A question that has been asked many many times in anthropology is, if there is a state where a cultural anthropologist is either in or out of the field during the field research. I doubt that there’s a total dissolution, but I believe that the transition is not clearly defined.
Even if I am back in Botswana the third time I ask myself this same old question: when does the field research start? And while I am asking myself this question I am already in the middle of it.
One example: while I am sitting on my veranda enjoying a cup of tea, thinking about being in Mochudi again a neigbour is shouting from his yard over to mine: “Hey sister, can I visit you?” Of course, he could. That’s how it happened that I met Ontlametse. A guy, younger than me, but looking much more older. Don’t know how he spent his life. He told me that he’s a bus driver, loves drinking beer and wants to sell me his plot. As I told him that I can neither offer him beer, nor buy his plot he’s asking me what I am doing in Botswana. I told him that I am a cultural anthropologist conducting fieldwork about love, sexuality and that I am interested in the so called MCP, which means having more than one sexual partner at the same time.The typical “Ishhhh, Eem!” was his answer. People often use this phrase to say that they totally understand. In german we would say something like “Ach ja…klar”.
Ontlametse continued: “You know….my sister…..the girls…..the girls in Botsuana like money.”
“So what? Is that why they use to have several boyfriends at the same time?”, was what I asked him.
“Ishhh….yes and if you don’t have money they go…”
Of course, I was interested to find out why men use to have several girlfriends at the same time, too. At this point he didn’t want to answer clearly.
He just said: “Ishhhh…..” and laughed.
So this question has to remain a secret a little longer.
And this is exactly what happens in the field. At one moment you’re in and at some other moment you’re out. But the knowledge of this transitional state seems not to be recognizable in the very moment it happens. I would argue that being in or out of the field is a self-reflexive state. And that it’s only possible to decide afterwards. This is why I like the term “participant observation”. It describes on a very good way what happens “in” the field.