Cultural Anthropology/Anthropological Methods

From Wikibooks, open books for an open world
< Cultural Anthropology
Jump to: navigation, search

Origins of Ethnography[edit]

The route of first voyage of Columbus in the Caribbean.

Ethnography is a qualitative research method used in social sciences like Anthropology where researchers immerse themselves in other cultures for the purpose of recording information about their lifestyle for comparative research. When unilineal cultural evolution was a popular theoretical framework in the social sciences, it justified colonial enterprises that saw themselves as helping so-called "primitive" cultures to more quickly "advance." Such progressivist views began to be refuted in anthropology when Franz Boas explained that every culture is a result of particular historical circumstances, thus all cultures cannot and should not be expected to follow the same trajectory.

Early anthropology did not engage in participant observation, which is the standard method of cultural anthropological research today. Instead, armchair anthropology, or the study of cultures through second-hand information collected by merchants, missionaries, and the (colonial) military, was the standard method. However, such accounts may well be biased and typically were not collected for scientific purposes. Therefore, it is understandable that the results from such data were also skewed.

Ethnographic Analogy[edit]

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. Ethnographic Analogy is essentially interpreting archaeological data through the observation of analogous activities in existing societies.

Effect of Capitalism and Colonialism[edit]

While crews were out exploring trade routes and territories, and leaving behind bloodshed, mainland Europe developed a new way to think about the world economically. Replacing mercantilism, which is the idea that there is a set amount of wealth in the world and one nation's gain must come at the loss of another, capitalism facilitates the belief that new wealth can be created through innovation and competition. Capitalism by definition is an economic system dominated by the supply-demand price hike mechanism called the market. Simply put, it is the idea that the world is a market and everything within the world, has or should have, its price. In response to that market and in service of it, an entire way of life grew and grew and changed the face of Europe as well as many other regions.

Colonialism refers to a social system in which political conquest by one society of another leads to cultural domination with enforced social change. Colonialism expanded capitalism as the de facto exchange system to a global scale, and colonial governments utilized the natural resources in their colonies to increase their own country's wealth. While some cultures embraced the colonialists' empirical trade patterns, many regions violently rebelled and attempted to regain their cultural independence and economic autonomy. Despite their best efforts to repel the colonialists and their economic imperialism, these regions were unable to combat the Europeans and their guns, deception, and disease. In Southeast Asia, for example, Thailand was the only country that managed to escape colonialism because it served as a buffer zone between French and British colonies.

Human Cultural Variation[edit]

Even with all the trauma of colonization and capitalism, populations still had the willpower to grow and survive. After assimilation[1] or displacement a tribe or band did not stop in its cultural evolution. A defining characteristic of culture is to adapt to change. As more and more cultures divided and meshed together an outstanding number of subtle differences can be seen. One of man's greatest past-times is classifying things and ideas, and now with all this wide variety of types of cultures of the world, a broad way of lumping societies together based on how they are alike and different. These categories are called typologies.

The Biology of Human Variation[edit]

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

The biological variations between humans are summarized in the evolutionary theories of macroevolution and microevolution. Macroevolution is the study of the emergence of new species and the diversification of species over millions of years, while microevolution is the concentration of study of evolutionary changes that occur in a given species over a few generations. A species is a population of organisms that can interbreed successfully and produce viable offspring. A cline is a genetic variation between populations of species that are reproductively isolated (such as skin color variation in humans). Human skin color variation is a selective adaptation that relates to the populations' proximity to the equator. Populations of humans in equatorial regions have selective advantages because of their darker skin pigmentation and 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. Because of these differences within the human species, there is the idea that they are different races, which leads into racism. Although there is no biological support for race, culture has supported the ideas of race and racism beginning with the far-reaching exploration of sea-faring ships, which allowed landing parties to miss the range of gradual clinal variation visible when traveling by land.

Biological anthropologist, Frank Livingstone declared that, "There are no races, there are only clines." Clinal variation explains why people who want to use the term "race" can't define how many groups or races there are. The only group that can be described is the entire human race. Each cline is a map of the distribution of a single trait and while some traits overlap and can be compared, clinal analysis tests the biological concept of race and finds nothing in nature to match it.

Fieldwork Methods[edit]

Observational Methods[edit]

The least invasive of anthropological fieldwork methods, observational methods allow the researcher to gain valuable information about the group being studied without intruding on their privacy too much. The researcher observes the group or individuals, records their findings, reflects on the findings, as well as openly participating with the community. This can make or break the relationship as exampled in Eating Christmas in the Kalahari where Richard Borshay Lee was in a position of power but to keep his research untainted he felt it "was essential to not provide them with food"[1] It was a very common form of fieldwork during the first half of the 20th century before more progressive and participatory methods became popular. This method uses an eticperspective to simply observe the facets of cultures.

Interviews and Questionnaires[edit]

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 individuals 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.

Often , this type of research strives to create an open dialogue, or dialectic, in which information flows back and forth between researcher and subject. This dialectic poses a challenge to the objectivity of socially produced data. The challenge is dealt with through reflection on the intersubjective creation of meaning, leading anthropologists to value reflexivity 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.

Questionnaires may cause answers which lack background information or description. By creating multiple choice answers, subjects are limited to a small selection of responses. They cannot elaborate or explain their answers. Though questionnaires do generate quick, easy, and cheap responses, often of a large group of subjects, there is the risk that answers will lack depth or full truth.

Participant Observation[edit]

Participant Observation is an anthropological fieldwork method for collected research. It requires that the anthropologist participate in the culture they are researching as well as simply observing it. The information gathered is then recorded and reflected upon to gain further insight into the culture being studied or the question being asked by the researcher.

Participant observation allows a deeper immersion into the culture studied, resulting in a deeper understanding of the culture. It allows the researcher to learn about the culture by speaking with those people within that culture. This develops a deeper rapport with the people of the culture which may result in them opening up more to the researcher, allowing the researcher to see and understand more than they might have as an outsider simply observing the culture.

Participant observation, while a more in-depth research method, isn't perfect. Observed populations may alter their behavior around the researcher because they know that they are being studied, an effect that has been exhaustively documented and studied in psychological research. Thus, while this research method allows for a deeper immersion and understanding in the culture, it faces a very real set of challenges.


This method focuses on the awareness of the researcher and 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". Reflexivity requires a researcher's awareness of the effects that he/she might have on the information that is being recorded. 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. Ethnographers have come to realize that the dependability of their knowledge of other cultures depends on clear recognition of the ethical and political aspects of fieldwork, and the acknowledgment of how these have created this knowledge.Information gathering that is involved with reflective fieldwork must be detailed and accurate. In our everyday lives reflexivity is needed in order to better understand other cultures and therefore better understand ourselves. It is important to put your own opinions and ways of life aside so you can open your mind to see how others live. However, it is oftentimes hard to notice whether or not you are using reflexivity. For example, when someone you know talks about their religion, you may immediately disagree with specific aspects of their religion because you have not lived your entire life believing it as they have.

Life Histories[edit]

Life history is a term used to describe when a person conveys their entire life experience, usually starting at childhood and continuing to the present. It is particularly useful in the field of cultural anthropology, as a researcher can get a general picture of the subject’s life in order to analyze their experiences in the context of a larger society. By gathering an array of life histories, an anthropological researcher can gain a better understanding of the culture in which they are studying. Sometimes life history can be documented through very extensive time periods to better understand a group of people. For example, an anthropologist studying the cause and effects of prostitution and drug dependence on young woman's lives in urban areas might use the life histories of some of the people he/she meets. By analyzing the time in which the subjects became dependent on substances and comparing it to the time in which they began practicing prostitution, the anthropologist can begin to understand the situation of these young ladies as well as if one action caused the other. Life history can be used as a very important research component in understanding another culture or just another way of living. [2]

Participatory Approach[edit]

This method involves full participation of the researcher with their subjects or community they are studying. Obviously if the researcher is not originally part of the culture they can never be involved to the extent that a native would be, but this method strives to get as close to an emicperspective as possible. The researcher lives with the community, eats as they do, acts as they do and shares this life with the world through their ethnography. The emic approach of collecting data can serve as a more useful data collecting process, and the output data can be more precise than the etic approach on ethnography. From this method came the most common form of anthropological fieldwork method in the modern era:

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 community members. Not only are they by necessity motivated to work on the problem, but they will already have significant rapport with other community members to help 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.

Philippe Bourgois in East Harlem[edit]

Under the viaduct in Harlem

An ideal example of the participatory method in fieldwork is Philippe Bourgois in East Harlem. As he describes in his book: In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio^ he lived in East Harlem for around four years starting in 1985 for the purpose of gaining an emic perspective of poverty in one of the world's busiest cities:New York City. Soon he befriended some men in his neighborhood and quickly he had an in with the newly arising crack scene. He lived side by side with dealers, buyers, and users and gained extreme insight into their lives because he too was living life with them. He met them as a friend, not a researcher and was able to form a unique relationship with them. He did not fully participate in their lifestyle which left a small divide, but he was still able to gain a participatory approach to this subculture.

Types of Analysis[edit]

Qualitative vs. Quantitative Analysis[edit]

Quantitative research asks where, when and what. Qualitative research asks how and why.

Quite simply, quantitative research is more interested in hard data procured through things like surveys, polls and censuses. It's interested in the percentage of people interviewed that agree with one statement versus another or the number of people in a culture that belong to a certain organization, how many people in a country speak the native language versus how many are bilingual or only speak a foreign language. This method or research usually requires a large random sample group.

Qualitative research isn't as cut and dry as quantitative. Qualitative research is in-depth research that seeks to understand why people do what they do in an attempt to understand culture. It often crosses disciplinary boundaries and strays from a single focused subject. This research method usually requires a smaller sample group.

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, which is defined as a theory that theology and metaphysics are earlier imperfect modes of knowledge and that positive knowledge is based on natural phenomena and their properties and relations as verified by the scientific method.[2] 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 informants are "people in a particular culture who work with anthroplogists and provide them with insights about their way of life. They can also be called teachers or friends"[3]. There was a reconsideration of fieldwork that looked not only at the backgrounds of ethnographers way they shaped their fieldwork, but also began to pay more attention to the ethical and political dimensions of the relationship that the anthropologist developed with the people's life he or her is studying, referred to as "informants"[4].

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]

Spradley defines a domain as the “symbolic category that includes other categories” (p. 100). A domain, then, is a collection of categories that share a certain kind of relationship. Computers is a domain that includes not only my laptop, but all the Dells, Toshibas, iMacs, and IBMs of the world. These all share the same relationship because they are all kinds of computers. Spradley explains that there are three elements of a domain. First, the cover term, which in my example is the word “computer”. Second, there are included terms, which are all the types of computers I 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 doing domain analysis, Spradley suggests first doing a practice run, which he calls preliminary searches. To do this, you select a portion of your data and search for names that participants give to things. You then identify whether any of these listed nouns might possibly be cover terms for domains. Finally, you can then search through your data for possible included terms that might fit under this domain you have identified.

Remember, this was just the warm-up. To actually do domain analysis, you look for relationships in the data, not names. Spradley is famous for his very useful list of possible relationships that may exist Spradley suggests strict inclusion or means-end as good ones for starters. Second, you select a portion of your data and begin reading it, and while doing so you fill out a domain analysis worksheet where you list all the terms that fit the semantic relationship you chose. Third (if you follow along in Spradley’s book, you’ll notice I’m crunching his steps together for brevity) you formulate questions for each domain. So to revert to my example, if you identified from your interview with me that I feel 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 me, or another 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?” In this way, your analysis feeds into your next round of data collection.

The final step in domain analysis is to make a list of all the hypothetical domains you have identified, the relationships in these domains, and the structural questions that follow your analysis.

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. Eating Christmas in the Kalahari
  2. Zaira Jagudina, The life stories of the human rights NGO activists and (g)local public spaces in post-Soviet Russia: Moving from 'personal' to 'political' April 2002 Zaira Jagudina.
  3. Schultz, Emily A.;Lavenda, Robert H.Cultural Anthropology: A Perspective on the Human Condition (7th Ed.). Oxford University Press 2009 P. 50
  4. ibid

^ "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.

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

History of Anthropological Theory · Communication and Language