There is a general consensus among contemporary anthropologists that the language and concepts used in traditional anthropology conveyed the idea of cultures being fixed in particular places and times. This has come to be regarded as a flaw as it has been recognised in today’s changing, globalising world that people, and therefore their cultures, are not fixed. Whilst people have always moved it is only now, with the theoretical shift and changing subject matter of anthropology, that this movement has become more visible within the discipline.
The ‘place-focused’ concept of culture is a consequence of nationalist thinking in the western world. Such thinking was based on the romanticised idea of a nation as a “culture shared by people living in a well-defined area” (Hastrup and Olwig 1997:4.) Anthropology also used to be considered the study of the ‘exotic.’ However in today’s heterogeneous society with travel and encounters with the ‘exotic’ being everyday experiences anthropologists have begun to question these ideas and the fixing of cultures they brought about. There are a number of ways in which anthropologists have constructed the idea of cultures being fixed in particular times and places. These are often referred to as ‘techniques of fixity’ and range from the language of traditional anthropology to the research method used.
Along with a number of other writers Clifford claims that it is the research method used in traditional anthropology that has created the idea of fixed cultures. Since Malinowski’s influential study anthropologists have carried out ethnographic research. This involved anthropologists travelling to a place, known as the field, and living within the culture they were studying. Whilst Clifford recognises the advantages of such a method for obtaining detailed, valid data and maintains that such participant observation is “anthropology’s most enduring contribution to humanistic study” (Clifford, 1992:99) he also highlights the limitations of this kind of fieldwork.
The localising of objects of study to a particular field limits what and who is studied and constructs the idea of a culture being fixed in a specific place and time. Clifford takes the first ethnographic anthropological study undertaken by Malinowski of the Trioband islands as an example of this. He highlights the fact that despite Malinowski’s claim to panopticism his tent was pitched by the chief’s personal hut in Onakona village. This affected who and what was observed and centred the culture Malinowski was studying on the site where he was.
Clifford also criticises ethnographies for omitted certain information which contributes to the idea of cultures being fixed in time and place. Details such as how the researcher reached the field, the places they travelled through on their way and their university home are repeatedly ignored in ethnographic write-ups. This helps to portray ‘the field’ as a separate place which researchers go to in order to carry out their research and consequently highlights the idea of distinct cultures that are fixed in time and place. Clifford refers to this as a form of “mini-immigration” (Clifford 1992:99.)
Clifford argues that the increasing and quickening mobility of people and the lack of fixed cultural products has lead to “a profound sense of a loss of territorial roots, an erosion of the cultural distinctiveness of places and of ferment in anthropological study” (Clifford 1988:275.) As a result the concept of culture is changing and there is a need to focus on “hybrid, cosmopolitan experiences as much as on rooted, native ones” (Clifford 1992:101.) He states that this should be done through a focus on the routes people travel not their roots. Anthropologists must also study locations that have previously been ignored, as they do not contain a distinct culture, such as border areas. Also when studying specific cultures anthropologists must look at its existence in different locations`.
Gupta and Ferguson agree with Clifford that it is the convention of the field and its domination of traditional anthropological study that fixes cultures in particular times and places. They define the field as “the site, method and location in anthropology” (Gupta and Ferguson 1997:1) and claim that whilst it is central to contemporary study it remains, as yet, largely unexamined. The idea of having a particular place in which anthropological study is carried out assumes that there is a place where another culture lies in its entirety. Gupta and Ferguson argue that this is incorrect as such clearly defined places do not exist but are constructed culturally as communities of relations constitute and confine themselves with a hierarchically organised space of unequal relationships. They argue instead that the world should be viewed as a global space characterised by power and hierachial relations.
Gupta and Ferguson question the adequacy of fieldwork to research today’s modern, changing and globalising world and argue that the idea of ‘the field’ and the privileged place it holds in the construction of anthropological knowledge must be questioned. Despite this they still recognise the benefits of such research. These include the fact that fieldwork focuses on the taken for granted routines and informal knowledge that are ignored by other social science research and that it counters Western ethnocentricism through valuing detailed and intimate knowledge of economically and politically marginalised people.
Fieldwork is a valued aspect of anthropology and is often used to distinguish it from other social sciences such as history and sociology. They do claim however that whilst ethnography’s strength has always been in their explicit sense of location this becomes a liability if such locations are assumed to be geographic and not “sites constructed in fields of unequal power relations.” (Gupta and Ferguson 1997:35)