Ethnographic Research for Dummies

For everyone whose waited for my next blog post, I thank you very much for your patience. My short absence however is not without purpose. I was in fact fortunate enough to participate in my first formal ethnographic research publication. I have always read and worked on literature reviews of different ethnographies and theoretically discussed the methodology of ethnographic research, but as in many cases, conducting actual ethnographic research was much easier in theory than in practice. Which brings me to today’s topic, “How do anthropologists actually do anthropology?”


Taking a quick break from theoretical talks of anthropology, let us discuss the methodological aspects of ethnographic work. Theoretical frameworks are essential for the development of anthropology but without the “doing”, anthropology would lack the necessary credibility that is built from the accumulation of specific and contextual evidence. In other words, without collecting data through practice, anthropology would become hypothetical and its ethical foundations hypocritical. The over-generalizations or the lack of specificities in the social sciences and humanities cannot be criticized without ethnographic data collection. If by now, your mind is screaming to discover how to conduct ethnographic research, then I salute thee my comrades because you are most certainly developing an irresistible passion for anthropology (or so I hope).


In technical terms, anthropologist collect data by conducting ethnographic fieldwork through participant observation. Historically, anthropologists were “armchair” researchers. This means that they conducted their research from the comfortable confinements of their home or work office through procedures of literature reviews and conceptual hypothesizing. However it was later criticized, firstly by renowned Anthropologists such as Broníslaw Malinowski and Margaret Mead, to be lacking in its ability for in-depth analysis. Participant observation, unlike methods used by arm-chair researchers and laboratory scientists, demands that anthropologists physically immerse themselves in their research subject’s communities, to be able to view their life from their subjective perspective. The goal for design of research using participant observation as a method is to develop a holistic understanding of the phenomena under study that is as objective and accurate as possible given the limitations of the method. Indeed, subjectivity to a certain degree has become an innovative addition to ethnographic research methodology, but let us leave this to a future post. In the meantime however, let us recall one of my favorite movies of all time, Good Will Hunting in order to understand why the act of “participating” is a core value in anthropology. In the famous words of Sean (Robin Williams), “So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that…And I’d ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, “once more unto the breach dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I’d ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell.” It is important therefore to understand different phenomena through one’s complete set of senses as best as possible. Anthropologists have built their entire foundations on the belief that reading about a life in a community is not the same as experiencing it. In fact, anthropologists are encouraged to attain language fluency in their region of study as it facilitates smoother transition as an “insider” participant.


After undertaking the daunting and often impossible task as an “insider” through participant observation, anthropologists then record their experiences, in what anthropologists refer to as field notes. These field notes contain ethnographic data relating to their lived experiences. This so-called “data” come in all sorts of forms, but most generally it is qualitative. From literary texts and pictures, to videos and written records of oral conversations, anything that is a cultural product (most often anything we can think of) relevant to the research topic is valuable to the ethnographic specialist.


Taking field notes however, is much difficult than it sounds, primarily due to it’s limitations. While many academic researchers often are granted a certain degree of investigative liberty and mobility that transcend the sociocultural boundaries of their research subjects, anthropologists on the other hand are restricted by these boundaries. Precisely, one must abide by the socio-cultural norms (or conversely break these norms where relevant) of the community in order to maintain the “insider” status granted. This is very important if one hopes to get an objective yet accurate account of what it is like to be part of a given community. Lila Abu Lughod famously discussed in her ethnography on the Bedouins that although she, as a female (or perceived to be female), wanted to interview many of the men and partake in activities that were male-exclusive, she could not as that would signify the loss of her “insider” status. Not only will the label as an “insider” erode, but in reaction to this, people’s association and thus treatment of the researcher will become different, therefore altering the direction of the ethnography. Taking field notes is also hard because it takes time and, believe it or not, a lot of memorizing. Firstly, it takes time because to get deep and honest insights, the research subjects must be comfortable with the anthropologist. Lila Abu Lughod also stated that the Bedouins in fact told her how they use to often falsify their interview answers to previous researchers in mockery (which is very problematic as a researcher, one might imagine). Second, it takes pretty intense memorization skills because anthropologists often record experiences, conversations, images, etc. shortly after they have occurred. Anthropologists often refrain from recording field notes, for example, during an insightful conversation with their research subject, as it might and often does break the fluidity and organic-ness of the moment. Bronislaw Malinowski, considered by many as the father of modern Anthropology, famously quoted: “In the field one has to face a chaos of facts, some of which are so small that they seem insignificant; others loom so large that they are hard to encompass with one synthetic glance. But in this crude form they are not scientific facts at all; they are absolutely elusive, and can be fixed only by interpretation, by seeing them sub specie aeternitatis, by grasping what is essential in them and fixing this. Only laws and generalizations are scientific facts, and field work consists only and exclusively in the interpretation of the chaotic social reality, in subordinating it to general rules.”


As we can see, conducting ethnographic research is no easy task. It not only takes time and patience, but a lot of mental theoretical preparation. Yet these steps in researching different societies is only natural when acknowledging the complexity of human beings. I was initially going to discuss the actual process of writing an ethnography post-data-collection, but let us save this too for another post. While conducting ethnographic research is sometimes a tiring process, it is definitely a more sensitive and progressive approach to the humanities and social sciences. However, and most importantly, it gives us a great starting point as human beings to become better learners; to become better at understanding and thus loving one another.



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