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Chapter Outline


  • Prior to the 1970s, anthropologists typically aimed to work in “exotic” faraway places in order to document the most pronounced cultural differences.

  • Today, 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.

    • For example, 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 cocaine–based economy that had previously been “invisible” to mainstream America.

  • The 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.

  • At the 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.

  • Chapter 5 explores the question, How do anthropologists learn about other ways of life? Within this question are specific questions around which the chapter is organized:

    • What is so distinctive about anthropological fieldwork?

    • Aside from participant observation and interviews, do anthropologists use other methods?

    • What special ethical dilemmas do ethnographers face?

  • Ethnographic 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 Anthropological Fieldwork?

  • Anthropology 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.

  • Cultural 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 experience—especially working among people who may be culturally very different.

  • It’s 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.

  • The distinctive and effective methodological tools of cultural anthropology help maintain flexibility and make field research possible.

  • Anthropologists 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:

    • Anthropologists are more holistic, traditionally studying all aspects of social life simultaneously.

    • In 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.

  • This 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.

  • By personally 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.

    • See “Thinking Like an Anthropologist: Fieldwork in an American Mall”

  • Participant 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 day-to-day activities.

  • Participant 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.

  • Establishing rapport as a “professional stranger” requires a lot of discipline as well as acceptance of local customs and practices, however peculiar, unfamiliar, or uncomfortable.

  • Anthropologist 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.

  • Cultural 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.

  • Field 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?

  • Between 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.

  • As anthropology developed in the early 1900s, such standard guides became less relevant since anthropologists were personally collecting data in the field.

  • Today, 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.

  • The 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 lives—ways of viewing the world that they may not even be aware of.

  • Most importantly, these observations and interviews must be recorded in some manner, most often field notes: any information that the anthropologist writes down or transcribes during fieldwork.

  • Field 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.

  • Long-term fieldwork and detailed field notes led to a profoundly better understanding of human cultures, but they are no guarantee against bias and ethnocentrism.

  • As 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 sense—we begin to see the world from an emic (or insider’s) perspective.

  • Famed anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski referred to this perspective as “the native’s point of view” and asserted that it was the heart of the ethnographic method.

    • See “Classic Contributions: Bronislaw Malinowski and the Ethnographic Method”

  • Most 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.

  • Tunnel 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 flawed—they have their own tunnel vision.

Aside from Participant Observation and Interviews, Do Anthropologists Use Other Methods?

  • Participant 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.

  • The 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).

  • Comparative 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 societies.

  • The 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.

  • Life 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.

  • Ethnohistory 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.)

  • Rapid appraisals, short-term ethnographic fieldwork (“parachute ethnography”), may be required for highly specific questions or when funding cannot support year-round field research.

  • In the 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.

  • Today, 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.

  • While 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.

    • For 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).

  • As 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.

  • Secondary materials must be read critically, with the author’s motivations and potential biases taken into account.

  • As 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?

  • Anthropologists 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.

    • See “Anthropologist as Problem Solver: Alcida Rita Ramos and Indigenous Rights in Brazil”

  • Increasingly, 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 Ethnographers Face?

  • All 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.

  • In order to do no harm, anthropologists must use pseudonyms for informants in published accounts and make every effort to conceal identities.

    • For 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.

  • Unlike 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.

  • This 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 exposed.

  • Conducting 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.

  • More recently, the embedding of social scientists with combat units in the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has created an ethical controversy.

    • Some anthropologists argue that Americans (anthropologists or not) have a moral obligation to help fight terrorism.

    • The 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 responsibilities—and perhaps even damage the reputation of anthropology worldwide.


  • Participant 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.

  • All of 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.

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