Anthropologists study cultural and social of human life. We do this by analysing our experiences of doing fieldwork. This usually consists in participating in and observing the lives of people we study. As it can take months or years, an anthropologist typically only gets the chance to do fieldwork in only one or two locations. In early 2014, I journeyed to my second, and maybe last, fieldwork location: The Cocos (Keeling) Islands.
|Home Island, one of two inhabited islands on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands|
The Cocos (Keeling) Islands are two atolls which are part of Australia’s Indian Ocean territories. Keeling Island is uninhabited, while the Cocos Islands atoll to the south has two inhabited islands. West Island accommodates about 130 people from mainland Australia, while Home Island is home to about 420 Cocos Malays. My fieldwork project is based on Home Island. I have described, with Monika Winarnita, a little about life on Home Island.
|This is the direct flight path from Perth to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. |
However, we went via Christmas Island.
|Looking over the lagoon to the southern part of the Cocos atoll|
Cocos Malays speak their own Malay dialect and possess unique customs. For example, amongst the Cocos Malays, you take the name of your oldest child. As soon as you become a grandparent you take the name of the newborn baby. The anthropological term for this practice is "teknonymy". As I wrote on Wikipedia:
An example of teknonymy can be found among the 'Malays' of Cocos (Keeling) Islands, where parents are known by the name of their first-born child. For instance, a man named Hashim and his wife, Anisa, have a daughter named Sheila. Hashim is now known as "Pak Sheila" (literally, "Sheila's Father") and Anisa is now known as "Mak Sheila" (literally, "Sheila's Mother").
|Waiting for the bus|
|Ferry to Home Island|
|Getting on aforementioned ferry|
Anthropology & fieldwork
There are four main forms of anthropology:
1. Linguistic anthropology
2. Biological anthropology
4. Socio-cultural anthropology
I do number four. We generally just use the word “anthropology” to refer to “sociol-cultural anthropology”. So from now on if I say “anthropologists”, I am referring to “socio-cultural anthropologists”.
Anthropology is the study of social and cultural aspects of what it is to be a human being. Other disciplines—sociology, cultural studies, history, etc.—have a similar goal, so it’s often difficult to explain to students what’s different about anthropology. But one thing that always comes up is our method of data collection. We don't tend to do focus groups, questionnaires, experiments with control groups etc.
“Ethnography” can mean several things:
1. Sometimes it means almost the same thing as “socio-cultural anthropology”. If say “ethnography is one of the greatest disciplines”; I mean something like “sociol-cultural anthropology is one of the greatest disciplines”
2. Sometimes it refers to an “anthropological book”. If I say, “Tonkinson wrote a beautiful ethnography of the Mardu Aborigines” it means “Tonkinson wrote a beautiful anthropological book about the Mardu Aborgines”
3. Sometimes it refers to a fieldwork methodology. Typically, this fieldwork methodology involves long-term observation of daily life and, where possible, participating.
What I’m talking about in this blog is sense number three, a fieldwork methodology. In this sense, the word “ethnography” usually implies an anthropologist (sometimes with a partner/spouse) spending about a year, learning a local language (if they don’t already speak it), keeping a diary, taking notes (fieldnotes). They do this in what is called the “field”.
Where do anthropologists do ethnography? These days, the field is commonly somewhere local, and the anthropologist focuses on what might be called a ‘sub-culture’. Students I know are researching drug addicts and train users in Australian inner cities. Some anthropologists also seek out cultures in other areas or countries. This is my primary interest.