March 26, 2012

Doing Anthropological Fieldwork

“If we want to discover what [wo]man amounts to, we can only find it in what [wo]men are: and what [wo]men are, above all other things, is various. It is in understanding that variousness – its range, its nature, its basis, and its implications – that we shall come to construct a concept of human nature that, more than a statistical shadow, and less than a primitivists dream, has both substance and truth.” (Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973:52)

This quotation from Clifford Geertz, one of the canonical figures in anthropology, succinctly sums up what anthropology tries to do. Anthropology is essentially a comparative study of socio-cultural behaviour and attitudes, and is one of the most complex yet fundamental tools in the scholar of religions’ toolbox.

Some scholars make a career out of being an anthropologist of religion, others employ the techniques of ethnographic fieldwork in combination with other approaches and methodologies. And, of course, even those scholars who are attempting to be solely anthropologists of religion cannot divorce religion from the host of other contextual factors within which they believe they have found it. This week, David (and, briefly, Chris) are joined by Dr Bettina Schmidt of the University of Wales, Trinity St David, who gives an insightful personal account of the complex task of conducting anthropological fieldwork, with examples from a variety of contexts.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. Dr Bettina Schmidt is Senior lecturer in the study of religions in the School of Theology, Religious Studies and Islamic Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity St. David. Her PhD concerned ethnicity and religion, focusing on Santeria and Spiritism in Puerto Rico (University of Marburg, 1996), and she went on to post-doctoral work in cultural theories and Caribbean religions (University of Marburg, 2001). Dr Schmidt has worked as a lecturer in anthropology for various German universities, as well as Visiting Professor at the City University of New York and of the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad in Cusco, Peru. At the moment she is member of the board of editors of the journal Indiana, an annual journal of the Ibero American Institute in Berlin, and of the journal Curare, a journal of medical anthropology and transcultural psychiatry, published by the AG Ethnomedicine, and Secretary of the BASR. Although fieldwork is utilised by many of our interviewees, listeners may be interested in listening to George Chryssides’ interview on The Insider/Outsider Problem, and/or reading Katie Aston’s response Insider and Outsider – An Anthropological Perspective. Anthropology is a complex beast, and something which can only truly be learned in the field. As our friend Damon Zacharias Lycourinos has said:

“Anthropology is the art and science of taking paradigms of ethnography from your supervisor, taking them into the field, realising that they are wrong due to their objectivity, re-shaping and introducing a new school of anthropological theory, and expecting your re-shaped paradigms to be annihilated by your future students.”

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