Something about Homecomings and The Innocent Anthropologist by Nigel Barley

 One of my favorite anthropology books is The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut by Nigel Barley.  It is a memorably written story of Barley’s experience doing fieldwork in rural Cameroon.  The strength of the book is that it includes the personal problems that emerge out of the frustrations, boredom, tribulations, and mis-interpretations that emerge in the context of “doing ethnography.”  In this sense it is much different than the dispassionate, theoretical, and scientific ethnography typically assigned undergraduates in which the ethnographer somehow always ends up being always erudite, and insightful.  Barley’s explanation of how the mechanic at the dentist’s office removed his two front teeth is particularly memorable—and would never make its way into a standard ethnography (sorry, no spoiler here–you need to get the book!).

The scene from Barley’s book I have been mulling since my return from Germany to California three weeks ago, though, is at the very end of the book.  Barley spent a year and a half in Cameroon before returning home to England. He returns to England, where he finds out that life is—as it had always been. People ask him how Cameroon was, complain about the English weather, and then launch off into conversations about the more mundane things of life.  The friend who complains because he left a sweater at his apartment some two years ago—could he please pick it up some time?—provides the greatest homecoming dissonance for Barley.  Like, who cares about a sweater when you have been dealing with ancestor cults, goats, shaman, and have lost your two front teeth!?!?

But this indeed is how adventures which are big for us as individuals often end, in a mundane question about a forgotten sweater.  This happens whether we are ethnographers, archaeologists, or any other kind of long-term traveler.  I suppose that such dissonance happens to soldiers and anthropologists returning from Iraq as well.

It has long mystified me that The Innocent Anthropologist is not a staple of Intro to Cultural Anthropology courses.  It is well written, funny, empathetic, easy to read, and a fantastic introduction to what ethnographers do, and why they do it.  Students I have had read the book generally appreciate it, even if they never leave the US.