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About Ethnographic Research, The Attempt of Man to Understand His Own Culture

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Anthropology is the study of man, by man. A subfield of this is ethnography, the attempt of man to understand his own culture by understanding the culture of another (Inskeep). This paper will explore the process of an ethnographic project.

The first step in ethnography, as in every scientific project, is to find a problem around which to create your hypothesis. Anthropology is, by nature, open-ended, so rather than construct a statement they hope to support or disprove, anthropologists ask a question they hope to answer (Aims).

Once an anthropologist has asked a question, he or she must gather background data on the population he or she wishes to study (Aims). For example, if an anthropologist wished to know how a student’s faith affects their adaptation to and participation in modern college culture, they would need to study high schoolers of diverse faiths during their first year at college. The anthropologist would need to find out if there are any language barriers between himself and the population. Are there any cultural customs she must be prepared to participate in? Have any other researchers studied this group? What did they find (Aims)?

It is also important that the researcher consider their own identity (Aims). Is the researcher old? Young? Black? White? Male? Female? People reveal different parts of themselves to different people. Claire Sterk recounts, “Because I was so integral to the process, the way the women viewed me may have biased their answers (Sterk, 23).” While the women may have changed their answers to better fit Sterk’s opinion, the anthropologist must ask him/herself, would these women have been willing to discuss their lives at all if Sterk had been a man?

The last step in preparing for the field is to seek the approval of the Institutional Review Board (IRB). The IRB requires you to prove that “your research is worthwhile, you will protect the rights of those you work amongst (by telling them who you are, getting informed consent, and protecting their identities), and [you will] act in a way that will not get you or your employer in legal or ethical trouble (Aims).”

Once in the field, anthropologists use a variety of techniques to gather information. One popular technique is participant observation, where an anthropologist lives with the population they are studying and attempts to participate in the culture to learn more about it. This is perhaps the best way to “describe something about a culture from the perspective of those inside the culture (Inskeep).”

Another tool in the anthropologist’s toolbox is the informant (Aims). This is the person who, in many cases, introduces the anthropologist to the culture, as the Sami woman did for Erika Larsen. This can also be any member of the culture who the anthropologist gets to know well. People skills help a great deal for this part of ethnography. You can chat with people, take life histories, or interview them (Aims).

The third tool in the anthropologist’s toolbox is the interview. This tends to yield more academic information than participant observation, simply because it is more easily quantifiable, while participant observation yields more natural, accurate information, if the ethnographer can interpret it well. It is very important when doing an interview to obtain signed informed consent.

According to Rodger Boutot, ethnocentrism is what happens “When a person uses their own culture to judge another, usually in a negative perspective.” In order to avoid this, anthropologists must become aware of their own cultural biases. Often, this does not happen until the anthropologist is in the middle of the field, as Janet McIntosh discovered. In her analysis of her time in Kenya, she describes how her agnostic beliefs affected her interpretation of the waganga rituals. She writes, “context does not so quickly do away with entrenched habits of self-surveilance.” By analyzing the waganga from her western point of view, she was able to uncover their trickery. When she tried to give Maxwell the outcome of her analysis, though, he could only interpret it through the lens of his culture. In the end, “Maxwell … felt loosed from his mast and cast into a state of enduring liminality.” Because McIntosh used her cultural lens to judge the Giriama, the unintended outcome was Maxwell’s complete disenfranchisement and loss of purpose.

To avoid situations like this, anthropologists must be constantly aware of their own cultural biases. They must constantly ask themselves, “why do I think this?” “Is this idea “bad” in this culture?” “Why?” If Claire Sterk had allowed herself to judge prostitution as a “bad” job full of “bad” people, the women would have been less likely to speak to her, and her time and research would have only served to further divide women who work as prostitutes from the rest of society.

One of the most obvious difficulties ethnographers face is the language barrier. Erika Larsen mentions this in her talk about her work with the Sami people. After taking a seven month immersion course in the Sami language, she says, “Finally… this is when I began to understand the history and learn about the culture (Nat).” Larsen had not known the depth of what she was missing. Until she really understood the language of the people, she did not even know the depth of what she was missing.

A similar thing happened to Richard Lee in the Kalahari. After he accidentally discovers a tradition integral to the !Kung way of life, he asks one of the bushmen, Tomazo, why they never mentioned this tradition to him before. Tomazo “[echos] the refrain that has come to haunt every field ethnographer: ‘Because you never asked me’ (Lee, 260).” Not knowing the right questions to ask means an anthropologist can miss incredibly important customs.

Anthropology is a unique science. Anthropologists ask questions, like every scientist, and follow those questions up with research. They seek to understand cultures other than their own, and bring what those cultures have to say into the larger discussion that is human life.

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