Fieldwork in Anthropology: reflections from working in Nicobars

Fieldwork in Anthropology: reflections from working in Nicobars

Nitin Maurya ( ©

Abstract: The use of fieldwork has been long regarded as the main stay in anthropological research. Its efficacies as a research method have been dealt in detail before, and the volume and quality of data it brings with it has been widely talked about. This article discusses anthropology in light of the fieldwork tradition and the candid confessions of a fieldworker while working in an isolated tribal population on a small island.


The word anthropology owes its origin to two Greek words, anthropos meaning ‘human’ and logos meaning ‘the science of’. Anthropology thus means the science of man and is a complete subject in itself studying and observing all humans at all times from all points of views in a holistic manner. Centuries ago when European Colonizers began exploring new regions around the globe, the need to understand and know the indigenous people was felt. Travelers’ records, missionary records, etc started to be compiled and consolidated. In order to rule a group it was necessary to understand it. Probably this growth in the interest of alien culture laid the foundation of the subject of anthropology. Drawing contribution from eminent scholars like Boas, Morgan, Tylor, Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, Mead, Herskovits, and others anthropology as a discipline has grown over a period of more than a hundred and fifty years into a broad discipline probably studying every possible aspect related to humans in its totality. Anthropology today transcends the divisions between the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities and explores the biological, socio-cultural, linguistic, psychological and symbolic dimensions of humankind in all forms.

An integral part of anthropology is the cultural anthropology, which is the study of ‘culture’ in the broadest sense of the term. Anthropologists regard culture as a total way of life of a people or a group. Accordingly, anthropological study of culture ranges from religious beliefs to dietary patterns, family and community to nation-state and multi-national organization. Thus, cultural anthropology studies all aspects of human behavior and thought in a particular geographical and cultural setting.

Cultural Anthropology developed as a discipline that studies ‘dissimilar’ cultures. Anthropologists left their home and visited "exotic" places, stayed there for prolonged period of time learning the language and the way of life in alien cultures. This is what is known as field research or fieldwork and is the hallmark of anthropology. With time, the bailiwicks of anthropological inquiry have changed as the world itself has transmuted but fieldwork remains the standard method of anthropological investigation. The classic fieldwork technique is “participant observation”, which requires the researcher to reside in the community under study for a prolonged period and, as far as possible, to participate in its activities. Anthropological field research usually demands a high degree of personal involvement by the researcher. The kind of the society that has become the object of anthropological study, where unfamiliar languages and customs necessitate deep and extended involvement, largely dictates the type of the research methodology used during any such fieldwork. The products of such studies are termed ethnographies and the fieldwork method in anthropology is known as the ethnographic method.

In anthropology Malinowski is credited as being the most important figure in the development of the modern fieldwork tradition, through his study of the Trobriand Islanders of New Guinea. Not less were the contributions of Radcliff Brown, Evans Pritchard, Morgan, Tylor, Benedict and others to this tradition of anthropology. Commenting on the topic, Jarvey (1967) writes, ‘All schools of anthropology emphasizes that fieldwork stands the center of the subject. Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown, who thought anthropology was a science, placed the same emphasis on fieldwork as does Evans-Pritchard, who denies that it is a science.’

The Psychology of Fieldwork

Fieldwork is scholarly work that requires firsthand observation, recording or documenting what one sees and hear in a particular setting, whether that be a rural artisan community or a bustling city market place, a tribal community or an organization’s plush interiors. The work one does eventually forms the basis of further research in future.

The quality of results obtained from a fieldwork depends on the data generated as a result of the fieldwork. The data generated in turn depends upon the field worker himself, his psyche, his level of involvement, and his ability to see and visualize things that any other person visiting the place often fails to notice. The more open a researcher is to new ideas, concepts and things which he or she may not have seen in his or her own culture, the better is the absorption of those ideas. Better grasping of such ideas means better understanding of the forces of culture operating in the area and the ways they modify the lives of the people residing in that area. The followers of the subject of Anthropology have always been taught to be free from ‘ethnocentrism’ i.e. the belief in the superiority of one's own ethnic group.

A researcher has to approach the people without preconceived notions about the various institutions he has to study, relying on previous literature is good as it introduces the researcher to the people and their culture but since the forces of evolution apply to cultures and societies in the same manner as they apply to man as a biological organism, it becomes imperative to gather as much information as possible personally. From my personal experience from working among the Nicobarese I can tell that some of the latest books describing the life and culture of these people, have mentioned things that have long been obsolete and are no longer being practiced among them. So collection of ‘contemporary’ ethnographic data is very important as it serves to give the current trends and is invaluable for studying culture change over different periods of time. However the researcher has to verify whether the data thus presented in the books is reliable; because I came across many books published in last 4-5 years written by people who came to the island serving the government, got fascinated by the life of the people, read many other books, wrote an account themselves and used their political prowess to get a book published on their name. Now everyone can guess the validity and usefulness of the content mentioned in such books.

A fieldworker spends a lot of time in the field-observing people. There are qualities that one is born with or has to develop during such an intensive work. In my personal opinion a good fieldworker is ‘born’, he has certain inherent qualities that make him observe things from different perspectives, training can improve his abilities but training cannot make anybody a good researcher. Malinowski is the perfect example, he never had any formal training in fieldwork research yet his work is considered as one of the classiest of all times. The first hurdle a researcher faces is approaching the people, people who are circumspect about his intentions, people who are different from him and people whose values and customs are different. Here one can face rejection, so he has to be strong in mind and convincing so as to persuade the people to allow him to come near them and work amongst them. There are things people say and things people mean, a researcher should be able to read in between the lines, because no body wants to present a bad picture about his own community. For example, among the Nicobarese if one would ask about the belief in spirits and superstitions, they would reject it out rightly but if we analyze some of their customs we would find that such beliefs do exist among them. It’s not only about them even if we look at so-called modern and educated populations like ours we can find here numerous occasions and instances of prevalence of superstitions.

Fieldwork involves tremendous amount of concentration, there might be distractions which one has to overcome. It is all about focusing on the object of the study. Since one is far away from his people, finding company for some intellectual stimulation is difficult. One has to self-motivated; motivated enough to bear the pains and agony associated with difficult job one has on hand. We anthropologists work in difficult geographical areas, some work on high altitudes bearing cold, lack of oxygen and difficult terrain while some like me work on isolated islands amongst great heat and humidity and worst- diseases. Fieldwork is a more mental thing than physical; it stretches one to his extremities of mental and physical endurance. Bearing all these problems, one has to work among the people to attain his goal, not for once leaving the objectivity of the study. Diligence, patience, hard work and ability to withstand some bad tidings make a good fieldworker at a personal level and the ability to understand processes, insight and visions make him good at the academic level. Anybody who combines both is a good fieldworker, whose account gives a complete and true picture of the people he has studied. Good work ethics in the field and away is an essential part of a good fieldworker. Nothing should be done which takes away the element of faith the under-study community has put in, in the field worker. The purpose of the study, the advantages or the absence of it, whatever, should be clearly described to the population under study. Wherever permission has to be sought, it should be taken from appropriate authorities. The field worker has to be discreet in presenting sensitive information as results in his report. Good work ethics lend credibility to the researcher, and ensure respect and recognition to him from amongst the group he has worked on. Also, it is important because it lays good foundation for the future researchers coming to work on the same people and the same area.

The Research Area

In the South-East of Bay of Bengal, a chain of 556 Islands are spread about 725 km. facing Mynammar’s coast, The Cape Negrais and ending above the Achin head of Sumatra. These islands cover an area of 8249 square kilometers and form a somewhat quadrangle by the 6°and 14° North latitudes and 92° and 94° East longitudes. The area is known as Andaman and Nicobar Islands or Bay islands, an Union Territory and the abode of two distinct racial groups, the Negritos (Onge, Jarawa, Sentinelese and Great Andamanese) of Andaman and the Mongoloids (the Nicobarese and Shompens) of Nicobar. Port Blair is the capital and the only urban centre of these islands. Port Blair is around 1255 kilometers from Kolkata, 1190 kilometers from Chennai and 1200 kilometers from Vishakhapatnam and is connected to these metros and through air and sea routes.

The Nicobar Group of islands is separated from the Andaman Islands by the 10ْ Channel having a depth of 400 fathoms and from Sumatra by the Great Channel having a depth of 750 fathoms. These islands extend over a length of 259 kms from northwest to south east and a maximum width of 58 kms, covering an area of 1841 square kilometers. There are in total 19 islands, out of which 12 are inhabited; the northern most being Car Nicobar and the southern most being the Great Nicobar. Car Nicobar is at a distance of around 300 kilometers from Port Blair and is connected to it by sea route. The largest island of the Nicobar archipelago is Great Nicobar followed by Camorta, then Little Nicobar and Car Nicobar.

Car Nicobar is a small flat coral island having an area of 49.02 square miles. Geologically the underlying rock is basically coral conglomerate with sand and dry marine alluvium. The soil on the island is fertile calcareous soil, which is rich in carbonate and phosphate of lime. The climate is hot and damp. Rainfall occurs throughout the year and generally in sharp heavy showers. The islands are exposed to both monsoons, with southwesterly winds from May to September and easterly and northeasterly winds from November to January with May, June and September being the months of heaviest rainfall. Cyclones occasionally visit the islands. As the Nicobars apparently lie directly in the local line of greatest weakness, earthquakes are expected.

From the administrative point of view, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have been divided into two districts, District Andaman and District Nicobar. District Nicobar is divided into two tehsils, Car Nicobar tehsil and Nancowry tehsil. The entire population of Car Nicobar tehsil is rural and divided among 15 villages (Malacca, Perka, Tamaloo, Kinyuaka, Chukchucha, Tapoiming, Big Lapathy, Small Lapathy, Kinmai, Mus, Sawaiii, TeeTop, Arong, Kakana, Kimuis). The administrative offices are in a place called Headquarter whose area falls under Perka Village. The population of Car Nicobar according to the Census of India 2001 is 20,292 out of which 15,899 are Nicobarese tribals which is 78.4 % of the total population of Car Nicobar out of which around 80% are Christians while the rest are Muslims or animists.

The Nicobarese people

In the words of R. Gratham (1859) who visited the Nicobars in the first half of the 19th century, “The natives of the Nicobar Islands are described as an ill- looking population with dark skin, yellow scleroticas, flat faces and scanty beards, whose chief aliments consists in hogs, poultry and cocoa nuts, whose deities are the Iridis or geneii of the hills and woods, and whose priests are called Malains,”
The Nicobarese are significant for their affiliation to Mongoloid stock. Their language has been classified as belonging to the Mon-Khmer group (Grierson 1906; Whitehead 1924; Bonnigton 1932). Family is an important social institution of the Nicobarese. It is typically a joint one. Its members are related to each other either consanguinally or affinally. Adoption of members is also a common feature. In Car Nicobar, such groups of families having common identity are known as ‘TUHET’ and are the units of social life. These are exogamous in nature. The Nicobarese society does not have clans. Marriage is regulated by consanguinity, marriage between two people belonging to one family, village or island is permissible provided they are not related consanguinally, at least for two ascending generations. Monogamy is the only accepted norm of marriage. Among the Christians, marriage takes place in the church led by the Presbyter. The Muslim Nicobarese marriage is conducted according to the Islamic rites. Among the Christian Nicobarese, the concept of marriage is very simple- as soon as the parents of the boy and girl agree, they are instantly accepted as couple which is followed by a Church marriage as and when decided by them.

Their mainstay is horticulture. Rearing of animals (particularly pigs and poultry), hunting and fishing also have important role in their economic life. Their most important products are coconut and areca nut, which are cash crops. Besides, they also grow pandamus, yam, tapioca, sweet potato, banana, papaya and other vegetables. Both males and females do plantation. The purpose of rearing pig is purely for its meat. On various ceremonial occasions pig is slaughtered. It is also a mode of compensation for any grievance and fine imposed by the council upon any member of the society for any offence. Dogs and cats are kept as pets. Hunting is an important economic activity. Wild pig hunting is very common. They use crossbow and arrows, spears and choppers as hunting tools. For fishing they use harpoons. In Car Nicobar they catch fish by poison baits. Collection is also an engaging pursuit. From forest they collect suitable materials for canoe making, hut building and also firewood. They earn cash by selling copra and areca nuts.

Traditional religion has given way to Christianity all over car Nicobar and other islands particularly after the Second World War. At present about eighty percent of the Nicobarese are Christians and the rest are Muslims and animists. The Christians observe all the Christian festivals whereas the Muslims observe Idul fitr, etc. National festivals like Independence Day and Republic Day are observed by all of them.

In spite of their representation in the general political arena of the country their own society is governed by their traditional council–The Tribal Council with its Head office in the village of Chuchchucha. Close-knit tribal organization has made the Nicobarese calm, non-violent and peaceful. As a result the traditional administrative system or the Island council is still functioning and maintaining law and order smoothly.

The Car Nicobar Island Council is known as the ‘Tribal Council Car Nicobar’ and consists of 15 villages covering the whole island. Before the village Headman Election in Car Nicobar came in to being in 1978, there used to be village headman nominated by virtue of his capacity to govern, manage, organize and settle issues within his village. To overcome the problem of interacting between the local administration and the tribal people of this island, it was felt that there should be an election. So far the tribal council has conducted seven elections in 1975, 1982, 1985, 1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002. The term of office is four years, after which when an election is due, the Chairman Tribal Council and the Vice Chairman convene a meeting of all the First Headmen. The nominated lady representatives of all villages are also invited. The overall in-charge of the election is the Chief Captain.

In an Island the Chief Captain is the supreme head of the Nicobarese society. Next to the Chief Captain is the second captain. A third captain is also seen in some islands. Again, each village has a headman called village captain. The Chief Captain, The second Captain and the Captains of the villages of a particular island together constitute the Island Council, which is the supreme body of the Island. The Council meeting is presided over by the Chief Captain. The function of the Council may be categorized under development and judiciary wings. In the development work, the council plays the role of a negotiator between the Government and the people for their betterment. The Judiciary wing looks after the arbitration and settlement of social offences like land disputes, theft, quarrels, adultery, divorce, etc. The degree of punishment for the offences mentioned above is the imposition of fine only. The fine may be in cash or kind (like pig, coconut tree, etc.) or both. Serious offences like homicide are dealt with by the Governments court of law.

Fieldwork experience

Once I crossed Uttar Pradesh from its east border to proceed towards Nicobars via Kolkata, I knew I had ventured into an unknown territory. With problems like lack of knowledge about places, limited eating options, fixed amount of money at disposal, ignorance about local languages at Kolkata, Andaman and Nicobar were some of the initial problems I was to face during my fieldwork. I planned to go to Port Blair traveling in Bunk class of the ship, hoping to find somebody from Nicobars on board, during the 4 nights and 3 days stay on the ship from Kolkata to Port Blair and luckily I found such a person who later arranged for me lodging at Car Nicobar and my meeting with the Government officials. The journey at the sea was quite exciting in itself. I had read about cyclones in Geography books and, lo and behold, a couple for days into the voyage and I was in the middle of such a cyclone for few hours; for many it was routine, for me it was quite an experience. Heavy rains welcomed me in Andamans and I was left to wonder where I would be putting up once I disembark. However, after few anxious hours I found myself landed in a dormitory room of CARI Guest House on the outskirts of Port Blair. Next started the phase of taking permission from The District Commissioner to land in Nicobar, which took 15 days of governmental paperwork and Police and CB-CID enquiry verifying my credentials, and finally I was given the permission to proceed towards Nicobar.

The people of Andaman and Nicobars in general and Nicobars in particular were very kind to me and I was moved by their helpful nature and hospitality. The Nicobarese people are kind, peaceful and very hospitable. I was always welcomed wherever I went and all my queries were met with proper answers. Though I had some problems communicating but still, with the help of my interpreter I somehow managed and within a few days I had learned the Nicobarese language enough to understand things related to my questions and their replies. This was necessary because there were times when I was left alone with an individual to deal with and I had to make use of my limited knowledge of Nicobarese and their limited knowledge of Hindi. Also in order to understand the replies given by the respondents and in order to eliminate the element of any bias by the interpreter it was necessary to learn the language, it meant that even I knew what was being asked and replied. Though they know Hindi but are quite a bit reluctant to use it, as they feel more comfortable expressing their views in their native language, which is natural.

Though we have had a history of interaction of more than hundred years with the Nicobarese now, and notwithstanding their care, love and helpfulness, I had a feeling that they do not like outside people approaching them for anything. They want to be left alone; there was a subtle feeling of inhibition and doubt wherever I went. Perhaps this was due to the fact that many non-Nicobarese mainly Tamil settlers are slowly migrating to these islands with the intention of settling down. This has resulted in a feeling of a resentment of sorts among the Nicobarese as they believe it is their land and nobody other than them should be living there and utilizing its resources. Also for the fact that the non-Nicobarese are shrewd and exploit the innocent Nicobarese in ways more than one and this is perhaps why non-Nicobarese are not much trusted. According to some Internet reports, this mistrust has especially grown after the December 26 tsunami (2004) where many non-Nicobarese were found to be in total lack of humanity and compassion. There were many reported cases where non-Nicobarese were found to cut away fingers from the dead corpses left after the devastating tsunami in order to take away the gold rings. This led to widespread resentment among the Nicobarese and they even gave the President of India a memorandum seeking the ouster of the settlers from their land.

Personally, the experience was a great learning one, the conditions were difficult and adverse but somehow things went along well and the work was completed smoothly. Various problems included adapting to the hot and humid climate, food habits, area etc. It was hard to fight loneliness and maintain the drive to work in such an alien environment where one finds oneself totally different from the natives. The work had to be done within many limitations. One of those was the infrequent timings of the only three buses on the island, which ply on the only road on the island at fixed times, morning around 8 a.m., 11 a.m., after noon around 1 p.m. and then in the evening around 5 p.m. and the last one around 9 p.m. Staying in tribal areas was prohibited after sunset, so the work timings effectively were between 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and eating timings were adjusted accordingly. It meant if a bus was missed, the next one would arrive only after a few hours and also the food would be missed. The main village where I worked, Mus was 14 kilometers from the place where I stayed at the Headquarters as living with the tribals was prohibited (clear instructions were issued to me by the District administration).

Initially there was a little bit reluctance on the part of the people but as I became a little familiar, then things comparatively eased out, but there were many times when I was denied entry to houses and I had to return empty handed. There were occasions when people especially young kids used to call me names in native language, believing that I was totally unfamiliar with their language. There was an isolated incident when I had gone to a house to take blood sample and I was warned by a young Nicobarese to leave his family and people alone else he would be stabbing me with a ‘daun’ (an iron implement used to cut coconut). This was of course a solitary incident aptly handed by my Nicobarese friends. These small incidents are in some way reflections of the mis-trust people have for outsiders, about which it has been mentioned earlier. On the contrary there were many times when I was so overwhelmed by their hospitality and love that I felt like being at home.

The demographic fieldwork was very interesting with active participation from the young and old alike; we generally formed groups and had discussions. All in all it was quite fun and enriching experience. For the data collection on colorblindness and PTC taste sensitivity various schools were visited across the island, majority of which were devastated by the tsunami later. The children were very enthusiastic and eager, though it was a bit difficult to make them understand what I wanted. Sometimes I had to do fieldwork without the help of the interpreter and in many such cases the teacher helped me. Anthropometry fieldwork was done in two villages of the island, Mus and Malacca. Sadly the village Malacca has been wiped out from the map of Car Nicobar now. The people in general were very curious to know their height and weight and there was a competition of sorts among them to know who was taller and heavier. The ladies though were quite shy to give measurements and my native contacts had to pursue them to give measurements but every thing worked out really well.

Though the entire fieldwork period was always full of some anxious moments, tensions, apprehensions and frustrations but somehow everything went on quite well by the grace of God and I was able to successfully complete my fieldwork in two phases, spending around six months and close to seventy thousand rupees in Andaman and Nicobar Islands for both the fieldworks and completing almost a circle of India traveling more than 14,000 kilometers in total. There were times when I had to wait endlessly for a few days for a cyclone to pass over the island, during which there were intermittent rains making my fieldwork impossible and at other times I had to wait for my interpreter to be free from his duties or for the Village Captain, to be able to take permission to work in his village which was impossible without his consent.

My daily dietary intake was two to four Idlis in the morning, couple of Parathanas with sambhar in the afternoon sometimes and a masala dosa for dinner. Occasionally ‘Dab’ or coconut water was given to me by my generous subjects while in the field, with of course, innumerable quantity of tea. Missing the lunch was very common as the timings of the canteen where I used to have food and the bus which brought me back were different, so by the time I reached back it had just snacks to offer. National holidays and festivals were really bad as all the shops were closed so I had to arrange for biscuit packets for the day or request someone to give me a meal. I celebrated Deepawali, Kali Pooja, Pongal, Christmas, New Year, Republic Day and a couple of local festivals during my stay there along with my birthday for two consecutive years in November.

The fieldwork went on almost for five months in two phases. More data could have been collected if the stay was extended each time but I had to work with some time constraints. The tribal passport issued by the District Commissioner was time bound and was generally not extended under normal circumstances. Going to a remote place like Nicobar, which has been scheduled by the Government of India as one of the remotest territories in the country, is quite difficult. It takes almost 20 days on a trot to start from Delhi and reach Nicobar, assuming that the dates and timings of various trains and ships on which on has to travel are in coherence with each other and the tribal passport is issued within two days, otherwise it can take many more days or weeks. For the time I stayed there, I had to cope up with ailments like fever, dysentery, conjunctivitis and a mild attack of mumps. It was difficult to cope with everything and continue fieldwork among all economic and time restraints but somehow due to the grace of God I was able to wrap up everything within the stipulated time and as desired by my supervisors. All in all, this fieldwork experience was once in a lifetime opportunity and a great learning experience for me.


Being born into an educated and modern society means we are pre-programmed to achieve certain goals at certain ages. We live in an artificial world with an abundance of materialistic things around us since birth. The things we see are man made or non-natural, the sounds, which we hear, are non-natural mostly, and so we are sort of ‘cut off’ from nature. In the sense that we are able to associate more with telephone, motorbikes, televisions and other such things than grass, trees, rivers, etc which constitute nature. We develop a material existence and materialistic point of view in the course of our growth as an individual.

Cut off from the world for nearly six months, spending time without newspapers, radio, televisions, Internet was myself, doing my fieldwork among the Nicobarese. Spending spare time in the company of the sea and the woods, I started slowly connecting to the nature. Anxieties, dejection, frustrations accumulated during the day, were left at the shore, while I sat there for hours watching the waves breaking the shores. While nothing to do, I had ample of time to ponder over life and current happenings. There arose thoughts about which I never came to my mind while I was living in the city; probably I never had time to do so because of my pre-occupations and the artificiality that surrounded me. I learnt that there was time for everything, everything happened according to a plan. Life of an individual is based on his interactions with others, so for something to happen, everything associated with that event has to be in tandem and in coherence. Patience is the virtue. Nature in itself is a great teacher, the diurnal movement of sea water as low tide and high tide exhibits the great time cycle, birds feeding their chicks exhibit care, roaring waves tell us about the great power of nature. Living in concrete houses we are unaware of the power and prowess of nature. To me, a thunderstorm meant nothing and appeared harmless while I was at home, but ask me about it when I heard it in the middle of the sea, aboard a ship. It sounded terror! Lightening is nothing until you see it falling near a place you were sitting few minutes ago. A coconut is harmless until you feel it falling just behind you, few seconds and few steps behind you. Nature connected me to my higher being, it was sorts of discovery of my self for me. Probably it is this connection with nature that many so called primitive tribes of Andaman and Nicobar escaped devastation at the hands of the December 26th tsunami while their more educated and prosperous counterparts, the Nicobarese were devastated by the same tsunami. Probably it was easy for the primitive tribals to pick up the signals of nature like strange quietness of the birds in the woods and movements of the animals to the upper reaches of the islands, that some calamity is approaching.

A journey of exploration for academic pursuits became a self-discovery for myself, a journey that has not ended till date, every single day I discover something new in me and discard something redundant and out of sync with my internal harmony.


Jarvie, I. C. On Theories of Fieldwork and the Scientific Character of Social Anthropology, Philosophy of Science, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Sep., 1967), pp. 223-242

Justin, A. The Nicobarese, Anthropological Survey of India, Calcutta 1990

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