Field Work

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Field Work

Beginning field work

The first steps

Participation in the culture

New trends in field work

Field work in sociology

The field worker as an individual


Field work is the study of people and of their culture in their natural habitat. Anthropological field work has been characterized by the prolonged residence of the investigator, his participation in and observation of the society, and his attempt to understand the inside view of the native peoples and to achieve the holistic view of a social scientist. A society can be said to provide a ready-made laboratory for the social scientist in somewhat the same way that the human organism serves the biologist.

Field studies have long been the mark of cultural anthropologists and to a somewhat lesser degree of sociologists; they are increasingly being done by political scientists, social psychologists, and other social scientists. A difference exists between anthropology and sociology in the history, problems, and methods of field work. Today, however, the trend is toward similarity.

Anthropologists began to do field studies toward the end of the nineteenth century, although Morgan’s study of the Iroquois appeared somewhat earlier. The major emphasis on anthropological field work has been primarily British and American, with such notable exceptions as the work of Thurnwald in Germany and of Levi-Strauss in France. Among the first expeditions were those of Boas in British Columbia and of Haddon with his associates in the Torres Strait region of the Pacific. Their goal was to extend the boundaries of the knowledge of man by studying wide variations in his cultures.

The publication of Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific in 1922 revealed the great potentialities of field work. This study of Trobriand Islanders, among whom Malinowski had lived for almost three years, set new standards for field workers which continue to operate. Field work came to mean immersion in a tribal society—learning, as far as possible, to speak, think, see, feel, and act as a member of its culture and, at the same time, as a trained anthropologist from a different culture. It is significant that this method was forged in the study of small, homogeneous tribal societies in which it would have been difficult for the investigator to have avoided face-to-face relations. In recent years the range in type and size of societies studied by anthropologists has been much extended. With this extension, new problems and new methods have developed, but certain others have remained constant.

Beginning field work

The anthropologist chooses the geographical and cultural area for his field project, studies the literature, and, if the language has been recorded, learns as much of it as possible before going into the field. Today, he will most likely also be interested in a specific problem and in social or culture theory, and he will endeavor to be au courant with the literature.

He then has to consider whether he goes to the field alone, with his family, or as part of a team. In the past the norm was the lone field worker; today it is common for the investigator’s spouse and children to travel into the field. The research team—a number of anthropologists or scientists representing different disciplines—is a new trend. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. Being alone gives a greater intensity to the field experience and may provide more intimate data, since the field worker is thrown upon the native people for company. On the other hand, it has the disadvantages of loneliness and of being limited to what one person can accomplish. The family has an advantage in reducing loneliness, and a mate and children may be useful entering wedges into the community and in securing data from their own sex and age groups. A team obviously extends the range of data which can be collected. A disadvantage of a family or team is that relationships with native peoples may be more difficult if one is quickly accepted and the other (or others) disliked.

Whether the field worker goes alone or with his family or as a member of a team, approval for the project and, if possible, cooperation must be secured from those who have authority in the society. Authority may reside in a group of clan elders, a chief, a tribal king, officials of a colonial government or an independent nation, the general manager of an industrial company, or the leaders of any other dominant economic, social, or political group. The questions of those in power, whoever they be, are usually concerned with whether the investigator threatens the status quo and whether he can be trusted not to reveal any information which they would consider harmful to the individual or the community. The traditional position of the anthropological field worker is that he is there as scholar to learn rather than as an instrument of change and that he never betrays an informant. (In applied social science, anthropologists, sociologists, economists, and others sometimes both study and help to implement social change, but this is a quite different type of field work [see, for example, ANTHROPOLOGY, article on APPLIED ANTHROPOLOGY].)

The nod of approval from those in power is only the first step. The field worker must then gain the good will of the people he wishes to study. He has to explain his presence to them, as he did to those in authority, as simply and as honestly as possible. In general there is no substitute for honesty. In some societies, both tribal and modern, people may be flattered by someone being interested enough to travel a long way to find out about their customs and to learn their language. The anthropologist must from the beginning differentiate himself from other aliens of his race or culture, such as missionary, government official, trader, planter, or work supervisor, whom the indigenous people may have known. It is extremely important that they have opportunities to observe and to know the field worker. The nearer his house is to the hub of activities, the easier it is for reciprocal observations and for easy social relations. The location of the house may also symbolically establish an important difference between the field worker and other aliens. Gradually the field worker’s role evolves. It usually has many facets and will not be the same in all situations or for all field workers. He may begin by rendering certain services. In a tribal society he often brings material goods ranging from ornaments to useful spades and knives. He may dispense simple remedies, such as aspirin and anti-malarial medicine, to those needing them. In modern societies he often accepts invitations to speak to meetings of teachers, to church congregations, a chamber of commerce, and any other significant group that invites him. He is not only being helpful; he is making it easy for people to see and to know him.

The first steps

During the first month or so the field worker proceeds very slowly, making use of all his sensory impressions and intuitions. He walks warily and attempts to learn as quickly as possible the most important forms of native etiquette and taboos. When in doubt he falls back on his own sense of politeness and sensitivity to the feelings of others. He likewise has to cope with his own emotional problems, for he often experiences anxieties in a strange situation. He may be overwhelmed by the difficulties of really getting “inside” an alien culture and of learning an unrecorded or other strange language. He may wonder whether he should intrude into the privacy of people’s lives by asking them questions. Field workers vary in their degree of shyness, but most people of any sensitivity experience some feelings of this type when they first enter a new field situation.

Sooner or later, when the field worker has established rapport with the people and has learned how to handle his own anxieties, he establishes a routine of work. It is usually wise to begin with relatively impersonal tasks. If he has not already done so, learning the language is among the first essentials. Field workers naturally vary in their linguistic abilities, and languages differ in degrees of complexity. But learning any unrecorded language presents manifest difficulties for anyone. Margaret Mead (1939) has made the useful distinction between using and learning the native language. The field worker frequently learns to speak and understand a language without learning it as a linguist would. In parts of Oceania where pidgin English is common, a combination of it and the native language may be the method of communication. In Africa, the field worker may have to know the language of the former or present colonial power, a lingua franca such as Swahili, and as much as possible of a native language. Often he works through an interpreter, either all the time or on certain problems where his fluency in the appropriate language is not sufficient for understanding. The status, sex, and personality of the interpreter may present difficulties in certain situations, and it may be useful, therefore, to have several interpreters. No easy solution to the language problem exists. Ideally, the field worker should be an expert in the native language. Usually he simply does the best he can within the limitations of time and the inherent difficulties of the situation.

Making a census is another early task which has the value of being impersonal and essential. It is necessary to locate people in space and to know the composition of households. As the field worker goes from one household to another, he also gets acquainted with the occupants. (In modern large societies, a government census is usually available.)

Participation in the culture

Participating and observing become an ever more important part of the routine. The field worker somewhat resembles a natural historian: he observes and notes, as far as possible, whatever comes within his range, even though he may not always know the relevance of all his observations. He follows long and devious sequences, such as those involved in initiation, marriage, and death rituals, which may be six or more months in preparation, and, at the same time, he observes the minutiae of daily life in which they occur. He accompanies the people on their economic tasks— hunting, fishing, planting, cooking, and others. He listens to them converse and gossip when they are at ease and picks up new clues which he later follows up. A woman anthropologist alone in the field can usually participate more fully than a man alone, because a man is generally restricted to being with other males. But even where social segregation between the sexes is strict, a woman can work with men as well as with women. No one fears her.

The intensity of the field worker’s participation varies from one situation to another and between investigators. Among the Nuer, Evans-Pritchard was given little choice. The Nuer were “persistent and tireless” visitors, in and around his camp all the time, and he suffered from a lack of privacy (Evans-Pritchard 1940). Some anthropologists participate in ritual dances, feasts, and similar social events; others limit themselves to taking notes. The field worker’s sense of the social situation and his personal desires and limitations dictate how much and when he will participate.

Whatever the degree of the field worker’s participation in the whole society, friendships with a few people develop, and they help him to find a niche in the community. It is these friends who often become his best informants. They may include servants or other employees, a chief, medicine man, and many others. Often, too, an informal adoption as a “son,” “daughter,” “sister,” or “brother” helps the anthropologist find his place and extends or deepens his range of knowledge. In the Company of Man(Casagrande 1960) provides profile sketches of key informants who were close associates and important teachers for each of the contributing anthropologists.

When the field worker has become familiar with the social contours and feels more or less accepted, he begins to work systematically on such anthropological problems as kinship systems, forms of marriage and residence, economic and political organization, witchcraft and magical beliefs and practices, or any other aspect of life which is significant in the society and interesting to him. He asks questions in structured and unstructured interviews and notes the measure of agreement or disagreement between the patterns which emerge from the answers and the actual behavior he observes. Usually, a discrepancy exists between the ideal and the real. Another method, used effectively by Oscar Lewis (1961), is the tape recording of long interviews with different members of one family, resulting in a significant humanistic account. Hortense Powdermaker (1962) had inter-African conversations recorded by an African assistant, which revealed spontaneous tones of feeling and subtleties of African life.

Unexpected and chance events, such as a quarrel, often reveal facets of a culture which the field worker had not known existed or, perhaps, only dimly suspected. Then, too, lies may be as informative on certain levels as the truth. For instance, in a study in Mississippi, one of the major values of middle-class white people—the straining for an aristocratic family background—was revealed in their consistent lying about their backgrounds (Powdermaker 1939). Failures and newcomers, who reveal the pressures which they resist or try to conform to, may be another excellent source of data.

Whomever the anthropologist is interviewing or however he is participating, there must be a high degree of reciprocal communication between him and the people he studies. This need represents an important difference between the methods of the social and the natural sciences. The chemist and physicist do not communicate personally with molecules or atoms, but communication for the social scientist depends to a large degree on his psychological involvement. The field worker faces a special problem, however, for he must be both detached and involved. If this dual role is an inherent part of the anthropologist’s personality or self image (strengthened by his training), he plays it spontaneously and easily. As Goffman (1961) puts the problem, the degree of tension felt by a field worker corresponds to the level of congruence between spontanous and unspontaneous (playing the rules of the game) roles.

The notion that involvement connotes a lack of scientific objectivity is mistaken. It is only when an anthropologist is aware of his involvements that he can then detach himself and observe. Hidden or unconscious involvements (positive or negative) are dangerous, for the obvious reason that the investigator cannot step outside of them. An obsessive identification with either the underdog or the top social levels limits the field worker’s communication and his objectivity. In a highly stratified society it is important for him to move easily within its different segments.

In addition to a capacity for open involvements and for becoming detached from them, personal qualities such as kindness, patience, tact, endurance, and the ability to “take” both loneliness and ambiguity are helpful. Other idiosyncratic characteristics may be useful in one field situation and not in another.

Despite its reputation, the so-called culture shock is not often one of the problems of a trained anthropologist. First, he arrives with a general knowledge of the people and their culture through having immersed himself in the literature. Second, his penetration into the culture is so gradual that by the time he achieves any understanding of it, he is apt to take it for granted. In fact, he has to be on his guard against this tendency. Culture shock is more likely to be experienced when he returns to his own modern urban society after an extended period in a tribal one.

The theoretical orientation of the field worker is significant from the beginning. Historical reconstruction, functionalism, a structural or cultural approach, and psychological anthropology are among the major frames of reference. Each influences the field worker’s choice of problems, the type of data he collects, the kind of clues he picks up, some of his techniques, his hypotheses, and his interpretations. The collecting of data and theorizing are not necessarily separate processes. As the field worker participates, observes, and interviews, much of the time he is also thinking of hypotheses, of comparative data, and of relevant theories; it is also true, of course, that problems and hypotheses frequently arise out of empirical data in the field. Because of the personal nature of field work, it is imperative that while in the field the anthropologist accurately record empirical data separately from hypotheses and interpretations and distinguish the impressions from the definitive data. Thus, he should tell us the number of informants he used; give details of their age, sex, and social status; and provide precise descriptions of the methods used in securing data. Scientific standards demand as complete honesty as possible and data that may be negative as well as positive in terms of hypotheses. It should be possible for a reader to make different interpretations from the data. One of the most rigorously honest presentations is Cora DuBois’s study of the Alorese (1944).

New trends in field work

The above points are relatively constant in all anthropological field work. Among the new trends are an emphasis on specific problems rather than on holistic studies; working in larger and more complex societies; a greater concern with sampling; the use of sociological surveys along with the traditional participation, observation, and interviewing; and a frank recognition of the fact that the field worker is a human instrument and part of the situation studied.

A team has obvious advantages in working on complex problems and in large societies. One of the early cross-disciplinary teams in the field was that of the anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn and the physician Dorothea Leighton, who studied the Navajo (1946). An experiment in regional research was made by a team of 12 social scientists, all anthropologists except one historian and one political scientist, who worked on political development in Uganda and Tanganyika under the direction of Audrey Richards (1960), then the director of the East African Institute of Social Research. The members of this team worked independently. A comparative study of child rearing in six cultures by six research teams, each consisting of a man and a woman worker, under the direction of John and Beatrice Whiting (1963), represents still another kind of team. A more extensive cross-disciplinary approach was used in a study (Rogler & Hollingshead 1965) of schizophrenia in Puerto Rico conducted by a sociologist, psychiatrists, an anthropologist, and social workers. As yet there have been relatively few field teams initiated by anthropologists which cover a large number of disciplines.

Anthropologists in the past were not unaware of the problem of sampling. An adequate sample might be almost impossible in historical reconstruction. But in small functioning communities, the whole population of the village usually appeared in the field worker’s genealogical charts, and it was relatively easy for him to establish the frequency of forms of behavior without any elaborate statistical methods. Today, working in larger societies, the anthropologist often employs assistants to make a random survey at the beginning of the field study to establish patterns, or toward the end to substantiate or negate qualitative aspects of the research. But getting a truly random sample may present difficulties if the investigator and his assistants have no access (or much less) to one group.

Another new problem arises in working in those complex contemporary societies which have dual power structures representing different ideologies. To work with both is decidedly not easy. There is also the problem of centricity: most anthropologists find it more difficult to overcome ideological centricity than ethnocentricity. Training enables an anthropologist to study cannibalism, witchcraft, and other tribal customs with relative objectivity. It is less easy to be objective on issues which threaten strong political or other social commitments. On the other hand, a person who has no commitments would not be able to understand those of others.

Field work in sociology

As they work on problems in complex modern societies, anthropologists come closer to sociology. Field work has long been the practice of sociology, although its history and methodology have differed from those of anthropology. In contrast with the early anthropologists, who traveled far for comparative materials, the first field workers in sociology were primarily interested in the reform of their own society, in which the industrial revolution and the rise of an urban proletariat had brought many urgent social problems. In England, Beatrice Potter (later Mrs. Sidney Webb) and Charles Booth and, in France, Le Play did field studies among the poor through involvement with them, direct observation, and interviewing.

American sociologists followed in the European tradition of being critics of modern society. Initial empirical research included the Hull-House Maps and Papers(1895) and W. E. B. DuBois’s The Philadelphia Negro(1899). Field work among the urban poor was developed at the University of Chicago by such men as Louis Wirth, Robert E. Park, and their many able students. They studied conditions among ethnic and racial minorities and such groups as criminals, hoboes, and prostitutes. These people were foreign, perhaps with an exotic quality, to many of the middle-class American sociologists. They explored at home, while the anthropologists of the same period were studying exotic peoples in distant lands.

The traditional distinction in subject matter is weakening. Members of both disciplines and of other social sciences increasingly study “primitive” preliterate and modern literate societies. Problems, too, become interchangeable; studies such as those of social structure, communities, social change, and interpersonal relations (e.g., those involved in social mobility, social conditioning, role playing) are common to both disciplines.

A few sociologists, such as Robert and Helen Lynd and William Foote Whyte, in their respective eminent studies, Middletown(1929) and Street Corner Society(1943), have used anthropological methods and techniques as models. But in general, the trend in sociology has been to emulate the natural sciences as far as possible and to limit field problems to those on which quantifiable data can be secured, primarily through the use of surveys. In 1959 Nathan Glazer wrote, “The sociologist today—whether his field of interest is the community, criminology, marriage and the family, world politics, social classes, housing—is a man who asks people questions and then statistically analyzes the answers to them. If he does not ask the questions himself, he hires some one else to ask them; or, if not that, he analyzes the statistics gathered by those who have asked questions—census-takers, social workers, and others” ([1959] 1964, pp. 43-44). The beginning of sociology in England coincided with the development of statistics there, and the relationship between the two is, thus, no accident.

Many sociological field studies lack personal participation and detailed observation; formal questionnaires can be a barrier to establishing relations between the field worker and the people he studies. According to John Bennett and Kurt Wolff (1955), the typical sociologist attempts to have the detachment and objectivity of the natural scientist and to view the people he studies as objects or, at best, “subjects” rather than as fellow human beings with whom he enters into some kind of personal relations.

There seems to be a new trend in which anthropology and sociology change places methodologically, at least to some degree. Increasingly anthropologists try to eliminate or deny the humanism of their approach and to select those field problems which they think lend themselves to a rigorous scientific method. Some anthropologists try to emulate the methods of the natural scientists, but the imitation, unfortunately, is often of the mechanistic notions of causality common to nineteenth-century science. These have now been replaced by principles of indeterminacy and by probability curves. It was a sociologist, Melville Dalton, who pointed out this time lag. He wrote, “Influenced by the dogmatism of nineteenth century science, research methodology in the social and psychological sciences is now more cocksure than in the increasingly humbler physical sciences” (Dalton 1959, p. 273).

The field worker as an individual

A quite new development, not yet strong enough to be called a trend, is the recognition that the field worker is himself an inherent part of the situation studied and that his personal as well as his scientific reactions are an important part of the research process. Field workers, of course, have long known that they are human instruments of research, although some have tried to be, or to present an image of, faceless robots. But there has been a reluctance to recognize the scientific significance of the field worker’s personality and his all-too-human characteristics. Relatively little space has been given in publications to his mistakes, to the trial-and-error nature of some of his procedures, to the role of chance, to the influence of his reactions on a strange people and on their culture, and other such important personal factors. With a few exceptions, anthropologists have included only a few paragraphs or pages on these points in the introductions to their monographs or have relegated them to private conversations. After a long period of emulating natural scientists, some sociologists now recognize the peculiarly human characteristics of their discipline. In Sociologists at Work(Hammond 1964) 13 eminent sociologists give candid personal accounts of how their field research projects evolved, of their frustrations as well as their achievements in the field, of what actually happened rather than of what should have happened. Stranger and Friend: The Way of an Anthropologist(Powdermaker 1966) gives probably the frankest and most detailed account of one anthropologist’s field studies, of mistakes as well as successes, of relationships between the field worker and the peoples studied, and of how her personality and training related to the type of work done.

The field is a laboratory in which the role of the investigator is significant and relevant to the study of the people and their culture, and obviously the more candid and revealing the field worker is about his role, the more scientific is the report and the more helpful it is to other investigators. The recognition of the significance of the personal characteristics of the field worker to his research confirms the point that field work is an art as well as a science.




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