The anthropologist and the key By Michael Kappel

The anthropologist and the key

This year’s ‘Veldwerk NL’ students revealed the importance of the key in anthropological research. It not only symbolises access, it creates possibilities to break down prejudices and pave the way to constructive human interaction.

Penetrating unfamiliar social worlds

It is still dark when I hit the highway towards the setting sun. I am travelling east and then north to visit five groups of students. In the second year of their studies, our students go out into the field to conduct the research project they have independently designed. For three weeks, they immerse themselves in a different world - within their home country. As their lecturer, I have the pleasant task of visiting them at their research locations.

This year they are conducting research on refugee issues, variations in migrant integration processes, and understandings of sacred space by different ethnic and religious groups. Over the next two days I find myself in social worlds that I have heard of, but have always bypassed during my travels in the Netherlands.

Once again, I am amazed by the ease with which our students have created a new home for themselves after a mere week in unfamiliar social worlds. I find this ease reflected in the archetypical object of the key, which represents the specific position, and the relevance, of the anthropologist in social life.

Key elements in anthropological research

Much has been written about the importance of key informants, who work as gatekeepers and provide access to the people we wish to study. Key informants often help us find key concepts to break cultural codes. And indeed, within the first week, our students encountered the importance of key informants, either by being taken under the wings of one, or by experiencing the frustration of not finding one. The director of a Syrian refugee organisation, the teacher of the migrants’ Dutch language course, the monks of the Buddhist temple: they all open social doors for the students and help them realise there are many ways to understand the world.

One of the students at the Buddhist temple complex.

Anthropologists also recount key moments in which they finally gained access, built up the rapport and trust they needed, or found the missing piece of the puzzle that made them understand a social situation. I heard about many of the students’ key moments, which were triggered by a joke, the sharing of intense emotions during interviews, or an unexpected opportunity to participate in activities – which, inter alia, are very often food-related activities. Cooking a meal for Buddhist monks on the first day of their arrival, receiving the warmth of Syrian hospitality during a family dinner, eating and dancing at a Eritrean feast and going out for a drink with a young male refugee turned out to be crucial moments in the research.

Opening doors

But most strikingly, I noticed that the tangible object of a key played a major role in the research process as well. The key works both as a metaphor and as an actual proof of the trust that was freely given to the students. On his first day in the Buddhist temple, a student received the key to the entire complex. When I met two other students at their guest family’s home, they were the ones who had the key and could open the door to the house painter, who had never seen any of us before. And during my meeting with two students who are studying Dutch assimilation courses for migrants, the teacher interrupted us to ask for the key to the classroom. Within days, all these people had given the key to their homes, work places, and sacred spaces to complete strangers.

Breaking down prejudices

The anthropologist breaks social barriers by simply, and courageously, crossing them. He or she rings the doorbell and asks a most unusual question (‘Can I live in your house for a while?’, or: ‘Can I ask you about your most intimate experiences?’), creates a situation that is highly uncomfortable for everyone involved – but within days, or hours, or sometimes even minutes, a new situation materialises in which people engage in interaction that breaks down prejudices and allows for new human connections. In our politically charged times, where fear, projection, and stigmatisation seem to rule the day, these new connections can serve as balm for the hurt inflicted by our prejudices.

After a mere week of fieldwork, the students realise they have valuable information about the people who were previously ‘Others’ to them, information that has the potential to decrease the conflicts that are threatening the social fabric of the Netherlands, and the entire globalised world.

One of the houses that opened up to our students with a Loesje poster stating
'Fortress Europe A place where all refugees are safe from the horrors in their own country'.

Trust and conflict resolution

The key symbolises the willingness of people to trust one another and to allow others into their lives. Of course, the key also gives us a glimpse of ‘the impure things’, as the Buddhist monks might call them, of people’s daily lives. And being invited into people’s lives brings along the risk that people will put unwelcome claims on us. But having to converse about the weather for hours, being expected to watch soap series every day, or being asked to join a political demonstration is a risk we will have to take if we want to create key moments that neither we nor our informants and host families will ever forget.

When it comes to the relationship between the anthropologist and advocacy, the key is the key. The key allows us into the homes, offices, and temples of others, which helps us to understand them on an intimate level. But it is also the key that helps us to go out and tell the world about what we have learned. The intimate knowledge that we gain by using the key to enter new worlds has the potential to become the key to group advocacy and conflict resolution. Seeing the passion evoked in the students during my field visit is deeply encouraging. It reinforced my conviction that this world needs anthropologists.


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