An Introduction to Ethnographic Methods
Participant observation is one of the key methods of anthropology. This form of research involves researchers entering into a field site, usually an unfamiliar culture, for extended stays. Anthropology has a unique benefit over other social sciences due to this. When a researcher spends more time on a site, they are able to become immersed in it. This allows the anthropologist to become increasingly connected to the culture, and to understand it genuinely. If research is unthorough, surface level impressions that may seem genuine could be reflected in publications.
Advantages and Challenges of Long-Term Research
When the researcher peels back the performative veneer from the culture, with longer stays they can appreciate a more accurate reflection of their lived experiences. The stories tend to become more intimate, and offer a unique view of the culture that would previously not be shared. However, it may not always be possible to complete such research, and field methods vary across studies. While these challenges exist and will be explored further, they do not diminish the importance of anthropological methods.
The method of ethnographic research is the most important distinguishing factor of anthropological research. While the method has become adapted to other fields, it originated with early anthropologists. Other fields like sociology and even business have adapted the method in recent years with minor changes in goal. These individuals, like Bronislaw Malinowski amongst others, became recognized for first person observation. They engaged in long stays in foreign (to them) locations, and came back to write ethnographic texts about their subjects. Ethnography is distinguished from other research forms that do not try to gather an insider view. In anthropology, this is referred to as the emic perspective. Emic and etic are two points of view within social scientific studies. Emic refers to the insider’s view, which the anthropologist gathers through immersion within the culture. Etic perspectives are more akin to how most people may consider a foreign culture.
Armchair Anthropologists and the Etic Perspective
Due to the vast differences between cultures, many of their ideas and practices may at first seem strange. It is considered to be like the view of the outsider. Early anthropologists during the beginning of the field engaged in more of an etic approach. They did not live within the cultures, but studied them through pre-existing materials. This may have included texts by missionaries and explorers, that often contained inaccurate or biased information. These early anthropologists include Edward Burnett Tylor and James Frazer, two of the most famous early researchers. They became known later as armchair anthropologists, as they never left their armchair to do research themselves, as the saying goes. Ethnocentrism is the process of understanding other cultures that are different as lesser or less-evolved.
In modern anthropology, researchers strive to achieve a relativistic approach. This refers to research from an emic perspective, as it understands the culture relative to a participant within it. Other modern changes include the increased inclusion of globalization, change, and historical factors. Modern anthropologists often strive to include their own reflexive impacts on the field of study, as well as other compounding factors. Modern ethnographic methods may also include technology. Many anthropologists will now type up their field notes during the research period. They may also use digital recording technologies to replace cassette tapes and other methods for capturing interviews and audio.
Longitudinal and Cross-Sectional Research Methods
Longitudinal research varies from other research, which can often be cross-sectional. These projects in science are often easier, as they involve just examining the subject at one moment in time. This can save money and allow for an easier project that memorializes a moment in time. This can freeze a photograph of sorts of this moment isolated from processes of change. Many forms of traditional scientific research involve the use of cross-sectional research. Traditional studies usually take place at one time or in one short period due to budget constraints and other factors. Some of the arguably best anthropological research, however, is more longitudinal. This may involve multiple visits to the field site for research during extended stints. This process, when possible in the challenging realm of conducting research, can provide valuable insights into lived experiences.
Performance and Truth in the Field
The stories that we tell to others often present an idealized image of the world. You may interact with your friends and social circles, and show them what you desire them to see. This aspect of sociality is called performativity. Canadian social scientist Erving Goffman is known for his theories on social interaction and its performative aspects. This process can be referred to as dramaturgy, in which social actors play expected and desired roles in public.
Seeing Behind the Mask
A talented anthropologist can often intrude into social circles in a way that allows them to remove this performance, and analyze why the individuals behave certain ways. Longer periods in the field are excellent for these purposes, as they form deeper bonds with research subjects. This may not always be possible, and it is worth considering that even the surface image that is given off can teach us about what individuals value and show off based on cultural ideals.
Some anthropological research may not be traditional, while still achieving great results. Certain research subjects are obviously suited to different research forms. Some studies, like those around specific events or times like harvest seasons, may require repeated visits across many years to reach this deep level of cultural understanding that anthropologists strive for. While some anthropologists may have the finances and life structure that enables long-term research, others do not. There are also occasionally levels of violence that can challenge research (Caton). Other researchers may have family and other commitments to juggle.
Yates-Doerr highlights this process of appreciating the challenges of modern research balanced with other life expectations, calling it anti-hero care. She witnessed first-hand the unpredictability of field research. During her research, her child’s emergency injury cut her research even shorter than the tight deadline she was allowed (Yates-Doerr). This can provide challenges to long-term immersion. Workarounds include visits that consist of a few weeks at a time, but repeated longitudinally. I will cover several anthropologists who have engaged in such research.
Technological Mediation and Pandemic Field Work
Other significant challenges to modern ethnography include the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in the suspension of many field visits and research projects temporarily. Some anthropologists with whom I have studied have mentioned various workarounds to studying during travel restrictions and other safety measures. Modern ethnographic methods are now technologically mediated. Many individuals globally increasingly rely on the internet and mobile devices. These connections can be used to study virtual communities. My last blog post covered virtual ethnographies. Technology can be used to connect anthropologists to their subjects during the pandemic. This can aid in long-term research by facilitating updates and communication without the need to travel. Some anthropologists maintain contact and research connections during the current pandemic. I suspect that as modernization continues, the use of technologically mediated ethnographic research will continue to provide new possibilities for anthropology.
Cultures in a Changing World
Another benefit of long-term periods of study is the ability to witness cultural change. Some anthropologists who visit a field site for one year at a time, only to never return, are able to capture a unique portrayal, what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called thick description. However, this vivid portrayal of lived experiences highlights a temporally isolated portrayal of these cultures. To examine a culture for one year in its existence can be enlightening, but it can also remove a sense of historicity of and progression. During the current period of rapid globalization and cultural shifts, many things are changing. To visit a culture more than once across your career can allow the anthropologist to form lasting friendships and gather tales of change. It can potentially be shocking to visit a field site and to witness how different it has become.
Imagine your childhood neighborhood or a local city. Picturing how this site has changed, with new construction, demolitions, changed businesses and inhabitants, can show how time shapes spaces. However, as this occurs, it may be less obvious. It can often feel sad when certain structures and locations are removed or reconfigured. However, the total changes may be more widespread than appeared. When I pull up images of my city across various decades, this change is so much more apparent. In longitudinal research, these changes can be more obvious. If a researcher visits a location every few years, they can witness many changes at once, and record them in field notes and ethnographic writing.
Gloria Rudolf and Loma Bonita
Some anthropologists dedicate their careers to documenting many cultures and field-sites. Others become immersed and deeply dedicated to a single field site, feeling unfulfilled with an incomplete portrayal. An example of such an anthropologist is Gloria Rudolf. Rudolf’s research began in Loma Bonita, Panama, in 1972. She still visits the village today, after fifty years of fieldwork dedicated to the region. Her long-form studies allowed her to understand processes of globalization and modernity. She was able to witness a significant portion of the lives of the individuals she studied, she witnessed many grow old, witnessed growing families, and lost friends. Her research culminated with her ethnography ‘Esperanza Speaks’. This work tracks the evolution of the rural Panamanian village through the life of Esperanza Ruiz, a woman in the area. The book spans almost five decades of field visits, with twenty trips in total (Rudolf)
Globalization and Loss in Long-Term Research
While many anthropologists may return to a field site a few times to track changes, such consistent visits allowed for Rudolf to craft an expansive portrait of the town. Showing how the increasing grasp of globalization shapes lives across decades is an invaluable document of cultural change and history. Such an approach requires immense dedication, patience, and passion for the field of research. Other anthropologists, like Steven C. Caton, have also visited field sites several times across decades, witnessing changes, and experiencing losses of friends and cultural touchstones that once informed research, such as cultural forms of poetry in Yemen (Caton).
Emotion and Ethnography
While these visits may not be as consistent as Rudolf’s in most longitudinal ethnographies, they still provide a richness of description and increased emotional poignancy. Due to the long periods of socialization, ethnographic research is not just formal and objective. It involves friendships and unpleasantries, and complex efforts to negotiate social environments. The many losses and difficult experiences witnessed in modern times make it also a painful experience at times.
Significance in Anthropology: Research Methods as Defining Features
When comparing anthropology to similar fields like cultural studies and sociology, our field’s methods define it as different. The fields that have adapted ethnographic methods have not done so as frequently. These research methods which continue to evolve define anthropology as a discipline. Therefore, as the world continues to change, ethnographic methods will likely continue to adapt. They are extremely beneficial for allowing us to understand others within the world genuinely and with minimal pretense. I believe that the adoption of reflexive practices into daily thought can be beneficial as an equalizing tool. While many research studies have increasingly become interdisciplinary, the strength of anthropological methods maintains the field as an important aspect of academic writing with positive impacts.
- Caton, Steven C. Yemen Chronicle: An Anthropology of War and Mediation. Hill and Wang: New York.
- Rudolf, Gloria. 2021. Esperanza Speaks: Confronting a Century of Global Change in Rural Panama. University of Toronto Press: Toronto.
- Yates-Doerr, Emily. 2020. Antihero Care: On Fieldwork and Anthropology. Anthropology and Humanism. 45(2): 233-244.