Fieldwork as a Discussion

In the past, anthropologists were notorious for objectifying the communities they studied-- human beings and complex social processes were represented in highly problematic ways. Anthropologists denied their own subjectivity in the analyses they presented, incorporating personal biases into the construction of an ethnographic "other." 

Fortunately, contemporary anthropologists strive to be more reflexive, attempting to remain vigilant in identifying their own biases, positionalities, and reflecting on how their theoretical, political, and personal commitments impact the way they encounter interlocutors in the field. 

In contemporary anthropology, we attempt to recognize the collaboration that takes place between an anthropologist and a community in order to produce a body of knowledge. This section provides some starting points to help new anthropologists navigate their research.


Do I need to speak the language of the people I want to study? What is getting lost in translation?

With any conversation, it is important that discussants are speaking the same language both literally and in the sense that all member of the conversation should be on the same page.

As an undergraduate you are not technically required to be able to speak the local languages of your fieldwork. However, when considering language preparation, you should remember that things are often lost in translation. Speaking the language of the people you are working with helps not only in clarity of communication, but in more effectively and genuinely integrating yourself into a community.

How much history do I need to know about the community or place I want to study? 

History plays an important role in the way communities operate in the here and now. Before heading out into the field, it is critical to know not only what is going on in a community, but why people treat each other the way they do, or make a living the way they do, etc. Knowing the story behind the why the community is the way it is can go a long way toward helping you understand the likely more-complex-than-you-thought-it-was-going-to-be phenomenon you're investigating. It can also help you connect with the people you are talking to and living amongst everyday. 

Finally, knowing a place’s history will help you in the all-important task of contextualizing your findings. 

What risks does my research pose to my interlocutors? What is the impact of my work on the local community?

It is vital that we, as anthropologists, recognize that the work we produce will have an effect on those communities that we write about. 

Impacts come in two forms: how our presence and our questions in a community impacts individuals’ actions and experiences, and the aftermath of our research in terms of any future publication. In the first instance, our impact can be relatively limited (relatively unobtrusive) or more severe. In some cases, people may put themselves as risk (whether in terms of reputation, or even emotional or physical harm) in order to answer our questions. Though working through the IRB is intended to minimize these risks, it is impossible to remove all possibility of risk in the course of research. Therefore, it is important to keep asking yourself (and your mentors) about the nature of your inquiries and the effects on those around you. 

Similarly, published research can have a wide impact on how people perceive the communities we work in. This is an issue of representation, something that has been dealt with extensively in the literature in anthropology. 

Questions about your impact in the field and in the lives of your interlocutors are absolutely critical in conducting safe, effective, and respectful fieldwork. 


  • Meet or communicate with academic advisor and run research topic and plan by them.
  • Establish local connections with NGOs, state actors, Harvard representatives, citizens in the area you are traveling to.
  • Create a schedule and timeline of your research plans broken down into key weekly intervals (survey area, meet pre-existing contacts, formal interviews, shadowing, etc.)
  • Build a set of questions you intend to ask (ask yourself what information do you hope to get from this question). Remember to keep them open-ended.
  •  Create a list of the different people you plan/hope to meet and talk with and their contact information. Use the list to think through the different types of people you may come across in your fieldsites and how they might be relevant to your study.
  • Apply for funding!  Many Anthropology students apply for grants from the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs,  other area studies offices (ie the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Center for Middle Eastern Studies). There are many other grants that the ADUS can help direct you towards. Many of these grants are administered through CARAT (the funding application center at Harvard).
  • Test and learn to use the equipment you plan to take with you.


Harvard Requirements:

  • Make sure you have IRB approval from Harvard CUHS.
  • Complete pre-departure requirements (health clearance, travel registry, waivers, etc.). If traveling abroad, consult Global Support Services

In the field

  • Keep things simple!
  • Trust your instinct and do not put yourself in unsafe spaces or events.
  • Be respectful: let people know who you are, tell them about your project, and let them know they do not have to participate in the study if they do not want to.
  • Be alert and go with the flow: grab opportunities and take up people's offers to meet and show you places.
  • Send advisors brief updates once a month on your experiences.
  • Asking for help is great fieldwork. You do not have to do it on your own.
  • Projects and research change, doors close, and new opportunities emerge. Be sure to evaluate what you are doing at regular intervals. Take an hour or two to think about what kinds of information you are getting, what it is pointing you towards and how this affects your research question. Restructure your methodology if need be.
  • Communicate with other colleagues in the field: no one understands what is going on with you better than them. This also acts as a different set of methodological field notes.
  • Not every occassion needs be a "fieldwork" moment. Take a break when you need to. Remember to also have fun!

Field notes

  1. Write everyday: record the day's events, both significant and insignificant conversations (take scratch notes during and expand at home afterwards), descriptions of the day and your thoughts.
  2. Write everyday. All good theses start with good field notes.
  3. Write everyday, seriously. Within 24 hours, you will start to forget details.
  4. Use field notes to also think through research questions and approaches: what terms and issues repeatedly come up? who has a stake in these and why? what new questions and interests have emerged in your field research and why?
  5. Take photos of the different spaces you visit and people you speak with and provide the with captions (names, dates, locations).
  6. Back up your work.

Thinking ahead

Develop an organization system for your photos, field notes, voice recordings, keep a log of voice recordings and a list of topics you touched upon in each (so you do not have to listen to everything post). Mark fieldnotes with repeat themes.

Keep a timeline of events . Write the date on field notes, write down a few keywords of occurings and conversations that day. Note the filenames or folders of photographs and interviews recorded that day.

Start a working document called chapters, write down ideas for chapters, make a note of interesting events, conversations, and quotes that might go into each. Update this every few weeks as you spend a greater time in the field.