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Field work techniques and ethics

Ethnography is a research strategy where the approach is to get as much information as possible about a particular culture. The ethnographer, or cultural anthropologist, tries to get information from many angles to see whole picture--again, striving for that holistic view.

There are multiple field techniques:

1) Participant Observation – this the hallmark of anthropology. This method was pioneered by Branislaw Malinowski. Usnig this method, the ethnographer not only observes but participates in the activities of the culture. In this manner, anthropologists attempt to record the emic, or insider's view of the behavior, as opposed to the etic, or outsider's view. This does not mean that the emic and etic are mutually exclusive; they can compliment one another by giving both subjective and objective interpretation.

2) Interviews, Conversation - this works best when the ethnographer has learned the language. Interpreters can and are used; however, it is always best to be able to learn the language. Not only does it lessen the chance of misinterpretation via a third person, but it helps build confidence with the culture group being studied.

3) Informant - an informant is a key individual—usually someone with a lot of knowledge about the group being studied. This individual is interviewed and used as a contact point with the group. The problem with this is that the researcher only gets a small picture of what’s going on.

4) Genealogical Method - this method is strictly about learning the kinship, family, and marriage patterns of a group. It is a basic method used to help us understand social relationships and history.

5) Life Histories - as you may have guessed, this method relies on getting the personal history of an individual. This can help us arrive at some insights into perceptions about a culture. It can help us figure out the emic. Ideally, several life histories would be collected in order to get more balanced information.

6) Interpretive Anthropology - ethnographers produce ethnographies, which are reports on their ethnographic work. Over the years the approach to writing ethographies has changed. Early ethnographies used the etic approach to portray a scientific, objective view of the society. This approach is referred to as ethnographic realism. In the 1970s there was a movement to use an emic approach. This was an endeavor to try to get past the researcher's ethnocentrism to understand the natives’ viewpoint. From this, interpretive anthropology arose. Interpretive anthropology requires the ethnographer to reflect on what their presence is doing to the study group as well as what it is in their personal culture that is impacting the interpretation of what they observe. It also allows for the ethnographer to relate their own feelings and reactions, all in the attempt to understand their interpretation.

7) Problem oriented ethnography - cultural anthropologists using a problem-oriented ethnographic approach research a specific question; they collect data just on that question, e.g., the effects of modernization on social organization, while they are in the field.

Whatever technique and ethnographic approach, it is obligatory that cultural anthropologists conduct ethical research. This includes getting informed consent, which means that the group/person under study agree to take part in research if it is going to impact their lives. It will probably include seeking the permission of national government, local governmen and individuals. Cultural anthropologists must always put the welfare and interests of people being studied before their own research.

Part of the challenge in making ethical decisions is the fact that anthropology has always been an activist discipline. E. B. Tylor claimed that, "the science of culture is essentially a reformer's science" and Ruth Benedict said that the "purpose of anthropology was to make the world safe for human difference." John Bodley has been quoted saying that anthropology is a subversive science. My undergraduate anthropology professors stressed the activist nature of anthropology (northern Ireland and First Nation peoples). So where do we draw the line between cultural relativism and intervention? Cultural relativism as you know from AnthroSpeak assignment is the idea that traits can only be understood within their cultural context. If we consider cultural relativism on a spectrum, then one extreme holds that all traits good within their cultural context…as stated by Conrad Kottak in Mirror for Humanity…Nazi Germany would be evaluated as nonjudgmentally as Athenian Greece using this extreme. On the other end there is the idea that there is no way to be truly culturally relative because we are all human beings with cultural baggage—have ideas about what are right and wrong. One of my professors at Ohio State once said that we can be culturally relative and still disagree with a behavior if, and this is an important if, if you try to understand why that behavior exists in the group. In other words, what is the function of the behavior, e.g., human sacrifice, cannibalism, infanticide, female circumcision.

A big question that every cultural anthropologist has to think about is this: What do you do if intervention could change the culture? Is that our role as researchers? Most anthropologists would say that it isn’t our job to change things; however that doesn’t mean we can’t give people information that they can then do with what they will.

Another question that cultural anthropologists face is what to do when a cultural trait interferes with an individual’s human rights? Where is the ethical line in that situation? Currently in anthropology there is a heated debate about anthropologists working for the US government in Iraq. Since WWII there has been mistrust in the anthropological community regarding governments and especially the military. In WWII, the military wanted to use anthropological studies to help develop military strategy against the Axis powers. Many anthropologists had trouble with that as the information would be used in a manner that did not advance the welfare of the people studied. It’s the same situation today with the Iraq war. You can read a relatively recent article about it on the NY Times web site.

The American Anthropological Association has a number of real ethical dilemmas posted on their web site. These posts also include comments by other anthropologists— sometimes agreeing with the researchers decision and sometimes not. It’s interesting information and I urge you to take a look at a couple of the cases.

As we begin reading more excerpts from anthropological research, keep cultural relativism and intervention in mind. Ask yourself what are the ethical dilemmas the researcher faced.