Anthropology Is Boring: Bring Other Books

“He who is tired of anthropology, is tired of life”, I like to imagine Samuel Johnson having said. I’ve never really felt comfortable with the the idea that anthropologists, who deal with the most interesting stuff of all – human life – could be bored doing what they do. And yet that was precisely what I was told before I began my fieldwork.  

During my first-year of PhD study in 2014, part of our preliminary training before fieldwork included a number of methodology classes. Interspersed between advice on how to pick up a language as quickly as possible and different data collection methods, we were told by the most seasoned anthropologists in our department, some of whom had done their first bout of fieldwork in the 1960s, to “bring a book”. Their reasoning was – fieldwork is not always interesting, often boring, so find some method to entertain yourself. Before I began my own fieldwork, I found this notion scandalising. It seemed to me to betray our methodological training, i.e., making the most of our time conducting research, constantly observing and participating. To allow one’s self the luxury of being bored in the field seemed almost unethical.

What do I mean, being bored?

I think to begin this discussion we need to make a fundamental distinction about the contexts in which boredom might be experienced during research. There is a profound difference between being just bored of the field, and bored with one’s informants. Being bored with friends in the field is a great opportunity for research, a chance to understand who gets bored, why they get bored, and what being bored looks like. Boredom in various definitions and iterations has been has been written about extensively by Craig Jefferey in his book Timepass, by Bruce O’Neill working in Romania, and by Yasmine Musharbash in Yuendumu, the latter of whom argued forcefully that boredom was not just a product of European history and the 18th and 19th century increase in leisure time as a result of the industrial revolution.

My concern before starting my research was rather that the anthropologist (me!) might get bored in the field. Here, by boredom, what I mean is Heidegger’s notion of boredom as a “silent fog” of “indifference”. The looming spectre in the back of my mind was Bronislav Malinoswki, whose infamous “real” diary expressed a deep contempt for the life of his informants. Taking the boredom to a grotesque extreme, of his experiences in the Trobriand Islands he declared  “I see the life of the native as utterly devoid of interest or importance”.

Bored and guilty

As a result, I was determined to make sure that I was never bored during my fieldwork. Vibrant informants and constant social interaction were to be the key to my successful defeat of apathy. And yet, when it came to the crunch, I frequently found myself bored. Try as I might, I found that it just simply wasn’t possible to maintain social interaction all the time. Sometimes people wanted to be alone, sometimes they were busy with life in a way that I couldn’t participate. My partner and I were left with long periods of time where no matter what we did, we were on our own.

At other points, even when we were with friends and informants, things weren’t exactly ‘interesting’. Life where I did my fieldwork in Mashhad differed significantly from the vibrant ‘Indonesian village’ that had been how I had envisaged research before I left. People didn’t say hello to each other on the street, and most socialising took place behind closed doors. Even once I did begin to ingratiate myself, a lot of my time in Iran was spent sitting on the floor of apartments, watching whatever television show our hosts happened to have selected. Sometimes people fell asleep. Frequently I was invited to events that dragged for hours longer than they were supposed to, award ceremonies with hour after hour of prizes with no end in sight, or wedding ceremonies where people just sat and made small talk, waiting politely until the cleric felt like he had been there long enough. Often I would find myself disinterested in the proceedings around me, and wanting nothing more than to return to my room and catch up on the day’s news or talk to my family and friends.

And so it was, that throughout my fieldwork I was frequently not only bored, but wracked with guilt about being bored. Boredom and the fear of being bored hovered throughout my fieldwork like menacing cloud.  Convinced that it was a matter of ethnographic integrity to remain interested, and something that could be solved through better interaction, closer engagement, etc, I was certain that if I became bored, the problem lay solely with me. Boredom was clearly indicative that I wasn’t doing my fieldwork right. How could I allow myself to so drift away from the constantly engaging world around me, so much so that I felt apathetic?

The boredom of others

On my return to Australia for write up, I spoke to a colleague about his own experiences of fieldwork. Working in Java, he had spent a lot of time socialising, but, he said, he also had a lot of time where he wasn’t working. During that time, certainly like many others, he had been bored, and whiled away hours catching up on television serials. When I asked him whether he ever was worried about being away from his informants, he responded that we had to be “realistic”. “I’m not going to go a whole year and not watch Game of Thrones”, was his response.

Since at least the mid-80s, if not earlier, anthropologists have tried to better place ‘themselves’ in the process of data collection. Part of this has meant coming to a recognition that the ethnographer is never a perfect instrument for information gathering or analysis. We all come with our own biases. The end result has been both a greater reflexivity on the part of researchers, and an attempt to recognise our weaknesses. So, I have written this short piece with no authoritative pronouncement or even clear position, but rather to admit that, yes, I was bored in the field.

My question then is, is this acceptable? Should we be training the next generation of anthropologists  with an expectation that they will at times be bored? Should they “bring a book”? In doing so, we are telling them effectively that, yes, there will be moments when you vacate the field, intellectually and emotionally, and as such, you may miss an opportunity for collecting data. Or, should we be tell them instead that they ought to be ever present, constantly engrossed in the endlessly fascinating world of their fieldwork and ready at any opportunity to write down that which they experience around them?

                                                                      [Image by Simon Theobald]

2 thoughts on “Anthropology Is Boring: Bring Other Books

  1. Lovely piece, Simon. Here are my 2 x 5 cents worth: (1) I think, one should not expect more of fieldwork life than of non-fieldwork life – if you sometimes get bored when not in the field, it should also be legit to sometimes get bored while in the field. (2) If you get so bored that it bugs you then follow the great Nic Peterson’s advice: study what bugs you! (And voila, you have a piece on boredom that gets cited in blogs!) yxx

  2. Thanks a lot for this honest piece. I mean it is really important for us to find to not only be more productive in the field by taking more and more observations and all. But yes these moments of boredom arrives, however much we remain busy doing work. Sometimes they are forced upon us by the field and many a times it just happen like the routine of life. I have been thinking over this, I feel that sometimes not really try to observe (which can never happen) can help. Thanks again for writing this.

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