In my own case, I recall being a nerd. I was overweight and short-sighted, did well in school, hated sports, and was always on the margins of any social group to which I belonged. The vision quest aspect of anthropology, going off to some place my peers would never see to discover things that they would never know, was irresistible.

Others will have their own stories. But, as I have observed elsewhere, a career in advertising in Japan has made me comfortable with working in teams. I note how many friends whose higher education has been in business, law or medicine talk about the importance of the study groups their schools encouraged them to form, which not only enhanced the learning process but created relationships that, for many, have been of lifelong importance. Because my daughter is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, I know of at least one school where, starting in the second year, every student is assigned individuals in the next class for whom they are responsible -- with how well those assigned to them do reflected in scores used to assign their own class rank. And, now, while pursuing my new interest in social network analysis, I have stumbled into a community that is both incredibly diverse and remarkably supportive. Questions about software or specific research techniques posted on email lists are usually quickly and thoughtfully answered.

When I ask myself what all these examples have in common, I see a shared body of knowledge rooted in shared goals and awareness of the value of reciprocity in building networks; these people all know that connections are important.

So why, I wonder, are anthropologists such solitary creatures?

Or maybe it's just me. What about you?

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I don't have an answer to this, but I too have always found it odd that other sciences seem more collective than ours. Psychologists quite often publish in groups, despite their tendency to begin analysis from the standpoint of the individual mind, body, or person, whereas we believers in relationality tend to fetishize the solitary hero-ethnographer as the only true source of evidence and interpretation.
Perhaps it is because "being an anthropologist" (with regard to fieldwork) is such a personal and individualized enterprise. Anthropologists go off (usually) alone to complete this lengthy work both out of a personal desire and a prerequisite to become/remain a "legitimate" anthropologist. How often is fieldwork done in groups?

The result - or one result - can be a feeling of over-protectiveness about our fieldwork (and the people we encountered and interacted with). Perhaps that contributes to Josh's remark that we only trust ourselves (the solitary hero-ethnographer) to give a voice to our experience through publication, filtering already subjective knowledge with subjective logic, trimming it up nicely to be read objectively. I suppose this goes back to the conversation about "reflexivity" in anthropology on another thread. Looking at ourselves looking at others, we adopt a kind of professional methodology to social life, and, while I'm no psychologist, this may have a qualitative effect on our own abilities to share/relate. How do we share those aspects of our lives which are at once meant to be transparent academic activities and yet remain highly intimate?

Any one anthropological or ethnographic study completed by 10 different people could have at least 10 different outcomes, perspectives, etc. As researchers, we don't own laboratory results or have balanced equations to prove and re-check. All we have is subjective experience. How we present it is very personal and has the added ethical concerns of involving people we presumably feel privileged to have lived among, having shared their lives for months or years. This responsibility can be isolating. Even the concept of "open" anthropology does not necessarily mean that the knowledge we present shouldn't be or won't be filtered. There's no higher authority on that; it's down to the individual who conducted the research. So we train ourselves to be protective of our connections, and perhaps that carries over into the discipline and our lives. (I'm just speculating here.)

Okay, so that's the support for anthropologists being antisocial, self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing nerds. I have, in fact, noticed this solitary behavior: anthropologists always seem to be "doing their own thing".

At the same time, I think there is a tradition of mentorship within anthropology, but this is on a departmental or individual level and perhaps fading with generations. At least in the UK, I'm often told that in the past, relationships between students of anthropology and their tutors or advisers were more personal, with one-to-one sessions rather than large, impersonal groups. University departments today are pretty much just degree factories, with limits on contact hours between staff and students, so those bonds of sharing are easily lost. Still, I find that on the occasions when I ask an anthropologist about their field experiences, they are usually more than willing to share some stories and anecdotes. It's always a more relaxing, lighter and friendly conversation to turn to actual experiences rather than theoretical debate.

I also hope that what we're doing here, rapidly climbing to 1,000 members and building a large "social network" for anthropologists, disproves that our default solitary position outweighs our sense of community, academic or otherwise.
Francine Barone said:
Perhaps it is because "being an anthropologist" (with regard to fieldwork) is such a personal and individualized enterprise. Anthropologists go off (usually) alone to complete this lengthy work both out of a personal desire and a prerequisite to become/remain a "legitimate" anthropologist. How often is fieldwork done in groups?

Could this situation be changing? On Savage Minds I found the the following link to a conversation between James Faubion and George Marcus, who are currently engaged in a project to rethink fieldwork for the twenty-first century.
Many of us are starting now to collaborate, and this gives me hope. I have often found it strange that, in a discipline that calls for understanding/interpreting/reflecting on other people, we seldom exhibit the same behaviors among ourselves. In fact, when I was a first year student preparing for qualifying exams I was warned by one of the faculty members that "others would take my ideas" if we studied en masse. We did it anyway, of course, and fully half of us that did high passed. We have learned from this experience.

I do find that members of other dsiciplines are more than willing to work with me as I begin to research. I have an excellent network of folks from communication studies, American studies, and visual studies that are working with me on social/digital networking and performance theories; we share references, fieldnotes, information on gadgets and software, etc. This has proven to be invaluable to me.

As we move towards a more "edupunk" method of teaching and stop being the "sage on the stage" I think this attitude will change. Like many of our colleagues, I believe that learning is a participatory event. As students incorporate this understanding into their learning and research, and bring it out into the work place, we may find that the opportunities for collaboration expand geometrically.
Denice, it is really encouraging to hear that some of us are embracing collaboration. The myth of the hero-ethnographer venturing into unknown places still has a powerful appeal. Anthropologists starting out today must find their way in a very different world. Rather than belabor this point, I would rather simply quote the first few paragraphs from the chapter on Japan that Ruth McCreery and I wrote for Ray Scupin, ed., Peoples and Cultures of Asia.

What is Japan to you? • Famous brands: Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Sony, Toshiba, Sharp. How many more can you name? • Entertainment: Manga, anime, idoru, video games, a setting for science fiction novels or thrillers? • Fashion: Issey Miyake, Kenzo, Comme des Garcons. Have you ever worn their clothes?
• Tradition: Zen, swords, shrines, temples, martial arts, tea ceremony. Does anything else come to mind?
• Exotic food: sushi, sashimi, sukiyaki, tempura, Cup Noodle. What else?
• The world’s second largest economy: A market where brands like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and KFC have been part of the landscape for generations and newcomers like Kinkos, Toys R Us and Starbucks have done very well, indeed. Are there still opportunities there?
• A nation in search of a role: With a constitution that renounces war and the second largest military in Asia, what role should Japan play in global politics?

If you feel confused, you aren’t alone. As consumers and scholars, business people and diplomats, individuals who deal with Japan see Japan (in Japanese: Nihon or Nippon) in different ways. Japan is always changing, and so are the perspectives of the authors who write about Japan, including the anthropologists.

Doing Fieldwork in Japan brings together chapters by twenty-one scholars. The topics on which they did their research are as varied as the individuals who chose them. In the order in which they appear, they include Japanese teenagers who hang out in Harajuku, Tokyo’s teen fashion Mecca; radical student movements; a rural community in Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands; a new religion reinterpreting Buddhist belief and practice to meet the needs of modern believers; an ancient but still thriving pilgrimage on Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands (think Chaucer in a tour bus); a bioscience institute located in Osaka, the commercial heart of Kansai, the southwest of Japan; the impact of JETs, participants in the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, on English-language education; the prosecutors office in Kobe, which along with Osaka and Kyoto is one of the three major cities in the Kansai; security policymaking by the Japanese Defense Agency and Ministry of Foreign Affairs; NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster; a quantitative study of women in the labor market and why men’s wages are so much higher than women’s; the impact of mine closure on a coal-mining community in Hokkaido, the northernmost of the four main islands; Japanese bureaucrats responsible for addressing the problems of the elderly, a rapidly growing segment of the Japanese population; Japanese foreign aid (Japan being one of the world’s largest donors); modern Japanese social history, with a focus on the Japanese labor movement; enka, an old-fashioned but still popular music genre, whose role in Japanese popular culture resembles that of Country and Western in the USA; two corporations, a lingerie manufacturer and a foreign multinational in the financial services industry; the creation of tradition in a changing Tokyo neighborhood and Tsukiji, the world’s largest seafood market; the betwixt-and-between lives of reverse immigrants, Japanese-Brazilian workers in Japan; and a review of a long and distinguished career that began with a study of a rural community and has included an award from Japan’s emperor.

This list is long, but it still contains only a sample of what it might. Where are the studies of bar hostesses and geisha, kindergartens, bikers and bankers, blue-collar workers, the homeless, the aging, the comics, the artists, the shamans, the celebrities who make up the geinôkai (the world of the tarento, “talents,” performers and personalities who appear on TV, in movies, in ads), the potters, the fishermen, the cops, the gangsters, the juvenile delinquents, the baseball players, the sumo wrestlers, the account executives and art directors who work for advertising agencies, the women who get out the vote for local politicians, the mothers, the office ladies, the young women who travel overseas in search of handbags, love, new careers and new selves? The list gets longer every day.

Note, too: When we study Japan, we do not have the luxury of studying the lives of people who inhabit an isolated corner of the globe and, so far as the rest of the world is concerned, have nothing to say about how we describe their behavior. We study the lives of people who are often as highly educated and may be more wealthy and powerful than the anthropologists who struggle to understand how they think, feel, and behave. No place on earth illustrates more vividly the anthropological predicament that Marcus and Fischer describe so well: “We step into a stream of already existing representations produced by journalists, prior anthropologists, historians, creative writers, and of course the subjects of study themselves.”

This is the sort of world in which anthropologists must now find a place. We may, as Clifford Geertz remarks in Islam Observed discover insights in microscopic encounters. We must, however, test their value in larger conversations.
Bo, I see at least two issues at stake here. The first is why anthropology attracts people with what we might call an esoteric disposition. Here my experience and yours are similar. We are marginal folk, curious about the artificiality of so much that goes on around us, but also pre-adapted to the participant-observer role. The second, implied but not directly asked in the subject line for this discussion, is what anthropologists bring to the table when we do try to work with other people? What do we offer that the others with whom, I believe, we must work to keep the field alive will see as valuable? My view is that we have to be able to talk with economists, sociologists, business people, politicians, powers-that-be, in their own languages, to which we then add angles they haven't considered. That's valuable. If our stance is, "You've got it all wrong, let me tell you..." or "Leave me alone while I pursue my hobby..." the field will, I believe, become increasingly marginalized.

Bo said:
This brings to mind something one of my professors said during an Ethnographic Analysis class. We were discussing native ethnography in general, and one of the discussion points she brought up was the necessity of an outsider's perspective, whether one begins as an insider or not. That ability to step outside culture and see it not as a member who is unconsciously following rules, but as a critical observer who can see the patterns at play... Maybe it is not that anthropology turns people into loners, but that loners can make good anthropologists, as the OP hinted at?

I was quite the loner, and I still am to a certain degree. I find that anthropology makes me feel reassured about my disinterest in what other people consider "normal" socializing. When I discovered the concepts of anthropology, it was like a light went on. "Ah," I thought, "so I'm not the only person who finds this all a little arbitrary." It's not that I don't have any friends or whatnot, it's just that I seem to have missed the "polite small talk and socializing" lecture somewhere along the way... Plus, if I'm sitting at a table measuring a projectile point or trying to classify a bit of bone, I find my imagination runs away with me and I try to wrap my mind around people who actually tied that point to a shaft and used it as a weapon, and such an active imagination is a good trait that comes along with being a loner, among other things. People who spend time alone often have a rich inner life.

The flipside is true, though. I've seen very social anthropologists. They're just usually socializing with each other!
Bo, the only thing I have to add is confirmation of your observation that solitary pursuit of what others perceive as esoteric interests, combined with "You other guys do it all wrong" defensiveness, is by no means confined to anthropologists. As far as I can make out, it is pretty pervasive in the humanities and other social sciences as well.

Bo said:
John - I certainly don't have a succinct answer to that, but I agree with you that collaberation is important, and that anthropologists can add a beneficial perspective. You made me smile with your comment "You've got it all wrong, let me tell you..." because I have definitely heard that more than once, and I agree it can be quite off-putting. I have encountered that attitude among people from a variety of fields, including anthropology. An inside joke 'round the circles I orbit is to say that someone has a case of the "well actually"s, meaning it is impossible to talk to them without them correcting you toward their way of thinking. I would wager we aren't the only ones wondering how to get a little more personable.
I believe I may have found my community, finally. I will not wax poetic with regard to my "loner" tendencies or the reasons why. I do acknowledge, triangular peg in both round and square hole situations and my ambivalence toward all "group" projects.
Two things I found interesting about this conversation in light of my recent experiences in class; the primary question of anthros as loners and the question of not influencing the research. To the first; my Sym.Anthro Prof described her Anthro colleagues generally, as a very social group. I found that surprising given my disposition and it made me wonder how clearly I was perceiving Anthro as a profession. a) I like people, just not all that close and b) I chose anthro because I am sick of sick people, so Psych lost me. However; I joined this collective for the express purpose of learning while I am otherwise engaged with core requirements, to alleviate some of the frustration I experience at the junior college level. [I am a non-traditional, so double that frustration factor] Joining, forces me to be collaborative in my effort. Perhaps, creating a more 'sociable anthropologist'?

Second the same prof exhorted us to be very careful about our behavior while in the field, she related an experience where her doctoral dissertation research was put in real jeopardy because she was so compatible with the community she was studying. Her solution was to open her field notes to the community for review. She believed the transparency factor would assist her in staying both accurate and as objective as she could be. The situation seems to me to be something of a common pitfall and begs the question; Just how social can a researcher be?

I have no answers, I am a student. I hope I will develop a degree of wisdom before I hang my shingle.
Her solution was to open her field notes to the community for review.

Was this cross-checking for accuracy? Or allowing the people whose lives we study to decide what we say about them? If the latter, how does it differ in any significant way from what journalists call "Selling out."
My opinion of my instructor is; a professional who interacted with her students with professional integrity. Based on my limited relationship, I believe she revealed her experience for teaching purposes; her career spanned about 30 years at the time I was her student. It is my opinion, her primary concern at the time of her doctoral research, was to remain a professional, objective observer in unanticipated circumstances. She did not come to the decision lightly or without due personal diligence. She did not strike me as a person who would put a compatible relationship with her research group ahead of her professional commitments.

John McCreery said:
Her solution was to open her field notes to the community for review.

Was this cross-checking for accuracy? Or allowing the people whose lives we study to decide what we say about them? If the latter, how does it differ in any significant way from what journalists call "Selling out."
Victoria, no criticism of your teacher intended. A year or so ago, I read Luke Lassiter's Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography and found his advice pointing in the second of the directions I mentioned. I could see where he was coming from. Start with the notion that the people the anthropologist works with are victims and that they and their ancestors have been abused by SOBs who wrote things about them to which they object, things to which they had no opportunity to respond -- set the story up this way and treating them as co-authors sounds properly egalitarian; giving them the last word on what goes into the book sounds like the right thing to do. But, if you are me, and the people you work with are frequently richer, more powerful and smarter than you are, with better media connections than you will ever have -- sure, you show them what you are writing about them. That's called professional courtesy. But allow them to control the final edit -- that's called selling out. They know that and would certainly think less of you if that is what you did.

So, aging skeptic and reader of hard -boiled detective novels that I am, I go back to Lassiter and ask as I read, "Who precisely is it who gets that final word." Chiefs? Tribal elders? Who gets left out? And what if what you've discovered is that the chief is raking off the profits from the casino and funneling them to the Cayman Islands. He's probably not going to want that included, will he?

Isn't this Anthro 101? Context, context, context....
To return to the initial question, I would agree that most practitioners of fieldwork-based ethnography are inspired by the Malinowskian ideal of the lone ranger in a pith helmet. Indeed I would say that fieldwork undertaken by couples is much less effective, since the ethnographer must force himself out of the tent to engage in social interaction and that is less necessary when a partner is there. Weber said that we study who we are or who we are not. Anthropologists study human beings. Work that one out. Or, as James Joyce once said, "If I was any good at social relations, I wouldn't have become a writer".

Perhaps it is our experience of extreme loneliness that makes us such reliable companions. Whenever I go to a new city, for whatever purpose, I can always rely on the local anthropologists to look after me, not always my official hosts. We are a gregarious bunch and let's hope that the OAC can make profitable use of that quality in a virtual context.

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