Roanne: dear team, forget about all your plans

Dear team,

As you’re traveling to your fieldwork location by train, bus, or plane, I’m finally able to formally tell you: forget everything we’ve discussed about this research project, even what you’ve written down in your research plan, which – I know, I know – you’ve worked so diligently on for months. The plan that I, as your supervisor, ultimately signed off on with a signature that means “this is a good plan”.

It ís a good plan.

And we’re not going to follow it.

You have already learned, by now, that anthropology is a research discipline where ethnography plays a prominent role – the form of qualitative research where the researcher immerses themselves in a community or organization to observe behavior and interactions up close. You may have also come across another definition of anthropology in the books that you read as part of your training: as an attempt to understand how people all over the world form social relationships and give meaning to their lives. But I’ve developed a different definition of our research method over the course of my career: anthropology is, in my opinion, primarily about fully opening yourself up to the other, in order to discover that they don’t differ as much from you as you might think.

In order for you to leave your field with valuable findings, you will need to get very close to people you study.

So close will you near the others, that you may forget about yourself – and your research plans – for a while.

Children have known this for a long time. My three-year-old daughter sometimes gets scared when she’s lying in her bed. In the dim light of her bedroom, she thinks monsters are looking at her from the corners, and there’s a ghost at the window. But only when I extend my hand and we walk together through the darkness towards what scares her does she see the monsters and ghosts for what they are: cuddly toys and a curtain. Here is the point I am trying to make: the closer you get to something that seems strange (or, in her case, even scary), the less strange it becomes.

Adults know this too, or should know it. People who become jealous or insecure in their romantic relationships often look at third-party, attractive individuals with a golden filter on their eyes:

that one woman at the party where your partner is laughing so animatedly is much more beautiful than you;

that one man at your workplace where colleagues have been talking about him nonstop is more successful than you’ll ever be.

Such perceptions can only stand up to scrutiny when kept at arm’s length. As soon as you get to know those people, their ordinary human characteristics begin to emerge. That beautiful woman has a facial tic and a scar on her stomach that she hates intensely; that successful man has to drink an entire bottle of wine every evening to cope with the workload.

The closer we get to the other person, the more human they become – and therefore, the more like us.

But in order to get that close, you can’t use distracting or guiding thoughts. During encounters with people in the field, you want to actually see and hear them; you want to be fully present in energy and attention. That means letting go of all assumptions written down in your research plan. Don’t worry: you’ll come back to those assumptions later, if only to contrast the reality you found in the field with the reality you expected based on the literature you’ve read on our research topic. But for now, it’s time to make contact with the other person as much as possible with a blank slate.

You may find yourself in the process – and a computer full of beautiful data, with that.

See you soon online, and send me a postcard for the office?

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