There are six posts for this part of the coursework: Introduction (your African experience), brainstorming, plan, update, final product, reflection.
The fieldwork assignment is where you get to be a cultural anthropologist of Africa. The goal is to take you outside your usual sphere, and introduce you to someone, something African, from Africa. It will provide the opportunity for you to explore issues raised in the class in more detail, and learn firsthand about the experiences of a person from another place. Interacting with new ideas and peoples will allow you to reflect on your own culture and experiences, perhaps with a fresh eye.
The methodology often used by anthropologists is participant observation, where the anthropologist lives among a group of people to understand their way of life and belief systems. Here is a link to an excellent, short guide that explains the basics of participant observation and gives examples of its various components: http://assessment.aas.duke.edu/documents/ParticipantObservationFieldGuide.pdf. Anthropologists often have a specific question in mind (a hypothesis) that they want to answer, which helps to organize their choice of field site, the people they seek to meet, and the questions they ask. Sometimes, once they’ve arrived on site, they realize the question/ hypothesis will need to be changed, and by living and engaging with the people, a new hypothesis emerges. For example, I went to Botswana to do my fieldwork among youth and my organizing question was to understand health from their perspective. I had read a lot of subject matter literature, and thought there might be more to what youth were experiencing than just pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases which is what the literature about youth mostly focused on. After 14 months of fieldwork and another couple of years of reflecting, reading more, writing, and reviewing with my committee, my final product was on youth, witchcraft, education and decision making.
While you will not be living among a different group for 14 months, you can choose to observe an event, practice, ritual, happening, and participate to the best of your ability. In participant observation, the anthropologist generally describes the event or thing under observation or question, talks to the other people present, asking them about what is happening, what things mean. He or she is trying to learn the importance and meaning of the event or thing. In addition, they read up on the topic they have chosen, so they can ask more informed questions, and understand what is going on at a basic level. They conclude their research by reviewing their notes and making sense of all the pieces of data, which they then present to their peers in various formats. Remember, one of the key goals of anthropology is to look for the similarities and differences across groups of people.
Anthropologists also interview a variety of people (from key informants to bystanders at an event to people of importance or with special information), generally in an open ended fashion (as opposed to a survey questionnaire where the questions are set, the answers are listed, and the order of questions is important). When interviewing, the anthropologist tries not to direct the respondent, but rather asks open questions that can be explored in detail through the interview and in subsequent conversations. Sometimes you will be led in different directions than originally anticipated.
For this project, you might have a question in mind (What does soccer mean in Nigeria?) or a hypothesis in mind (e.g., African born children raised in the U.S. are raised differently than those that stay in Africa and are raised in Africa) or you might just be interested in the topic of “family” with no specific point of view in the beginning. After doing your fieldwork or interview and analyzing your material, you may arrive at a conclusion about childrearing differences.
You have to clear your topic with me well in advance (through the brainstorming blog and then the submission of the fieldwork plan) but you can do almost anything that relates to Africa and anthropology. I want you to get out and meet and explore Africa, preferably someone (a non relative) from the continent and not a second generation African living in America. For example, you could:
- Attend an African celebration (such as a wedding, naming ceremony, or funeral), taking notes and talking to fellow celebrants about what things mean.
- Go to an African market, church or healer, make notes on what you see, discuss what you observe and hear with the people there. What topic would be of interest to you in these contexts?
- Get your hair braided by an African braider. Relate your experience and what hair and its decoration mean. What is the braider’s life story? Or compare the experience of opening a business here and in Africa. Does hair care and presentation mean something different in this African community than it does in yours?
- Live with an African family for a few days or a week. Record your experiences and insights. Discover what differences or similarities might exist.
- If you cannot do participant observation on an event or happening, you may want to interview someone from Africa. They might be your friend, colleague at work, fellow student, or someone you know or see from your neighborhood (not a relative). What topic do you want to engage with them on – you need to have some topic, not just the experience of talking together.
These are just examples – you can probably think of many more and students over the years have. Whatever you do, it needs to be with African subjects (not African American, not the African American Day Parade, not your church with an African name but no African congregants, etc.) and it needs to involve interacting with someone from Africa in some way (not just book research, going to a museum, or listening to a lecture or presentation). This is an opportunity to stretch yourself and your horizons, so the project should not involve interviewing your family, for example, if you are from Africa.
An anthropologist at some point collects basic demographic information from her main informants, such as name, age, country of origin, marital status, number of children, profession (in Africa and in the U.S.). Basic background information that you will want to collect includes when the person came to the States (and, if they are willing, why), whether the person’s family is here, how often they go home, and whether they plan to return to Africa at a later date (and perhaps why they plan to return). You are getting to know the person. For an interview, the rest of the interview questions, no more than ten, will be driven by your interests and organized around a broad theme. The number of questions should depend on your topic, the complexity of the question, and the level of detail that is anticipated in the answer. Some interviews might only consist of a few questions if they will result in long, detailed answers. They might be about family, schooling, work, music, food, religion, etc. Do not try to combine your interests in both religion and politics, or family life and education in Africa, for example, in the same interview. Each of these topics is large and complex, and it will be difficult to cover them well in the same interview. Sometimes the answers you receive will go off in a different direction than you anticipated. This is ok – listen to what your informant is telling you as it may add something new to your study.
Participating in an event or doing something other than an interview is fun, and also requires some leg work. What are you interested in? Family life? Maybe you want to live with a family, or observe mother and child interactions. Health? Perhaps you can find a healer or someone who is experiencing a health problem who will let you follow and observe them as they seek treatment. It is not advisable to expect to observe in places of confidentiality or life and death. For example, I do not advise you to attempt to observe psychiatric counseling at the place you work, or to try to follow an ER doctor around. You will want to ask people questions about what was happening at the event: What is that food? Why do you feed the children that food? Why did the priest drape the blue cloth over that person’s head? Etc. If you speak to someone in great depth about a subject (i.e. they become your key informant), you will want to provide some background/demographic information about them in your final paper.
Never assume you know the answer in advance – even obvious questions can reveal surprising answers. Don’t lead your informants – let them lead you. For example, instead of asking, Is your high blood pressure caused by too much salt in your diet, ask, What causes your high blood pressure? In their belief system, it may have nothing to do with salt, but if you mention salt, they will almost surely agree with you and you will never find out that there is an alternative explanation.
For this project, you must identify yourself as a student and describe the project. Make sure they agree to talk to you (i.e., no interviewing a drunk person in a bar who isn’t thinking straight at that moment). Tell people in advance that you’ll be taking notes. If using a camera, ask before taking pictures. You can either record as things go along, or immediately after. Expand upon your notes quickly. Do not delay – memories about events and conversations are unreliable.
This is NOT a book project, but you do need to know something about your topic. You should locate relevant and reputable sources on your topic (between 3 and 5 sources), summarize them succinctly in the background section, analyze them in relation to what they contribute to your project and hypothesis or question, and apply them to your findings as appropriate. A draft list of sources should be included as part of the fieldwork plan (blog #3), with the final set of sources included as a References page, properly cited, in the final paper.
After you have conducted the interview or participated in the event, you will write up the results (in no more than 10 pages). You should do the fieldwork as soon as your fieldwork plan is approved (blog #3). This will allow you enough time to go back to the person or situation/participants for clarification or more in depth information, should this be necessary. The final paper will basically tell the stories of the people you interviewed or the situation you observed. The materials that we’ll be reading this semester should give you an idea of how to present the information in a readable format. Please note that none of the authors provide a verbatim account of the interviews (which is deadly dull). You do not read: “I asked her her name.” “She said her name was Mary.” I asked her how old she is. She told me she is 92. Nor do they include the question and then the answer. Think interesting story/article/account, not Q&A list.
The excellent paper will include a title, introduction, hypothesis/guiding question, methodology, background section, the actual write up/analysis, and a conclusion. It will have a map of the country under consideration, and a short section of relevant information about the country (if your topic is about music, telling me all about the oil industry is not relevant) with no more than three references. This is not a desk or library research project, so the background will be just enough to explain the basics of your subject. Include pictures where possible, and make sure to appropriately label and cite both maps and pictures. Many students lose points by not citing where the pictures and maps came from. Your conclusion should reflect on what you learned from your informant or project and make appropriate links to what we’ve learned in class or to contemporary events.
There are six parts to this project which are all captured on the fieldwork blog site (see more information in the rubrics, Appendix B. After posting your blog, you need to check back to read the responses and suggestions from the class and the professor. The blog is the only place where feedback will be provided, and it is up to you to know what it was and whether it required a change in your project or not.
Once I’ve reviewed and marked the blog in question, I move on. If you have made changes, or want me to see something on a blog whose due date has passed, you have to send me an email to let me know.