Daily Archives: 25 March 2021

On Language Use in Fieldwork

From A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea, by Don Kulick (Algonquin Books, 2019), Kindle pp. ix-x:

Long gone are the magisterial days of departed anthropologists like Margaret Mead, whose attitude about the people she worked with was neatly summed up in an article she published in 1939 in the professional journal American Anthropologist. Mead wrote in response to one of her colleague’s claims that for anthropological work to be believable, anthropologists needed to learn the languages spoken by the people among whom they did fieldwork. Margaret Mead thought that earnest counsel like that was nonsense. She waved it away like an irritating housefly. All the fuss about learning native languages was intimidating to anthropology students and just plain wrongheaded. It wasn’t necessary. To do their job, Mead insisted, anthropologists don’t need to “know” a language. They just need to “use” a language. And to “use” a language requires only three things.

First of all, you need to be able to ask questions in order to “get an answer with the smallest amount of dickering.” (What you were supposed to make of those answers if you didn’t speak the language in which they were delivered was not something that Mead seemingly bothered herself about.)

The second thing Mead thought that an anthropologist needed to use a language for is to establish rapport (“Especially in the houses of strangers, where one wishes the maximum non-interference with one’s note taking and photography”).

The final thing you need to use a language to do—this is my favorite—is to give instructions. Invoking an era when natives knew their place and didn’t dare mess with bossy anthropologists, Mead offered this crisp advice: “If the ethnologist cannot give quick and accurate instructions to his native servants, informants and assistants, cannot tell them to find the short lens for the Leica, its position accurately described, to put the tripod down-sun from the place where the ceremony is to take place, to get a fresh razor blade and the potassium permanganate crystals and bring them quickly in case of snake bite [wouldn’t you love to know how she barked that in Samoan?], to boil and filter the water which is to be used for mixing a developer,—he will waste an enormous amount of time and energy doing mechanical tasks which he could have delegated if his tongue had been just a little bit better schooled.”

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