Ethnographic Research: Definition and Purpose

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Ethnographic research is defined as the in person observation and recording of cultures, lifestyles, and behaviors within a society. The concept of examining people in their natural habitats has been present for hundreds of years, allowing us to understand certain aspects of life in places and societies that are no longer present. However, the ethnographies provided from research all those decades ago may not be as accurate as we believe due to the faulty recording by past anthropologists. However, things change; anthropologists have done a lot to make sure that infamous expiriements of the past don’t repeat themselves. Human safety and the right to informed consent were ideals that became stressed in the research community after the occurrence of multiple unethical inhuman trials. If we look at the real purpose of ethnographic research, it should be viewed in a largely positive light. Although there are problems such as ethical issues, research bias and unpreparedness by some anthropologists, it allows us to really try and understand other cultures and ways of life. The ability to grasp why people act in certain ways and how it differs from society to society using cross cultural research is a fascinating concept as it helps us to further improve our knowledge of why people act in certain ways.

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Our first glimpse into the history of ethnographic research came during one of the lectures, when Professor Xygalatas talked about early anthropologists infamously known as “armchair anthropologists”. These anthropologists took minimal interest in the lives of the people they “observed”, often staying for little to no time leading to writings that are purely based on biases while often practicing ethnocentrism (judging a culture by your own standards). Professor Xygalatas claimed that due to the inaccurate publications made about their societies, certain people have become weary of talking around anthropologists as those claims landed them in trouble or shined a negative light in their direction. He used a first hand example which occured when he studied people in Greece as it took him a while to establish a rapport with the members of the community.. Later came one of the largest critics of the ethnocentric/unilineal view, Franz Boas. He proposed a view called historical particularism or cultural relativism, which is the practice of judging a society by the beliefs and standards of that said society (Xygalatas Week 4 Powerpoint, PDF). Boas believed in participant observation, or the belief that it was necessary for people to immerse themselves in the field to gain first hand experience and collect their own data (Xygalatas Week 4 Powerpoint, PDF). At a similar time as Boas, British anthropologists were forming their own theories due to their own questions about the unilineal evolution theory. The ideas that the pair of British anthropologists worked on both involved functionalism, or the view that “ society consists of institutions that serve vital roles for people” (Scupin, 2015, p. 116). The two main anthropologists were the professor's personal favorite (Malinowski) who focused on psychological functionalism and Radcliffe Brown, who focused on structural functionalism. The place that the two theories differ is that structural functionalism focuses on how the different institutions work together to help society function, while psychological functionalism focuses on how those said institutions aid individuals.

The next major shift in anthropological thought was neoevolutionism. This theory, proposed by Leslie White states that environment has a massive effect on the culture of the society and that the more energy that a society has access to, the more prosperous society will be (Xygalatas Week 4 Powerpoint, PDF). While Marvin Harris maintained that technology and environment where the key factors in society, he also proposed a system that divided societies. He had three different categories: infrastructure, structure and superstructure. Infrastructure included things like technology and the labor force while structure talks about family structure and gender roles, and superstructure includes things like philosophy, sports and art (Scupin, 2015, p. 119). The next major theory that we learned came from Karl Marx which proved to be the polar opposite of the functionalist anthropologists. His theory stated that institutions wreak havoc, theorising that communism would eventually be reached. Symbolic anthropology is the study of culture by the interpretation of symbols, values and beliefs (Xygalatas Week 4 Powerpoint, PDF). They believe that the scientific method can’t accurately represent human behavior and that the symbols in people's lives need to be analysed for the deeper meaning. The feminist anthropologists ideology also became present in the 20th century as they wanted to talk about how research done tended to focus on males and underestimate the role and importance of females (Xygalatas Week 4 Powerpoint, PDF). The postmodernist approach is one that challenged basic ethnographic methods, one of those being the belief that researchers can stay completely objective. This view stresses the fact that there should be many voices present from the native country that you study, not just yourself and the few informants. As you can tell, there are a lot of different ways that people choose to study cultures; and although each method has its weaknesses, they all help us to understand life in our own way.

While there are many benefits of ethnographic research, there are a number of glaring weaknesses that can affect the validity of the research. The main concern that many talk about are the ethical issues that might present themselves during fieldwork. Some of these might include things like protecting the identity of those who they study and any possible information that may be sensitive to the community or individuals. Another very pressing ethical issue that may be present is properly informing people about what the anthropologist intends to study and how they plan on going about that. Experiments such as the Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment highlighted the need to set guidelines as the subjects found that researchers didn’t relay their honest intentions and that it was difficult for them to withdraw. Informed consent and the concept of beneficence or “do no harm” are vital when performing research involving humans. The American Anthropological Society talks more about this in their code of ethics stating that, “ anthropologists’ paramount responsibility is to those they study... anthropologists must do everything in their power to protect the physical, social, and psychological welfare and to honor the dignity and privacy of those studied” (American Anthropological Society Code of Ethics, 2012). Papers such as the Belmont Report emphasized the same thing talking about the importance of respecting the subjects wishes while also weighing the risks and rewards and seeing if the experiment is justifiable (Belmont Report, 1979). Most if not all institutions also created the IRB, or the institutional review board that you have to go through to approve any kind of research involving humans. Other drawbacks of ethnographic research may include researcher bias which can occur when the person conducting the experiment may not have done the proper research on the society. It can go the complete other way however; researchers could “go native” as we talked about in discussion, which entails the researcher immersing themselves completely in the society they are studying, but not returning to their homeland; essentially now residing in the society they studied. This leads to the loss of objectivity, and that their feelings cloud the facts recorded. The weaknesses of ethnographic research are definitely present, but the many guidelines set down by different associations certainly helps to mitigate these issues.

Ethnographic research is a wonderful tool, that if used right allows for us to really fully understand the deeper meanings hidden within societies. An example of this is one of the articles that we read for class; Eating Christmas in the Kalahari by Richard Lee. In this article, Lee gifts an ox to the !Kung tribe for their customary Christmas dinner, but the leaders of the tribe laughed at the ox stating that “It’s a bag of bones” making Lee feel that he ruined Christmas for them (Lee, 1969). The real moral behind that story was that the !Kung tribe believed that people should act humble and that everyone should be focused on one thing; how they can contribute to the well being of the society. Ethnographic research is what allows us to come to conclusions like this; it’s what allows us to understand why people act in certain ways and how we can apply certain lessons to make our lives better in the long run. Through the method of participant observation, researchers are able to record emotional reactions rather than just purely quantitative data. Furthermore, participant observation allows for us to see people in their natural habitats so people act normally as they are comfortable with those around them. By recording and analysing this data, we are then able to compare data from different societies using cross cultural research. The Human Relations Area Files created by George P.Murdock includes data from up to 862 different societies and 563 societies that cover the major geographic regions of the world, allowing for people to retrieve information very quickly (Scupin, 2015, p. 141). This particular research method allows for the possibility of establishing a universal code for human behavior, which would be groundbreaking.

Ethnographic fieldwork is one of the most important and diverse types of fieldwork. There are ideologies that fixate on the importance of symbols, while others focus on the roles of institutions, and some look at the roles of emotions rather than the cold hard facts. However, the ethical issues that are present are very serious. The protection and safety of people and sensitive is of paramount importance and should not be taken lightly. Other issues such as researcher objectivity must be taken into account when discussing ethnographies and the possibility of using it in cross-cultural research. Even with all of these concerns, ethnographic fieldwork accomplishes an amazing thing; allowing us to try and fully understand the complex thing that is human behavior. It helps people to experience a different way of life, a different way to act and it aids our understanding of what it means to be human.

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