Reflections from Benedict Anderson

Benedict Anderson, author of the well-read "Imagined Communities" (1983), has authored a short autobiography / set of reflections called "A Life Beyond Boundaries" (2016). The book is an interesting read about his journey toward, and through, academia. The book was inspired by a request to share this experience with a Japanese audience, which was published in 2009, and was the foundation for the English version. I share three points relevant to students and emerging scholars:

On fieldwork:

"I began to realize something fundamental about fieldwork: that it is useless to concentrate exclusively on one's 'research project'. One has to be endlessly curious about everything, sharpen one's eyes and ears, and take notes about anything. This is the great blessing of this kind of work. The experience of strangeness makes all your senses much more sensitive than normal, and your attachment to comparison grows deeper. This is why fieldwork is also so useful when you return home. You will have developed habits of observation and comparison that encourage or force you to start noticing that your own culture is just as strange – provided you look carefully, ceaselessly compare, and keep your anthropological distance." (p. 101-102)

On positionality and language:

"it is good to think about one's own circumstances, class position, gender, level of type of education, age, mother language, etc., when doing comparisons. But these things can change. When you start to live in a country whose language you understand barely or not at all, you are obviously not in a good position to think comparatively, because you have little access to the local culture. You feel linguistically deprived, lonely and even isolated, and you hunt around for some fellow nationals to stick with. You cannot avoid making comparisons, but these are likely to be superficial and naïve. But then, if you are lucky, you cross the language wall, and find yourself in another world." (p. 131)

On research:

"The ideal way to start interesting research, at least in my view, is to depart from a problem or question to which you do not know the answer. Then you have to decide on the kind of intellectual tools (discourse analysis, theory of nationalisms, surveys, etc.) that may or may not be a help to you. But you have also to seek the help of friends who do not necessarily work in your discipline or program, in order to try and have as broad an intellectual culture as possible." (p. 154)

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