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Culture Shock: The Fieldworker's Greatest Fear & Unlikely Ally

1596 words - 7 pages

Although periodically unpleasant, unsettling and possibly detrimental to anthropological
research due not only to self-alienation but to confused hostility from the host population, culture
shock can be an invaluable tool to a fieldworker. It forces one to overcome the cultural divides
between peoples, especially that of language; and, instead of withdrawing, it eventually forces
one to engage deeply and personally in cultural practices and, therefore, learn through direct
participation, even if reluctantly, rather than indirect observation. Learning through one's
mistakes, a hallmark of the latter stages of culture shock, helps to highlight salient cultural
differences between the researcher's own cultural background and their study group's, as well as
instill within the researcher those very practices which can only aid in the research process and
which, moreso, reveal the important and often latent reasons a society performs such practices.
In his book The Five Stages of Culture Shock, Paul Pendersen (1995) describes the
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phenomenon quite simply as "the process of initial adjustment to an unfamiliar environment". /1(
While an uneasy adjustment to new cultural contexts is a fairly obvious consequence, it
nonetheless involves a complex psychological, physiological, and social response which does not
go at all unnoticed by those who experience it. Anthropologist Kalvero Oberg was one of the
first to codify culture shock and its effects-something which others have studied more closely
and devised a four-stage developmental theory for the disorder (Adler 1975). The manifest
symptoms range from stress and anger, to worry and physical discomfort, and ultimately to "that
terrible longing to be back home [ ... ] to talk to people who really make sense" (Oberg 2006:143).
Adler's (1975) progression follows distinct stages beginning with the so-called "honeymoon"
stage onto those of anger and then humor, ending with one of assimilation and autonomy. A fifth
stage, "reciprocal interdependence" or a true sense of multiculturalism, is purported but
considered an "unreachable ideal" (Penderson 1995 :3).
The first stage is one most commonly experienced by the general public because "the
individual experiences the [ ... ] curiosity of a tourist", "fascinated by the new" (Pendersen
1995:3; Oberg 2006:143). Even though relatively harmless, this stage is the least beneficial to a
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