I married an anthropologist, so my point of reference is once removed -- my intellectual formation began in literature but ended in public policy analysis. I’m friends with my husband’s colleagues, I know women graduate students, in some cases reading and commenting on their research papers, occasionally folding them into my household as child care providers, house sitters and dog walkers. Some are lifelong friends of the family. But to start at the beginning, I must take the time to sketch the parameters of the science itself. Inevitably I will leave out bunches of stuff here, so I beg anyone with ties to the “four fields” to forgive my brevity.
Anthropology is the study of human beings on the landscape, which then becomes the story of who these people are and why they matter. While simply said, it is a broad study compared to other human sciences. Anthropology asks the really big questions (how do we as a species survive and bear children: in a dessert, in the far north, in the tropics, in urban centers, on farms and what do the customs and traditions of a particular group contribute to success) then uses components of many disciplines combined with the method of participant observation, collecting data from the past (archaeology) as well as the present environment for comparison. Anthropological research needs photographs, weather data, climate data, solar angles on various fields, soil fertility, a list of usable resources, descriptions of kinship systems, resource management, child rearing practices, divisions of labor, and more. And then it needs women who can tell the good story of that particular people in that time and place.
An anthropologist should have these skills: be able to manage a budget, buy equipment, pay salaries from her grant, read and use statistics. She must write clearly, read voraciously. I think women are attracted to anthropology if they like the complex. If you know someone who is always nattering on about how one thing leads to another and everything is connected, you have a character study in that friend. To make a fictional woman anthropologist believable, endow her with a keen eye for noticing individual behaviors in group settings, a facility for learning languages. Would your character notice the mother she is interviewing had just tied the baby to her oldest daughter’s back and sent her off with an errand while your scientist was explaining a long list of survey questions she hoped the household would complete over the next three months? Then be able to ask her, if haltingly, what had just happened? She needs to be a meticulous records keeper of observations: charts filled with numbers of hours of cooking, shopping, gardening or farming, childcare, wage labor, births, marriages, celebrations and the genders and ages of the people who do these jobs. Your character must earn trust to be able to sit with planners and hear decisions: Who does not eat once all we have left is seed; will the family sell a daughter to keep its land? Flexibility, tolerance and above all humility allows her to approach strangers and live among them.
Women anthropologists need to be team players. The scope of a good research project requires team mates who specialize in particular areas of research. My husband’s latest team is international and multi-disciplinary. A female scientist working alone could be suspect and might not be granted access to interview or observe women because most of the world lives in family groups. Your character should carry photos of parents, partner, children.
Women anthropologists learn to deal with heavily bureaucratic, even corrupt governments for entry, for permission to receive equipment, deposit money, for formal permission to study human subjects. Ideally your character is going to have some tricks up her sleeve, whether of charm, the knack of bribery or the patience to wait hours in line at the bank and embassy.
A woman anthropologist is cautious and street smart. She arrives, finds a room, then gets out of the hotel early in the morning when the business of the day is beginning. Your heroine must not loose her luggage or equipment. She should verge on obsession, keeping lists, counting and recounting. The author may have noticed in a terminal or on a bus, the comfortably dressed gal, her foot through the straps of her carry-on and her hand gripping her shoulder bag? As a writer you would do well to develop stories of food poisoning told with relish. This is the frequent stuff of field gossip.
Where there is no doctor, women anthropologists are frequently approached at the field site by mothers pleading for aspirins and contraceptives. Aspirins to women’s clinics to shipments of used hospitals have been arranged for by women returning from the field. Your character may have lived in a community long enough to know exactly what health care is needed most urgently and have the motivation to locate items scheduled for the land fill, redirecting them to people at her field site.
Finally, should your character find romance in the field? I personally know one woman who married a man she met in her study area. The marriage failed after many years of misery and struggle. Love happens, and it is what it is. I don’t mean to suggest that every made-in-the-field marriage would fail. However there are tremendous hurdles of engrained expectations of women’s and men’s roles, the ability to make a living and thus a life of dignity, the vast difficulty of having to learn modern English knowing only a language built around seal hunting, or slash and burn corn agriculture. If a writer must craft a romance between her anthropologist and an individual in her field study, the question of their safety needs to be dealt with. The change in dynamics among the team of scientists and the study population can’t be ignored.