IB Cultural Anthropology/The Nature of Anthropology/Fieldwork

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So what is the goal of cultural anthropology? We are attempting to perform a holistic study of culture. How is this accomplished? Fieldwork.

Prior to modern anthropology, anthropologists did not come in contact with the cultures they studied. Instead, they relied on reports from explorers and missionaries. One of the first modern anthropologists, Edward Tylor, instead said to “go look.” But fieldwork is more than just observation of a culture. Mere observation is not science- there is no hypothesis, no test of any theories, and no practical use for the information. One must formulate a hypothesis about human behavior. One then tests this hypothesis in the field.

This is not to say that observation is unimportant. On the contrary, if there is no data to support one’s hypothesis, then one’s hypothesis is not scientific either.

One first must collect data about the culture. One must go into the field and live with the group for at least 18 months in order to gain an adequate understanding of the culture. This is called fieldwork.

There are many practical issues in fieldwork:

  • Choosing a site - What sort of culture do you want to study? (European, African, Asian etc).
  • What sort of climate do you want to work in? (The Netsilik might not be good if you don’t like the cold.)
  • Is this group representative of the culture? Food, shelter, clothing, cleanliness, etc. Where and how does one go to the bathroom?
  • Medical issues- You won’t be immune to the local diseases, get your vaccines in good time and remember some need boosting when you get back home.
  • Pragmatic- Do men need a beard? (For the Tiwi, men do.) Respect of others way of life in most cases guarantees you the information you're after.

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