Cultural Anthropology/Anthropological Methods

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Human Cultural Variation[edit]

Cultural interactions result in both progressive and aggressive interactions due to the evolution of those cultures being uninfluenced by one another. What may be considered good etiquette in one culture may be considered an offensive gesture in another. As this occurs constantly, cultures push each other to change.The biological variations between humans are summarized in the ideas of natural selection and evolution. Human variation is based on the principle that there is variation in traits that result for recombination of genes from sexual reproduction. These traits are variable and can be passed down generation to generation. It also relies on differential reproduction, the idea that the environment can't support unlimited population growth because not all individuals get to reproduce to their full potential.

An example of human variation can be found with a cline. A cline is a genetic variation between populations of species that are isolated in their reproduction (such as skin color variation in humans). Human skin color variation is a selective adaptation that relates to the populations' proximity to the equator. Because of pigmentation characteristics within the human population, a system and term emerged to categorize the differing variations. This category is recognized as race. Populations of humans in equatorial regions have selective advantages as a result of their darker skin pigmentation, whereas populations in more northern environments have less selective pressure to evolve darker pigmentation and have lighter skin. Other clines include differences in stature and hair type.

Map of indigenous skin color distribution in the world based on Von Luschan's chromatic scale.

Origins of Ethnography[edit]

The route of first voyage of Columbus in the Caribbean.

Ethnography is a core modern research method used in Anthropology as well as in other modern social sciences. Ethnography is the descriptive study of one culture, subculture, or micro-culture based on fieldwork. Before ethnography, immersive research, the prevailing method was unilineal. This led to colonizers feeling able to set the rules for what is a "modern" or "primitive" culture, and used these self-made justifications in order to rule over new colonies in the name of advancement for their people. This view came into question with Anthropologists like Franz Boas, offering the multilinear model for cultural evolution we have today. This model closer reflects the realities of different cultures across the world advancing in separate ways and highlights the impossibility to call one culture "primitive" in relation to another. These cultures did not evolve from one another, but evolved separately from each other.

A large part of the issue with early Anthropology was a reliance on second-party information while lacking any first hand research of cultures. "Armchair Anthropologists" would gather information from military deployments, merchants, and missionaries rather than making first-hand contact. Armchair Anthropologists usually refers to late 19th century and early 20th century scholars coming to conclusions without going through the usual anthropology motions--fieldwork or lab work. They would then create wild theories based on these accounts. This led to a high degree of bias against these cultures, more so than firsthand research, and were not scientific in the way Anthropology is today. These biases turned into stereotypes which are still prevalent today. This form of research drove much of the colonial primitive culture narrative and necessitated the adaptation of Ethnography.

Ethnography, or the enculturated experiential method of research, has lead to the dispelling of rumor and a much deeper understanding of cultures through great effort. This is seen very clearly in Brigt Dale's research on a Tobagonian Village[1], titled Lives in-between Encountering Men in a Tobagonian Village. To begin, he clearly states his bias, being a male researcher and dealing primarily with the males of that society due to a highly gendered culture found there. He explains with great care that he is not searching for what men "do" but what they "say and do to be men." His goal with the research project was to show the value of an ethnographic research project, along with his experiences within this culture and the limitations he faced in that research. He had limitations both being an outsider and being male, only being able to see how one half of these people portrayed their culture, and even then through the lense of an outsider with his own biases, stated as clearly as possible within the paper. This is the value of Ethnography, it allows researchers to further understand their research while remaining as unbiased as possible, highlighting weaknesses and need for further research from people of different genders and backgrounds.

An Ethnographic Analogy is a method for inferring the use or meaning of an ancient site or artifact based on observations and accounts of its use by living people.

Here we see an old pick, not much different from those used today

We can infer the use of an ancient tool by seeing how similar-looking tools are used in existing or recent societies. By analogy we can hypothesize the same use for the old tool.

Fieldwork Methods[edit]

In anthropology there are several types of fieldwork methods that are used while conducting research. We will go more into depth with several fieldwork methods that are used.

Observational Methods[edit]

The observational method is viewed as the least invasive method where the anthropologist minimally integrates themselves into the society they are studying and gathers data through verbal communication while attempting to remain nonintrusive of the culture.

This group of methods focuses on community interaction through language. It usually entails many open ended interviews with participants who are members of a group being studied. The researcher strives to learn as much as they can about the history of the community as well as the individuals within it in order to gain a full understanding of how their culture functions. Interviews can take place individually or with focus groups within the community based on age, status, gender, and other factors that contribute to differences within the community.

This type of research often strives to create an open dialogue, called a dialectic, in which information flows back and forth between researcher and subject. Think of this situation as a conversation between two people about homework or an upcoming exam. This dialectic poses a challenge to the objectivity of socially produced data. The challenge is dealt with through reflection on the inter-subjective creation of meaning. This leads anthropologists to value reflexive abilities in their ethnographic writing. Because many anthropologists also hope to help the communities they work with to make change on their own terms within the confines of their own culture, in some cases objectivity is abandoned in favor of community based activism and social change.

Participant Observation[edit]

Participant observation is an anthropological fieldwork method for collecting research. This method requires that an anthropologist participate in a social event that is part of a specific culture. This includes, but is not limited to, observing members of a culture by taking notes, eating the food that is provided, and participating in festivities. The goal of participant observation is to be involved in the culture like a member of that society, all while observing and studying the culture. An example of participation observation would be if an anthropologist went to a Native American Tribal gathering and took notes on the energy and traditions they were being shown. This anthropologist could participate in things like face painting or songs, and eat the food that the Natives eat. The information gathered in this observation is then recorded and reflected upon to gain further insight into the culture being studied. This observation method helps the anthropologist develop a deeper rapport with the people of the culture and can help others understand their culture further. This experience may result in the individuals opening up more to the anthropologist which allows them understand more than an etic point of view of the culture.

Non-Participant Observation[edit]

In contrast to participant observation, non-participant observation is the anthropological method of collecting data by entering within a community but with limited interaction with the people within the culture. This anthropologist can be thought of as a fly on the wall. An etic approach that researchers often use to examine the details of how the subjects interact with one another and the environment around them. Detailed research such as body behavior (e.g. eye gaze, facial expression), speech styles (e.g. pitch) can be recorded through the nonparticipant method, but usually the emic approach is preferred when observing social context. An example of data collected through non-participant research would be the an estimation of how often women in a household wear high heels due to how worn out the carpet is.

The non-participant observation, although effective in providing some research, has limitations. One being, the observer affect. This is caused by the presence of the researcher having an influence over the participants' actions. The researcher may use systematic approaches of field notes, sampling and data to ensure and increase comfortable interactions. While using the non-participant observation method the issue that the researchers opinions may oppose that of the participance is posed. The only solution to this problem and to have a fuller and unbiased take on the research is to use both non-participant and participant method.

Ethnographic Method[edit]

Cultural data assumes the form of directly observable material items, individual behaviors, performances, ideas and arrangements that exist only in people's heads. From the perspective of the culture concept, anthropologists must first treat all these elements as symbols within a coherent system and must record observations with attention to the cultural context and the meanings assigned by the culture's practitioners. These demands are met through two major research techniques: participant observation and key informant interviewing.

After the initial orientation or entry period, which may take 3 months or longer, the researcher follows a more systematic program of formal interviews involving questions related to research hypotheses and specialized topics. Several different methods of selecting informants are possible. Usually a few key informants are selected for in-depth sessions, since the investigation of cultural patterns usually calls for lengthy and repeated open ended interviews. Selection of such a small number does not allow for strict assurance of a representative sample, so the anthropologist must be careful to choose subjects who are well informed and reliable. Ethnographic researchers will also train informants to systematically report cultural data and recognize significant cultural elements and interconnections as the interview sequences unfold.

Key informant selection is known as judgment sampling and is particularly important for the kind of qualitative research that characterizes ethnography. Anthropologists will very frequently also need to carry out quantitative research from which statistically validated inferences can be drawn. Accordingly they must construct a either larger random sample or a total population census for more narrowly focused interviewing according to a closed questionnaire design. Other important quantitative data might include direct measurement of such items as farm size, crop yield, daily caloric intake, or even blood pressure, depending on the anthropologist's research focus. Aside from written observation and records, researchers will often provide ethnographic representations in other forms, such as collected artifacts, photographs, tape recordings, films, and videos.

Comparative Method[edit]

Since the beginning of anthropological studies, the Comparative Method has been a way to allow a systematic comparison of information and data from multiple sources. It is a common approach for testing multiple hypotheses on subjects including co-evolution of cultures, the adaptation of cultural practices to the environment, and kinship terms in local languages from around the world. The comparative method, may seem like an outdated form of fieldwork information gathering, however this method is still quite prevalent in modern day anthropological research. The use of this form of information gathering is intended to compare globalization, which uses a version of this method called multi-sited Ethnography by participant observation gathered from many different social settings. Another form of the comparative research method is shown through the Human Relations Area Files, which collects and organizes ethnographic texts from hundreds of societies all over the world. These files cover topics ranging from types of kinship systems, to trading practices found in all of human culture.

Anthropologists Ruth Mace and Mark Pagel explore the comparative method of anthropological research in their article The Comparative Method in Anthropology. They explain how in the past decade there have been many expansions in other branches of anthropology, including cultural diversity as a scientific endeavor. This is when the comparative method is used by those interested in cultural evolution and by those who study other human sciences. However, "cultures cannot be treated as independent for purposes of investigating cross culture trends," therefore they must instead be studied in relation to one another: How two or more cultures grow together, or how they are researched together has the ability to outline the entire premise of the comparative method. Having been used for hundreds of years, this method is still one of the main forms of research for anthropologists all over the world.


Reflexivity is the awareness of the researcher of the effect they may be having on the research. It involves a constant awareness and assessment of the researcher's own contribution to and influence on the researcher's subjects and their findings. This principle was perhaps first thought of by William Thomas, as the "Thomas Theorem". Fieldwork in cultural anthropology is a reflexive experience. Anthropologists must constantly be aware that the information they are gathering may be skewed by their ethical opinions, or political standings. Even an anthropologists' presence in that culture can affect the results they receive. Reflexive fieldwork must retain a respect for detailed, accurate information gathering while also paying precise attention to the ethical and political context of research, the background of the researchers, and the full cooperation of informants. In our everyday lives reflexivity is used to better understand ourselves by comparing our culture to others. For example, when someone talks about their religion, you may immediately disagree with specific aspects of their religion because you have not grown up believing it as they have. By being reflexive, one would be able to recognize their bias. Some anthropologists have taken this method to the extreme, Margaret Wilson, for example, wrote her book 'Dance Lest We all Fall Down' in a reflexive biographical manner; this accounted for her inability to fully integrate into Brazilian society [2].

Participatory Action Research[edit]

This specific method requires a community commitment to change. It occurs in five steps:

  1. Education on the Process or Creating a Dialogue
  2. Collective Investigation
  3. Collective Interpretation
  4. Collective Action
  5. Transformation: Self-Determination and Empowerment

Because of the intrinsic qualities of this type of research (ideally being conducted by people with close ties or membership of a community), it is usually very applicable to situations in the community. The research is an analysis of the community's behavior by the community's members. Not only are they by necessity, motivated to work on the problem, but they will already have significant rapport with other community members which allows them to better address and analyze it. The dynamic attributes of the process allow constant reevaluation and change. This cyclic tendency can develop into healthy adaptation patterns in the community without outside contributions or aid.

Triangulation Method[edit]

The triangulation method is the "combination of methodologies in the study of the same phenomenon". [3] It is used to investigate a single topic through individual perspectives or multiple methodologies. It is usually the preferred way to research because it can combine all methods of researching to get the best results. It uses qualitative and quantitative practices together. The qualitative practice gives the triangulation method its inquiry results. The quantitative practice gives it the validation results. It combines a scientific approach with an observational approach. According to the Administrative Science Quarterly, it is a "vehicle for cross validation when two or more distinct methods are found to be congruent and yield comparable data". [4] The foundation of triangulation relies on one form of research being weak and the other form stepping up to make up for it. Relying on one form of research can create a bias. The general problem with measurement data, is the individual or group being researched tends to tell you what you want to hear instead of the full truth. Triangulation helps prevent bias by giving the researcher the opportunity to participate in individual, self-reported and observational methods with those being researched. Sampling bias generally means that the researcher doesn't have time to cover the entire group they are focusing on. Or they focus on what they think the important parts of a society are and don't study the less important aspects. Triangulation can combine phone research, face-to-face interviews, and online surveys to ensure that the researcher is getting the most accurate results. In all, the triangulation method for fieldwork can combine all aspects of research to create the most accurate and detailed results, taking different perspectives and various sources to culminate into the most accurate model or a culture.

Types of Analysis[edit]

Qualitative vs. Quantitative Analysis[edit]

Quantitative research can be represented numerically, whereas Qualitative data cannot.

Quantitative research is more interested in hard data procured through things like surveys, polls and censuses. This type of research is interested in things like the percentage of people interviewed that agree with one statement versus another, the number of people in a culture that belong to a certain organization, or how many people in a country speak the native language versus how many are bilingual or only speak a foreign language. This method of research usually requires a large random sample group. It is totally concerned with the hard evidence(quantity)through statistics and recorded happenings, participants, and locations.

Qualitative research is typically descriptive, or anecdotal, and does not lend itself to analysis like quantitate data. Qualitative research is in-depth research that seeks to understand why something happens the way it does. In anthropology, qualitative research includes participating as well as observing. It often crosses disciplinary boundaries and strays from a single subject, or variable being studied. Due to the specific rapport required to obtain qualitative data, it generally requires a smaller sample size.

Positivist Approach[edit]

Made popular during the late 18th century, this was the primary anthropological method used until the 1970s. It is based around the central idea of positivism, a theory saying that theology and metaphysics are earlier imperfect modes of knowledge and that positive knowledge is based on natural phenomena with their properties and relations as verified by the scientific method.[1] The main goal of a positivist approach is to produce objective knowledge, which is knowledge about humanity that is true for all people in all times and places. The ideal positivist approach would occur with a physical scientist in a lab, producing concrete results. Anthropologists adapted this method to their own use by testing hypotheses in different cultures under similar conditions. This method was very successful in recording previously unknown data about different peoples, but it was often objective facts about a way of life in which the people of the culture at question were regarded more as lab subjects than actual human beings. Eventually this method was adapted into the reflexive method, to better demonstrate the relationships that exist within communities and the anthropologists own interactions with the informants.

The positivist approach requires the use of the scientific method. A researcher makes an observation about a social behavior or condition, constructs a hypothesis as to the reason or outcome of the observation, tests the hypothesis and then analyzes the results. [2]

Ethnographic Analysis[edit]

Spradley describes ethnography as different from deductive types of social research in that the five steps of ethnographic research: selecting a problem, collecting data, analyzing data, formulating hypotheses, and writing. All five steps happen simultaneously (p. 93-94).

In his book, Spradley describes four types of ethnographic analysis that basically build on each other. The first type of analysis is domain analysis, which is “a search for the larger units of cultural knowledge” (p. 94). The other kinds of analysis are taxonomic analysis, componential analysis, and theme analysis.

All of Spradley’s theories about ethnographic analysis hinge on his belief that researchers should be searching for the meaning that participants make of their lives. These meanings are expressed through symbols, which can be words, but can also be nonverbal cues. However, because this book is about analyzing interviews, Spradley focuses on analyzing the spoken words of the participants. He explains that words are symbols that represent some kind of meaning for an individual, and each symbol has three parts: the symbol itself, what the symbol refers to, and the relationship between the symbol and the referent. Thus, the word computer can be a symbol. It refers to many things, including an individual's own personal computer. Thus, a computer is a kind of computer in the mind, or the idea of a computer, and this shows the relationship between the symbol (computer) and the referent (an actual physical computer).

Domain analysis[edit]

A domain is a “symbolic category that includes other categories”. The category of computers is a domain that includes not only a laptop, but all the Dells, Toshibas, iMacs, and IBMs in the world. These all share the same relationship because they are all kinds of computers. There are three elements to a domain. First, the cover term, which in this example is the word “computer”. Second, there are included terms, which are all the types of computers just listed. Finally, there is the single, unifying semantic relationship, which is the idea that “X, Y, and Z are all kinds of A”.

When anthropologists complete a domain analysis, they are gaining an understanding of how people place objects within different domains. In other words how does a person, family, or culture categorize the world around them. This information can be gathered is several ways. Strict inclusion ("what is a Macbook, a computer), Domain analysis, and questioning the categorization are methods of domain analysis. To revert to the previous example, if you agree that Macs are kinds of computers, you could test this hypothesis by making a question out of this semantic statement; “Are there different kinds of computers?” You could ask a participant, and based on their answer, you would know if the cover term, included terms, and semantic relationship that you identified were correct. You could then probe with more questions like, “Why are Macs a kind of computer?” or “In what way are Macs a kind of computer?”

Taxonomic Analysis[edit]

Taxonomic Analysis is a search for the way that cultural domains are organized. Building upon the first type of analysis, this form of research is best defined as the classification of data in the form x is a kind of y (D'Andrade, 92). Used largely for the organization and grouping of plant and animal species, taxonomic analysis is not focused on the features of an organism but rather the variable genetic differences that define them. For example, scientists can refer to the common chimpanzee using the taxonomy pan troglodyte and make specific references to that species without fear of error in their classification and use of data. Taxonomic Analysis usually involves drawing a graphical interpretation of the ways in which the individual participants move, form groups, and pattern the structure of a conversation.


  1. Dale, Brigt. "Lives In-between Encountering Men in a Tobagonian Village." Anthrobase. Brigt Dale, 2004. Web. 26 Nov. 2016. <>.
  2. 'Dance Lest We All Fall Down' Margaret Wilson
  3. Administrative Science Quarterly, First Edition, Vol. 24, No. 4, Qualitative Methodology (Dec., 1979).
  4. Administrative Science Quarterly, First Edition, Vol. 24, No. 4, Qualitative Methodology (Dec., 1979).

^ "Positivism." Def. 1. Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. 2003.

^ Bourgois, Philip, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio Cambridge University Press, 1995.

^"Emic and Etic." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

^Liu, F., & Maitlis, S. (2010). Nonparticipant Observation. In Albert J. Mills, G. Durepos, & E. Wiebe (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Case Study Research. (pp. 610-612). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

^ D'Andrade, Roy. "The Development of Cognitive Anthropology." 1995 92. 10 Mar 2009,M1

History of Anthropological Theory · Communication and Language