Competitive Hardship: ethnographic guilt and early-career pressure to conduct ‘authentic’ fieldwork

Jennifer Cearns is currently conducting ethnographic research in Miami, USA, and Havana, Cuba, focusing on practices of material and digital exchange, sharing and reciprocity within and between capitalist and socialist settings of Cuban sociality. Her research includes studies of the circulation of material items between Cuban diasporas in networks of exchange, and of the circulation of digital information through Cuba’s El Paquete Semanal distribution network, amongst others.

She is a PhD student at University College London, and a Visiting Scholar at the Cuban Research Institute, Florida International University.


“The old fieldwork with all of its assumptions and expectations is dead[, y]et the epistemological efficacy of experience has lost none of its luster”                            (Barz & Cooley 2008: 14)

It has long been acknowledged that the nature of anthropology as a discipline has undergone a seismic internal shift in the past few decades; we have confronted our orientalist and colonialist origins and dismantled many culturally reified categories or gender, ethnicity, etc (Eriksen & Nielsen 2013; Jameson 1998; Marcus 1998). Yet in one other regard we remain fairly conservative: when it comes to our methodological approach, we gather around our totemic ‘participant observation’, drawing our disciplinary identity from our ‘unique’ position as researchers of ‘depth’. In this article I shall question the on occasion narrow definition of this ‘depth’, and argue that anthropological methods have remained more conservative than our diverging lines of intellectual enquiry. This is in part due to the hegemonic position of university appointment boards and funding bodies in Europe and North America. I shall draw on my own experiences of ethnographic fieldwork, as well as parallel observation of a different field: my own cohort of early-career anthropologist colleagues from various U.K. universities, embarking on their own first long-term fieldwork. Digital methods have allowed me to observe and share their experiences of negotiating ‘the field’, which have often involved feelings of anxiety and guilt provoked by questions of what typifies ‘legitimate’ fieldwork. The article addresses issues of improvised and radical methodologies in ‘modern’ or ‘non-traditional’ fieldsites, as well as issues of mental health for early-career ethnographers. It then questions what constitutes ‘authentic’ fieldwork, and argues that participants frequently have their own notions of authentic research[ers], which may be at odds with our own.

Any doctoral student of anthropology can recite to you the Ethnographic Commandments, handed down to us from the hand of Malinowski almost a century ago.

Thou shalt live amongst the people.

Thou shalt speak in their tongue.

Thou shalt be isolated from thine own cultural emissaries.

The traditional Malinowski model promotes the virtues of depth in fieldwork to enable a complete outsider to pass into the role of an ‘active native’ through creating intimate rapport with participants, and later converting this information into professional knowledge (Malinowski 1922). Malinowski’s recommendations became templates to successive generations of anthropologists, a guidebook on how to complete the key ‘rite of passage’ of conducting fieldwork, which in turn will allow a doctoral student to pass into the professional world. The Royal Anthropological Institute’s own website cites him as the key founding example of anthropological fieldwork: “Since Malinowski’s time, fieldwork – traditionally, away from one’s own society – has been regarded as an essential and necessary part of an anthropologist’s professional training… some anthropologists still consider that doing fieldwork in the traditional Malinowskian sense is an essential and distinguishing aspect of anthropological research”[1]

These methodologies are taught to graduate students before embarking on their first prolonged period of fieldwork, and this fieldwork in turn is further cemented as a right-of-passage through institutionalisation by academic and funding bodies. As Virginia Caputo (2003) has illustrated, in spite of a post-Said generation of anthropological atonement for it’s origins in colonialism and orientalism, disciplinary bias still errs towards the distinctly exotic as a more valid or ‘authentic’ fieldsite, which in turn impacts hiring and training practices in many European and North-American anthropology departments.

Application procedures mandate an in-depth discussion of methodologies, with prime place accorded to participant observation, and the presumption that the ethnographer will live amongst the people s/he wishes to observe, ideally in a context remote from his or her own cultural framework. In this process, the ethnographer will seek to gain this ‘depth’ of field insight, a depth which no longer signifies merely the attainment of functionalist knowledge regarding kinship structures, ritual, religion, etc. but also a subjective interpretation of affect, personhood, and emotion. In short, such objectives require “a kind of depth that challenges sensibility; knowledge and the understanding of experience in a particular way of life become much more intimately entwined. And this leads to much greater pressure on what methodologically and personally was required in the past of mostly Euro-American anthropologists working among mostly non-Euro-American peoples” (Marcus 1998:246).

For some in the discipline however, this ‘depth’ is at times compounded with notions of ‘hardship’. A sense of competitiveness amongst anthropologists is not uncommon, although rarely openly discussed- who has been through the most ‘authentically’ ‘primitive’ experience? Did you last the year without running water, without electricity, without Wi-Fi? Naturally, conducting research in some fieldsites necessitates such adaption, yet the often implied, rarely voiced mentality surrounding such circumstances often intimates that these experiences are consequently ‘more real’. Some of us are certainly guilty of fetishizing ethnographic practice more than we would care to admit, as Gupta and Ferguson highlight in their own description of a ‘hierarchy of purity of field sites’ (Gupta & Ferguson 1997: 13).

Much of this filters down to graduate students as received knowledge through the curriculum that is taught. We absorb monographs that explore fieldsites considered to be very different to where ‘we’ come from, and such sites are in turn what we mentally prepare for before embarking on our own first bought of long-term fieldwork. The paradox here is that most anthropologists in the academy have long acknowledged the changing nature of our construction of ‘the field’ and our role within that field. Twenty years have passed since Marcus noted “ethnography remains the ground for a continuing debate about form that is in the present really about the research practices themselves of anthropology, which are in transformation. There is just a lot more variety now in the nature of research projects that begin as ethnography, and in the textual forms that these are taking” (1998: 232).

Nonetheless our approach to contemporary ethnographic methods has not changed at the same rate, nor, in some cases, has our definition of what constitutes the ‘field(s)’. Aside from the obvious difficulty and stress of having to navigate a new place, a new language, and the other predictable logistical difficulties in adapting to a new setting, many young ethnographers find themselves conducting fieldwork in settings considerably different to those researched a generation or two ago.  Many consequently experience an additional mental burden of having to improvise new methodologies to achieve immersion within increasingly unbounded and fluid cultural settings.

My own fieldwork has certainly necessitated improvised, and at times even ‘radical’, methods to cope with the landscapes around me. My research addresses material and digital flows between Cubans on the island and in the diaspora, which is centred in Miami but also incorporates many other areas across Central and Latin America, and even Russia. By ‘following the thing’ (Marcus 1995), my research uses material and digital culture as a lens to trace the stories of families that have been separated across reified geopolitical borders (U.S./Cuba), and also considers the trajectories of individuals navigating complex and reified borders between ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’, ‘freedom’ and ‘oppression’, etc. A focus upon the movement of things connecting these groups clearly requires multi-sited and multilingual ethnographic methods, yet the main body of ethnographic research in the Greater Miami area has also involved challenges and required new more radical methods that I had not foreseen, encountered in the literature, or mentally prepared myself for.

Alongside the more ‘traditional’ difficulties confronted by a female European anthropologist working amongst Cubans (entrenched machismo; overcoming a pervading paranoia amongst Cubans of outsiders stemming from decades of operating within a poli

tically corrupt and authoritarian landscape; frequent unintended encounters with the illegal and the ethical concerns these introduce), there is the further difficulty of conducting ethnographic research in an enormous, geographically unbounded urban sprawl (Miami). Unlike the more ‘traditional’ ethnographic research conducted in small, supposedly remote villages and towns, where participants are readily locatable, my research is in a vast city, and I frequently spend four hours per day on my own in a car, as indeed do my participants. While I anticipated difficulties in gaining the trust of the people I would work with in the field, I had never been prepared for the idea that it might be impossible to actually locate them, due to the pace and distance of city life and the lack of public space in Miami.


Moreover, due to various economic and social constraints, it has been impossible for me to live with my participants; rather, I commute every day in, out and across my sprawling field. I typically drive at least five hundred miles a week. Others have experienced similar challenges when conducting fieldwork in urban-based diasporas (Berg & Sigona 2013), yet to this day relatively few anthropologists talk openly about the feelings of guilt, anxiety, and isolation this can induce. There is too often a wall of silence around such themes within the academy; ‘if one only reads ethnographies and dissertations that are the end products of ethnographic fieldwork, one could conclude that ethnographers easily set aside their own emotional states in the pursuit of ethnographic data’ (Gardner & Hoffman 2006:7).

We are trained to consider ‘successful’ ethnographic research to mean living amongst your participants/collaborators 24/7, participating in and absorbing every detail of life possible. But what if your participants spend four to five hours a day, on their own, in traffic jams? What if the main thing connecting the participants in your sprawling and unbounded fieldsites is WhatsApp? How to conduct research in a place where you’re doing well if you manage to talk to someone face-to-face for just a few hours a day? Aside from the inevitable loneliness this induces, it also necessitates data-gathering and participant recruitment through other channels, in my case most prominently through digital social networks.

As our fieldwork year has progressed, I’ve noticed I’m not the only one of my doctoral cohort to feel this way. Many of us are conducting what might be called ‘contemporary’ ethnography; working with populations in urban settings, using digital methods, or working with alternative definitions of the word ‘community’ to incorporate transnational, transcultural and multilingual flows. Some of us have also had to move field sites due to logistical problems or issues of physical/mental health. All of us have to some degree felt anxious about rupturing received anthropological tradition, and anxious that we are not making the grade. Some of us have on occasion even received criticism for not ‘toughing it out’ enough. When I altered my own fieldwork plans due to concerns about my own physical and emotional wellbeing throughout the eighteen months of research for example, I fell under criticism from a white, male mid-career researcher who’s own (largely incomparable) research amongst rural communities in Central Africa was apparently ‘much tougher’.

My rebuttal was that if the field is dynamic and unbounded, it surely shapes us as ethnographers as much as we shape it. Surely then, to create good ethnography, it is also our ethical responsibility to construct a fieldsite which in turn will allow us to do our jobs well?  As one particularly helpful professor advised me, “know who you are before the field tells you what you are”; advice I later echoed to a friend suffering from depression in the field. Alix Johnson asks “if we are, ourselves, our own research instruments, what happens when our attention escapes our control?” (Johnson 2016); emotional wellbeing of course bears a considerable impact upon the data we are able to gather, and our understanding of what ideal or ‘successive’ fieldwork looks like can be a key factor in this. What does it mean for early career researchers within anthropology when perfectionism (a motivating factor for many a doctoral researcher), combined with the surrounding anxiety incurred by looming graduation and a challenging job hunt, requires young ethnographers to acquiesce to old paradigms of what constitutes ‘successful’ or ‘real’ fieldwork?

In my year in the field, WhatsApp and Facebook have been key tools in my ethnographic research (for pre-smartphone equivalents on this point, see Norman 2003), but have also ensured that complete isolation from my own cultural framework (if such a thing is indeed so desirable) has been rare, if not impossible. Indeed, over the course of our fieldwork, many of my cohort of doctoral researchers have maintained contact through these digital social networks, and in this regard I at times have the sensation that I’m observing several parallel fieldsites, one of which is in fact a transnational, multilingual site of anthropologists.

Several have voiced their own feelings of guilt and anxiety as the months have gone by. Perhaps the most prevalent concern was not living in the same house as our participants, which for many of us has not been possible. In some cases this was for economic reasons, in others to protect the participants, while others frankly needed their own space and some privacy to endure the many months away from home. Our group chats would seek out mutual support – ”am I doing the right thing?,” “is this a legitimate way to do my research?” – hesitantly at first, and with increasing relief at the realisation that others in fact felt the same way.

Some faced resistance from funding bodies to requests for assistance with car rental or internet connection, which were not always considered to be high-priority items for an anthropologist ‘in the field’. Others quietly wondered if it would be OK to go home for Christmas? Several have indeed returned home on visits, although often with associated feelings of guilt, failure and a perceived need to hide this information from funders and professors alike. One friend sent me a private message admitting to having moved somewhere with air conditioning – “my participants don’t have it, so I know I probably shouldn’t, but I just couldn’t bear it anymore!” – alongside a plea not to tell the others. In this regard a certain level of anthropological machismo can be perpetuated, which on an individual basis we each of us scorn, yet as a group we somehow continue to uphold through the very act of discussing it. One recent thread for example involved members sharing photos of exotic animals they had encountered in the field. There was an elephant, a few monkeys, and I myself was guilty of posting up an alligator (despite having only actually seen one twice, and from a distance at that. A more accurate photo of my natural habitat in the field would have been of a traffic jam). The chat culminated in a friend posting a picture of a grey squirrel on an English park bench with an apology she wasn’t somewhere ‘more exciting’; a gentle reminder that once again, we had slipped into that same old discourse of the exotic.

A further interesting aspect of fieldwork for many of us has been the mirrored interest back from our own participants. In my own case, many of my participants have researched me; one even hacked my online accounts to find out more about me. In the end I was forced to create new ‘professional’ social media profiles in an attempt to bound off some part of my private self from my ever-encroaching field which could follow me wherever there was phone signal. If ethnography was ever a one-directional line of inquiry (which it of course was not), it certainly isn’t in many contemporary fieldsites where participants have just as many technical resources in their arsenal.

While we as ethnographers, often despite our best intentions, clearly can and sometimes do fetishize ‘the field’ and its ‘authenticity’, so too can our participants have their own notions and measures of what an authentic anthropologist is. In one of my own fieldsites (Cuba), I was given a thorough dressing down by a participant who scorned my attempts to ingratiate myself with the local community. Foreign visitors have a markedly different status to locals in Cuba, and are typically required to stay in assigned properties which are equipped (often with air conditioning or a fan, a fridge, etc) for foreigners, and cost considerably more than many locals could pay. To be considered an ‘authentic’ visiting academic, and therefore one who’s research could be considered serious, he expected me to stay in a place designated for foreigners. ‘Why would you forego those privileges, when many of us would do anything possible to have the options you have?’ he asked me, with a distinct air of scorn in his voice. Our ethnographic double standard is all the more easily highlighted in our own guilt and anxiety surrounding the field, and our anxieties around working in fieldsites that may not be so ‘traditional’.

Marcus highlights a growing ‘sense of anxiety…about the loss of integrity and effectiveness of the ethnographic form and process, governed by their traditional rhetorics and regulative ideas’ (1998: 245). Amongst my own cohort of anthropologists, I detect rather a deep-set sense of anxiety that our own research, much of which is posited in communities and topics outside the parameters of what once would have been considered legitimate ethnographic research, will pass muster. Ethnographic ‘depth’ can be easily confused with an exoticised search for authenticity, which in turn can frequently become synonymous with emotional or physical hardship. This is further exacerbated by a wall of silence surrounding the ethnographer’s own personhood and situation in the field, and the complex realities of living and working in fieldsites where total immersion and isolation, if desirable, is practicably impossible due to digital connectivity. Anthropological lines of enquiry have diversified enormously in the past decade, and notions of how to construct a fieldsite are also in flux. Hegemonic structures within the academy, including teaching curricula, funding requirements and job application processes still disproportionately represent the old school however, and until these catch up with the present diversity of research, early-career ethnographers will continue to feel insecure, anxious, and pressurised in this key rite of passage.


Barz, G. & Cooley, T.J., 2008. Shadows in the Field: New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology G. Barz & T. J. Cooley, eds., Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Berg, M.L. & Sigona, N., 2013. Ethnography, diversity and urban space. Identities, 20(4), pp.347–360.

Caputo, V., 2003. At “home” and “away.” In V. Amit, ed. Constructing the Field. London: Routledge, pp. 19–31.

Eriksen, T.H. & Nielsen, F.S., 2013. A History of Anthropology, London: Pluto Press.

Gardner, A. & Hoffman, D.M., 2006. Dispatches from the Field: Neophyte Ethnographers in a Changing World, Illinois: Waveland Press.

Gupta, A. & Ferguson, J., 1997. Discipline and Practice: “The Field” as Site, Method, and Location in Anthropology. In Locations, Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science. Berkeley, LA and London: University Of California Press, pp. 1–46.

Jameson, F., 1998. The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998, Brooklyn: Verso.

Johnson, A., 2016. Affect, Attention, and Ethnographic Research: Thoughts on Mental Health in the Field. Savage Minds. Available at: [Accessed March 15, 2018].

Malinowski, B., 1922. Argonauts of the Western Pacific 1984th ed., Prospect Heights: IL: Waveland Press.

Marcus, G.E., 1995. Ethnography in/of the world system: the emergence of multi-sited ethnography. Annual Review of Anthropology, 24, pp.95–117.

Marcus, G.E., 1998. Ethnography Through Thick and Thin, Princeton: New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Norman, K., 2003. Phoning the Field: Meanings of Place and Involvement in Fieldwork “At Home.” In V. Amit, ed. Constructing the Field: Ethnographic Fieldwork in the Contemporary World. London: Routledge, pp. 119–146.

[1] Royal Anthropological Institute website, “Fieldwork”, (29.03.2018)


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