Posted by: Tad McIlwraith | June 5, 2011

Confronting Theory Versus Practice in Anthropological Fieldwork

By Marie-Élise Laforest

My name is Marie-Élise Laforest. At the end of this summer semester I will be entering my third year of study in anthropology and will be saying goodbye to Douglas College and starting at Simon Fraser in the fall. I have been starving for an opportunity to experience the practice of anthropology and collaborate with a community since the first class in anthropology I attended.

It is difficult to convey the extent of my academic and personal growth in such an intentionally condensed medium as a blog post, let alone any kind of holistic image of my experience working with the Splatsin First Nation. This experienced has, in many ways, reinforced my preconceptions of what it means to be an anthropologist. However, being thrown into this work has also shown me that, while I may be aware of the intrinsic difficulties of conducting research in the field, there is a vast difference between theory and practice. In anthropology there is a danger of focusing to intensely on either the individual or the collective. In this way one often forgets the importance of each individual’s place within the collective and reality that any cultural conglomerate is literally just that—a collection of individual voices.

Throughout our time in Enderby a many number of individuals have gone far beyond reasonable expectations and welcomed us into their lives and offered us their time patience. A perfect example of this would be our weekly stick game invitations in which we are assured a warm reception, food and a good time. These individuals have made it their prerogative to answer the plethora of questions we through their way and to tease us for our displays of naiveté. One incident which continues to linger in the back of my mind was the mistake in selecting a rather large and newly oozed piece of pine sap to pop into my mouth during a tour of the community’s cultural garden. It took three seconds to realize my mistake, five hours to rectify said mistake (and copious amounts of toothpaste), and a week for our guides to decide the joke was old…

Yet, we find ourselves in nearly constant contact with only a handful of families within the greater community. In some ways this can be seen as a benefit as our interactions provide us a unique and extensive education on these individuals’ personal knowledge and perspectives, in other words, a case study. Conversely however, this narrow network of collaborators also produces challenges in producing a well rounded study of who the Splatsin First Nation are as a collective. It becomes impossible to make the claim that any work we produce could ever answer such an all encompassing question.

It seems to me this is the crux of an argument to be made against the value of anthropological study. I would argue against this being a detracting aspect of such research and suggest that this is the very nature of human study. Culture is not such a consistent and rigid reality as people may imagine and rather in order to understand culture it is necessary to make careful study of the individual and there place within the collective. The problem lies in the suggestion that any such research does in fact offer a complete and holistic representation.



  1. Marie-Elise: Nice pine sap story. I really like your comment about culture not being consistent and rigid. I find it is one of the most difficult things to get across to people sometimes. Especially when it refers to First Nations.

  2. Hello Marie-Élise.

    I read your comments with interest and, without discouragement or disdain, amusement. Welcome to field work – your reflections are nothing more or less what we all encounter as we begin our journey on this great project of our lives in this discipline (it is called this to distinguish it from just hanging because anthropologist work at hanging out).

    Two families opinion do not make a culture – unless of course they do. I encourage you to embrace the people who have stepped forward to share their lives with you and consider that they do reflect, in imperfect and inconsistent ways, the community they are in. This is the only thing we have to work with and, as it turns out (and on this you will just have to trust me) they really do so reflect it. The others are busy with their busy lives, lack trust, don’t care to share, or for any number of reasons, can’t fit you into their lives. Embrace the ones that do step forward, listen to their lessons, and be confident that in this work do that is what we work with.

    Relax. Enjoy the moment of struggle for mutual understanding and accept what anthropology can’t do but more importantly, what it can do.

    Welcome to the one of the most difficult existential clubs in the world – regards to TM.

    Norm Easton

  3. Thank you for your comments I appreciate the time you took in reading and offering me thoughts developed through you own experiences. You are correct in saying that these individuals deserve my respect and gratitude and I intend to make io clear to them the extent regard. I would also agree that dispite the small size of our aquaintance pool we can larn a fair amount about the community as a whole so long as we reflect upon the who and why.

  4. i see you have discovered the need for humor within the first nations peoples! it is an essential part of our culture to laugh, tease and joke. the more they tease you, the more they like you. as for the broader spectrum it will take some time. trust and comfort will have to be earned, one cannot simply show up and say “tell me and show me your history!” That being said it is great that you are there learning, all i can say is become a sponge! abosorb everything, but dont ask questions until they are finished speaking. have a great summer and keep up the good work

  5. I am thrilled that you have been able to satiate your appetite for applied anthropology through this field school. (or perhaps the field school is only an appetizer and just took the edge of off the starvation). I wish there had been these kind of social anthropology field schools when I was in school. Lucky for me, I am not an applied anthropologist and get to work with First Nations around the province in many different aspects and I have to admit, it doesn’t get old and when I start to think that I know what a particular answer will be or how something will be done, I will be surprised.

    All the best at SFU next year.

    • Oh dear me, I just re-read my post and wish I had done that earlier. Besides the typos, I need to clarify that I AM an applied anthropologist and I feel lucky that I AM! And yes, I still do get surprised when I am in the field.

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