Facing the Consequences: The Case for Transformative Fieldwork in Undergraduate Curriculums


  • Ryan Hornbeck Wenzhou-Kean University




In this paper I argue that transformative fieldwork can and should be a pillar of an undergraduate education in anthropology. By transformative fieldwork, I mean long- or medium-term immersive participant observation that challenges the investigator’s beliefs, bodily experience (embodiment), and/or ethics, prompting adaptive responses that, collectively over time, fundamentally alter their experience of the world. My proposal has two parts. First, I advance the “senior thesis” – an in-depth research project undertaken in the final year of undergraduate study – as a viable placeholder for substantive fieldwork in an undergraduate curriculum. Such fieldwork, carried out locally or online, has advantages in accessibility, affordability, and authenticity relative to the conventional undergraduate gateway to fieldwork experience: methodological “field school.” Second, addressing a significant challenge to doing fieldwork on local (culturally familiar) terrain, I argue that such fieldwork can be transformative, and not merely a replication of familiar experiences, if students and their advisors design participant observation projects that carry significant consequences for the student’s beliefs, bodily experience, and/or ethics. I outline strategies for designing such projects, illustrated by examples drawn from my own students’ senior theses. The concluding section addresses three potential reservations about undergraduates undertaking “consequential” research.