Photo: The Anthropologist in the Field

Guatemala 510I recently came across this photo from my first anthropology “fieldwork” project in Quetzaltenango (“Xela”), Guatemala, in January 2006. When I was there, I passed the house/tienda (shop) of the older woman, Lidia, on my daily walks around town. Occasionally I stopped in for a Coke or to pick up some groceries for the house (I remember many loaves of white bread.) One day, Lidia invited me into her home, nestled at the back of the storefront, and asked if I would like to try on a traditional traje (dress). I accepted her invitation without hesitation.

I remember the traje being extremely tight-fitting. After all, I think it was one of her daughter’s outfits, and she was a bit smaller in stature than I was. What I also recall is that I felt that getting to try on the traje was a sign that I had achieved a key goal of my fieldwork – I built rapport with a local and was allowed into her world, even though I was only there for a total of four weeks.

Going through the photos from my trip and thinking about my time in Guatemala has provided me a yet another opportunity to reflect on how my understanding and practice of anthropology have changed throughout the 10 years I’ve been involved with the discipline. When I was an undergrad and still learning the fundamentals, my perspective was framed by the idea that anthropology meant going into an exotic, foreign culture, observing and participating with natives, collecting data, and coming up with some interesting reflections about what I learned for the sake of building knowledge. Now I see anthropology as understanding the world in order to solve problems, which in turn builds knowledge and also creates change. This can take place anywhere, from the villages of developing nations to urban neighborhoods to prisons and the hallways of corporations (all places I’ve “done anthropology.”) I probably would have spent my time in Guatemala differently if I had this perspective back then, but I suppose you have to start out somewhere.

A quick side note: when I rediscovered this photo, I was struck by the similarity between it and the one below of Margaret Mead and two girls in Samoa (Library of Congress, 1926). Of course, this is not to draw any comparisons between myself and Mead other than a visual one…



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