The daily life of anthropologist?

Anthropologists are known for studying how people go about their every day lives. It may be interesting to turn the tables and ask what a day in the life of an anthropologist looks like.

(This was written for and first published at

I often get asked “What do you actually do?” by friends and acquaintances not familiar with anthropology and academic life. So I thought that it might be worthwhile to briefly sketch some aspects of the everyday life I and most of my fellow- anthropology PhDs actually lead.

In the field

As anthropologists we usually spend part of our lives in the fieldwherever/whatever that is for each of us – Amsterdam community centres, gold mines in Ghana or co-working spaces in Singapore. During the fieldwork we ‘collect data’ by immersing ourselves in the environment that we explore. Thus, when in the field, I spend my days closely interacting with a range of people. I go to the events they attend or organise, take part in meetings and discussions they have, read the books they suggest to me, go shopping together, celebrate birthdays, etc.

In many ways my life ties in with the lives of my informants as we get to know each other as people (see for example Janine Prins’ description of master student Cecile Schimmel’s fieldwork in Indonesia). Over time, through the intensity and quality of these interactions, I can slowly develop an understanding of why and how certain things, activities, and practices make sense.

At the desk

According to David Mosse, “ethnographic method [is] premised on the division of field and desk – the social and the anti-social,” which in practical terms means that after the very socially active time of fieldwork comes the time for reading, thinking, and writing. The fieldwork experiences are re-examined and transformed into a book-length description and analysis. This is a slow and often painstaking process. There are days and even weeks when it feels like you have made no progress at all. “What have I actually done during the past days and why did it take so long?” is a question that I often ask myself when struggling with the fact that reading, writing, and all the thinking and rethinking that goes into the process take time.

Yet, in terms of immersion and intensity, this part in many ways equals the experience in the field. For example, I believe many of my colleagues will admit to having imaginary dialogues with the books they read, with occasional slippages when phrases such as “Ah, how come?”, “No, there must be more to it!”, “Mhm, interesting” escape from the mind and are said out loud. So much for the stereotype of the absent-minded academic!

The borders between field and desk, however, are not necessarily as clear cut either in time or space. Many anthropologists study processes and issues which they cannot ‘leave’ (see Dorien Zandbergen’s article on cyber anthropology) and continue to communicate and stay in touch with their field after the ‘official’ field work period (see Marlous van den Akker on how she followed elections in Kenya glued to her computer screen).

At the University

Even though the ‘read/write/think phase’ is rather solitary, the loneliness is softened by the fact that we work at the university, which imposes certain institutional rhythms and routines. When September comes the university seems to explode – the building becomes alive with chatter and movement, long queues form by elevators, new students get lost and knock on random doors asking for directions, and the hallways are filled with colleagues. This also brings a whole range of seminars, workshops, lectures, administrative meetings and often also teaching responsibilities, filling the agenda with deadline after deadline to calm down only by the end of June.

During summers the university is silent. The students are away and the hallways are empty. Most of the staff is on vacation, at conferences presenting their work, or use the opportunity to immerse themselves in either fieldwork or writing/reading/thinking.

What do you actually do?

While a lot can be (and is) said about how these everyday activities contribute and shape the knowledge anthropologists produce, my aim here was far less ambitious – just to write in simple terms about what shapes the working days of myself and many of my colleagues. This is just one version, mainly based on my experiences as a PhD candidate in cultural anthropology at Leiden University. It would be nice to hear more versions — what shapes your days?