Culture shock refers to feelings of uncertainty and discomfort experienced by an ethnographer during fieldwork in a different culture. Confronted by a new environment, strangers, and many new behaviors and ideas, almost all ethnographers react emotionally, some with unusual anxiety, anger, sadness, fear, or disorientation. Culture shock tends to resolve over time but may be reawakened when ethnographers return to their own cultures and discover that “the normal” now has become strange in light of their changed perspectives. For many cultural anthropologists, culture shock is a necessary part of learning about culture’s power to shape human experience. Understanding culture’s influence directly shapes the ethnographer and is one reason ethnographic fieldwork is so significant to cultural anthropology.
Culture shock, defined broadly, includes adjustments to surroundings that are felt physically by ethnographers as well as psychological discomfort that results from more subtle differences to which they must adapt. Thus, ethnographers find new food and ways of eating, lack of Western-style plumbing, sleeping on the floor, wearing unwashed clothes for days, different modes of urination and defecation, constant insects, and even unexpected weather as annoying, exasperating, and tiring conditions that must be faced early in fieldwork. Often, it is not so much the conditions themselves as that ethnographers are unsure about correct behavior and are afraid they unwittingly may offend their hosts. The combination of physical adjustment and uncertainty or fear often dominates the initial fieldwork period.
Perhaps of greater long-term significance are various psychological accommodations that ethnographers often continue to make throughout the field-work period. These may enable ethnographers to realize how much they have integrated their own culture’s values in their everyday lives and identities. Privacy and independence are difficult if not impossible to achieve when most people around them do not understand them and routinely live immersed in family and kin group loyalties. Ethnographic work itself with its associated values of education and literacy may be irrelevant or not comprehensible to informants. Often, culture shock leads to insights that challenge deeply held cultural assumptions. For example, U.S. ethnographers may hold notions of child rearing that emphasize egalitarianism and nurturing. Yet ethnographers may discover that favoritism of a first or last child is the norm in the culture being studied or that children are differentiated by gender as well as age in the form of care provided. Insights gained from culture shock often lead to the reformulation of research questions by the ethnographer in the field.
Many scientific accounts of other cultures traditionally contained impersonal descriptions of subsistence patterns, social organizations, and religious practices rather than discussion of culture shock and the emotional toll of fieldwork. Accounts of emotional upheaval were left to anecdotal conversation, the field diary, and occasionally to introductory remarks in the ethnography itself. The situation began to change by the late 1960s and even more so with the advent of postmodern ethnography in the last quarter of the 20th century. Bronislaw Malinowski’s posthumously published diary provides an example of loneliness and discontent by the fieldworker often credited as the originator of modern participant observation.
- Bock, P. K. (Ed.). (1970). Culture shock: A reader in modern cultural anthropology. New York: Knopf.
- Chagnon, N. (1996). Yanomamd (5th ed.). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace.
- Malinowski, B. (1989). A diary in the strict sense of the term (2nd ed.). Palo Alto, CA.: Stanford University Press.