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Surviving Fieldwork: A Report of the Advisory Panel on Health and Safety in Fieldwork.

'I now have a list of about 70 deaths to North American anthropologists in the field during the past decade ... my list seems to be far from complete'. When 7 suicides (at least) over the same period are added, the losses help to give the anthropological profession a death rate possibly four times greater than construction workers. Can anthropologists afford to be complacent about the hazards of fieldwork? They have been, and judging by this account, they continue to be.

Nancy Howell has a strong commitment to doing this research because she lost a son in a truck accident while on fieldwork in Africa. She has given us an admirably thorough study of the risks of fieldwork for anthropologists. No longer can we say we haven't got 'the facts'. Incidentally, she has also provided a snapshot profile of the anthropological profession in North America.

Fieldwork defines anthropology. Howell quotes Frielich: 'Field trips subsequent to the initial trip are thus status-maintenance rites and, I would claim, purification rites'. Anthropology is a risky activity and, the author contends, we must take steps to lessen the risks wherever possible. Howell's central aim is to reveal the risks and she does this by examining a random sample of North American anthropologists and clarifying what they risked in the field. The first three chapters of her report deal with the research problem and methodology. This is laboured, but worthwhile. The study's thoroughness is well illustrated by the fact that the questionnaire was tested fourteen times. The final questionnaire was sent to a random sample (1:20) of the 6,000 names listed in the Guide to Departments of Anthropology (1976-86) giving a figure of 311. Forty-six per cent were social/cultural anthropologists, thirty per cent archaeologists, nine per cent biological/physical, five per cent linguists, and nine per cent museology, other. (Some of the museologists did not take part in the study because they do no fieldwork.)

So what does this study reveal of the risks of fieldwork in the Pacific? Twenty-three of those who replied to the questionnaire worked there. (Oddly there seems to be confusion over the regional categories. The world is divided into seven regions. Yet, only six appear at any one time in the tables. It is not clear why the 'Pacific' displaces 'Asia' in the tables, or why 'Asia' never appears again. The confusion was also present in an earlier summary article (Current Anthropology 29: 780-7). In brief, on the basis of this study you stand a seventy per cent chance of getting traveller's diarrhoea and colds, and a fifty-two per cent chance of suffering cuts. Nine of the twenty-three (39%) suffered culture shock, leeches, sore throats, and toothache. Twenty-two per cent (5:23) caught malaria. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that twenty-six per cent (6:23) caught hookworm and ascariasis (roundworms), and contracted haemorrhoids. The same number also suffered from depression and twenty-two per cent owned up to 'anxiety in the field'.

The author is not afraid to tackle taboo areas - notably sex in the field (and the problem of rape), the use of drugs, and self defense (and the carrying of guns) - subjects which anthropologists gossip about, but have never examined systematically.

As Howell is dealing with anthropologists as a professional category, and not the majority who are social/cultural, her definition of 'field trip' is one many might not immediately recognise: 'a trip described as lasting two weeks (or two days) is coded as one month'. Naturally, the weekend fieldtrips of archaeologists raise the average number of field trips for all anthropologists. It might have been sensible to break down the number of field trips done by social/cultural anthropologists and archaeologists. Also, it would be interesting to know whether the amount of time spent on fieldwork overall differed significantly between the two groups. A mean average of 18.8 field trips seems large for social/cultural anthropologists.

A small criticism: this study is overwritten; some of the examples quoted to give life to the statistics could have been left out without any loss. At times, the author seems to be a kind of anthropological 'groupie' with the detail she provides. And, doubtless, to some of those she hounded for answers to her extensive queries the author appeared to be an unwelcome nuisance. But all anthropologists are in Howell's debt for the light this study sheds on a vital area. Overall, this is an important study which goes beyond its brief in the information it incidentally provides on the anthropological profession in North America and it should be on the shelves of every departmental library. There is also a useful bibliography. In the conclusion, Howell draws attention to three frequent and serious problems for fieldworkers -- malaria, hepatitis, and vehicle accidents. And she strongly recommends that more should be done about these in particular.

Whether actuaries are aware of the life expectancy rating of anthropologists suggested by this study is a moot point. Applying for a life insurance policy before going off to work in Papua New Guinea recently I was turned down without any explanation by a very reputable firm. My insurance broker declared himself perplexed. Another firm, however, has given me a policy, but with one important proviso: 'It is agreed that Total and Permanent Disablement (TPD) is not available due to occupation'. It makes you wonder.

PATRICK GLASS University of Sydney
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Author:Glass, Patrick
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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