The daunting challenge of leaving an anthropological field site and moving to another halfway across the globe may be a situation most familiar to anthropologists, but the intellectual and emotional challenges of uprooting one’s life for one’s field of study are something that many scholars can relate to, says Alma Gottlieb, a UI professor of anthropology.
Gottlieb and colleagues explore these ideas in “The Restless Anthropologist: New Fieldsites, New Visions” (University of Chicago Press), a newly published collection of essays, written by her and other top scholars in anthropology.
Gottlieb said she was inspired to put this book together after leaving a field site in Ivory Coast to conduct fieldwork in Cape Verde. She “felt a lot of misgivings about leaving the site and the people who had become like family to her, even though there were practical, political and theoretical reasons why (she) could not return.” Eager for advice on how to adapt to the situation, Gottlieb searched for articles about switching field sites but soon became frustrated to discover that very little had been written about the subject. She then began writing a talk for an upcoming anthropology conference about the topic. The session received rave reviews, which inspired her to turn her talk into the basis of a book.
Though “The Restless Anthropologist” may appear most relevant to anthropology scholars, the collection discusses themes that any scholar, regardless of discipline, can relate to. For example, the book illuminates a common life lesson nearly everyone experiences at some point: the complex relationship between risk and reward.
“The best successes are based on risk, and risk sometimes means failure,” Gottlieb said. “Failure doesn’t have to be the end point – it can be the beginning, or the challenge, to forge a new strategy.”
Additionally, the book addresses the challenges scholars face when they wish to explore a new field. In any academic field, scholars can reach the point of “project burnout,” where they keep researching the same ideas and are unable to unearth fresh insights. The book “discusses the challenges of switching research topics and keeping fresh as a scholar; any active scholar can find that interesting,” Gottlieb said.
“The Restless Anthropologist” includes essays by two other UI professors. Edward M. Bruner, a professor emeritus of anthropology, and Virginia R. Dominguez, the Edward William and Jane Marr Gutgsell Professor of Anthropology, share stories of their own experiences in overcoming challenges in changing field sites. In part, Gottlieb’s colleagues at Illinois helped inspire her to write the book.
“I looked at the careers of my colleagues, of these scholars who have been intellectually adventurous and who have taken risks in developing new projects, and that really inspired me,” she said.
Gottlieb hopes the book will, in turn, inspire anthropologists – and other researchers – to take the risks she and other colleagues have taken.
“Being exposed to the decisions (to switch field sites) of larger-than-life top scholars … makes these scholars seem more human,” she said. “And more junior scholars may gain confidence that if they did their own version of what these senior scholars did, their careers might flourish as well.”