Last weekend, I attended a symposium, “Anthropology of Expeditions: Travel, Visualities, Afterlives” at the Bard Graduate Center in New York. I will post some reflections about themes of the conference, starting here with the keynote speech by historian of anthropology, Henrika Kuklick.
In her address “Science as Adventure” Kuklick describes a historical shift in thinking about anthropological fieldwork. In the early 1800s, westerners who ventured into the remote regions of the world were often seen as gofers rather than researchers, rugged collectors that did the bidding of armchair scientists back home. These sedentary scientists did not perceive their distance from the field as a bad thing. Far from it: in their labs and museums, they could pore over specimens and cultural artifacts without the distractions of life on the expedition. In their more controlled habitats, they believed they could consider objects comparatively, objectively, and dispassionately. Thus, distance seemed to offer advantages both physical and methodological: a safe environment and a privileged perspective from which to see species and human cultures without the bias of being on the ground, in the vortex of the new encounter.
By the early twentieth century, Kuklick argues, perceptions of fieldwork began to change. The New Imperialism of the late 1800s brought huge swaths of Africa and Asia under colonial control, making them more accessible to field scientists. The rise of disciplines such as public health and tropical medicine also gave new impetus to the human sciences conducted in remote places. Finally the meaning of first-hand fieldwork itself had started to evolve. No longer did the field represent a place of bias and distortion, but as a stage for adventure. In adventure, the explorer-scientists could show their passion for science, a passion great enough to risk sickness and death, and thereby enhance their reputation for trustworthiness in the process. In showing an adventurous spirit, the pith-helmeted field scientist’s credibility was revealed, not diminished. “It is because they act heroically, Kuklick writes “that their testimonials can be believed.” Kuklick presents a number of examples of this new authority of adventure within the work of anthropologists, particularly in the writings of Bronisław Malinowski, who studied native peoples of Australia and the Western Pacific.
Yet it is not clear to me that these examples are as representative as Kuklick claims. Yes, we can find prominent armchair scientists in the nineteenth century as Kuklick suggests, men such as Richard Owen and Georges Cuvier who were happy to do science from the confines of the museum. But we can also find plenty of counter examples: explorer-scientists such as Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin, and John Tyndall who were not just tolerated, but celebrated, for their rugged fieldwork.
Indeed, adventure had become something of a fetish by the mid 1800s, affecting not only scientists but legions of western writers, artists, and intellectuals. This was, after all, an era still enthralled by Romanticism, a movement that celebrated the individual’s confrontation with nature as an essential component of truth seeking.
Conversely, the twentieth century is not quite the adventure-junkie paradise that Kuklick suggests. True, the early 1900s had a number of adventurous anthropologists, as Kuklick persuasively documents, but it also had plenty of scientists who lamented adventure as a distraction from serious field work. Beginning with the International Polar Year of 1882-3, western scientists sought to distance themselves with expeditions based on pure adventure. It was for this reason that the American Geographical Society tried to make its organization more rigorous at the turn of the twentieth century. Even the father of American anthropology, Franz Boas, believed that adventure could be taken too far. “We must not forget that the explorer is not expected merely to travel from one point to another,” Boaz wrote, “but that we must expect him also to see and to observe things worth seeing.”
In short, western scholars have been debating the meaning of expeditionary fieldwork for at least 250 years. Whether one views it as the peripheral, or the central, event of scientific discovery probably has more to do with issues of personality, individual opportunities, and disciplinary training than shifts in the scientific zeitgeist. If it does express a shift, as Kuklick suggests, I think it’s more likely to be confined to the discipline of anthropology. As for the meaning of fieldwork outside anthropology, the patterns are more difficult to see.