Plenary Discussion

Plenary discussion with all the key note speakers and the discussants

- Summary by Martijn Wienia

The plenary discussion started with a one or two minute address to the floor [audience-WDO] by each key note speaker, followed by two rounds of questions from the floor and reactions from the key note speakers. The discussion was being led by Prof. dr. Patricia Spyer and Prof. dr. Peter Pels. I must note that I did not literally cite the speakers. This report is therefore to be read as my words based upon theirs.


Prof. dr. Patricia Spyer (opening address):

In this plenary discussion we would also like to give the floor to those who have not yet been on fieldwork. It is striking how vivid the question about fieldwork is. I observed many things of interest at this WDO symposium, especially because it displays a wide array of views and interactions. It deals both with the ancestral heritage [MW: referring to Prof. Dr. Trouwborst and his contemporaries] and with the new generation. It is wonderful.

To my knowledge this is the third conference dealing with fieldwork this year alone. Recently there has been a flurry of books. Definitely we are not the only ones doing it. To the contributors she would to ask: 'Why are we so concerned with fieldwork?' Dr. Van den Breemer suggested that doing fieldwork is more difficult now. Very important is thus the question to what we have gained - or lost - in knowledge, theories, methods and experience over the years.

Prof. Dr. Jos Platenkamp:

To start with Lévi-Strauss, I advocated the distant view and stressed the differences between societies (if I may put it this way). It is relatively easier to understand differences that are not immediately identifiable. This is really an advantage of anthropology over sociology. These differences are also important for understanding ourselves. This distant view is also crucial for doing fieldwork, now and in the past. Therefore I do not think doing fieldwork is really that much different now.

Prof. Dr. Kirsten Hastrup:

The problem we are dealing is partly answered in the subtitle of this symposium. There are blurring boundaries and there is a flux of people, ideas and images. This makes defining the field problematic. Globalisation is a fact but through the anthropological lens one sees that locally not all is the same. There are lots of asymmetries in the world. Many people do not live in this global community.

Second remark; it is not that we go to strange places but rather that we estrange ourselves. As such, anthropology provides a particular window of understanding. This must continue with larger inducement. There are changing notions of knowledge. The encyclopaedic knowledge of the Enlightenment makes way to other modes of knowledge. Therefore there should be a theoretical stance towards fieldwork. This is a major challenge.

Prof. Dr. Jean Comaroff:

We are marked ironically: we are nervous about ethnography but there are so many people here right now. There is anxiety about what anthropology is. We do not just look at remote people. There is a justified anxiety that there is nothing that distinguishes us from other disciplines (e.g. cultural sociology). There are worries about fieldwork. The dialectical face-to-face approach fails to address topics such as state-failure, crime or the internet. It is exactly here that anthropology could bring something new. The question is how. This is not self-evident: how can we study people who get into a trance on the internet? This evokes major challenges.

As for the strangeness and alienation debate I agree with Hastrup. This estrangement could happen anywhere. But despite this we should also take recognition and similarity into account. Not all is different but there are also similarities. Things do happen differently but also similarly. These similarities are grounded and trans-national.

Prof. Dr. Rajni Palriwala:

Many things have already been said. The possible merging of anthropology and sociology should receive more attention.

The cognitive authority of fieldwork has been challenged (reflexive turn). In the postcolonial period the question arises to who is authorised to look and to research. The objectivity of science is questioned. Anthropology is such a critique to positivism but it paradoxically also claims to be scientific. Knowledge is relational. This is the kind of knowledge anthropologists generate. But the crisis in anthropology corresponds with the acknowledgement that there are relations beyond the direct. This was recognised earlier but only since the globalisation process it has become more explicit. We have to look at the indirect and hidden relations.

Dr. Hans van den Breemer:

Fieldwork is indeed more difficult, but this is a belief and a hypothesis, not a fact. The main contributing factor is the more intensified competition in the field. I came to the find that fieldwork has become more difficult in result of my personal development: I discovered it for myself. The growing difficulty of fieldwork is clearly illustrated in two case studies I unfortunately had to leave out in his lecture for time-saving purposes.

To name some examples, after a friend in Tambacounda opened a shop and used gris gris. From then on he encountered maraboutism all the time. Trade systems e.g. are not accessible like free markets are. Many topics are not easily talked about in the field, for instance due to social suppression. This has made doing fieldwork more difficult.

Prof. Dr. Albert Trouwborst:

The changes in doing fieldwork now and then are considerable. In the past there were no rapid communication and transportation means. We had to stick to J.P.B. [MW: De Josselin de Jong] and the directions he gave. That was the right path. Nevertheless the basic ideas about fieldwork are the same, namely the divide between the direct and the indirect in relation to the field. In the case of the former for instance, the spontaneous character of knowledge is still very important.

Language is also very important. I taught in francophone Canada for a number years but I still do not grasp French completely. The same was happening in Burundi, of course. It is difficult to grasp the native concepts. We should insist more on language now.

Prof. Dr. Peter Pels (discussion leader):

Many of us have done classic fieldwork a long time ago. It would be interesting to hear people from the floor who have just returned from fieldwork.

Floor, question 1:

I did fieldwork three years ago. What I miss much is the theoretical discussions surrounding fieldwork. There is something like shadow ethnography, which does not appear in public and in publications. Whether fieldwork experiences were good or awful, it would be good to be able to read about it.

Floor, question 2:

I miss the focus on tourism. Whites go to black societies nowadays. Anthropologists are no longer the only people who go there. Tourism influences the field, by means of flows of ideas and images. Future anthropology would have to take tourism more into account.

Floor, question 3:

With reference to the global and local dichotomy: would it be possible to induce intimacy and ethnography on the global scale? My own fieldwork experience was in Mexico and addressed pirates in the history of music.

Floor, question 4:

A question to Comaroff: you stress looking at similarities. In my fieldwork I experienced that Islam has a very specific form in Northern India. Therefore there must be something uniquely different. There are much more differences than similarities.

Floor, question 5:

On the more practical level, we did not discuss fieldwork methodology and techniques in the global contexts. Are the traditional techniques - e.g. interviewing and participant observation - not sufficient anymore? Should we adopt new techniques in this process of 'glocalisation'? My fieldwork experience was in Suriname but I also interviewed Surinamers in the Netherlands. I heard of another researcher who travelled alongside migrants during fieldwork.

Prof. Dr. Kirsten Hastrup:

In reaction to question 1: not everything should be written down. Some things are personal. We are not writing biographies, but nevertheless the experiences are hidden away in the text. And you cannot write against the text. It is indeed a process of selection: what comes in the text and what falls out.

With reference to question 5: yes, you can study global flows, but not in all ways on the same time. My research on human rights takes all the different shapes and forms into account, but I also study it as a global phenomenon.

Prof. Dr. Jean Comaroff:

Sometimes the global is strongest locally. Anthropology is about the global and to see how it touches ground. An example is bride wealth in Southern Africa, which is really a cosmopolitan and trans-national phenomenon. The trans-national map is constructed around bride wealth. Many houses in the Philippines are built by migrants in Italy. It is about circuits that people travel.

Ad question 2: tourism is indeed a crucial process and it is widely studied. Many things happen in relation to tourism - e.g. prostitution. Every village now wants to be interesting for tourists.

Ad question 4: I did not mean looking for similarities in the Frazerian way, but rather that there are underlying patterns - e.g. territory - despite differences in its cultural context. Anthropologists do not see the similarities enough. Western people may be similar to the others, too. Nevertheless we must see the local differences.

Prof. Dr. Rajni Palriwala:

Ad questions 3 and 5: Should we anthropologise the global? Is fieldwork necessary? There are anthropologists who do no perform fieldwork, but e.g. library study. But we are best at going and see how the global transforms locally into a locale, in different contexts with different people. Watching a TV-show alone is not the same as watching a TV-show together. Text is also critical.

Anthropology cannot study the powerful - e.g. Microsoft - but anthropological studies should focus on the transformation of the powerful into the lives of ordinary people. There are nevertheless some studies of the powerful, but there are obviously limits to what an anthropologist can do.

Dr. Hans van den Breemer:

Ad question 2: many tourists come to the National Park in South Eastern Senegal. There are official and informal networks of tourism. The informal network can make a profit of you. This situation has aggravated.

Ad question 5: We should make distinctions. There are techniques in which the initiative is with the informants - participant observation - and there are pre-constructed techniques. This is an important distinction.

Prof. Dr. Jos Platenkamp:

Ad question 5: I heard of dead Surinamers whose corpses are flown back to Suriname. In Berlin many dead Turks are similarly transported to Turkey. Migration is one but there is also the issue of reconstructing the community of the dead. The global flows are meaningless and only receive meaning in the local setting.

In reaction to Comaroff: similarity or that what can be compared has become more articulated as a result of globalisation.

Prof. Dr. Peter Pels:

Before we go to another round of questions from the floor I wish to point at the fact that the question of new research techniques and field initiation is unanswered.

Floor, question 6:

With regard to tourism, I think that anthropology could add to responsible tourism. In reaction to Spyer I note that when in the field, the anthropologist is indeed not alone anymore. There are tourists, NGOs and the Peace Corps.

Floor, question 7:

A question to Palriwala about the relational aspect of fieldwork: how does this relate to Trouwborst's remarks? How do power relationships between the informant and the researcher change? Do the images of the informant change?

Floor, question 8:

As other disciplines, fieldwork has also been affected by the global. We can no longer speak of isolated cases.

Ad Comaroff's remarks of the similarities: we should also stress the differences. In globalisation, people do not want to be the same but they want to be different.

Prof. Dr. Patricia Spyer:

A detail remark with reference to shadow ethnography: monitoring and collaborations have not been much discussed. For instance emails increasingly substitute letters - an incredible loss of data. To Palriwala I would like to say that we have not talked about visual ethnographies and cross-dressing.

Prof. Dr. Albert Trouwborst:

Ad question 6: in all times, anthropologists were not alone in the field. In my time there were planters, government workers et cetera. This has however been neglected.

Travelogues - e.g. of Cees Nooteboom - have not been discussed here. Novels however may be more instructive than ethnographies.

Prof. Dr. Jos Platenkamp:

Ad initiation into the field: there are changing images towards anthropologists. I was ritually married into Lao society. Many anthropologists encounter similar processes of getting a local identity. There are prefab categories for anthropologists. This relates to cross-dressing.

With regard to question 6: globalisation and tourism affects the 'stranger'. Societies have been open for centuries, only the scale of openness has changed since globalisation.

Prof. Dr. Rajni Palriwala:

Is Anthropology a social critique? I missed this aspect in the discussion.

The relationship between the informant and the fieldworker has changed. The scale has become larger, the world changes.

Prof. Dr. Jean Comaroff:

The conditions for doing fieldwork change. Now there are human subjects protection committees in the USA who aim to protect the informant from us. We are the sacrificial people from whom the informants have to be protected. The informants are regarded our victims.

In Africa, a lot of knowledge is commoditised, which affects the relationship between the informant and us. A lot of work here [in European anthropology] is so traditional [and not adaptive to this trend]. I am now working on studies of crime, for instance.

About similarity and difference: ethnicity is self-consciousness of difference, but why is there ethnicity; because some people are the same. In the field one asks: what is ethnicity, I want to have it!

Prof. Dr. Kirsten Hastrup:

Anthropology looks at the entire world. We have attention for the whole world, also the poor and the remote and for the global.

Ad initiation into the field: all of us were scared at the first fieldwork. There is no normative method. The distinct method of fieldwork in anthropology is however that we do not speak first. I wish you all good luck with your fieldwork.

Dr. Hans van den Breemer:

With regard to the similarities and the difference I must note that the students who work in Senegal and the Gambia are struck by differences.