From the library to the streets of Spain

Graduate Anthropology students take to the field in Europe


Department of Anthropology

CHESS participants touring a heritage site in Barcelona, April 28, 2011. From left to right: Dana Johnson, Grace Cleary, Jill Bierly, Mackenzie Jackson, and Seung ho Chung. Photo by Elizabeth Krause.

Anthropological fieldwork often requires anthropologists to leave behind the life they are accustomed to in an attempt to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. This might mean spending time in a remote locale excavating an archaeological site, it might mean stepping into the local public high school to study the habits of students, or it could even mean taking a job as a sweater weaver in order to learn more about a particular economy. Fieldwork takes many different forms, but one of the underlying themes is that it often involves removing oneself from the familiarity of the everyday and immersing oneself in a new context.

As someone who spent her scholarly career writing research papers based on library books, I was understandably nervous when I set out for Córdoba, Spain, to conduct my first anthropological fieldwork nearly a year ago.

Along with graduate students Jill Bierly, Seung ho Chung, Mackenzie Jackson, and Dana Johnson, and professors Elizabeth Krause, Krista Harper, and Jacqueline Urla, I flew to Spain to attend a workshop at the University of Barcelona, after which we’d all depart for our separate field sites. The eight of us are part of a program called Cultural Heritage in European Societies and Spaces (CHESS), an initiative that enables three classes of five students to carry out anthropological investigations under the close supervision of faculty mentors. The program is the latest incarnation of the department’s longstanding European Field Studies Program. A grant from the National Science Foundation awarded to Harper and Urla provides funding and mentoring for students to design, execute, and write up the results of an anthropological project in a field site of their choosing.

After a productive workshop spent with students and faculty studying cultural heritage at the University of Barcelona, we were headed to our field sites. As we were leaving, our field supervisor Krause joked that she was “launching” us, as if we were anthropological boats on their maiden voyages. Although we laughed at the idea, I think that all of the graduate students were relieved to be going through the process with the support of each other and the mentorship of Professor Krause.

Each of the CHESS cohorts is centered on a theme, the first being “Memory, Monuments, and Commemoration.” My cohort and I studied an array of topics within that theme, and spent ten weeks at each field site. Jill Bierly went to the island of Cyprus to research the ways in which Cypriots construct their identity in relation to the island’s politically divided past and present. Seung ho Chung immersed himself in the flamenco tablaos and peñas of Seville, trying to make sense of the overlapping ways in which flamenco functions as both an art form and a commercial product. Dana Johnson’s research took her to Greece and Serbia, where she studied the development of alternative educational materials aimed at changing the way controversial history is taught across the Balkan region. Mackenzie Jackson spent time in Turkey, examining two tangible effects of the 1999 earthquake: public memorials to the earthquake’s victims and Turkey’s National Mental Health Policy document, focusing on the intersections between these two modes of managing trauma. I conducted research in Córdoba, Spain, studying a citywide European Union cultural initiative, and the ways that the city responded to and was impacted by it.

Aside from working on projects with a common theme, we all shared the excitement and uncertainties of first-time fieldwork and were able to keep in touch through weekly blog posts, emails and Skype. At the end of ten weeks of fieldwork, we reconvened at the University of Barcelona for the second part of our workshop, this time meeting with Professor Susana Narotzky and her graduate students, where we reflected on the fieldwork process as a group. We also met with Laia Colomer, a Spanish archaeologist and heritage professional who described the challenges of negotiating heritage site construction with multiple stakeholders. She also gave us a tour of the new heritage site that her organization was constructing.

Since returning to Massachusetts we’ve been analyzing our findings as part of a CHESS graduate seminar, and we presented our initial results in our Department’s colloquium series as well as at a panel at the American Anthropological Association meeting in Montreal. Over the course of the spring semester, we’ll continue to work with the data we collected in order to complete master’s degree requirements.

The CHESS initiative has been a boon for graduate students with an interest in Europe, and it builds on the department’s historical strength in European anthropology. The European Field Studies Program has been in existence since the department was founded in 1969, and since that time, it has sent nearly 200 graduate and undergraduate students to conduct research in countries across the continent. In many ways, the grant reinvigorated graduate student interest in Europe. While there has always been a strong cohort of graduate students who study that region, the grant developed that base by drawing in new students and providing funding opportunities for those who were already interested in Europe. This year, students resurrected the Graduate Association of Europeanists with the goal of organizing conferences, bringing in guest speakers, and providing mutual mentoring for students.

In their 2009 edited volume Being There, John Borneman and Abdellah Hammoudi write about what they call a “library habitus,” saying that only that particular mindset would lead someone to view reading and anthropological field work as similar endeavors. Having now taken part in both forms of research, I wholeheartedly agree. I’m not going to give up my library card anytime soon, but I wouldn’t have been able to learn what I learned without stepping outside of the familiar and engaging in anthropological fieldwork.

Calls for applications to the program will be going out this spring. For more information, please visit: http://www.anthro.umass.edu/chess.



One thought on “From the library to the streets of Spain

  1. Great article! Do you all have a forum where you can share your research with the people who are impacted by your studies?

    Posted by Amanda Rizun | March 28, 2012, 8:57 pm

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