In my own case, I recall being a nerd. I was overweight and short-sighted, did well in school, hated sports, and was always on the margins of any social group to which I belonged. The vision quest aspect of anthropology, going off to some place my peers would never see to discover things that they would never know, was irresistible.

Others will have their own stories. But, as I have observed elsewhere, a career in advertising in Japan has made me comfortable with working in teams. I note how many friends whose higher education has been in business, law or medicine talk about the importance of the study groups their schools encouraged them to form, which not only enhanced the learning process but created relationships that, for many, have been of lifelong importance. Because my daughter is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, I know of at least one school where, starting in the second year, every student is assigned individuals in the next class for whom they are responsible -- with how well those assigned to them do reflected in scores used to assign their own class rank. And, now, while pursuing my new interest in social network analysis, I have stumbled into a community that is both incredibly diverse and remarkably supportive. Questions about software or specific research techniques posted on email lists are usually quickly and thoughtfully answered.

When I ask myself what all these examples have in common, I see a shared body of knowledge rooted in shared goals and awareness of the value of reciprocity in building networks; these people all know that connections are important.

So why, I wonder, are anthropologists such solitary creatures?

Or maybe it's just me. What about you?

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To the first; no offense regarding my Prof taken, it was a legit question and I appreciate the fine distinction your query generated.
My novice thoughts on how I would like to practice;
I do not understand French, until I study it. So to, I do not understand how to deconstruct Mayan pictographic writing until I find an interpreter for the individual parts. I do not understand the subtleties of word combining in Hebrew unless someone points out to me that letters are also numbers, that sylabic parts can be built upon and those layers add hints of interpretation. Therefore; if I am studying a cultural group, I want them to teach me what their symbols mean. I only act as the documentarian and interpreter in my own cultural group.

I take this philosophical approach from indie art. The indie art culture in some real ways, reject the tony old guard in that they are self-taught. If you called one impressionistic, he/she might shrug and say, "Up to you to decide." If you labeled another as a "feminist" or "anarchist" they might laugh at you for missing the whole point of the piece.

This makes me, the alleged professional in fact, the student. I am the tabla rasa, not the other way round. So to me, not checking with the Chief, Shaman, Bernache or council for thorough comprehension sounds like irresponsibility or even arrogance. That is just good, Journalism 101. When I write my thesis, then I might include analysis based upon developmental psychology, social drama or ethnic similarities/differences for my culture's edification and my colleagues benefit. A Chief may derive benefit from having his culture exposed but he will not have the same motivation as does the researcher. It is the researchers responsibility to protect confidentiality while presenting the facts, as facts. In the case of my Prof; respect for confidentiality was crucial in that she was studying a Nacirema sub-culture.

To the Comments from Keith;
Good to know. Prof kept saying how social Anthros are, guess I'll have to tuck that bit in my kit bag for future reference.

Keith Hart said:
Perhaps it is our experience of extreme loneliness that makes us such reliable companions. Whenever I go to a new city, for whatever purpose, I can always rely on the local anthropologists to look after me, not always my official hosts. We are a gregarious bunch and let's hope that the OAC can make profitable use of that quality in a virtual context.
. . . and the spirit guide said to me; "It is Berdash not bernache, grasshopper!" laughing as I ran out the door for PolySci on a Saturday afternoon in the summer . . .
I am the tabla rasa, not the other way round.

No, no, a thousand times, no. Victoria is not a tabula rasa. Victoria is Victoria, with her preconceptions, emotions, and, we hope, a few ideas picked up from her studies intact.

Assignment No. 1: Read Mikhail Bakhtin's "Response to a Question from the Editorial Staff of Novy Mir," in which the great Russian critic makes the case that cultural understanding always involves dialogue. Why? Because all of us are blind to things that others may see in us. That's true of the anthropologist and also true of the people whose lives the anthropologist studies.

Assignment No. 2: Get some training in active listening. I got it by volunteering to work on a telephone crisis line. It is, however, a set of skills familiar to practitioners of non-directive therapy. For the rationale look into the work of Carl Rogers.

The basic active listening skills are

1. Silence - Let the other person talk
2. Minimal encouragers - What my wife calls "sublinguistic grunts" that convey that the other is being heard.
3. Tagging/mirroring - Repeating words or phrases in what you hear, in a tentative, "Is that what I heard you say?" tone.
4. Open-ended questions - E.g., "Could you tell me a bit more?" Contrasts with closed questions that have only predetermined answers, e.g., "Yes or no."
5. Reflecting feelings - "You sound happy (sad, mad, upset....). Validates what the other person is feeling. The feeling is always real, even if the thought behind it is wrong.
6. Summarizing - "Let me see if I have this right, you are saying X , Y, and Z." Shows you are really listening and serves as a useful check on the accuracy of what you remember.
7. Intuitive decoding - Rarely used and only after a lot of previous listening using the other skills. A moment of magic when you ask, "You've been telling me X. Could Y have something to do with this?" If you get it right, the other's respect for your insight takes a leap upward. If you get it wrong, not to worry. Just move on. People are rarely offended, and if they are you can usually defuse the situation simply by acknowledging the mistake. Assuming that is that by using the other skills you have already achieved rapport.

I should add, too, coming back to where we started, that when therapists are trained to use these skills, the training always includes a lot of role playing to enable the trainee to recognize and bracket his or her immediate reactions to what is being said. Note "recognize and bracket." No attempt is made to deny or eliminate the therapist's own feelings. To do so is, in fact, more crippling and more likely to lead to mistakes in understanding the other. The point is to be mindful of them and be able to reserve judgment to stay focused on what you are hearing.

In retrospect, I wish very much that I had had this sort of training before I went into the field.
[chuckling] Thank You, John McCreery. The development of this discussion illustrates for me at lease, exactly why I am frustrated. The content exposes some of what is not practiced in class, following a line of inquiry in dialogue and correcting errors as they happen. I am off to do as you have suggested.

John McCreery said:
I am the tabla rasa, not the other way round.

No, no, a thousand times, no. Victoria is not a tabula rasa. Victoria is Victoria, with her preconceptions, emotions, and, we hope, a few ideas picked up from her studies intact.
Although I am not very experienced in anthropology (in fact, I'm not yet studying it formally; I begin my bachelor's degree this August), I'd like to add my own thoughts to this discussion.

I think that there is a certain mindset that is needed to properly study cultures and social interactions, and that mindset often goes hand in hand with being a loner. Because even though an anthropologist, as a human being just like any other, will inevitably have a set of integrated social norms, I understand that a quality necessary for approaching objectivity in cultural study is the ability to remove oneself from the norms and conventions of society, and view them from the outside. It goes back to what Bo said about the "ability to step outside culture and see it not as a member who is unconsciously following rules, but as a critical observer who can see the patterns at play".

Personally, I have had my stint as a loner, which ended a few years ago when I suddenly found myself in the middle of a large group of friends. But I still find myself viewing a lot of what people do (especially the things they do because "That's just what you're supposed to do") from the outside, frequently realizing that a notion or convention I've always taken for granted is really rather odd. I sometimes try to create discussions about this with my friends, who are usually open to discussing all matter of different subjects (usually, my attempts will begin with the phrase "Isn't it interesting how people..."), but usually my question will be answered by "surface" explanations, such as "That's just the way it is" or "Well, they do it because it's fun.", and I think that's because of a mindset that I have and my friends do not, which is a mindset I think a lot of anthropology-interested people have. And that mindset could both be created by and lead to a life as a loner, someone who sits a little 'outside' the rest of society.
Seems to me that the question here is off by a few degrees. The question isn't why anthropologists are solitary creatures -- any decent ethnographer is, pretty much by definition, not a loner. The basis of almost all our data is intense "hanging out" with other people. The question, it seems to me, is why are anthropologists, most of whom are perfectly sociable in the field, such solitary creatures when it comes to a) interacting/collaborating with other anthropologists, and b) interacting with their own societies as a whole?

The answer that immediately occurs to me isn't very flattering. Because of the typical power relations that exist between anthros and their subjects, the people we interact with in the field can't do us much harm, while our anthropological peers -- our equals -- can indeed harm our reputations, the critical reception of our work, our prospects for employment, publication, and tenure, and so on. Several respondents in this thread have pointed to fears, either their own or someone else's, that their ideas would be "stolen". (Aside: reminds me of the quote, "Don't worry about your ideas being stolen. If they're any good, you'll have to cram them down people's throats!") Clearly there's an atmosphere of distrust among us, because we're actually in competition for an increasingly rare resource (academic security). It strikes me, too, that collaboration was much more common at a time when the field was expanding rapidly, e.g. Redfield and Tax each taking an end of the folk/urban continuum in Mexico/Guatemala, or the various national character teams, or Murray Wax and Rosalie Hanke-Wax doing husband-wife ethnography, and so on.

As worrisome as the field encounter might be for other reasons, our subjects don't threaten us in anything like the same way. They are "the natives" and the very act of setting ourselves up as their chroniclers buffers us from the kind of threat our colleagues pose. It strikes me in this connection that practices that would seem to empower our subjects, like opening up our field notes or requesting approval before publication, are resisted, in this thread as potentially "selling out" but in other ways throughout the discipline as well.

Of course, our power in the field is being undermined by the field itself, as community gatekeepers work to pre-approve research, as ethnographers are threatened with lawsuits while getting ready to publish their work, and so on. So we're going to have to deal with that one way or another, but that's beside the point. The point is that our relations with people in the field (whether that field is in Papua New Guinea, the Amazon, or Spanish Harlem) are different than our relations with our colleagues in our discipline and it's that we need to understand, not why anthros are solitary, which I doubt to be the case (some are, some aren't -- I kind of am, which I can say made me a pretty substandard fieldworker).
Dustin does himself a disservice. As this post demonstrates he is an acute observer of human behavior, perhaps for the very reasons that Iris describes. Perpetually betwixt-and-between, he is situated in a place from which the artificiality of culture is evident.
Perhaps because we need time apart from people to reflect on the behavior of people.
Because teams get in the way of truly creative thinking. Can anyone imagine Karl Marx writing Das Kapital in a 'collective'? The collective or communal was his fantasy, his wet dream, but not his reality. He was a creative writer -- really a what we would call a business journalist today -- but a very creative one. I can't imagine him sitting in a seminar room trying to write the Communist Manifesto as a committee product!
Or Durkheim. Would 'social effervescence' have improved 'Le suicide'? Or would a better sense of collective identity led him to write a better Formes elementaire de la vie religieux? I don't think so.
I work in a community these days that I have known for about 10 years now, and not everyone wants to tell everyone else everything, but they will tell a solitary anthropologist quite a lot. Since I work, in part on sex, sexuality, HIV and AIDS not everyone would be comfortable with a whole team quizzing them about why they don't use a condom or whether they enjoy anal sex. Would you?
Interestingly, since McCreery mentions his daughter ... My daughter finished her BA in anthropology a few years ago, after beginning in Medicine and doing a few years of that. (It is precisely what I did, too.) After working for a few years in a very collective sort of environment in an NGO that works with support organisations for orphans and OVCs in South Africa, where we live, she went to U of North Carolina to do an M degree in Public Health (MPH). The big difference, she noted, was that everything is done in a group in Public Health research and that everyone in terribly supportive of each other and rarely critical, or fear to be critical and are always diplomatic. While in Anthorpology, she felt peers were very critical and very isolated in their work. She like the community of PH more than the community of Anthropologues. But she is still sort of stuck between the two states, feeling that she can be more creative on her own, but have more fun with the buddies in the big randomised controlled trials that they all love so much.
So, let me get back in my box and stop being so social now.
Robert Thornton said:
Can anyone imagine Karl Marx writing Das Kapital in a 'collective'? The collective or communal was his fantasy, his wet dream, but not his reality. He was a creative writer -- really a what we would call a business journalist today -- but a very creative one. I can't imagine him sitting in a seminar room trying to write the Communist Manifesto as a committee product!

Um, "Communist Manifesto" wasn't written by a solitary Marx, it was co-authored by him and Engels. But what one guy does or did is kind of beside the point -- almost *all* work in the"hard sciences" is done by collectives, and I don't see the biotech, experimental physics, or material chemists stalling out because of it. In the social sciences, we see tons of collective research by psychologists and even our evil twin cousins in sociology, and again, it doesn't seem to be slowing them down. Why, then, do anthropologists hold to this view of "the lone scientist"?

I'll admit, the isolation we create does have the effect of sharpening our critical tools, for what that's worth. But while some teams can in fact become over-bureaucratized and stagnant, others work to bring out the best in their members, and anthropology for the most part misses out on that.
Beautiful analogy, Ryan, thank you for it!

Ryan Anderson said:
The thing is, if you continually go around thinking that social life is a mere artificial construction, well, seems like that could drive you a little insane after a while. Deconstruction and analysis of anything and everything is great and all, but maybe not the best path for a balanced social life. After all of the analysis, what's left? Butterflies, after dissection, aren't always as beautiful--and they certainly can't fly anymore.

Question: Is it just western anthropologists that are solitary creatures, or does this span the breadth of the discipline?
Isn’t the opposition between individual and collective work something of a false dichotomy? Even the most solitary anthropologist depends upon collective institutions at home–teaching, degree granting, & funding institutions. And all of us are recipients of an intellectual tradition developed over generations by many individuals often interacting with one another. Also in the field, we rely on collective acceptance of and cooperation with us, at state, institutional, and community levels.

I agree with Robert Thornton that ultimately individuals must produce their own work and take responsibility for it. But even in research teams, the creative individual is still the undissolvable unit. Very often in the hard sciences, individuals working on similar problems provide a community of expertise that can constructively critique the work of each individual. Commonly teams reflect the rather well established principles of division of labour and specialization of focus. These are reflected in the personnel organization of most archaeological research and elsewhere in the sciences. One thing that this can overcome is the unbearable burden, commonly suffered by sociocultural anthropologists, of one researcher trying to do everything. So wouldn’t collaborative research be, in some ways at least, an enhancement of individual work, rather than its negation in a collective product?

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