The “field” and “fieldwork” are central to the discipline and the ethnographic project. However, ethnographic field schools seem to be on the wane, especially those oriented toward undergraduates.

We might step back and ask: Why does such a central feature in identity and practice receive such scant training in anthropology? It’s a good question because together these are critical rites of passage for our professional development. How can we expect students to be successful field researchers without providing them with a supervised model?

The easy answer is resources, time, and money. It takes a lot of all three to get a field school to fly, and liability issues alone undoubtedly scare off otherwise interested faculty.

The more difficult answer lies with research-oriented universities, where faculty are rewarded for certain kinds of behavior and activities, including winning grants, writing articles/books, ongoing research, consulting, and perhaps teaching-learning.

Another difficult answer lies with how undergraduates are likely, if not always, intentionally conceptualized. I would argue that undergraduates slip into an implicit category of non-professional. That is, the BA/BS degree as rite of passage is the minimum floor for entry into a professional category. This has some far reaching and disturbing entailments.

It suggests that the undergraduate teaching-learning enterprise does not necessarily include intentional, systematic, and structured professional development. Indeed, undergraduates may or may not have access to a course on theory and methods and that is about the extent of pointing them toward the field other than reading lots of ethnographies.

A colleague of mine ran an NSF-funded undergraduate ethnographic field school for 13 years in the Maya Western Highlands of Guatemala. Each year revolved around a broad topic (e.g., public health, migration, politics). The school ran for 12 weeks and was punctuated by a midterm conference when the students presented their preliminary findings. You can imagine the high anxiety this produced among the students, but to a person they pulled together coherent presentations filled with interesting observations and interpretations. The end product was an in-depth ethnographic paper.

This was arguably one of the most intense forms of experiential learning imaginable. I participated in the field school for a couple of seasons and ended up working on an edited volume of student chapters (with assistance, of course, from faculty) that focused on political and legal dimensions of K’iche-speaking communities. A major university press published it and the undergraduates’ chapters were not spared the reviewer’s scrutiny. This underscores how undergraduates can produce professional-quality research and insights. The ethnographic field school turned the category of “non-professional” on its head.

In reviews of the volume, there was not a single mention of the fact that undergraduates produced the body of work. One the one hand, we received no congratulatory comments about this fine undergraduate effort. On the other, the volume was treated as yet another piece of professional work that stood on its own against others.

Most of those students have gone onto careers in something other than anthropology. At the Society for Applied Anthropology, we put together a double session reflecting upon the field school. The most stunning presentations came from the former student participants. They told of the practical impact that the field school had on their career choices and trajectories and how useful research and field skills transformed into their work and personal lives. They clearly demonstrated how revolutionary the field school experience was to them personally and professionally, and as it should be for applied anthropology in general.

But what about graduate students? The paucity of ethnographic field schools holds true for them as well. Additionally, there are scant programs that require methods, let alone research design. Many programs offer none at all. And yet, students head off to the field. This strikes me as something bordering on malpractice.

I may be one of the last faculty in America to have offered a full-blown course on research design. It gave students a plan of action, reasonable expectations, a series of working problems or hypotheses, and a way to sleuth them out. It brought home the notion that ideas drive methods and not the other way around as they often think. It also helped them take the leap from empirical ideas to anthropological ideas. In the end, I would argue that it helped them move through the program in a timely manner and enhanced that quality of their masters’ theses.

I would argue that we need to reinvigorate our attention to deep, intensive, intentional, systematic, and reflexive experiential training at the undergraduate and graduate levels in the form of field schools. Methods and design courses are foundational to career preparation and serve students well in their chosen path.

About the Author: James H. McDonald

James H. McDonald
James H. McDonald is an applied cultural anthropologist who has worked on issues concerning rural development and systems of governance in Mexico and Guatemala. He also served in a wide variety of academic administrative positions, the last of which was Provost at the University of Montevallo, Alabama’s public liberal arts university.