26 April 2019

‘Such intimate relations’: on the process of collecting string figures and the paradigm of participant observation fieldwork

The inaugural Kings College Australian National Fellows Seminar is taking place on Wednesday 8 May 2019, 18:00 – 20:00 BST

Kings College London Bush House
Bush House South East
Room (SE) 101

Dr. Robyn McKenzie  will speak on ‘Such intimate relations’: on the process of collecting string figures and the paradigm of participant observation fieldwork

She writes:

The publication of Haddon and Rivers’ article “A method of recording string figures and tricks” in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute Man in 1902, led to a knowledge of a few types, and ability to record others becoming part of the anthropologist’s tool kit. Haddon attributed much of his fieldwork success to his knowledge of string figures as a medium for interacting with people and creating rapport. This paper focuses on his 1914 trip to the Torres Strait and New Guinea with his daughter Kathleen, and her account of her own experiences collecting string figures in the unpublished manuscript ‘An English Girl in New Guinea’. On this trip the Haddons visited Malinowski, then on the island of Mailu, occasioning a comparison between the two men’s approaches in the field.

I argue that the practice of collecting string figures in many ways confounds distinctions that are made between the surface ethnography of the nineteenth century survey approach to fieldwork and the depth of the intensive study as it developed into the classical paradigm of participant observation in the twentieth century. By looking at just what was involved in collecting string figures I show how it pre-empts the ‘somatic turn’ in anthropology of the 1980s when Michael Jackson for example recommended ‘using one’s body in the same way as others in the same environment’ as a ‘methodological strategy’ for mediating anthropological insights. Above all, I argue, it established an immediate intimacy of relationship—a mutual sympathy—the sought-after goal of the participant observation method.

Dr. Robyn McKenzie is a Research Fellow in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University in Canberra. She initially trained in Art History at the University of Melbourne. She has published extensively on contemporary Australian art. She was art critic on The Age newspaper in Melbourne for a number of years in the mid-1990s and from 1996–2002, was editor of LIKE, Art Magazine. Her PhD, completed in 2016, looked at a collection of mounted string figures made in Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land in 1948, that is in the Australian Museum, Sydney. Robyn is currently the inaugural Australian National Fellow at the Menzies Australia Institute, King’s College, London.

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