IB Cultural Anthropology/The Nature of Anthropology/Collecting Data

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After one has chosen a site and culture to study, one must collect data and write a good, clean description of the culture. There are several ways to collect data about a culture:

  • Participant observation
  • Interviews
  • Focus groups
  • Surveys.

Participant Observation[edit]

Participant observation is by far the most important technique to collect data, and indeed it is fundamental to modern anthropology. Participant observation underlies many of the other techniques of gathering data. Participant observation is what its name implies- learning about a culture by observing and interacting with it. For example, one might observe members of a group eating food a certain way. You then imitate this to see if it provokes a positive response (since you would now be eating food correctly). Through this method, you have learned more of how members of that culture eat.

Interviews[edit]

Interviews are a more structured form of participant observation. One learns of the culture by questioning informants. An anthropologist will have a key informant who is responsible for most of the information the anthropologist learns. There are two different types of interviews- structured and unstructured. If an anthropologist asks every informant the same question, the interview is structured. In unstructured interviews (the more common of the two), the anthropologist may begin with the same question, but will let the conversation take its course, so the topic can end up at any aspect of the culture.

Focus Groups & Surveys[edit]

Focus groups and surveys are rarer in anthropology. Focus groups are rather like structured interviews, but instead of a one-on-one conversation with the anthropologist, the focus group consists of six to eight people. Surveys are the rarest form of data collection in anthropology because it requires that the studied people be literate.

Security[edit]

While collecting data, one must take copious notes, but also must remember to take ethics into account. One might need to use false names or code one’s data some other way. For political and social reasons, anthropology has lots of unpublished data. Whatever technique you use, make sure you are aware you are using it!

Culture Shock[edit]

Fieldwork is not easy. When you first live with a new culture, you know nothing of that culture and must adjust. People tend to think you are stupid because you don’t know the basic skills people of that culture know- how to build boats, houses, etc. This inability to perform the proper actions and predict the actions of others creates a rather unpleasant feeling called culture shock. Culture shock lasts for several months, but disappears after you begin to understand the culture better.


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