Anthropology Terms Abroad

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Karen Brison, Steve Leavitt

The term "culture shock" is often discussed in relation to experiences of anthropologists in the field. While it is easy to talk about "culture shock", it is much harder to describe the actual feelings you'll have in learning to cope with field situations. The first thing to remember is that your feelings will be REAL; they will not be labelled "this is culture shock" so it is hard to recognize what is going on when you are actually feeling the feelings. Here is a list of feelings you should expect to be feeling more acutely than you would have in routine life back home.

Elation, Excitement, Affection, Love

We won't discuss these in detail as they are positive feelings, but overall field work offers real opportunities for genuine friendships and some very exciting experiences. In most cases, these more than offset the negative feelings I'll discuss in more detail below. Be sure to revel in your new experiences, as the whole trip will soon feel too short. Here are the other, less pleasant, feelings:


This feeling becomes less acute as you make new friends in the field, but your stay will be short enough that you should expect to feel lonely throughout the duration of your trip. Writing letters to your loved ones helps with this--try to imagine that you are including them in everything that is happening to you. Weekly meetings with us and with one another will also help. Visiting people you like in the village, people you can talk easily with, helps as well.


The field situation requires that you live with a high level of ambiguity. This has various forms--from simply failing to communicate effectively to trying to organize the logistics of travelling or visiting. You may never be sure that you are doing the "right" or "appropriate" things when interacting with your hosts. All of this ambiguity contributes to higher-than-usual levels of anxiety. You may find yourself worrying a LOT about small things, things that in the larger schemes are really not all that important. I, Steve, remember in my first weeks in Papua New Guinea staying up all night one night worrying about HOW the village house builders were going to be able to attach the rain gutter to the roof of my house! Of course in the end they had no problem. Try to always ask yourself: how important really are the things that I am stewing about? Remember also that these worries are always their worst in the middle of the night. You are likely familiar with all of this from having to adjust to life in college.


The field situation means having to deal with many more minor hardships, from washing in cold water to coping with mosquitoes. Expect to find yourself reacting more strongly to some of these things than you had expected. You may also find people you are with to be irritating as well. The best thing to do with this is to remind yourself that these feelings are stronger because of the culture shock, and that you should expect yourself to put up with them. At the same time, it is equally important to try to make yourself as comfortable as possible. In Papua New Guinea I managed to find a way to give myself warm showers, for example. Because you are living with a family, you may feel inhibited about asking your host family to deal with your small comfort needs. You want to fit in and make a good impression. But at the same time, remember that your needs are important, and that you should be able to have some control over things. If you are in a social setting and are feeling very tired, you can politely ask to leave. As a general rule, try always to be reasonable, but it is also true that people should understand some of your needs if you explain them to them.


Struggling with communication and trying to figure out what is going on are very strenuous activities in themselves. This means you will notice a lower level of stamina than you are used to. This is compounded when you are in situations where you cannot easily leave or take a nap. Be sure to give yourself enough sleep.


You may not feel terribly depressed in a short stay of ten weeks, but this is always a possibility. In my experience there were times when things seemed unusually bleak and I had to recognize this as a symptom of culture shock. To combat these feelings, try to interact with people you enjoy, stay involved, and spend time with your work. In general, the emotional ups and downs of field work are more extreme than what you are used to.

Coping Skills

The following is a list of skills or qualities that facilitate cross-cultural learning and adaptation. They are derived from the experiences of several professors who have observed and supervised students in the field. Try to use these as much as you can:

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