Fieldwork Research Lecture Series 1 | Fieldwork, Engagement, and the Ethics of Ethnographic Research

On March 17, 2022, the Institute for International and Area Studies (IIAS) of Tsinghua University successfully hosted the first lecture in the Field Research Lecture Series. This lecture is entitled “Fieldwork, Engagement, and the Ethics of Ethnographic Research”. The lecture was delivered by Michael Herzfeld, Ernest E. Monrad Professor of the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University and world-renowned social anthropologist, and presided over by Li Yuqing, a research assistant at the IIAS. More than 700 audience, including doctoral students and researchers from the IIAS and participants from other institutes and universities across China joined online, and more than 4000 audience interacted on the live platform.

Professor Herzfeld began by describing the differences between engaged anthropology and applied anthropology in terms of activism, fieldwork research and independence. In general, he argued, “engaged anthropology” stems from fieldwork and allows activism, with anthropologists seeking independence in research and criticism and rejecting audit culture and neoliberal economics; Applied anthropology, on the other hand, tends to be subordinate to the agenda of an organization or a program, lacking independence. He then raised several methodological issues, advising anthropologists to protect personal data in their long-term field work, oppose ethnocentrism, reject the subject-objective dualist concept of absolute “objectivity,” and acknowledge that investigators have their own views and ideologies. Next, he took the concepts of “formal gathering”, “informal gathering” and “formal economy” and “informal economy” as examples to think dialectically about the “formality”, i.e. everything that is defined as informal may have its own formality that is deliberately neglected. He pointed out that engaged anthropologists should study for the communities or people being investigated.

Professor Herzfeld then showed rich images to the audience about his previous fieldwork experiences in Pom Mahakan, a community in central Bangkok, Thailand. He first introduced the history, social structure and spatial structure of the community, and recorded how people there fought against urban planners, but still couldn’t avoid the fate that their home was demolished and replaced by a park. Professor Herzfeld went on to present how Rome’s religious culture influenced the bureaucracy’s approach to illegal construction, using the city’s central communities as an example. He also elaborated the impact of real estate developers forcing residents out of old buildings which were restored and sold to the wealthy. Professor Herzfeld pointed out that Spatial cleansing has not only destroyed social cohesion and multi-functional convenience, but also, to some extent, the ability to control street crime.

After reviewing his long-term fieldwork in Bangkok and Rome, Professor Herzfeld briefed about the goals of field intervention, including exploring possible alternatives to neoliberal gentrification, learning to live with differences, and embracing conflict and cultural diversity. At the end of his lecture, he suggested that, taking architectural anthropology for instance, we need to advocate anthropology to play a bigger role in urban planning by involving more anthropologists in the training of planners and architects, but should also recognize the limitations of intervention. Engaged anthropologists can play a role in training urban planners and architects to become good listeners and improving bureaucrats’ understanding and appreciation of people-oriented life. Anthropologists are not supposed to train urban planners and architects into anthropologists.
After the lecture, Professor Herzfeld had a heated discussion with online audience , and gave wonderful responses on how to understand applied anthropology, how to participate in the fieldwork research properly, how to conduct an “objective” and “scientific” research, and how to overcome cultural shock and language barriers.

Michael Herzfeld is an Ernest E. Monrad Professor of Anthropology at Harvard University and world-renowned social anthropologist. He has made great achievements in the fields of anthropological history, social poetics, historical anthropology, political anthropology and critical heritage, and published over ten anthropological monographs, many of which have been translated into Chinese, including The Social Production of Indifference: Exploring the Symbolic Roots of Western Bureaucracy, Cultural Intimacy, Anthropology: Theoretical Practice in Culture and Society, etc. Professor Hertzfeld is good at using anthropological-ethnographic methods to engage in European and Southeast Asian studies. With fieldwork footprints all over Crete, Rome, Bangkok and other places, he is a representative figure for the area studies of Greece, Italy, and Thailand.

Edited by: Dong Hui
Typeset by: Cheng Yao
Proofread by: Li Yuqing, Gao Liangmin