Why don’t we study ‘up’?
Some personal reflections here. When I first embarked upon my PhD project, I was going out to study an Aboriginal community and look at how they interacted with two different government bodies. When I got out into the field, one of the Aboriginal people who worked for one of the government agencies said to me: “Not another anthropologist. We’ve had enough of them studying us. Why don’t you study your own culture?”
I changed the focus of my PhD project. I found that government institutions (the so called powerful) are as much ‘Others’ as the traditional subjects of anthropology: indigenous people, post-colonial people (ewww, I hate that term!), the poor. In the small agency I studied, were not only organisational hierarchies, but social kinship, cliques, political and ideological struggles, economics, language, insider rules, group identity … I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea. In the end, it was as every bit as exotic in comparison with the academic and anthropological cultures I’d been embedded in, as if I’d gone to Ambon or Nepal (my other fieldwork choices).
But somehow, it’s not the same. It’s not quite as legitmate doing fieldwork in one’s own culture (even if it is a very foreign culture) as it is doing the whole Malinowski-set-up-a-tent-amongst-the-natives-and-eavesdrop kind of anthropology we’re fed in undergrad courses.
Or is it?
Over to you