Replacing the Lone Stranger with Evidence-Based Theory: Collaborative Fieldwork in Anthropology

Drs. Michaela Howells and Christopher Lynn (author) in traditional business attire to meet with officials outside Samoan Affairs, Tutuila, in American Samoa.

Drs. Michaela Howells and Christopher Lynn (author) in traditional business attire to meet with officials outside Samoan Affairs, Tutuila, American Samoa.

An abridged version of this post first appeared in our column in Anthropology News: http://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2016/12/19/replacing-the-lone-stranger-with-evidence-based-theory/

At the 115th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association this year in Minneapolis, MN, I was recruiting a graduate student whose former adviser was denied a promotion and who then told the student she should leave academia because she would never get hired or tenure at an R1 institution. There are several layers of things wrong with this scenario, but my pitch in gaining her interest in our program (as she has no intention of leaving academia) was that I absolutely refuse to send students into the field alone unless they essentially demand it, have already set up the field site, and have a proven track record of mature and independent work. There are several reasons for this. One, fieldworkers learn more from each other as part of a team. Two, there is emotional support when working with trained collaborators. Three, fieldwork teams conduct better science and collect more thorough data. Four, in theory, team fieldwork should be safer, provided the team makes safety a conscious priority and is ethically vetted. And, five, team fieldwork is a joyous, fun experience.

In the most recent issue of Annals of Anthropological Practice (an all-around great special issue called “‘Involve Me and I Learn’: Teaching and Applying Anthropology” edited by Toni Copeland and Francois Dengah), Max Stein and other students in my research group outline several advantages of this collaborative approach (2016). We draw on Philip Salzman (1989, 1994), who has written previously on problems with the implicit anthropological myth of the anthropologist as “lone stranger,” that of doing fieldwork alone in a remote location. As Salzman points out, we tend to be relatively uncritical of this model, which owes more to the heritage of our discipline and the predecessors we look up to than any value added to research. Similarly, Philippe Bourgois and Jeffrey Schonberg (2009) clearly articulate how the elicitation of “deep meaning” during data collection and analyses is improved through anthropological collaboration.

American Samoa is simultaneously a U.S. territory, a tropical paradise, and a developing country. WWII pillboxes remain all over Tutuila, the main island, such as this one near the village of Alega, 7/20/16.

American Samoa is simultaneously a U.S. territory, a tropical paradise, and a developing country. WWII pillboxes remain all over Tutuila, the main island, such as this one near the village of Alega, 7/20/16.

As we were preparing the AAP article and I was teaching with Bourgois and Schonberg’s book in my Anthropology of Drug Use course, I was invited by my friend and fellow biocultural anthropologist Michaela Howells (UNCW) to tag along as her research assistant for a trip to American Samoa to assess the influence of the Zika outbreak there on prenatal care access and utilization. Michaela and I have collaborated for the past several years on our Family and the Field Study, but we had never worked together in the field. This trip to American Samoa gave us an opportunity to test out this collaborative fieldwork model firsthand. I was recruited because, as a male with relatively high rank in the U.S. (as a tenured associate professor), I would be able to interview males in this traditional, hierarchical cultural system, where it is not appropriate for females to interview males, especially high status males, and vice versa. 

American Samoa is a small group of islands in the South Pacific and the southernmost territory of the U.S. It is characterized as the most traditional of the Pacific cultures, with village-based authority dominated by mostly male chiefs (Shore 1982). It is also strongly evangelical Christian and influenced by neoliberal identity politics. Women have been the primary resources for studies of prenatal care utilization, but in the American Samoan cultural system, resources are redistributed in the villages, with preferences given to elite members or relatives of chiefs (Howells 2013). Michaela and I spent several weeks making arrangements to interview males in the village of Fagasa, even buying ritual goods to give for the planned sua, a ceremonial gift-giving ceremony when interacting with matai or chiefs. However, the arrangements ultimately fell through; we collected survey data from 172 participants in the Department of Health clinics, but we failed to conduct any firsthand interviews. This situation could have been really frustrating, given the resources Michaela used to get me to American Samoa. Instead, it was the best, most productive field season I have ever experienced, primarily because we established and developed our team.

Working on the survey back translation with R.N. Tele Hill at the American Samoan Department of Health. (Photo by Michaela Howells).

Working on the survey back translation with R.N. Tele Hill at the American Samoan Department of Health. (Photo by Michaela Howells).

One of the best parts of this experience was watching each other work and learning how to communicate nonverbally with a good team member. One of the things I learned from Michaela is how easy it is to give a compliment to someone and how far that can go toward forging a relationship. Like many cultures of the world, one of the most important ethnographic skills to develop in Samoa is learning to hang out and shoot the shit. When you’re meeting someone, bring food to share, sit down with them (i.e., don’t hover over them, suggesting you’re in a rush and preparing to leave), and look for something to compliment. Michaela admired a lot of puletasi (traditional Samoan two-piece formal garment, worn by Samoan women to church or other formal events) while we were there. In turn, I learned to comment on the tatau (tattoos) I was noticing. I have brought this new skill home with me—I love good facial bling, colored contacts, tattoos, hairstyles, and clothes. People go to the trouble to deck themselves out, and it turns out they enjoy it when people do them the courtesy of noticing. The necessity of making small talk before getting down to business is common cross-culturally, but it’s not a norm in the U.S. and requires learning, especially for academic types, who are not necessarily known for their skills in verbal social grooming.

We talked with high school students in a health professions summer program through American Samoa Community College at LBJ Tropical Medical Center. Michaela and I intuitively traded off telling stories about medical anthropology to broaden these students' awareness of possible careers related to health.

Michaela talking with high school students in a health professions summer program through American Samoa Community College at LBJ Tropical Medical Center. Michaela and I intuitively traded off telling stories about medical anthropology to broaden these students’ awareness of possible careers related to health.

To figure out how to talk with people in Samoa, I watched Michaela and quickly learned how to show deference and when and how to reinforce what she was saying. But she also pointed out things I wouldn’t have noticed, such as that I am a resonant talker and tend to dominate a room. Ordinarily, and as a teacher, this works to my benefit; but in working with Samoans, I needed to tone it down, speak quieter, and literally lower my body so my head would be below that of the person I was speaking with. This behavior shows respect in a status-conscious, traditional society. This type of context is where our non-verbal communication came into play. As a feminist male, I defer to Michaela’s ethnographic expertise in American Samoa but am conscious to explicitly give her credit where it is due because others may assume that, as a male, I am in charge and that she is my student (or something else). I pointed out, for instance, that she developed the project and field site and that I was there as her research assistant.

I learned a lot about myself as well. I have never been observed by a colleague or superior in the field, though anthropology is not my first career or where I learned to teach or interview. However, aside from being hired for teaching jobs after demonstrating my approach, reading my teaching evaluations, or listening to my interviews and reading the transcripts, this was the first time I have ever received feedback on the job I was doing while doing it. For instance, I always try to maintain eye contact and to talk with people, not at them. Michaela noted that my eye contact seems to bring my interlocutors to life, like they are being seen, and my skill at turn-taking opens them up so that they feel like they are being heard. This was extremely validating and something I had developed on purpose but without realizing its effect. Our feedback to each other, thereby, reinforces our strengths and tweaks our skills while they are in use in the field.

Michaela working with Director of Nursing Margaret Sesepasara on the survey translation, 7/11/16.

Michaela working with Director of Nursing Margaret Sesepasara on the survey translation, 7/11/16.

One of the misnomers of fieldwork is that it is always a dream come true while it is happening. In fact, most anecdotal evidence and a significant accumulation of literature supports a different model. Conducting fieldwork alone, especially as an inexperienced student, is scary and can even be traumatizing. I often tell students about the first time I went into a Pentecostal church service, when I was beginning my dissertation fieldwork. I was in New Paltz, which I affectionately term “Portlandia East” (or the liberal vortex of the east coast). Despite feeling very comfortable in this, my hometown at the time, I was so nervous about walking into the “other” that I sat in my car until the service was half over. The result was that the only seat left was right up front, and I drew more attention to myself by arriving late than if I’d gone straight in. Most of us are nervous about fieldwork and lack anyone to talk to about these experiences. My wife does clinical work, part of which includes processing emotions and “transference” with a clinical supervisor or adviser. Anthropologists only get this if they have empathetic advisers and colleagues, which is certainly not guaranteed and, in my discussions with colleagues, may be relatively rare. Even as a professional, when I began setting up a second field site in Costa Rica, a veritable tropical paradise, I often felt alone and exposed and did not particularly enjoy it. By contrast, setting up a new field site in American Samoa (mind you, one that had really been set up in advance by Michaela) was truly pleasurable. I enjoyed every moment of it specifically because we gave each other emotional support while problems were occurring. Because Michaela and I share similar training, the support we could gave was qualified and credible. For instance, when we could not get the interviews in the short time we were there, we were able to remind each other that we were learning actual realistic things about navigating culture and that our process was as or more important for the long term project as was the survey data we were collecting for the short term project. Our sympathetic support of each other meant that we rolled with the frustrations of the field and took things in stride, without reacting in potentially negative ways.

Tuna, crackers, water, and beer we bought for the sua, for the interviews arranged in fagasa.

Tuna, crackers, water, and beer we bought for the sua, for the interviews arranged in Fagasa.

Team research is better research, whether for scientific or humanistic data collection and interpretation. We do both in Samoa. For instance, together Michaela and I constructed a better (though always imperfect nevertheless) survey in a rapid amount of time, complete with translations into Samoan and back-translations to ensure accuracy. It is always difficult to find a balance in survey questions when one is also soliciting native input, as emic and etic biases pull you in different directions. Michaela and I were able to continually confer with each other to ensure that the questions we asked addressed our research questions first and foremost, while remaining sensitive to cultural perspectives. This was particularly important and difficult when asking about condom use, the discussion of which is basically verboten in the Samoas. Furthermore, we were able to discuss the greater vision of our project. Is this 10-year plan that we envision practical? Can we do this? What are our resources? What should we include? Are we on the right track? Regardless of the expertise of one trained individual, two or more trained team members can observe more, have greater vision, and plan better. And, frankly, while we share training, Michaela and I have complementary but slightly different temperaments that enhance our abilities to connect with a variety of people. Finally, it is no coincidence that we follow in the footsteps of Margaret Mead in American Samoa. Mead realized immediately after her first field experience in Ta’o, the island we plan to return to, that fieldwork in the Pacific—and probably everywhere—is better conducted by a team of trained researchers that includes females and males (Shankman 2009).

Michaela meets the First Lady of American Samoa at the Nursing Association Centennial, 7/30/16.

Michaela meets Cynthia Malala Moliga, the First Lady of American Samoa, at the Nurses Association Centennial, 7/30/16.

As I said, Michaela and I  planned to interview men and get their perspectives. We went so far as to buy goods for ritual gift-giving for the sua and Samoan business attire for the occasion. (Michaela had puletasi already, but I needed Hawaiian shirts, which I borrowed from David Herdrich, an ie faitaga [male sewn lavalava in neutral colors, with pockets], and a kukui nut necklace.) However, our trip coincided with the planning and celebration of the American Samoa Nurses Association Centennial, which took place over the last several days we were there and dominated everyone’s time and attention, including ours. Since there were two of us, Michaela focused on refining our social networks to develop leads for later or the next field season, as well as collecting data for a project with Nicky Hawley and Micah van der Ryn on gestational diabetes, while I collected survey data from visitors to the Department of Health Physical Exam, Prenatal Care, and Well Baby Clinics.

In that short time, we made two significant observations. The first is that public health initiatives need medical anthropologists on their teams from the design stage through implementation. This is by no means a novel finding, but it is the first observation specifically with regard to the Zika outbreak. We have written a short commentary on this that is currently in review, but journalist Jessica Carew Kraft recently published an NBC News piece about our work on Zika and the role of culture in American Samoa. Second, according to our data, there is a general consensus among Samoans that prenatal care is more urgent for married mothers than for unmarried mothers, despite believing that all pregnant women should get prenatal care and be screened for Zika. Such attitudes place an additional burden on lower status women and their babies, reinforce social inequities, and play a role in the “biosocial inheritance” of health disparities trans-generationally (see Schell 1992 and 1997 for how risk is focused across multiple generations like this and Hoke and McDade 2014 for a thorough integration of risk-focusing and related models under the theoretical paradigm of “biosocial inheritance”).

Gaualofa Msipili, ??, Michaela Howells, Sivai Miki Kupu, and Chris Lynn at the American Samoa Nurses Association Centennial Celebration, 7/30/16.

With friends at the American Samoa Nurses Association Centennial Celebration, 7/30/16.

Conducting fieldwork with partners with the same professional status does not guarantee safety, but I would like to think it reduces the chances of sexual harassment. There are few ways to guarantee that sexual harassment and assault won’t happen, but there are ways to minimize their potential and it is important to be explicit in addressing them with students. Safety in the field is discussed in most graduate programs but generally with respect to human subject protections and the stability of the site. Less discussed until recent publications by the SAFE team (e.g., Clancy et al 2014) and others is safety with regard to sexual harassment by peers, supervisors, and advisers in the field. While I hoped we were entering a new era of increasing scrutiny within our disciplines of microaggressions that lead to sexual harassment, the U.S. public’s willingness to be represented by President Pussy-Grabber leads me to believe that people really do think there is a problem with so-called “political correctness.” In reality, the backlash against being politically correct is a frustration by those in positions of privilege at the inconvenience of having to consider the feelings of those previously invisible to them. Such microaggressions start with professors or supervisors feeling they can put their arms around undergraduate student shoulders without permission and get worse from there. And it’s not restricted to aggressions by males toward females. When I was an undergrad on a study abroad program in Ecuador, a male professor plied me with whisky and began kissing me. The difference is that I felt brave and protected enough as a white male to tell the program administrators, and they were probably homophobic enough that they fired him immediately with absolutely no process to confirm or check my story (maybe he’d been reported before—I don’t know—but I still feel guilty about this 15 years later).

Fieldwork environments and experiences like the one Michaela and I created become, as a consequence, downright joyous and fun. Working this past summer in American Samoa with a friend and partner with the same training was more exciting than any field experience I’ve had before. Therefore, the work we did was enormously satisfying WHILE we were doing it. This was the type of experience that we tell our students about that inspires them to become anthropologists and the kind we have that validates our own career choice and keep us going. My goal going forward is to purposively create such experiences for my students by being explicit and concrete about how to design research, where to conduct it, how to get support, and how it should feel while doing it. There are no theoretical or methodological reasons to send out any more lone strangers. 


Christopher Lynn (PhD, University at Albany) is an Associate Professor in the Biocultural Medical program and director of the Evolutionary Studies program. He studies the cognitive science of religion, human behavioral ecology, and health in the U.S., Costa Rica, and American Samoa.

Biocultural Systematics is written by members of the University of Alabama Biocultural Medical Anthropology program.

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