supposed to look like.

My problem has been gathering what you might call systematic data. By systematic, I mean answers to structured yes/no question interviews, compiling free-association lists with the same parameters, conducting a direction-finding psychological experiment, and other similar things. It’s incredibly hard to do this when your field subjects are not the least bit interested in repeating the same task with you five times, and every task you come up with on the fly, to test something you observed and wrote down scruffily yesterday, has to be either revised or miss out on some crucial aspect that you have discovered is important. Which do you sacrifice, repeatability or thoroughness?

Above all else is the feeling that despite this being a huge moment in your academic career, you are simply working it all out as you go along, as there are so many things about doing research that nobody tells you, and that you are expected to Just Know. I’d never conducted a structured interview or free-listing in my life before I got to the moment when I was constructing an exercise that will give me important information for my PhD. Nagging at me constantly is the feeling that when I step back from the systematic exercises, and think about interpretation, art, the beauty of the well-written word and the other fluffy things that help me sleep at night, I am making excuses for not doing any Real Work. And Real Work is Science. There are no standards to work to, precisely because, I think, the others who have gone before me haven’t had those standards either, and are loath to set any. The only standards are the ones I set myself. In true form for me, this means they are usually either impossible or non-existent.

The simple fact that this research is PhD research means that it is my first time doing it, or really anything approaching it. A PhD is built up to be something upon which you definitely know what you are doing, and you do it to make big and exciting waves in the academic community, but in fact it can be characterised more as your proving moment, the time you find your feet. In anthropology a scholar’s PhD thesis often becomes his or her defining work, and this fact is something that weighs heavy on my mind. What will I turn this into? Will this define me? What will it say? It is a nightmare of neuroticism and anxiety, and I am convinced social anthropology contains more people prone to neurosis and social anxiety as a proportion than does the population at large. The anthropologist I confided my concerns to got into studying people for the same reason I did: That we were neurotically doing it anyway, and had become somewhat proficient. Whether the neurosis informs the work or the work inflames the neurosis is perhaps a question for another time.

The thing to take away from this, if you happen to be reading and are suffering similar concerns in your academic work, is that the reason you do not know what you are doing is that you are not meant to. The reason nobody is telling you things that you think they think you should Just Know is that they don’t really know them either. If they do, they don’t know how they came to know them. Another anthropologist in Scotland told me that if you have no idea what you are doing, you are probably on the right track, and if you think you’ve got it all worked out then you’re probably missing something out somewhere. The world is a complex place, and human beings are perhaps the most complex of all. The only people who think they’ve got it all worked out are eighteen-year-olds and those who have never grown out of the mindset they had when they were eighteen-year-olds. Both of those sets of people are probably wrong, and I have just reminded myself of my opinions at eighteen, and cringed.

I joke at parties (it’s true, I get invites occasionally, ask anyone) and say that I am making a career pretending to have read books that I haven’t. This is hyperbole, but the nugget of truth there is that in academic circles Knowledge has a capital K, it is currency, and nobody wants to admit that they don’t know something they feel they “should know”, because the others in their circle of colleagues have been pretending they know it already. Nobody is going to tell you these things. Nobody really can. If you have not embarked upon fieldwork for an anthropological PhD you will probably, if you are like me, have existential crises on the regular and start looking for office jobs online. This is (probably) normal. The best therapy for these moments of terror is usually to plan the following day. No further. When you feel more confident, start planning weeks. When you get back, you might find you know more than you think, and tying it together will be a cinch. Get someone acquainted with your field to ask you questions about your site. Before you know it, you’ll be reeling off things and telling people that something is “common sense” when it’s something nobody has observed before. Congratulations. You’re now an anthropologist. The existential crises probably stop. I don’t know. I’ve not got that far yet.

Then again, what am I doing giving you advice? I have no idea what I’m doing.



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