Ethnography: Studying Culture


  1. 1.1. Prior to the 1970s, anthropologists typically aimed to work in “exotic” faraway places in order to document the most pronounced cultural differences.

    1.2. Today, cultural anthropologists are much more aware of the research potential of, and insights about, humanity to be gained from closer-to-home field settings. Advertising executives, factory workers, or transnational migrants in an anthropologist’s home country are equally important subjects of anthropological inquiry.

    1.3. At the heart of these research projects, near or far, is a central goal: to learn about the contexts, meanings, and fluidity of human social lives.

    1.4. Chapter 3 explores the question, How do anthropologists learn about other ways of life?

    1.5. Ethnographic methods, which have been around for the better part of a century, have proven to be effective tools for helping anthropologists understand the social complexities they study.

What Distinguishes Ethnographic Fieldwork from Other Types of Social Research?

  1. Anthropology is generally less well known than other social sciences, like psychology, economics, or political science. This creates a lot of misunderstanding about what anthropologists in the field actually do.
  2. Cultural anthropologists do research by building personal relationships over a long period, and it is a difficult process to prepare for in advance of the actual experience—especially working among people who may be culturally very different.
  3. Anthropologists often use quantitative data comparable to other social sciences, but cultural anthropology is the most qualitative of the social sciences.
  4. Fieldwork

    4.1. This long-term immersion is called fieldwork, and it is the defining methodology of cultural anthropology. It allows insights that would never be possible with short visits, surveys, or brief interviews.

    4.2. By personally participating in community activities, ethnographers observe what community members consider important, what they discuss among themselves, and how these matters intertwine with social institutions. This approach can yield an understanding of culture and behaviors that people themselves might not even be aware of.

  5. Seeing the World from “the Native’s Point of View”

    5.1. As outsiders, the behaviors anthropologists observe may seem paradoxical. But if we earnestly seek to see things in terms of local context, things that people say and do begin to make cultural sense—we begin to see the world from an emic(or insider’s) perspective.

    5.2. Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski referred to this perspective as “the native’s point of view” and asserted that it was the heart of the ethnographic method.

  6. Avoiding Cultural “Tunnel Vision”

    6.1. Most people assume that their own way of doing things is inherently better than everyone else’s. Even anthropologists are subject to cultural tunnel vision: unquestioned tacit meanings and perspectives drawn from our own culture that prevent us from seeing and thinking in terms of another culture’s tacit meanings and perspectives.

    6.2. Everyonehas a tendency toward ethnocentrism. Informants feel that their way of doing things; their moral, ethical, and legal codes; and their ways of thinking about the world are correct, while everyone else’s are flawed—they have their own tunnel vision.

How Do Anthropologists Actually Do Ethnographic Fieldwork?

  1. Participant observationis a key element of anthropological fieldwork: the standard research method used by cultural anthropologists that requires the researcher to live in the community he or she is studying to observe and participate in day-to-day activities.
  2. Participant Observation: Disciplined “Hanging Out”

    2.1. Participant observation can be thought of as “disciplined hanging out”—hanging outbecause anthropologists observe and take part in events, rather than coordinating or directing them, and disciplined because anthropologists methodically record their observations and experiences, while building rapport with community members.

    2.2. Establishing rapport as a “professional stranger” requires a lot of discipline as well as acceptance of local customs and practices, however peculiar, unfamiliar, or uncomfortable.

    2.3. Anthropologist Johannes Fabian (1971) suggested that obtaining objective data is not the goal of fieldwork. These data are created by the relationships between an anthropologist and his or her informant: any person an anthropologist gets data from in the study community, especially people interviewed or who provide information about what they have observed or heard.

    2.4. Cultural data are not firmly objective or subjective but the product of intersubjectivity: the realization that knowledge about other people emerges out of their relationships with and perceptions of each other.

  3. Interviews: Asking and Listening

    3.1. Field anthropologists also rely on interviews: any systematic conversation with an informant to collect field research data, ranging from a highly structured set of questions to the most open-ended ones. So how do anthropologists know what questions to ask?

  4. Scribbling: Taking Fieldnotes

    4.1. These observations and interviews must be recorded in some manner, most often field notes: any information that the anthropologist writes down or transcribes during fieldwork.

    4.2. Usually these scribbles are only shorthand notes made in small, unobtrusive notebooks and often referred to as “jot notes” that remind us of a conversation or observation we can document more fully later.

    4.3. Field notes are essential since details can easily be forgotten after months and years have passed. Anthropologists also often record headnotes: the mental notes an anthropologist makes while in the field, which may or may not end up in formal field notes or journals.

    4.4. Long-term fieldwork and detailed field notes led to a profoundly better understanding of human cultures, but they are no guarantee against bias and ethnocentrism.

What Other Methods Do Cultural Anthropologists Use?

  1. Participant observation and open-ended interviews are the basis of cultural anthropological fieldwork. But the sheer complexity of human culture requires additional strategies: the comparative method, the genealogical method, life history, ethnohistory, rapid appraisals, action research, anthropology at a distance, and analyzing secondary materials.
  2. Comparative Method

    2.1. The comparative method, comparing data from many different cultures, has always been part of anthropology. Lewis Henry Morgan gathered kinship data from around the world by mail and published his results in Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family(1871). Others used comparative data to rank human societies (invariably with their own societies on top).

  3. Genealogical Method

    3.1. The genealogical method was first used by English anthropologist William H. R. Rivers in 1898 in the Torres Strait (islands between Australia and New Guinea). He wanted to study the heritability of color blindness and needed accurate data on familial relations. The Torres Islanders used a classificatory system of kinship terms that made it hard for him to disentangle biological relationships. Rivers developed a simple, systematic way of classifying all kin according to their relationship to his informants, a system that is still used today.

  4. Life Histories

    4.1. Life histories reveal age-related aspects of social life. As people go through life, they take on different roles in society and in social institutions. Ethnographers can understand how age affects typical social roles by recording multiple life histories within a society.

  5. Ethnohistory

    5.1. Ethnohistory combines ethnographic and cultural approaches to understanding how cultures change through time. Ethnohistorians are also interested in how societies understand and recount the past. The concepts of history and how to tell it may differ from one society to another.

  6. Rapid Appraisals

    6.1. Rapid appraisals, short-term ethnographic fieldwork (“parachute ethnography”), may be required for highly specific questions or when time for field research is short.

  7. Action Research

    7.1. In the 1950s, American anthropologist Sol Tax advocated for action anthropology: research committed to social change. Tax encouraged anthropologists to give voice to disenfranchised communities and aid in collective problem-solving.

    • 7.1.1. Today, some anthropologists use participatory action research: a research method in which the research questions, data collection, and data analysis are defined through collaboration between the researcher and the subjects of research. A major goal is for the research subjects to develop the capacity to investigate and take action on their primary political, economic, or social problems.
  8. Anthropology at a Distance

    8.1. Sometimes anthropologists are unable to travel to the field at all, owing to war or political repression. In that event, anthropologists may choose to attempt “anthropology at a distance” by interviewing informants from the study community who have moved elsewhere.

  9. Analysis of Secondary Materials

    9.1. Much can be learned from secondary materials: any data that come from secondary sources such as a census, regional survey, historical report, other researchers, and the like that are not compiled by the field researcher. These differ from primary materials, which are produced by the researcher).

  10. Special Issues Facing Anthropologists Studying Their Own Societies

    10.1. Anthropologists working “at home” experience both the benefits and the drawbacks of familiarity. They are familiar with language and customs, but this familiarity has the potential to blind them to patterns obvious to an outsider.

    10.2. See “Anthropologist as Problem Solver: Alcida Rita Ramos and Indigenous Rights in Brazil”

  11. Increasingly, ethnographic fieldwork is not just about indigenous peoples but by indigenous peoples. For example, the Pan-Maya ethnic movement in Guatemala asserts a research agenda relevant to Maya social interactions and worldviews.

What Unique Ethical Dilemmas Do Ethnographers Face?

  1. All anthropologists face common ethical dilemmas: the commitment to do no harm, considerations about to whom anthropologists are responsible, and who should control anthropology’s findings.
  2. Protecting Informant Identify

    2.1. In order to do no harm, anthropologists often use pseudonyms for informants in published accounts to conceal identities.

    • 2.1.1. The Limits of Anthropology’s First Amendment Protections- Unlike journalists, anthropologists in the United States have no First Amendment protections. Anthropologists are obligated to protect their informants, but field data are subject to a subpoena from a court in criminal investigations.
    • 2.1.2. Who Should Have Access to Fieldnotes?- This raises the question of who should have access to field notes. Most anthropologists view field notes as too private for publication, except in carefully edited excerpts. It is questionable whether field notes should be made available to informant communities. On the one hand, the data belong to informants. On the other, they may contain details that individuals do not want publically exposed.
  3. Anthropology, Spying, and War

    3.1. Are anthropologists obligated to their informants, their government, or both? During World War II many anthropologists assisted with the war effort: Ruth Benedict, Sir Edmund Leach, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, and Gregory Bateson, for example.

    3.2. More recently, the embedding of social scientists with combat units in the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has created an ethical controversy.


  1. Participant observation provides rich insights that the other social sciences cannot provide, specifically because it emphasizes a holistic perspective, direct experience, long-term participation in people’s lives, and responsiveness to unexpected events. Anthropologists listen to the stories of their informants and understand their culture through them.
  2. All of the other methods that anthropologists use are in service to the insights that participant observation can provide but where participant observation may not be possible.