September 21, 2017
16:00 – 17:30
Room D0.03, main campus Bolzano-Bozen


This paper seeks to explore the role of the deep, long-term fieldwork, pioneered by Bronisław Malinowski, at a time when this is becoming increasingly popular in disciplines outside anthropology. Drawing upon reflections on my own fieldwork in the Italian Alps and in Poland, as well as on my experience as a university lecturer, I analyze some of the changes that ethnographic fieldwork has undergone in the last few years in order to assess its value in the face of the pervasiveness of audit culture in the academia and of the emergence of an increasingly individualized society. When I undertook research in the Italian Alps of Trentino, in the late 1990s, my plan was to examine the impact of regionalist political forces that were making big inroads in northern Italy, and particularly to find out how their 'ideologies' were accommodated to local-level discourses and understood by different people. In this context, Malinowski's research methodology was a very valuable tool: most of my participants were living in small settlements, they identified themselves as 'peasants' (or post-peasants), kinship represented the dominant principle of social organization, and venues such as the village bar or the church were the main places of socialization and exchange of information. More importantly, informal interaction with the 'natives' was an integral part of my research methodology. I subsequently undertook a new research project in the Polish city of Gdańsk on the discourses surrounding the redevelopment (or demolition) of the shipyard that was the cradle of the Solidarity movement in the 1980s. While doing research in an urban setting may be different from one in a small village, one of the challenges I had to face was how to interact with participants outside of institutional settings. However, when I revisited the Alpine villages where I had conducted my early research, I realized that creating relations with prospective participants is now far from straightforward: most of the able-bodied have to find a job outside the valley where they live, and very few interact informally the way they used to do not long ago. In this sense, the forms of informal interaction that had been part of social life have largely vanished. While participant observation remains a valuable tool of ethnographic research, interaction with participants on an informal basis is becoming increasingly difficult. The paper pursues the argument that although evaluation and ethics clearance processes may shape both the forms and the contents of ethnographic research, what puts Malinowski's research methods to the test is the vanishing of the 'informality' that had long been part of ethnographic research.