to the 1970s, anthropologists typically aimed to work in “exotic” faraway
places in order to document the most pronounced cultural differences.
cultural anthropologists are much more aware of the research potential of, and
insights about, humanity to be gained from closer-to-home field settings. Advertising
executives, factory workers, or transnational migrants in an anthropologist’s
home country are equally important subjects of anthropological inquiry.
in Philippe Bourgois’s five-year research project in East Harlem in the 1980s
and 1990s, he developed an understanding of East Harlem, its people, and its
crack cocainebased economy that had previously been “invisible” to mainstream
ethnographic methods Bourgois used in a major US city were essentially the same
as those of any cultural anthropologist 50 years ago who was studying small
communities in Africa, Latin America, or Oceania.
heart of these research projects, near or far, is a central goal: to learn
about people who often live in different cultural circumstances from our own.
5 explores the question, How do anthropologists learn about other ways of life?
Within this question are specific questions around which the chapter is
is so distinctive about anthropological fieldwork?
from participant observation and interviews, do anthropologists use other
special ethical dilemmas do ethnographers face?
methods, which have been around for the better part of a century, have proven
to be effective tools for helping anthropologists understand the social
complexities they study.
What Is So Distinctive About
is generally less well known than other social sciences, like psychology,
economics, or political science. This creates a lot of popular misunderstanding
about what anthropologists in the field actually do.
anthropologists do research by building personal relationships over a long
period, and it is a difficult process to prepare for in advance of the actual
experienceespecially working among people who may be culturally very
nearly impossible to anticipate every challenge that will be faced during the
course of ethnographic fieldwork. Anthropologists must learn to expect the
unexpected or at least be flexible enough to adapt to unexpected circumstances
when they inevitably arise.
distinctive and effective methodological tools of cultural anthropology help
maintain flexibility and make field research possible.
often use quantitative data comparable to other social sciences, but cultural anthropology is the most
qualitative of the social sciences. Two additional features distinguish
anthropology from these other disciplines:
are more holistic, traditionally studying all aspects of social life simultaneously.
anthropology, long-term immersion and participation in a community (at least a
year or more) and the application of open-minded cultural relativism yield
insights that would be thwarted by preconceived ideas.
long-term immersion is called fieldwork, and it is the defining
methodology of cultural anthropology. It allows insights that would never be
possible with short visits, surveys, or brief interviews.
participating in community activities, ethnographers observe what community
members consider important, what they discuss among themselves, and how these matters
intertwine with social institutions. This approach can yield an understanding
of culture and behaviors that people themselves might not even be aware of.
Like an Anthropologist: Fieldwork in an American Mall”
observation is a key element of anthropological fieldwork: the standard research
method used by sociocultural anthropologists that requires the researcher to
live in the community he or she is studying to observe and participate in
observation can be thought of as “disciplined hanging out”hanging out
because anthropologists observe and take part in events, rather than
coordinating or directing them, and disciplined because anthropologists
methodically record their observations and experiences, while building rapport
with community members.
rapport as a “professional stranger” requires a lot of discipline as well as
acceptance of local customs and practices, however peculiar, unfamiliar, or
Johannes Fabian (1971) suggested that obtaining objective data is not the goal
of fieldwork. These data are created by the relationships between an
anthropologist and his or her informant: any person an anthropologist
gets data from in the study community, especially people interviewed or who
provide information about what they have observed or heard.
data are not firmly objective or subjective but the product of intersubjectivity: the realization that
knowledge about other people emerges out of their relationships with and
perceptions of each other.
anthropologists also rely on interviews: any systematic conversation with an informant to collect
field research data, ranging from a highly structured set of questions to the
most open-ended ones (see Table 5.1). So how do anthropologists know what
questions to ask?
the 1870s and 1950s, many British and American anthropologists used Notes
and Queries, published by the British Association for the Advancement of
Science (1874), as a source of standardized research questions. This book was
designed to help colonial-era travelers gather consistent data for armchair anthropologists: anthropologists who rely
on the reports and accounts of others rather than original field research.
developed in the early 1900s, such standard guides became less relevant since
anthropologists were personally collecting data in the field.
anthropologists no longer have a prescribed set of good, general questions.
Anthropologists usually have specific questions in mind based on their
theoretical backgrounds and research focus. And questions frequently change
during fieldwork as new cultural realities present themselves.
goal of insightful cultural questions is to get people talking. The more
individuals talk and the more rapport that is built up, the more people tell us
about the cultural logic of their daily livesways of viewing the world that
they may not even be aware of.
importantly, these observations and interviews must be recorded in some manner,
most often field
information that the anthropologist writes down or transcribes during
notes are essential since details can easily be forgotten after months and
years have passed. Anthropologists also often record headnotes: the mental notes an
anthropologist makes while in the field, which may or may not end up in formal
field notes or journals.
fieldwork and detailed field notes led to a profoundly better understanding of
human cultures, but they are no guarantee against bias and ethnocentrism.
outsiders (even Philippe Bourgois was an “outsider” in East Harlem), many of
the behaviors anthropologists observe may seem paradoxical. But if we earnestly
seek to see things in terms of local context, things that people say and do
begin to make cultural sensewe begin to see the world from an emic (or
anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski referred to this perspective as “the
native’s point of view” and asserted that it was the heart of the ethnographic
“Classic Contributions: Bronislaw Malinowski and the Ethnographic Method”
people assume that their own way of doing things is inherently better than
everyone else’s. Even anthropologists are subject to cultural tunnel vision:
unquestioned tacit meanings and perspectives drawn from our own culture that
prevent us from seeing and thinking in terms of another culture’s tacit
meanings and perspectives.
vision is not unique to Europeans and Americans. Everyone has a tendency
toward ethnocentrism. Informants feel that their way of doing things; their moral,
ethical, and legal codes; and their ways of thinking about the world are
correct, while everyone else’s are flawedthey have their own tunnel vision.
Aside from Participant Observation
and Interviews, Do Anthropologists Use Other Methods?
observation and open-ended interviews are the basis of cultural anthropological
fieldwork. But the sheer complexity of human culture requires additional
strategies: the comparative method, the genealogical method, life history, ethnohistory, rapid appraisals, action research, anthropology at a
distance, and analyzing secondary materials.
comparative method, comparing data from many different cultures, has always
been part of anthropology. Lewis Henry Morgan gathered kinship data from around
the world by mail and published his results in Systems of Consanguinity and
Affinity of the Human Family (1871). Others used comparative data to rank
human societies (invariably with their own societies on top).
information is still relevant in modern anthropology and readily available via
the Human Relations
Area Files (hraf.yale.edu), which includes ethnographic data from hundreds of
genealogical method was first used by English anthropologist William H. R. Rivers
in 1898 in the Torres Strait (islands between Australia and New Guinea). He
wanted to study the heritability of color blindness and needed accurate data on
familial relations. Unfortunately, the Torres Islanders used a classificatory
system of kinship terms that made it hard for him to disentangle biological
relationships. Rivers adapted to this problem by developing a simple, systematic
way of classifying all kin according to their relationship to his informants, a
system that is still used today.
histories reveal age-related aspects of social life. As people go through life,
they take on different roles in society and in social institutions. Ethnographers
can understand how age affects typical social roles by recording multiple life
histories within a society.
combines ethnographic and cultural approaches to understanding how cultures
change through time. Ethnohistorical research is especially important in
studying nonliterate communities, where history is rarely recorded. (Even in
contexts with historical documents, life histories and archaeological data can
provide additional perspectives on the “official” history.)
appraisals, short-term ethnographic fieldwork (“parachute ethnography”), may be
required for highly specific questions or when funding cannot support year-round
1950s, American anthropologist Sol Tax advocated for action anthropology: research in which the
goal of a researcher’s involvement in a community is to help make social
change. Tax encouraged anthropologists to give voice to disenfranchised
communities and aid in collective problem-solving.
some anthropologists use participatory action research: a research method in which the
research questions, data collection, and data analysis are defined through
collaboration between the researcher and the subjects of research. A major goal
is for the research subjects to develop the capacity to investigate and take
action on their primary political, economic, or social problems.
rapid appraisal may only provide opportunities for short-term fieldwork, sometimes
anthropologists are unable to travel to the field at all, owing to war or
political repression. In that event, anthropologists may choose to attempt
“anthropology at a distance” by interviewing informants from the study
community who have moved elsewhere.
example, during World War II, Ruth Benedict was unable to pursue field research
in Japan. She opted to interview Japanese expatriates in the United States and
published her research in Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946).
important as firsthand fieldwork is to cultural anthropology, much can be
learned from secondary materials: any data that come from secondary sources such as a census,
regional survey, historical report, other researchers, and the like that are not
compiled by the field researcher.
materials must be read critically, with the author’s motivations and potential
biases taken into account.
stated at the opening of this chapter, modern anthropologists are as liable to
be working in their own cultures as in distant locations. Considering this,
what special challenges do anthropologists working in their own societies face?
working “at home” experience both the benefits and the drawbacks of
familiarity. They are familiar with language and customs, but this familiarity
has the potential to blind them to patterns obvious to an outsider.
“Anthropologist as Problem Solver: Alcida Rita Ramos and Indigenous Rights in
ethnographic fieldwork is not just about indigenous peoples but by indigenous peoples. For example, the
Pan-Maya ethnic movement in Guatemala asserts a research agenda relevant to
Maya social interactions and worldviews.
What Special Ethical Dilemmas Do
anthropologists face common ethical dilemmas: the commitment to do no harm,
considerations about to whom anthropologists are responsible, and who should
control anthropology’s findings.
order to do no harm, anthropologists must use pseudonyms for informants in
published accounts and make every effort to conceal identities.
example, Margaret Mead (1928) altered details about the adolescent girls she
interviewed so they could not be identified, especially those who engaged in
socially disapproved behaviors like premarital sex.
journalists, anthropologists in the United States have no First Amendment
protections. Anthropologists are obligated to protect their informants, but
field data are subject to a subpoena from a court in criminal investigations.
raises the question of who should have access to field notes. Most
anthropologists view field notes as too private for publication, except in
carefully edited excerpts. It is questionable whether field notes should be
made available to informant communities. On the one hand, the data belong to informants. On the
other, they may contain details that individuals do not want publically
ethnographic research during wartime can result in a conflict of interest: are
anthropologists obligated to their informants, their government, or both?
During World War II many anthropologists assisted with the war effort: Ruth Benedict,
Sir Edmund Leach, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, and Gregory Bateson, for example.
recently, the embedding of social scientists with combat units in the US wars
in Iraq and Afghanistan has created an ethical controversy.
anthropologists argue that Americans (anthropologists or not) have a moral
obligation to help fight terrorism.
American Anthropological Association officially condemned the Human Terrain System
program, arguing that anthropologists might be forced to “take sides” in trying
to balance their military and anthropological responsibilitiesand perhaps even
damage the reputation of anthropology worldwide.
observation provides rich insights that the other social sciences cannot
provide, specifically because it emphasizes a holistic perspective, direct
experience, long-term participation in people’s lives, and responsiveness to
unexpected events. Anthropologists listen to the stories of their informants
and understand their culture through them.
the other methods that anthropologists use are in service to the insights that
participant observation can provide but where long-term residence in a
community is impossible.