The Construction of Anthropological Knowledge and the Construction of Research

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  • posted byAnne Schiller
  • dateApril 15, 2016
  • comments1
CategoryMain Story

To mark the publication of the newest ethnography in the Teaching Culture series, Merchants in the City of Art: Work, Identity, and Change in a Florentine Neighborhood, the author, Anne Schiller, provides some background on how she involved student researchers in her ethnographic fieldwork.

In a passage from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the protagonist, Marco Polo, describes a bridge, stone by stone, to the Emperor Kublai Khan. By the time he finishes, it is clear that the bridge is in the shape of an arch. The emperor asks why Marco Polo did not mention the arch immediately, because it is the arch that matters. The explorer explains it was because, without stones, there would be no arch.

I quote that passage sometimes to help undergraduate students understand—and question—the anthropological research process. I draw their attention, in particular, to how anthropologists’ interactions with certain people, places, and things may shape the results of fieldwork. To that end as well, when discussing ethnographies, I encourage students to reflect upon why the authors likely ended up speaking with particular people, framed questions in the way they did, and reached certain conclusions. I remind them there are usually also other people with whom one might speak, other questions one could pose, and, perhaps, other possible interpretations. To avoid leaving them with the impression that, in anthropology, anything goes, I stress that emergent research design over the course of fieldwork is almost certainly the most iconic, satisfying, and fruitful aspect of the anthropological approach, and that ethnographers’ relationships with the people, places, and things that they describe and analyze in anthropological studies are built only gradually, as it were, stone by stone.

Merchants of the City of ArtUnderstanding how anthropological knowledge is created sharpens undergraduates’ critical thinking skills and improves their ability to conduct field research, an activity in which many would like to become directly involved. I am sure other colleagues, too, have had students who asked eagerly to be taken on as assistants. When I launched the project that led to Merchants in the City of Art: Work, Identity, and Social Change in a Florentine Neighborhood, I wondered how I might create opportunities for undergraduates to experience international research alongside me. I ultimately collaborated with my institution’s Office of Undergraduate Research in a program that enabled worthy students from any department who had been accepted into our summer study abroad program in Florence to apply to participate in fieldwork and receive some financial support. They did not have to be anthropology majors, but applicants had to be willing to complete a pre-departure research skills workshop, devote significant time to fieldwork, and meet regularly with me and other team members to review notes and plan next steps. None spoke Italian, but brought other skills which they deployed in a range of projects that complemented larger research goals. Some students worked as volunteer sales staff in neighborhood markets or in shops, taking notes on interactions they observed or in which they participated. Others were charged with conducting surveys directed at English-speaking shoppers regarding their impressions of the neighborhood and its history. Some made maps or were tasked with documenting vendors’ and shoppers’ behaviors with observation sheets or cameras. Dozens more, not directly involved in the research but also summer students in Florence, were eager to contribute, too, and shared photographs or stories about their experiences. The project benefitted enormously from the contributions of many talented undergraduates.

Merchants in the City of Art focuses on the life blood of Florence: buying and selling. It devotes particular attention to the practice of ambulant vending in the city’s historic center. The volume foregrounds vendors’ “marketplace performances,” the ways in which they comport themselves in interactions with clients, fellow vendors, and others. Over the course of fieldwork my students and I became acquainted with many rules and norms that govern marketplace performances. Through observation, conversation, and outright instruction from experienced marketers, we learned to interact with customers and vendors in a manner that those merchants considered appropriate. But we also observed that not all vendors comported with clients and competitors in the same way. Those differences were closely scrutinized and sometimes criticized by our informants as being incongruent with Florentine identity or with how Florentines do business. Such reactions enabled us better to understand how some aspects of globalization, in particular the transnational flow of labor and mass tourism, have affected cultural and professional identities in the heart of one of the world’s most beloved cities. Student researchers learned firsthand that reciprocal comprehension is not an easy or even natural outgrowth of globalization, and that local and global forces may interact in ways that lead to unexpected outcomes.

Merchants in the City of Art presents primarily Florentine voices, but one can also hear in it the voices of student researchers in the midst of first fieldwork. For that reason, I hope that the book serves as a useful bridge for colleagues who would like to draw their own students’ attention to the fundamental connection between the construction of anthropological knowledge and the construction of research.

Anne Schiller is Professor of Anthropology at George Mason University, Virginia, USA and Visiting Fulbright-CON IL SUD Professor in the Department of History, Society, and Human Studies at the University of Salento in Lecce, Puglia, Italy.

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