Anthropology Explained Part 3: Methods and Perspectives

Anthropology is part scientific and part interpretive. Anthropologists use a specific sort of methodology in their studies. First, we learn as much as we can from previously published literature, especially histories and other ethnographies. We learn the language of the local population, to the degree possible given that these languages are not always available for study in our universities. Traditionally, most of it is learned “in the field.”

Second, we do “fieldwork,” a method of immersion into our study population. Fieldworkers generally spend a year or more in the field living with and as the local population: you know, when in Rome do as the Romans do. A lot of fieldwork is just hanging out, being with people under ordinary circumstances. It isn’t always as easy as that sounds. During the hanging-out periods, fieldworkers often experience a sense of failure, as if they are not doing anything. This stems from our own work ethic which says that working is doing not just being. But hanging around is how we make the strangeness of strange places familiar to us. Anthropology is sometimes called the study of difference because immersion in a field of others challenges our own beliefs about how the world works.

We use a method we call “participant observation” as a kind of short cut into discovering the “native’s point of view.” We participate in the daily work, the rituals, and the public and private activities (to the degree we are allowed). Participation is where the fieldworker’s own cultural standards are challenged. We may find our own ethics, or our beliefs about gender roles, or our beliefs in the supernatural strongly challenged. It can be a disorienting experience (called “culture shock”) but an exhilarating one as well. Our job, however, is never to pass judgment on others, but to try to understand them within their own unique and local context.

We do that through observation and through conversation. We consciously observe people interact with one another, as they go about their ordinary and extraordinary tasks. We ask questions—in formal interviews and in casual conversation—about things we do not understand. The combination of doing and being, talking and watching is how we become knowledgeable and even comfortable in these strange new worlds.

I hope you have found this brief explanation of the field of anthropology helpful. It forms the basis of what I do whenever I am in a dance environment: I watch, I listen, and I participate. I turn to anthro theories to help me understand the broader implications of my observation-participation. But it is only one explanatory system among many—such as sociology, psychology, or politics—each of which offers its own take on human activity. I just happen to like the way cultural anthropologists think.

This is Part 3 of a 3 Part Series

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