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Research, Ethnographic

Research, Ethnographic


The discipline variously called social anthropology, cultural anthropology, ethnology, or ethnography seeks to describe the entire range of distinctive cultures in the world, past and present, and to arrive at a general understanding of human society through systematic comparison between them. This vast research undertaking uses a wide range of methods, both quantitative and qualitative, and is buttressed by related disciplines, principally archeology, human paleontology, biological anthropology, sociology, demography, history, and psychology. Although anthropologists, like other social scientists, commonly use and even collect censuses, surveys, written documents, and other sources of data, and analyze them with the help of statistical methods, their main claim to methodological distinctiveness is fieldwork.

Ethnographic fieldwork consists of spending extended periods of time, ideally a year or longer, in intensive observation of, and interaction with, a study population. Such observations and interactions are recorded in the form of daily field notes, transcriptions of texts, construction of genealogies, and household surveys, often with the help of such mechanical devices as tape recorders, cameras, and camcorders.

Much of that methodology is shared with students of the behavior of other animals, namely ethologists or animal behaviorists, with, however, two crucial distinctions. Anthropologists and their study animal belong to the same species, and they communicate through symbolic language. This means that ethnographic fieldwork requires additional skills besides keen observation and recording. Though anthropologists sometimes work through interpreters, or use a common second language (such as Spanish in Latin America or French in Africa), being fluent in the language of a study population is considered important if not crucial to good ethnography.

The heart of fieldwork consists of the twin methods of depth interviewing and participant observation. Depth interviewing generally involves a small number of informants (five to twenty is a typical range), who are interviewed repeatedly and at length, preferably in their own language and over a period of months or even years. These informants are carefully chosen for their knowledge and understanding of their culture, and often become real partners in inquiry to the anthropologist. Participant observation consists of participation by ethnographers in the events they record and a general immersion in a culture, as opposed to simply observing and recording interaction from the outside. Ethnographers strive to be accepted, as much as possible, as one of those studied. In practice, however, total acceptance is rare, and total participation is not necessarily desirable. Ethnographers must be wary, for instance, of sexual involvement, of entanglement in local politics and factions, and of activities that may be illegal.

In the first half of the twentieth century, when it was first established, field ethnography was applied mostly to non-Western, non-literate societies, often colonial dependencies of the imperial countries to which anthropologists belonged. This led to the more recent criticism of anthropology as the handmaiden of colonialism, exemplified by Edward Saids Orientalism (1979), and various articles in collections edited by James Clifford and George Marcus, and by Dell Hymes. If you studied whites, it was said, you called your work sociology ; if blacks, anthropology. Partly in response to this criticism (and partly as a result of decolonization during the second half of the twentieth century), anthropologists increasingly applied their field methods to the entire range of human societies, including their own. We now have a thriving urban anthropology of Western societies, which was indeed prefigured by the Chicago school of sociology in the 1920s.

Related to the charge of colonialism leveled at anthropology is the question of who owns a culture, and who can legitimately interpret it and present it to the world. Some critics argue that only native members can and may do so. Clearly, there are advantages to belonging to the culture under study (familiarity, access, linguistic fluency, depth of understanding), and many ethnographic informants no doubt deserve more recognition as coauthors than some anthropologists are willing to grant them. However, the advantages of being an insider are counterbalanced by drawbacks (lack of objectivity and distance, taking too much for granted, being captive of ones position within the culture). Ideally, perhaps, fieldwork should be done by a team consisting of insiders and outsiders.

Participant observation also raises several problems, which potentially affect the validity and reliability of ethnography. The first is the effect of the observer on the observed. Animal behaviorists speak of habituating their subjects, that is, of accustoming them to their presence, to the point that they are ignored. This is easy enough if one studies, say, ants, but much less so with chimpanzees. Between humans, true habituation is simply impossible, except in highly impersonal urban situations, where fieldwork can be done surreptitiously. But, then, fieldwork without the informed consent of those observed is generally considered unethical by most anthropologists.

Informants almost invariably alter or manage their presentation of self to the anthropologist. Their account of themselves and their people is contaminated by their personal interests, their likes and dislikes, their attempt to manipulate the fieldworker, and their perception of what the anthropologist likes or wants to hear. Not uncommonly, key informants become quasi-anthropologists, and adopt the approach of the fieldworker. Some are not above telling tall tales and pulling the anthropologists leg.

Another serious problem in participant observation is the inevitable tension between objectivity and subjectivity, between trying to be both an insider and an outsider. On the one hand, anthropologists seek a deep understanding of what an event, a ritual, a text, a conflict, a folktale means to their subjects. Ethnography involves telling the story from the native perspective, as an insider sees it. But it is not simply a matter of accepting at face value, then repeating, what informants have said. Understanding social reality involves analysis, and that, in turn, implies detachment, seeing things as an outsider. The anthropologist is, thus, constantly involved in alternating between immersion in, and detachment from, the studied reality.

Few anthropologists are naive enough to claim Olympian detachment from their people. Indeed, most claim warm affection for them. But quite a few clearly disliked them. For instance, the great pioneer of fieldwork, the Polish-British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, referred to the Trobrianders he made famous as niggers in his intimate diary. Others, like Colin Turnbull, make no effort to hide their likes (of the Mbuti) and dislikes (of the Ik). It is considered good form to address the problem of objectivity in ethnographic fieldwork through an explicit statement of ones position and an account of ones field experiences. Often such matters are relegated to a methodological appendix, but sometimes their explication results in book-length autobiographies, such as those written by Claude Lévi-Strauss and Elenore Smith Bowen.

Finally, there is the issue of self-censorship. Many anthropologists refrain, for a variety of reasons, from telling all. They have a responsibility as scientists to share their findings, but they must also do their best to protect the anonymity of their hosts, to respect the secrets they pledged to keep, and to shield their hosts from condemnation, exploitation, or persecution by hostile outside forces.

In the 2000s, ethnographic research came under fire from academics of postmodernist persuasion, who have argued that objectivity is a delusion, that no human experience can truly be communicated, and that any attempt to do so is but one discourse, usually self-serving, among many. Such a position is one of intellectual nihilism: It negates the possibility of any social science. Understanding across cultural, gender, age, and class dividesindeed, between two persons of any kindbecomes impossible if everyone is enclosed within the self.

Others draw a different conclusion about ethnography, namely that from it emerges a vision of a common humanity, transcending the wide range of cultural differences and the diversity of anthropological approaches. From this perspective, the ultimate mission of anthropology is to make human diversity communicable, and, by doing so, to reveal our unity as a species.

SEE ALSO Anthropology; Ethnography; Ethnomethodology; Observation, Participant; Race and Anthropology


Bowen, Elenore Smith. 1954. Return to Laughter. New York: Harper.

Clifford, James, and George E. Marcus, eds. 1986. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Grills, Scott, ed. 1998. Doing Ethnographic Research: Fieldwork Settings. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Hume, Lynne, and Jane Mulcock, eds. 2004. Anthropologists in the Field: Cases in Participant Observation. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hymes, Dell H., ed. 1999. Reinventing Anthropology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. (With a new introduction; orig. pub. 1972.)

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. [1955] 1970. Tristes Tropiques. Trans. John Russell. New York: Atheneum.

Said, Edward W. 1979. Orientalism. New York: Vintage.

Pierre L. van den Berghe

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