Fieldwork is a term that refers to the “anthropologist’s personal, long-term experience with a specific group of people and their way of life” (Lavenda-Schulz 5). It is anthropologists’ method of choice because it is such an effective way of gathering information about a culture; by immersing themselves in the culture, the anthropologists can observe the culture’s functions while having informants to explain to them the significance of the different rituals and beliefs.
The main advantage of fieldwork is its ability to get a very in-depth and close analysis of a culture. This allows the anthropologist to more fully experience the culture and its rituals and traditions, as opposed to merely watching and commenting on a culture from an outsider’s standpoint- a standpoint which may be ignorant of certain nuances and ideas that would clarify what would seem an otherwise strange and unknowable foreign culture of people. When combined with an informant and other methods of explicating the data collected, the immersion of an anthropologist inside the culture they are studying has the potential to glean tremendous amounts of useful knowledge about the culture itself.
There are, however, challenges to fieldwork that anthropologists must overcome. The first and most distressing disadvantage is that of objectivity. Anthropologists must be careful not to affect the normal state of the people in the culture they are studying because any significant change in the regular workings of that culture are less valuable in explaining the culture and how they work. Sometimes this is unavoidable, and the simple presence of an anthropologist is enough to influence the daily life of the culture. A good example of this is illustrated in the book Number Our Days. Barbara Myerhoff is looked upon by the Center people as an educated woman and an honored guest because of her education; when she spends too much time with one person and not the others, they begin to squabble with her and amongst themselves, possibly influencing their responses to her or their normal behavior throughout the day.
The second challenge to objectivity is the key informant. Anthropologists must take care to make sure their key informants are accurate and represent a wide portion of the population. An informant who lies or does not represent their culture accurately has the potential to ruin most or all of the data an anthropologist collects. As an example of how easy it is for a culture to be misrepresented, imagine a very liberal voter and a very conservative voter asked about how the country feels on controversial subjects like abortion or gay rights. Depending on who was asked, the answer would vary greatly because of the values each held and how they affect their view of the world and the culture they live in.
The third challenge to fieldwork is how to process the data that anthropologists collect. It is not feasible nor helpful to anyone to simply publish hundreds of pages of random facts about a culture; these facts must be organized and driven in such a way as to give an understanding of the culture that the anthropologist has achieved. The interpretation of the culture can vary greatly depending on the context or worldview with which the anthropologist approaches the material. An example of this is the idea of the “etic” and “emic” ideas of anthropology. The “etic” approach to the culture tries to identify and understand the culture through an abstraction and generalization of the traditions and practices, ultimately leading to a final understanding that is less specific and more detached. The “emic” approach, however, understands the culture through a participant-observer model, allowing the anthropologist to understand the culture more thoroughly and discover rather than create models for explaining a particular culture.
It may seem that fieldwork has disadvantages disproportionate to its advantages, but the one advantage is so great that the detractions are belittled by comparison. Fieldwork is far and away the best path for studying cultures that anthropology has at its disposal; the challenges to overcome, though substantial, are worth the knowledge gained from the use of fieldwork.