A place that answers questions: primatological field sites and the making of authentic observations

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The ideals and realities of field research have shaped the development of behavioural primatology over the latter half of the twentieth century. This paper draws on interviews with primatologists as well as a survey of the scientific literature to examine the idealized notion of the field site as a natural place and the physical environment of the field as a research space. It shows that what became standard field practice emerged in the course of wide ranging debate about the techniques, personal qualities and site conditions best suited to the scientific study of the natural behaviour of apes and monkeys. Although the laboratory was a constant presence in this debate, the export of techniques from the laboratory to the field was limited, due to concerns that experimental manipulation would destroy the naturalness of the behaviour. The paper goes on to demonstrate the central significance given by primatologists to the unique social, historical and ecological circumstances of particular field sites, and to sketch some of the complexities that fieldworkers contend with in trying to realize their ideals. Primatologists seek field sites that answer their questions; but once their studies become long term, they also need to find questions that answer to ever changing conditions at those sites.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)311-333
Number of pages23
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Science
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2006

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