Origins of anthropology: arguments for and against fieldwork



Before it became compulsory for anthropologists to do fieldwork, anthropology involved a division between those who provided data about so-called primitive societies and those who analysed this data. Data was provided by people who were not academic anthropologists, such as missionaries, who acquired it as part of their efforts to convert, and travellers who pursued anthropology as a hobby. Data was analysed by academic armchair anthropologists. Here I present an argument that was offered to justify this division between amateur data collectors and academic armchair analysts and also some of the arguments for academic anthropologists leaving their armchairs and doing fieldwork.


In her article ‘Islands in the Pacific: Darwinian Biogeography and British Anthropology’, the historian Henrika Kuklick writes:

The late 19th century had witnessed a growing dissatisfaction with the customary division of labour between data collectors and theorists who analysed communications at a distance, a division rationalized by claiming that theorists enjoyed uncompromised objectivity because they were not personally involved in gathering their material. (1996: 613)


On the basis of her statement, here is a proposal as to what the argument from that time was:

(1)  Anthropological theorists – those who form theories on the basis of data about primitive societies – should achieve uncompromised objectivity.

(2)  Uncompromised objectivity can only be achieved by them if they do not personally gather the data to be analysed.

(3)  If anthropological theorists do not personally gather the data to be analysed, the only alternative (at present) is to rely on data gathered by amateur inquirers.

(4)  If anthropological theorists rely on data gathered by amateur inquirers, this will not compromise their objectivity. (Assumption.)


(5)  Anthropological theorists should not personally gather the data to be analysed. Instead they should rely on data gathered by amateur inquirers.


I have included premise (3) because, presumably, the resources available to academic anthropologists in the late 19th century did not allow for them to have two groups of academic specialists in anthropology: theorists and data collectors.


Those making this argument might well have left premise (4) implicit. It is needed to arrive at the conclusion but is very questionable and makes the argument look weak if its role is revealed. The growing dissatisfaction that Kuklick refers to is partly because missionaries and travellers often presented distorted data to fit with their preconceptions about primitive societies (Pitt-Rivers, 1874, in Garson and Read 1892: vi). But those in favour of fieldwork still needed an argument against premise (2).


Kuklick presents an account of how this debate was resolved. The 1898 expedition to the Torres Straits, led by Alfred Cort Haddon, was taken as showing that theorists can gather data without compromising the objectivity of analysis. Anthropological works were written on the basis of the data gathered, by the academics who gathered it, and objectivity was not compromised, it was concluded (Kuklick 1996: 213).


It is open to question whether these works are suitable for resolving the debate. According to another historian of anthropology, George Stocking Jr., the anthropological works written on the basis of the Torres Straits expedition in fact relied heavily on the observations of a Western amateur for understanding the culture of the island of Mer, which was the principal field site:

His most important ethnographic intermediary, a schoolmaster named John Bruce who had lived for a decade on Mer, was the acknowledged source of perhaps half the information recorded in the volume on Mer sociology and religion. (Stocking Jr. 1992: 24)


One of the main arguments for anthropological theorists doing fieldwork was the need for objective data, but this was not the only argument. Another argument was as follows:

(1)  Anthropology needs data about the earliest human societies.

(2)  The data needed can only be gathered by observing some currently existing societies, now or in the very near future.

(3)  If much of the data from these current societies can only be gathered by academic anthropologists going to these societies and observing them, now or in the very near future, then they should do this.

(4)  Much of the data from these current societies can only be gathered in this way.


(5)  Academic anthropologists should go to these currently existing societies and observe them, now or in the very near future.


This argument was pressed in the belief that soon the currently existing societies which reveal how the earliest human societies were like would disappear.


Haddon, who came from a background in zoology, developed a loosely Darwinian support for premise (2). He thought of remote islands as places where there are weak natural selection pressures, because species from beyond the island need to travel by air or sea to get there, reducing competition. The island conditions enable one to observe traits on remote islands from earlier on in the evolutionary process, because they have not been eradicated by strong natural selection pressures. But these conditions also tend to result in species which fare badly, if they are brought into competition with species from beyond the island environment, since the pressures on natural selection have been too weak to select species that can compete well.


Haddon theorized societies in a parallel way: (i) competition between societies leads to the selection of some social practices over others; (ii) in remote yet inhabited islands such competitive pressures are weak, because the island environment is more isolated from other societies; (iii) one can observe some social practices on islands which would have existed in early human societies, because they have not been extinguished by strong social selection pressures; and (iv) the weak selection pressures tends to result in remote island societies having social practices which fare badly, if they are brought into competition with practices from beyond the island society, because these pressures have been too weak to select practices that can compete well; On the basis of (i), (ii) and (iii), Haddon argued that anthropologists should study remote island societies, because they are likely to contain primitive practices. On the basis of (i), (ii), (iv) and the view that contact with European societies is increasing, he argued that these practices are likely to soon be extinguished.


A third argument for doing fieldwork, or the final version of it, is this:

(1)  There is much valuable data about primitive societies which cannot be gathered without spending a considerable amount of time as a lone fieldworker within such societies.

(2)  Amateur inquirers cannot reasonably be expected to do this.

(3)  If amateur inquirers cannot reasonably be expected to do this, academic anthropologists should do this themselves.


(4)  Academic anthropologists should spend a considerable amount of time as lone fieldworkers in primitive societies.


This is the final version of a kind of argument, because there is an earlier version which does not specify the importance of being a lone fieldworker, just the importance of fieldwork (see Read, in Garson and Read 1892: 87). The need to be a lone fieldworker was argued for by one of the members of the Torres Strait expedition in the early twentieth century (1913), namely W.H.R. Rivers.


Rivers provides at least two sub-arguments for the first premise of this argument (Stocking 1992: 39; Kuklick 2011: 18). Firstly, because of the disturbance and excitement produced among natives of primitive societies by the various activities pursued by members of a collective expedition, it is much better for data gathering if an anthropologist does fieldwork alone. Secondly, the purpose of a collective expedition is for different members of it to gather data from different domains, e.g. one member focusing on religion and another on technology; but since primitive society, unlike civilized society, is not separated into domains, this kind of specialized data gathering should be completely avoided.



Garson, J. and Read, H.C. 1892 (second edition). Notes and queries on anthropology. London: The Anthropological Institute.

Kuklick, H. 1996. Islands in the Pacific: Darwinian Biogeography and British Anthropology. American Ethnologist 23: 611-638.

Kuklick. H. 2011. Personal Equations: Reflections on the History of Fieldwork with Special Reference to Sociocultural Anthropology. Isis 102: 1-33.

Stocking Jr., G. 1992. The Ethnographer’s Magic. In The Ethnographer’s Magic and Other Essays in the History of Anthropology. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.