Long-term ethnographic fieldwork is said to make anthropology what it is. The anthropological knowledge produced through field research is thought to be qualitatively unique among modes of disciplinary knowledge in the social sciences.
Some argue that the open-ended, unpredictable nature of fieldwork experience, stimulating an incessant process of making and unmaking theories, may contribute to its unique way of knowledge production. I would also argue that fieldwork is, above all, a practice of living socially, one of establishing intimate communication networks that enable an anthropologist to access special types of narratives that have only restricted circulation within the community. These turn out to be crucial in understanding ongoing events and social processes.
To illustrate, I refer to a case recorded in August 2013, when I revisited the Duruma people of Kenya—among whom I have conducted ethnographic research since 1982—after a hiatus of a year.
A young man in the community died accidentally through electrocution. Five different narratives explaining his death circulated within and around the village in a period as short as four weeks. These were: (1) a Christian narrative, (2) a witchcraft narrative accusing an unrelated witch, (3) a witchcraft narrative accusing the man’s father, (4) a narrative related to devil worship, (5) a narrative of divine punishment. These narratives were not simply irresponsible rumors freely exchanged by the members of the community; each had restricted circulation in the community, and each had different moral, social, and possibly political consequences.
Narratives make visible certain norms, patterns, or structures underlying the situation, enabling one to understand that situation and prepare for its future development. Some narratives indeed do function as a kind of program imbuing one with strong emotions, forcing one to take a certain course of action, with consequences, which could at times be lethal. In order to understand how and why events follow a particular course in a certain community, it is crucial to know what kinds of narratives exist in relation to the nature and causes of a particular incident, as well as who shared a certain type of narrative, and how the networks of the various narratives overlap, or are separated from each other.
Only ethnographic field researchers, through what may be a lifelong social practice of constructing and maintaining personal networks with the local people, can access those kinds of narratives, which are inaccessible to survey-type questioning and formal interviewing.
In the last 30 years, environmental problems have brought substantial changes to everyday lives of ordinary Iranians. Detrimental effects of air pollution and water shortage, for example, are literally visible in urban settings around the country. Growing numbers of institutions, groups, and individuals have begun to engage in environmental activities to reverse these effects. The present work examines the discourses of Islam that are emerging and gaining ground in Iran, through which environmental problems are now addressed. Drawing upon fieldwork recently conducted in Tehran, it demonstrates various ways in which Islam is discussed and practiced in Iranians’ efforts to combat environmental problems. My argument is that the environment has become a crucial field of management, and Islamic perspectives play an increasing role in its management along with ecological, scientific approaches to the environment.
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