Anthropology developed as a discipline studying foreign (different) cultures and societies. In the beginning, these cultures were "savage" - romanticized for their exoticism and ways of life unpolluted by the West. Of course, anthropology in practice is built on an irony, since the study of these untouched societies was wholly mobilized by a colonialist desire to control them.
Over the years, of course, anthropology has become hugely critical of colonialism (and its flurry of pre- and post-fixes) and exceedingly attuned to issues of class, gender, race, etc. Its methods - primarily long-term fieldwork and participant observation - are particularly adept at illuminating these cleavages. And yet, fundamentally, they remain the same - go somewhere, observe someone, come back, and write about it.
Fellowship programs like the NSF, Wenner-Gren, Fulbright, and SSRC IDRF perpetuate this idea that we need to go somewhere to write meaningful, ethnographically informed theses. Sometimes we do, of course, but the disciplinary imperative to formulaically conduct fieldwork (and the additional requirement that your fieldwork be funded by a handful of so-called prestigious grants) is absurd. It's interesting that the unspoken rule of "minimum nine months to a year" of fieldwork as a PhD student fits so perfectly within the time frame of these dissertation grants. It's also interesting how quickly anthropologists seem to forget that Axel Wenner-Gren was an arms dealing industrialist who was a "self promoting [Nazi sympathizing] nuisance," or how quickly we brush aside our critiques of government when we're accepting their fellowship money. Means to an end, right?
The persistence of these funding regimes and the subsequent demand for ethnographic fieldwork reflects anthropology's lazy refusal to grapple with potentially revolutionary methodological shifts spurred by the digital age. Sometimes we need to spend a year in whatever village talking to locals and figuring out the answers to really tough questions. But sometimes we only need a month or two, and a month of Skype interviews, some week-long site visits, and some archival work that could be easily integrated in vacation time (of which those of us in unstructured PhD programs have plenty).
Anthropologists need to take a moment to look at themselves and ask why they're applying for funding, whether or not their projects need all the millions of dollars being spent on them, and what kind of methodological developments could make the field more accessible, practical, and meaningful while ensuring its continued theoretical resilience. Maybe we shouldn't blindly cling to disciplinary norms, and maybe we should think more about the role of anthropology in the "modern" world. As David Graeber has recently pointed out, this professional-managerial model of anthropology that's developing within Western universities runs contrary to everything we're trying to do. The way out of this, he says, is by trying to have fun with anthropology. Play and playfulness as an antidote to the well-known horrors of neoliberal capital is a compelling thesis; kowtowing to neoliberal funding regimes, however, probably isn't the best way to achieve it.