The first book review for the blog!

One of the things I had hoped for with this blog, was that it would be a space where we could share resources and materials. A critical part of the academic habitus is the critical reading of literature. Here, in the first of what I hope will be many book reviews, Roger Norum discusses a volume tracing the personal life and career of a jobbing anthropologist.

ALMA GOTTLIEB (ed.), The Restless Anthropologist: New Fieldsites, New Visions, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 2012.

Review by Roger Norum (COMPAS, University of Oxford)

Alma Gottlieb’s heralded edited volume fills something of a lacuna among meta-anthropological texts: an engaged discussion surrounding the personal life and career of the jobbing anthropologist, and the formative role this often plays in one’s scholarly navigations. The book takes the form of seven insightful chapters penned (or is it keyboarded now?) by US-based scholars engaging with ‘the emotionally engulfing choice of a field site that marks the life of an anthropologist’ and specifically addressing what happens when a mid-career university academic takes the big decision to change where he or she does fieldwork.

The formative period of initial fieldwork comprises a sacrosanct moment in both the imagination and the career of the anthropologist. Given the constraints of teaching and the responsibilities which life tends to drop into our laps, doctoral field research is likely to be the longest continual period of time we get to spend doing ethnography. As a result, the initial places we choose to work in become very much a defining aspect of who we are as scholars. Those realities aside, there can be obvious advantages to engaging longitudinally with one people in one place. For one, real insight into, and understanding of, human societies can often only come from engagement over a longue durée – rarely from a singular, ahistoric exposure to a given people. Secondly, learning to fully function with the social and cultural processes of ‘immersion’ which befit effective participant observation can be extremely daunting in a new environment and language. Furthermore, long-term engagement with, extensive knowledge of and deep connections to a single place and its people are often privileged by the institutions that hire us as anthropologists. University teaching lectureships in social and cultural anthropology often require competency in one region, and grant providers are more given to rewarding extensive knowledge of a single country than less in-depth familiarity across a handful of culturally diverse locations. Anthropologists are regularly expected by their institutions – or the academy itself – to serve as go-to pundits for their particular area of focus, at times effectively becoming stand-ins for their tribe (i.e. Gellner is Nepal; Herzfeld is the Mediterranean; Evans-Pritchard is the Nuer). Moreover, deep regional and linguistic fluency in one part of the world can serve as a mark of pride or distinction for many an engaged ethnographer.

 But one may not always continue working with the same people, or in the same place. There may be any number of structural as well as personal reasons for not returning to one’s initial field site: civil war or famine; the constraints of institutions and grant-giving bodies, who may be unwilling to repeatedly send a scholar back to the same place to work on the same project year after year; and the duties of home and needs of significant others (children, say, or ageing parents), since an academic anthropologist’s career rarely revolves solely around the lone ethnographer. One could also, of course, simply lose interest (anthropological or otherwise) in returning to the same destination over and over again, or feel compelled to test out new theories or follow new engagements that are only possible in certain parts of the world.

And yet, as Gottlieb and her contributors fluidly and engagingly point out, changing fieldsites does not come without difficulties and regrets. In leaving her long-term village in Ivory Coast to conduct fieldwork in Cape Verde, Gottlieb herself felt ‘misgivings about leaving the site and the people who had become like family to her, even though there were practical, political and theoretical reasons why [she] could not return.’ Reflecting critically and reflexively on the life decisions anthropologists make, the book’s contributions offer valuable insights into the anthropological career, including Michael Herzfeld’s own ‘inaccurate predictions’ about the trajectories his own scholarly life course would take and how Edward Bruner’s experiences of ageing led to his acceptance of wanting to travel in safety and comfort as he got on in years. Linda Seligman details the effect that adopting a child had on her professional and academic life, most notably when her fieldwork took her to look at comparing the experiences of North American families with both birth and adopted children.

The volume’s essays also do well to remind us that fieldwork is not just a fundamental aspect of the discipline of anthropology – it is also foundational to the career of the anthropologist. Rodney Needham and Claude Lévi-Strauss were two eminent anthropologists who effectively ended their in situ ethnography days early in their careers, successfully dining out on those formative fieldwork years for the duration of their academic lives. But few anthropologists manage to successfully cease their work as roving fieldworkers and still produce compelling ethnographic texts that both support and give relevance to their theoretical writings.

One alarming trend that the volume’s introductory essay touches upon only tangentially is the normative move towards many anthropologists’ communication in English, both with their informants and with other non-Anglophone scholars, in preference to achieving fluency in a local or national language. Though hardly the focus of the book, this provincialist, colonialist tendency – admittedly some might just call it common laziness – is threatening to undermine the entire calling card of our discipline, and is a topic that would certainly merit more thorough discussion elsewhere.

But The Restless Anthropologist offers plenty of its own disciplinary insights, including ideas about the value in (and viability of) doing transnational anthropology and anthropology at home, and musings on how the professional capital that stems from doing ‘global’ or multi-sited ethnography will often depend on what ‘deep’ ethnographic work one has produced already and on where one is situated in one’s career. And, though perhaps inevitable given all the soul-searching narrativized throughout the book, the essayists do present the odd momentary personal gem, such as Michael Herzfeld’s disclosure of the departmental admissions committee’s initial hesitation to offer him a place on Oxford’s doctoral programme in anthropology due to his less-than-outstanding performance as an undergraduate archaeologist at Cambridge.

The volume would be of particular interest to scholars working on mobility and ‘non-traditional’ trajectories of migration, for whom researching geographically disparate and temporally ephemeral communities might be more often the rule than the exception. Such volatility in the spaces and times of fieldwork often requires such ethnographers to be themselves mobile and open to change – and perhaps to understand and cope with notions of restlessness in different ways than scholars working in more ‘traditional’ fields.

Most of all, as a reflexive, navel-gazing tour de force, Gottlieb’s work is both a heartfelt testament to the undeniable role of the self in the anthropologist’s narrative – by which I mean the narratives we construct of and for ourselves, and those we produce about others – and a championing of the profound role that serendipity plays in how life works itself out. This book walks us deftly through all the challenges and triumphs that such realizations bring.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s