Anthropologist observes native academics in their natural habitat

From the March 13, 2006, Princeton Weekly Bulletin

When Rena Lederman settles into her chair at a faculty meeting or an academic conference, she is not just performing her duties as a member of Princeton’s anthropology department. She is doing fieldwork.

The subjects of Lederman’s current research are not the type that come to mind when one thinks of anthropology. They are not members of a tribe in Papua New Guinea or Madagascar. They are the academics among whom she works every day.

Lederman, who is an associate professor, is writing a book called “Anthropology Among the Disciplines,” which will examine the distinctions among several academic fields and explore how and when those borders become important. In an era when academia is emphasizing interdisciplinarity, Lederman sees significant differences in how anthropologists, sociologists, historians and social psychologists approach their fields.

While Lederman also studies library and Internet sources, much of her understanding comes from interacting with her fellow academics in their natural habitat — during committee meetings and lunches, at department gatherings and dinner parties, even when she picks up one of her children from school.

“Fieldwork is all about serendipity and seizing unexpected opportunities,” she said. One of her colleagues, she remarked, refers to the method anthropologists use for gathering information as “deep hanging out.” Lederman is not doing formal interviews with her colleagues — rather, following the same approach she took in her earlier fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, she tells them about her interests whenever she can and does her best to follow their lead in the ensuing conversation.

“My topic is not conventional perhaps, but my approach is classic participant observation: I attend closely to how disciplinary distinctions come up in everyday conversations,” Lederman said. “I pay attention to how scholars in one field talk about other fields or how they might defend their own if they feel it’s being challenged. When we counterpose our own and others’ ways of making sense of the world, methodological and ethical values are expressed that might otherwise seem trivial or too obvious to mention.”

“She’s one of a handful of people who’s taking the opportunity to reflect ethnographically on the kinds of institutional lives that academics live,” said Don Brenneis, a professor of anthropology at the University of California-Santa Cruz. “It’s complicated for different reasons when you’re working with your own tribe. She is taking the invisibility of events such as committee meetings and making them — if not transparent — then understandable. She thinks constantly about context and about the broader implications of relatively small activities.”

To tease out differences among disciplines, Lederman examines scandals or disputes closely. “They’re a window on the background assumptions that define these disciplines, the tacit conventions that people don’t normally go on about,” she said. Not only is there plenty for Lederman to read about such controversies, but people also love to talk about them.

One striking difference in the background assumptions of anthropology and neighboring disciplines is the use of deception or intimacy as research tools, said Lederman. For example, cultural anthropologists and social psychologists agree that valid results ought to be based on observing realistic social interaction; however, their methods for getting those results differ dramatically.

Valid social psychological research aims for “experimental realism”: Research conditions need to be controlled but the behavior of research subjects needs to be realistic nevertheless. A standard technique for achieving experimental realism is to devise ingenious modes of deceiving participants about the true nature of what is being studied, after which those participants must be properly “debriefed.” An example is a scenario in which volunteers interact with other people they believe are also volunteers while waiting to be called in to participate in a psychology experiment. In fact, their interaction in the waiting room actually involves the psychologist’s confederates and is the experiment the psychologist is observing.

Cultural anthropologists do not generally use experimentation and the deceptions it sometimes requires. “Social psychologists may look askance at anthropologists’ conventional methods,” Lederman said. “Fieldwork involves uncontrolled social encounters. We go wherever people live and work, describe our research interests in terms that we hope will engage our interlocutors’ own concerns, and do our best to learn from them by remaining deeply involved for quite a while. Many of us end fieldwork with a very different project than the one with which we began.”

In addition to exploring the different research methods in her current project, Lederman is designing a new course for spring 2007 on “The Uses of Deception in Magic and Science” with support from the Humanities Council’s David A. Gardner ’69 Magic Project.

Ethnographically attentive

Lederman’s unconventional project follows more than two decades of experience doing ethnographic research, including three years spent studying gender roles, gift exchange and historical transformations in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Lederman has taught at Princeton since 1981, starting just before she completed her Ph.D. at Columbia University.

Since one of her areas of expertise is research methods, she teaches courses on the history and ethics of anthropological fieldwork to undergraduate and graduate students. She also teaches courses on Pacific cultures, gender and economic anthropology.

Carey Faber, a junior who recently took Lederman’s methods class “Ethnographer’s Craft,” has found her approachable and illuminating as a professor. “Her anthropological versatility is evident, as she seems to identify with all of her students’ anthropological interests and is able to guide all of us,” Faber said.

“Professor Lederman seems to have thought of everything,” said Irit Rasooly, a junior in the same class. “Her creative syllabus incorporates a variety of media, ranging from an online ethics certification program to an innovative textbook, from readings of ethnographic accounts to hands-on exercises designed to allow us to practice the skills we study in theory. Her class is not confined to the three hours a week we spend in seminar; she expects us to be engaged with her and with each other through online postings, class e-mails, group work and guided field experience.”

Lederman also expects her students to be “ethnographically attentive” in everyday contexts. Her other major research project fell into her lap in just that way, when she was hanging out with her father and his friends. The project focuses on the way in which science is perceived in American popular culture.

“We have a kind of contradiction in the United States: On the one hand, one of our country’s claims to fame is its scientific achievements. But, on the other hand, if you ask people on the street about science, they’re alienated from it,” she said. “There’s a lot of worry on the part of scientists that the general population is scientifically illiterate, and a pervasive sense that science education isn’t what it should be.”

That dichotomy comes up often in conversations among her father and his friends. Leon Lederman is a physicist who won the Nobel Prize in 1988. Now 83, the former Columbia and University of Chicago professor promotes innovations in science education.

His daughter is beginning to tackle the problem by examining how journalists and K-12 teachers acquire and disseminate scientific knowledge. “These folks mediate between laypeople and experts,” Lederman said. “I’m familiarizing myself with the work of these science ‘translators’ so as to understand their double binds, and what they think gets lost or added in translation.”

Like Lederman, her students are learning to pay close attention to routine encounters with friends and family, aware that those conversations could lead to anthropological insights.

Jesse Davie-Kessler, a member of the class of 2006, said she has learned from Lederman that “the smallest gestures and the most casual interactions hold cultural meaning. I have begun to see my everyday life in a new way — it has become a sort of text for my anthropological research.”