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Eating Soup without a Spoon

Eating Soup without a Spoon
Anthropological Theory and Method in the Real World

Driven by a powerful narrative of his own first year of fieldwork, an experienced anthropologist provides real-world lessons on how to adapt anthropological theory and method to the field.

November 2015
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197 pages | 6 x 9 | 20 b&w photos, 1 map |

Significant scholarship exists on anthropological fieldwork and methodologies. Some anthropologists have also published memoirs of their research experiences. Renowned anthropologist Jeffrey Cohen’s Eating Soup without a Spoon is a first-of-its-kind hybrid of the two, expertly melding story with methodology to create a compelling narrative of fieldwork that is deeply grounded in anthropological theory.

Cohen’s first foray into fieldwork was in 1992, when he lived in Santa Anna del Valle in rural Oaxaca, Mexico. While recounting his experiences studying how rural folks adapted to far-reaching economic changes, Cohen is candid about the mistakes he made and the struggles in the village. From the pressures of gaining the trust of a population to the fear of making errors in data collection, Cohen explores the intellectual processes behind ethnographic research. He offers tips for collecting data, avoiding pitfalls, and embracing the chaos and shocks that come with working in an unfamiliar environment. Cohen’s own photographs enrich his vivid portrayals of daily life.

In this groundbreaking work, Cohen discusses the adventure, wonder, community, and friendships he encountered during his first year of work, but, first and foremost, he writes in service to the field as a place to do research: to test ideas, develop theories, and model how humans cope and react to the world.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Setting Up and Settling In
  • Chapter 2. The First Month and First Steps
  • Chapter 3. Field Matters
  • Chapter 4. The Rhythm of Fieldwork
  • Chapter 5. Fine-Tuning and Focus in the Field
  • Chapter 6. Bumps and Breaks in the Field
  • Chapter 7. Finishing?
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Columbus, Ohio

Cohen is a professor of anthropology at the Ohio State University. He is the author of several books, including Cultures of Migration: The Global Nature of Contemporary Mobility and The Culture of Migration in Southern Mexico.



Maria and I are sitting on the stairs of the porch of our house in Santa Ana del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico. It’s a warm afternoon in the late summer, August 1992. We haven’t been in the valley very long, but Santa Ana is our home for the next year. We’re moving into a house that Don Mauro (our patron) built for Jerónimo, his son who left for the United States in the 1980s. (He is a naturalized citizen, living in Santa Monica, California, with his family and working at a bakery.) The home has been empty for years, and it is dusty, filled with the detritus of poor harvests, unused bricks, and discarded furniture. Don Mauro describes our moving into his house as an event that will make it “happy” and fill it for a while, and for the year, it will serve its purpose and not simply sit as an empty reminder that Jerónimo is not likely coming back. It doesn’t take long to realize that there are a lot of empty homes in Santa Ana, and many Santañeros have left for other parts of Mexico and for the United States to seek their fortune—and sometimes just to escape the village.

There isn’t much to our home, just two somber, cool, and empty rooms that need a lot of sweeping before we move in. The walls are poured concrete, the roof is red tile, and the concrete floor is made to look like marbled tile in the local style. Two bare bulbs hang from the ceiling in the main room; a third hangs in the room that will become our kitchen. Outside, on the wall, is an old fuse box that is rusty and held by just a few wires. In one corner of the larger room is an altar with a few candles, a picture of a saint, and some old, desiccated flowers. The gray-white walls, dark blue sheet metal doors, and large, brick-filled porch stand out against a dry, brown, dusty, and rocky landscape. Our front yard is a field of zacate (dried corn stalks) with tractor parts spread across it. A half-finished wall of stones marks the eastern boundary of the compound.

Our house—what will become our house—is just up the slope from the center of Santa Ana del Valle. We’re in the foothills of the Sierra Madre del Sur, and the mountains rise rather steeply behind us, to the north. The land above the village is lightly wooded and serves as an important resource: a place to collect firewood, pasture animals, and occasionally hunt (though there seems to be little in the way of game in the area). The village’s center is about a ten-minute walk along a rutted dirt road that slopes down toward the valley floor. From our porch we have a view of the village proper, the plaza, the municipal palace, and the church.

The eastern branch of Oaxaca’s central valley stretches out in front of the south-facing porch from east to west. The western edge of Oaxaca City is just visible as a glow in the night. Just beyond Santa Ana, and about 4 kilometers south of the town’s center, is Tlacolula de Matamoros, an important market center for the region. Like our neighbors, we will visit its market every Sunday and provision for the week. From our house we can watch cars and buses moving between the village and Tlacolula, and between Tlacolula and Oaxaca City, on the two lanes of the Pan-American Highway.

We can also see many other communities that spread across the eastern branch of the central valley. Villa Díaz Ordaz is just east of us over a two-lane road. Teotitlán del Valle is west along the sierra and accessible by the Camino Real (the old royal road established by the Spanish to link the villages following the conquest). Macuilxochitl—to the west and on the valley floor—is one of the valley’s oldest settlements. Across the valley but still relatively close are, among other nearby villages, San Juan Guelavia and Santa María Guelace, two towns I would work in later (see Cohen 2004).

The small towns that fill the valley are obvious from our perch in the foothills. There is the smoke that rises from small fires, church domes that stand above the trees, and lights that sparkle across the valley after dark. We sit on the porch a lot and watch the valley and the sunset. It is all rather captivating, particularly for two North Americans who have little experience living near mountains.

Some days I don’t want to work. I’d rather just sit on the porch and let the day go by, watching the sun move across the landscape. But I can’t just sit on the porch if I hope to complete my research, and most days find both Maria and me heading off for fieldwork, food shopping, and the like. There is always something to do in Santa Ana; if there aren’t people to interview, there are notes to write, and if I don’t want to write, there is typically something to do in the community’s museum. Just keeping our kitchen stocked and organized is a full-time job. But regardless of the day and our work, we try to find the time to watch the sun set, marvel at the changing colors as the mountains’ shadows stretch across the valleys and fields, and admire the stars as they fill the sky.

A constant breeze carries noises of the town up the hill and into our house. It’s a blend of people talking, working, and playing—children and adults, lovers and fighters. There is the clack of weavers on looms, the bleating of goats and sheep; there are cows, chickens, and more. Songs from radios and stereos mix with the sounds of televisions and live music from the village’s many bands and the school’s loudspeaker, creating a cacophonous soundtrack to life.

Everyone in the village knows we’re living in Don Mauro’s house, and everyone watches us come and go. Santañeros call us “the gringos” or, much more often, “Mauro’s gringos,” as he is our patron and an early supporter of my project and work. Santañeros know we’re in town to “do” anthropology, and while we’ll have a chance to meet a good number of villagers throughout the year, not many understand what we are trying to do. Nevertheless, we’re under a great deal of scrutiny. The people we meet ask about what we hope to accomplish and what we want to learn.

People know when we leave and when we come home, and every day they stop us to ask, “¿Donde van?” (Where are you going?). It isn’t that they want to know, it is just what they ask, and because we are gringos and by definition outsiders in this little town, our comings and goings are obvious.

Santa Ana is a small, rural peasant town. When we arrived in 1992, there were about 3,000 people in the village, and many were young (INEGI 1992). Living in the village was an adjustment, but it was also an opportunity: the townsfolk gave us the chance to join them, to live with them, and to learn with and from them. It was an opportunity to answer some key questions about how rural life in Mexico was changing.

Sometimes life in Santa Ana was overwhelming, and we wanted to leave. Most days were full of wonder and surprises. We met the challenges, celebrated the high points, and mourned losses as the days passed.

This isn’t simply the story of my fieldwork. I want to share how I conducted my research and to argue that fieldwork matters as more than a rite of passage. It is where our methods and our theories come together. The field is a place of adventure and wonder, a place to meet new people, to discover friendships and grow; but it is first and foremost the place to do research. It is where we test ideas, develop theories, and model how humans cope and react to the world.

Santa Ana was a place where I could investigate how rural folks adapted to far-reaching economic changes that included increasing involvement in market systems, a rise in migration, and a drop in farming for personal consumption. Specifically, I asked whether the traditional cooperative relationships that defined much of social life in the village—relationships that linked individuals and their households together—were effective tools as Santañeros dealt with economic change.

Writing about Fieldwork

There are many ways to write about fieldwork, and much of the writing falls into one of two popular approaches. One emphasizes the methodological tools necessary for successful fieldwork, and the other focuses on the experiences of the individual and often does so rather humorously (compare, for example, Barley 1983 and Bernard 2002). There are the many resources that teach us the methods we will want to use in the field, including series that focus on specific methodologies for gathering specific kinds of information and running specific kinds of tests. Guidelines and essays are available that describe and define how to select informants (Bleek 1987; Denzin 2005), conduct participant observation (DeWalt and DeWalt 2002; Jorgensen 1989), organize and conduct interviews (Weller 1998), and more. Some work debates the merits of different approaches (Kirschner 1987; Kleine 1990; Maggs-Rapport 2000) or walks you through specific protocols (Beebe 2001). Advanced topics can include specialized methods that assist researchers in defining broader social issues and shared cultural models, as well as the advantages of targeted data using focus groups, among other things (Inhorn 2004; Kawulich 2011; Knowles and Thomas 2001; Ochoa 2000). Other collections are more general and describe the steps from start to finish for completing an ethnographic project, even anticipating problems and issues (LeCompte and Schensul 1999b).

The second approach to fieldwork focuses on the experiences of the anthropologist as he or she conducts research (Agar 1980; Powdermaker 1966; Rabinow 1977). This type of writing recounts how ethnographers and anthropologists inserted themselves into a community and organized for research. Their books sometimes have a confessional quality and are venues where the fieldworkers share their experiences without the challenge of theory.

When anthropologists write about methods, they can lose sight of the challenges and vagaries of everyday life. While it may not be hard to list a series of steps involved in modeling an aspect of social life—for example, defining an abstract model of farming in a setting like rural Oaxaca—such a model will often miss just how problematic farming can be, how general ideals (including things like prepping the fields following spring rains) become rather complicated as families figure out timing, workers, costs, and potential outcomes and payoffs. Alternatively, an emphasis on the experiences of the researcher runs the risk of misrepresenting the work we do; this is particularly true when we focus on the odd moments—the silly, surprising, and shocking events in which we participate (Barley 1983)—or when we ignore the goals of our fieldwork and instead talk about the friends we made, as if that was our original goal.

What we don’t often talk about in describing our work is the role that fieldwork plays in our research. Fieldwork is where theories and methods meet; it is where we collect the data and evidence that will inform and answer our inquiries and questions. Fieldwork is an intellectual process; it isn’t just about living with a unique and different group of people. We select our field sites for specific reasons, and we plan our research to answer specific questions. The field is where we test theoretical ideas. And while fieldwork can take us far away from our everyday lives and move between the fun and depressing, it is work—and central to our discussion of the critical questions that surround human life.

The field is where we apply what we know in the effort to answer questions about human life; it is not the place to define the questions we want to answer. What do I mean? Fieldwork is where anthropologists collect data. The questions we ask about human life—whether they are specific and focused on the cultural minutiae of a group’s language, or something rather grand and centered on the impact of international global markets on small, indigenous communities—are formed well before we arrive in the field.

The questions we ask in our research are informed and organized around topics from our classes, through discussions with friends and colleagues, and most important, in response to the assumptions we make about human behavior (sometimes founded upon very personal motivations and questions). The field is the place where theories are verified (or rejected) and hypotheses tested. In other words, the field is the place where methods and theory come together. Fieldwork is how we do anthropology.

One of the most important reasons to do fieldwork in anthropology is to test ideas. We develop questions focused on specific issues, and we do fieldwork in search of answers. It is this quality of fieldwork, its role as a natural laboratory where we test ideas, that sets anthropologists apart from other sciences. Where other social science researchers depend on their labs and panel data as they search for answers, anthropologists seek to understand how people live. The importance of fieldwork and its central role in anthropology create many opportunities.

Unfortunately, non-anthropologists often can’t see beyond what they assume is the chaos of fieldwork and the sense that there isn’t much to learn when doing ethnography. They ask, “Aren’t you afraid people will lie?,” suggesting that we cannot trust the folks who work with us. They wonder, “How do you learn what to ask?” and “How do you pick who you will work with?,” doubting our ability to string together a reasonable set of questions and identify informants. And they worry, asking, “What if no one wants to talk?,” assuming that we cannot build rapport or trust.

But we’re trained to do fieldwork, and we are ready for the challenge. Anthropologists typically spend years preparing to enter the field. We learn languages and history, and develop methods to bridge the gaps between our world and the worlds of our informants; we anticipate problems (many of which are likely not the ones people might assume challenge our work) and plan for mistakes.

Anthropologists know people lie, and we plan for it. Bleek (1987) and Nachman (1984) note that lying is a “cultural phenomenon.” We don’t disregard the lies or seek some alternative “truths” among the data we collect. Instead, we ask more questions and, in the process, understand better. Lying can be a game that informants play to make us look silly; in other words, they are tricking the visitor (in this case the anthropologist) who plays smart and self-important. Lying can also be about what people don’t want to tell us. Our informants might be embarrassed, or they might be protecting us. Sometimes it isn’t that our informants are lying, but that we don’t know how to listen, and we misinterpret what we learn and assume a lie where none exists. This is one reason the anthropologist enters the field prepared. We learn methods, we learn history, and we spend lots of time with languages. We read as much as we can about the group we plan to study. My preparation included Spanish and Zapotec lessons, a foundation in the archaeology and history of Mexico and Oaxaca, and lots of anthropological theory and methods classes. I learned about the questions that anthropologists have asked for generations. I also learned many of the methodological tools I would come to depend on in the field. These were just a few of the things that helped me learn not only how to ask a question, but also who to ask (Spradley 1979) and how to listen to the response (Briggs 1986).

In fieldwork, lying is just one issue that confronts our work. Tied to lying, we are also confronted by concerns about trust. It is critical to build rapport with informants and others in the communities we visit if we hope to accomplish our goals and effectively complete our work.2 Rapport, however, can be hard to find, establish, and maintain. It has been a long time since anthropologists assumed that a fact was a fact and that responses were obvious and predictable (and see Benton 2001 on empiricism; and Steinmetz 2005 on the place and meaning of positivism in research). It isn’t that anthropologists historically assumed they were always right, but there was a sense that our informants guarded the truth, that they would gladly share that truth with us, and finally, that we as the anthropologists could understand and interpret those truths to argue cultural values and social rules (Bloor and Wood 2006: 87).

Trust and rapport grow and change over time and through fieldwork. They are influenced by a variety of factors, ranging from those we are aware of (our age, marital status, and gender) to those that we may have little control over (our ability to herd sheep perhaps). Once we move beyond the romantic assumption that the truth will surface if we just try hard enough, we can spend our time listening and learning. We learn how to follow local practices, how to structure our questions around native categories, and how to build a systematic framework for investigation in light of indigenous classifications (see Briggs 1986; Silverman 2000).

Learning how to ask our questions is as important as learning how to listen, yet people remain doubtful of anthropologists’ ability to answer specific questions. Trouble comes from at least two directions, first by missing the forest for the metaphorical trees. There is the worry that the anthropologist will focus too intently on the individual and fail to understand the broad foundations of local behaviors. Or that if we focus too closely on communal patterns and outcomes, we will fail to address how the individual practices culture behavior. Thus, it is important to choose a perspective, not because there is a right one to choose, but rather because if we fail to frame our work around theoretical models and approaches, we risk losing ourselves and our readers.

Anthropologists enter the field with a foundation in theory and methods, and a clear set of questions. In the field we rely on that expertise to select our site, choose our methods, identify informants, and clarify responses as we build both reliability and validity (see Kirk and Miller 1986). We understand the limits and opportunities that are a part of ethnography, and we note the conflicts that come as we balance our subjectivity and romanticism with objectivity and the material world populated by our informants.

There will always be things that are common to anthropology that might seem very odd to other researchers. For example, where the sociologist is trained to find social patterns using large data sets, the ethnographer is focused on small-scale case studies defined by individuals and their communities. And while the anthropologist may have to defend the value of ethnography to the sociologist (who will do the same as he or she defends the strength of statistical modeling), we share similar concerns over the meaning of our analyses, the realism of our descriptions, the sample size and scale of our studies, the validity and value of our results, and the use of our findings by students, policymakers, and the general public (see Kirk and Miller 1986).

These are just some of the issues that concerned me in Santa Ana, and they continue to frame what I do today. I didn’t go to Santa Ana with some notion of writing “their” story. I sought to understand how Santañeros managed traditional cooperative relationships in response to the pressures of globalization.

Complicating what anthropologists do and say are the ongoing debates over the nature and structure of fieldwork. There are many ways to do fieldwork, and the process lies along a continuum that stretches from hypothesis-driven research focused on answering specific questions and defining normative patterns (in anthropology this is often described as scientific anthropology) to the discovery of local knowledge through interviews, participant observation, and introspection (what is often thought of as humanistic, interpretive, and postmodern work).

Fieldwork is an ambivalent process regardless of a researcher’s place along the spectrum of approaches and theoretical foundations. Whether we test hypotheses or reflect and interpret stories, we must balance the personal and the investigative, the attachments we share with people and places in the field (attachments that will grow over time) and our goals as anthropologists.

When we start our fieldwork, we often don’t believe we’ll find enough to write about. You’ll even hear anthropologists in the field bemoan the fact that their metaphorical pockets are empty. They have nothing to say and very little to study. But the reality is that most of us will come home with so much data that we could spend a lifetime analyzing what we’ve found. I certainly remember wondering, “Is this it?,” but I’ve discovered that I have yet to finish writing about “it.” In fact, the longer you think about your work and explore the data you’ve collected, the more you will find to write.

But research is more than fieldwork. It starts long before we enter the field, and it extends beyond our exit from a research site. Preparations are often years in the making and rooted in the classes we take and the debates we join, and the discussions we have continue in the field. Once home we may work on data and engage in discussions for years, if not decades, as we work through and publish the results of our fieldwork.

Theory is what we learn, and it is based on the training we have and the choices we make as we explore human action and the sociocultural outcomes of life. There are schools of thought, models, and theoretical frameworks that organize anthropological ideas. Often these schools are organized around individuals, their theories, and their theoretical models. Nevertheless, we make the call and select the theories we will carry to, and test in, the field. The theories we select constrain what we will study and even some aspects of how we study, but theory is not fieldwork, and while we might want to “capture everything” in our work, we need parameters and boundaries. These come from our theories (at least in part), and we apply them in our fieldwork.

I entered the field an economic anthropologist armed with theories of culture change, household economics, and a little ecology rooted in the work of my professors (see Netting et al. 1984; Wilk 1991, 1996) and people like Eric Wolf and Sidney Mintz, materialists who, among other things, developed the concept of political economy in anthropology (see, for example, Mintz 1985; Wolf 1957, 1972, 1982).

I approached my research following their ideas concerning economy, society, and materialism. I assumed that people were involved in contests over the control of a range of resources. The resources (whether cultural, natural, or something else) were limited, and therefore individuals focused their energies on contests over access and control of those resources. I developed a series of questions to study how contests and control over resources changed as members of rural households were integrated in an expanding global capitalist system. Specifically, I was able to define the traditional socioeconomic relationships that characterized life in Santa Ana, and then how those relationships changed in response to the increasing incorporation of the village in a global capitalist system (Cohen 1999). To understand the incorporation of Santa Ana and how rural Oaxacans responded to the changes that were taking place around them, I focused on household decision making (see Wilk 1989).

I believe that individuals are social beings and that they create culture, but they do so within boundaries. One set of boundaries—and one of the most important from my perspective—is created around the household. Within the household individuals vie for control. Between households, groups of individuals compete for power, authority, and importance. The competition that characterizes households and their members also characterizes communities and the contests that arise around the control of communally defined resources.


The idea that we want to understand competition in different ways and at different levels can seem rather daunting. To simplify the goal, I created an artificial line that limited what I studied to how Santañeros used traditional forms of cooperation to respond to globalization.

Fieldwork meant living in the village for about a year, and it has meant returning fairly regularly. Lots of the time I spent in Santa Ana was given over to managing the mundane issues of living—not very exciting, and not really something that generated a lot of data, but indirectly helpful as I organized research and constructed my ethnography.

Getting through the day took a lot of energy. There wasn’t a bathroom in our house, and the latrine was across a dirt road and perhaps 100 meters away. Food preparation was complicated, as was cleanup. Living in the village was sort of like camping—but camping for a year! We got sick, we were exhausted, we fought off infections, and we participated in lots of community events—some happy, some quite sad. A lot of time was spent out of the house and participating in rituals (such as weddings) that are not described in my publications. But it was all fieldwork, and it is what I have organized here, creating a document that will carry you through my experiences and help you plan your own.


There are many ways to do fieldwork as an anthropologist. The range of possibilities stretches from very subjective approaches that can focus as much on the ethnographer as on the informant, to the objective and highly structured investigations that are often defined around specific questions and grounded in clearly defined methods and testable hypotheses.

We can think of the subjective investigation focused on learning as ethnography for ethnography’s sake—the kind of ethnography that is built around anthropologists and their efforts to interpret (see, for example, Denzin 2005). Structured investigations, on the other hand, are framed by a specific question and modeled using specific methodologies. The results are ethnographies that are organized around how a group responds to a specific issue and assumes there is a clear path to that response (see Munger 2007). There is no right or wrong approach to fieldwork, and one way of doing it is not inherently better or worse than another. Rather, the approach taken in the field and to research reflects the anthropologists and their training, interests, and motivations as well as questions to be asked.

There is room for a variety of models in anthropology, and ideally anthropologists will use an assortment of well-thought-out methods in their work. Some methods reflect the constraints that limit fieldwork or the fieldworker’s access to a group. For example, rapid assessment—a method that was constructed around short-term fieldwork focused on creating data around specific questions (Beebe 2001; Handwerker 2001)—is very different than the long-term participant observation that finds the anthropologist growing as an individual and aging with her or his informants over time (Kemper and Royce 2002). Not only are there different formulas for interviews, there are also different kinds of interviews. Some will focus on specific topics; others are more open and generated through and around exchanges. Some interviews run across several days, while others are quite short and limited. Again, one isn’t better than another. They are made for specific goals and can be used in tandem; there is no need to elect one approach and ignore another.

In my work I used different methods to generate different kinds of data. I conducted a randomized household survey in Santa Ana to capture village demography: the basics of everyday life and of household organization in the community. But that survey didn’t just happen. I built it around themes that I learned were important. I conducted lots of interviews, some short and specific, built around questions that focused on family, home life, and participation in village affairs. Longer interviews and oral histories (where I would focus on life events to create a coherent record of an individual’s life) came a bit later and were organized around a growing sense of trust and rapport. But I didn’t stop at surveys and interviews. Like most anthropologists I also used detailed participant observation throughout my stay and learned to weave, to build with adobe, and so forth. Maria added to the project as she cooked, shopped, taught English, and worked with village women in their kitchens, at their looms, and more. Together, we also attended lots of social and religious events in the village, moving from curiosities in the early days of our stay to invitados (guests) as our time in the village grew and we gained a sense of how Santañeros put together their social world and how they gave that world value even as its meaning changed. Finally, we conducted a variety of interviews, from open-ended discussions of themes to carefully worded questions covering specific topics. We also collected life histories that tended to emerge from several days of discussions to better understand what mattered in the village. In all cases, we were generating data focused on the different ways Santañeros dealt with the changes that were taking place around them and in the community.

Some anthropologists will tell you that fieldwork is a “sink or swim” process. You either do it or you don’t, and success cannot be bought. Regardless of your training, success is predetermined by your ability to adapt and adjust. I disagree, for while there are people who may be “naturals” at fieldwork, most of us need training; we need to learn how to conduct research regardless of the approach we will finally take and the questions we want to answer.

Learning the methods you will bring to fieldwork and to your research is important. There are a lot of resources that are available. Nevertheless, while we can prepare for fieldwork and anticipate problems, there is no guarantee it will go well. The saying “it’s always something” is quite apropos of fieldwork. At the moment when it seems like nothing could go wrong, there is a disaster (and in chapter 4 I’ll share some of those with you, including what happens when a large part of the group you are working with leaves halfway through your field stay). There are also moments when opportunities arise that never seemed possible, and you learn by being in the right place at the right time, and other opportunities that must be taken without knowing if there will be a payoff (like the moment during a fiesta when I asked myself, “Will slaughtering this turkey really help me understand Santa Ana better?”).

And while fieldwork is hard, it is not impossible. It tends to follow a pattern over time. In fact, almost regardless of the approach an anthropologist takes, her or his field experiences will follow a fairly set pattern that Russell Bernard (2002: 356–362) described as passing through seven stages: initial contact, culture shock, discovering the obvious, the break, focusing, exhaustion, and leaving the field. The stages of fieldwork influence the ethnographies we write and the theories we construct. Our experiences build rapport and trust as we interact with the people around us, and they also define the outcomes of our work—its veracity and value.

The initial steps of fieldwork occur as we ease ourselves into a new world and organize or reorganize our lives around a new environment.4 We’re just beginning to learn. While insights are bound to arrive, the rapport and trust we seek with our informant community will most likely come later. Writing about her time with the Lesu (a Melanisian group from the island of New Ireland, just off the east coast of New Guinea), Hortense Powdermaker (1966) writes that early on, and particularly when she asked sensitive questions, it was clear that people didn’t want to talk. It was only later, as trust grew between Powdermaker and her Lesu informants, that they shared details of their lives. Gerald Berreman (1962) makes a similar point. He notes that ethnographers must define themselves not just in terms of their interests, but for the very people that will be studied (see also Shaffir 1991).

In those initial steps most researchers experience “a kind of euphoria” (Bernard 2002: 356) as they engage in new ways of living. The euphoria was obvious as we settled into our fieldwork, and it will be clear in the experiences I’ve written about, but it is also important to remember that there was a great deal of preparation involved in research. We didn’t go into our new setting “cold.” We entered with expectations and experiences that came from training, preliminary visits, and lots of planning. Furthermore, right next to the euphoria was fear—the fear that people would mistrust us and doubt our goals; that we would fail and come home empty-handed; or that we would say something wrong and be asked to leave. But like most anthropologists we didn’t think about failure. Instead we focused on our work and persevered regardless of what we heard or assumed about the people around us (Chiñas 1993).

The euphoria and fears of the early days in the field typically give way to anxiety and tension as we try to understand new ways of living. These moments of culture shock arrive as the “novelty of the field site wears off and there is this nasty feeling that research has to get done” (Bernard 2002: 357). That feeling is complicated by the challenges that come with learning a new way of life and of dealing with such mundane events as tooth brushing.

The anthropologist doing fieldwork is new to a community and under pressure to learn quickly, face the challenges of everyday life, and try to understand what is happening from the perspective of an investigator. The suspicions that we might miss something combined with the pressures of fieldwork and adjusting to our new situation are a lot to balance, and there are stories of researchers who cannot cope or who are put in danger. These folks may leave the field or shift their projects for lots of reasons. But like most fieldworkers, we adapted and found ways to deal with the stresses of daily life and the shocks that came as we were confronted with the unfamiliar and alien, and embraced what was often rather chaotic. In fact, as we adapted to life in the community, we built rapport and trust, and gained confidence that we could be successful.

Bernard (2002) argues that discovering the obvious, or what is typical for the group, marks the end of the initial phase of fieldwork. With the initial phase behind the anthropologist and with the shock of the unfamiliar fading, the fieldworker builds upon early success and starts to understand how social life and cultural beliefs work. We can start to interview with confidence, and as Johnson (1978) notes, we might even share jokes.

Maria and I settled into Santa Ana, and over a few months the alien grew less shocking and more familiar, and I engaged in my research in earnest (see chapters 3–5). Moving into our fieldwork full-time and in-depth was an important development. We were growing more comfortable with our lives in Santa Ana, and there was a lot to do. Trust is not a one-way street (Adler and Adler 1991: 173). It is forged over time, and it can change (and sometimes fail) with little warning. Thus, as fieldworkers move beyond the early stages of their work, it remains critical to rebuild and refresh the trust and rapport that marks the relationships that characterize research. Adler and Adler (1991) note that we need to find specific roles, even though they may change, and manage ourselves as we engage and interact with our informants and learn about the worlds we have entered. In our work this meant wearing several different hats. Maria spent time learning to cook indigenous foods and make tortillas, and teaching American recipes. She also learned from several women how to weave (which I also learned). I spent time learning to farm and doing odd jobs that ranged from collecting firewood in the mountains above our home to translating for the odd tourist who visited the community’s museum and spoke no Spanish. This stage of fieldwork was also marked by a household census that I conducted with fifty families to get a better sense of typical lifeways and social practices in the village. As the weeks passed, the time I spent behind looms and in the fields, combined with the stories I heard and surveys I collected, began to create a clearer picture of life in Santa Ana.

Chapter 5 describes our efforts to push more deeply into Santañero life. In this phase of research, anthropologists redouble efforts to concentrate on the issues that brought them to the field. Our skill set is improved, and we’re ready to listen more carefully to the voices around us. Knowles and Thomas (2001: 208) note that this often means that we bring our informants’ “processes and perspectives” directly into our debates over meaning. This is the time to listen, wait, and listen again, and to rethink our response as we clarify our questions, refine our observations, and adapt ourselves to the ethnographic setting we hope to document (Robben 1996).

We listened and integrated what we learned with theoretical ideas to focus on the issue that had brought us to Santa Ana: how Santañeros adapt traditional social practices to the realities of a new global economic system. We spent lots of time out of the house working to document the ways Santañeros cooperated and coped with the changes taking place around them. I used the data from my surveys as a foundation to ask new questions, and I listened to informants as they brought their voices into the discussion. This was the time that I started to document in detail the important role of migration to the United States and incorporated men and women who had returned from the United States as informants.

In chapter 6 I explore our “break” and some of the problems we faced leading up to it. The break is “an opportunity to get some distance, both physical and emotional, from the field” (Bernard 2002: 360). It is also a chance for the folks we work with to get some distance.

There are days when the people we want to interview really don’t want us around. Anthropologists can be a nuisance: getting in the way, asking the wrong question at the wrong time, and upsetting carefully balanced interactions. There are also things that our informants don’t want us to know. They may be embarrassed by their actions or beliefs, they may be involved in illegal activities, or they may just want privacy (Inhorn 2004).

These are reactions that we must respect for ethical as well as practical reasons. Ethically, the anthropologist cannot force an informant to talk about something that he or she would rather avoid (see the American Anthropological Association’s website for its statement on ethical research). Practically, there are things we probably don’t want to know about. Even everyday interactions can grow tiresome for our informants. For example, I knew I had reached the end of an interaction when my informant would respond to my requests with “Jeffe [boss, but also a play on my name, Jeff ], I’m tired, can you put away the camera and notebook!”

The break is a chance to reflect on our research, ourselves, and our role as anthropologists. There was a time in anthropology, and in the social sciences in general, when we went to the field, conducted our research in a largely unproblematic way, and wrote up our findings with little doubt that we were accurately documenting the world. This approach, defined and described as positivism, argued that the social and cultural world was organized coherently and that laws or rules could be found and, once found, clearly explained (see, for example, Emile Durkheim’s The Rules of Sociological Method and Alfred Kroeber writing on the “superorganic” in culture). But we know that life doesn’t follow such obvious rules. A positivism that is rooted in the assumption that what we see is real, unfiltered, and natural—and that what we see can be organized around specific rules—doesn’t exist. Instead, we know that the world is much more complicated, and even though we can explore common themes across different groups, and we can define universal patterns and processes, the explanatory rules we develop are not self-evident and obvious (Steinmetz 2005). Furthermore, if we describe our fieldwork and data using a positivistic framework, we have not accomplished much more than description. How can we move onto interpretations? Thus, one thing that should happen during the break is that we reflect and build on our experiences, and think about where we fit in our fieldwork and how our roles and questions influence the questions we ask and the data we collect. Second, we must look beyond the obvious and probe our data and our informants, asking more questions to clarify what we learn even as we think about our findings and what they mean for our ethnography and theory building.

In chapter 7, I recount our move out of the village toward the end of our stay. We found an apartment in Oaxaca City for our last month in the field in order to access the records that were in the city. We had a lot to accomplish; I wanted to better situate what I had learned in Santa Ana in the context of events that included the state. This work took us to Oaxaca City and the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI), as well as the city archives. My goal was to document Santa Ana’s growth as a community and to understand better its place in the central valley region.

Bernard (2002: 360–361) tells us that the efforts made to focus research give way to an overall sense of exhaustion, not just for the researcher but also for informants. Throughout our stay, Santañeros would regularly ask us why we hadn’t yet left the village. We’d respond that our work wasn’t complete, and typically the Santañero would say something like, “People never stay here more than a weekend!” Well, we were exhausted, but we weren’t ready to leave.

Exhaustion is unsettling. The pull to leave and the urge to return to the lives left behind is strong. But the urge to leave is tempered by the sense that maybe we missed something. Complicating matters even more are our relationships with locals. Steven Taylor (1991: 242) summarizes the challenges that come with exhaustion and “leaving the field,” noting that “a study is close to being finished when one can begin to recognize the puzzle and how the pieces fit together,” but arranging the puzzle pieces and coping with exhaustion is complicated by friendships as well as the stress and strain of problematic relationships. It was difficult for us. We weren’t natives, we hadn’t been born in Santa Ana, and we weren’t going to stay, but we also weren’t finished with our work; there was still a lot to learn, and the process wasn’t complete.

But the fieldwork process is never complete. Bernard (2002) notes that the last phase is when we leave the field, but in reality leaving means that a new phase of work is just beginning as we return to complete our analyses, write up findings, and rejoin our academic communities. In truth, “leaving the field means staying in the field and struggling with the human issues raised by the fieldwork” (Taylor 1991: 247). Fieldwork is never complete; it is transformed, and leaving, even from a difficult setting, can be bittersweet.

We didn’t just leave; we didn’t simply pick up one day and drive back to the United States. Santa Ana was our world, and by the time we were preparing to leave, the United States and our lives in Bloomington, Indiana, seemed almost fantastically distant and strange. The things that had annoyed us about Santa Ana (even the lack of running water) had become normal and no longer seemed so bad. But we were ready: ready to leave our friends, our home in the foothills, and our fieldwork; we had reached the point of “theoretical saturation” (Bloor and Wood 2006). Santañeros often repeated certain themes, ideas, and outcomes in our interviews. While each response was idiosyncratic, we discovered shared explanations, and normative patterns did emerge through interviews, among other things. We weren’t really sure we’d discovered everything, and we did panic a little: Had we missed some detail? Had we traded a normative representation of Santañero life for something more personal and particular? But our fieldwork couldn’t go on forever, and I had entered the field with specific questions concerning local life. So during our last weeks in Oaxaca, and as we traded life in Santa Ana for time living in the city, we learned that leaving wasn’t the end of our research. Our move simply marked another stage in the process that was my research and our fieldwork.

Some people travel to a location to conduct fieldwork and know they will never return. Working in Oaxaca was different. I know a lot of people who return year after year and build upon their research to document how patterns shift over time, how people cope with new challenges, and how changes in politics, ecology, and education, among other things, make for new practices. My research in Oaxaca built upon itself, and in the conclusion I look closely at how my work has continued. There were new questions to explore and new challenges to social and cultural life, so why not build upon what I knew rather than establishing a new research site? And so I’ve returned to Oaxaca again and again. But just as I’ve changed over the years, so too has Oaxaca and the people I work with. Several individuals I met as children are now grown and have their own families. Others are older and have grandchildren. There are lots of new researchers in the area as well. And as locals, informants, friends, and colleagues have disappeared, others have appeared, and the issues that confront young and old continue to fascinate and engage me. This is the story of how my research started, how I bridged theory and method, and what I accomplished during my fieldwork in 1992–1993.


“This is a significant contribution to the field. I cannot think of another book quite like it.”
Walter E. Little, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director, Institute for Mesoamerican Studies, SUNY-Albany, and author of Mayas in the Marketplace: Tourism, Globalization, and Cultural Identity