Lecture 2





A good site with a compete set of anthropological field notes covering several decades of research in a Turkish Village http://lucy.ukc.ac.uk/Stirling

http://www.sherryart.com/women/bedouin.html An excellent site on fieldwork among Bedouin women in the Sinai.


If one looks at any culture from the outside, it is apparent that very little makes any sense in terms of adaptation to the external environment. Custom cannot be viewed -- at least on the whole-- as necessarily sane, practical wisdom designed to help men get on with the business of living. There is just too much in any culture which -- like the buttons on men's suit jackets-- just does not make any sense in practical utilitarian terms.

But what then about the anthropologist's task of demonstrating the basic "reasonableness" of human activity.


 The Natives Point of View

Customs can be viewed internally, as part of the subjective point of view of the actor, or "native" (remember that we, too are "natives").

This subjective point of view is basic to anthropology because all humans share a cultural world of symbolic meanings and shared understandings. Of course, humans live in a physical external habitat, and this can and does have a powerful constraining influence on his conduct, but it is the synthetic or man-made universe that can exercise an even more powerful influence on conduct.

          Example: Eskimo Technology The degree of technological ingenuity of the Eskimo is well known. With few resources, no metal (in former times) and very little wood they successfully hunted whales, the worlds largest mammals. They know in meticulous detail the habits of animals -- even to the point of so successfully mimicking the behavior of a seal that they can creep up close enough to score a kill. Method of taking wolves: spring of whalebone frozen in a piece of blubber, so that when the wolf gulps it down it will eventually melt and spring open killing it. The Eskimo have a technological solution to almost every subsistence problem, and have such a focus and obsession with technology that they are excellent "natural" mechanics. But such mastery only relates to the physical habitat.

                   There is another world they must contend with, and it is mostly a product of their fantasies, as passed down through cultural tradition. Their world is populated with ghosts, deities, and demons of all sorts, and they believe that on the whole man is threatened by dangerous unseen forces from all sides. The most important means of warding off danger is the observance of a very elaborate set of complicated taboos -- or prohibitions against certain kinds of acts or behavior in certain contexts. Before dragging a dead seal back to camp, water must be poured over the dead animal's snout.

          How to interpret all of this? Obvious more difficult than interpreting the instrumental conduct associated with making a living. In case of the spring bait trap, the anthropologist can simply describe the object, how it works, see its practical result, and it is easy to interpret the intent. We know why Eskimos use spring bait traps, because we can understand the cause-effect relationship involved in a matter of fact way.

          But giving a dead seal a drink? And taking old blubber out through the window when it makes much more sense to take it out through the door? How can these be understood? What is the practical outcome of all this?

          The answer is that there is no practical outcome, or at least none which can be directly observed. The best resort of the anthropologist in these instances is to attempt to penetrate the mental world of the natives --to ask them what they think they are up to when the do these apparently contradictory things.

          So we ask the Eskimo why he does this. He says "to please the soul of the seal". Probing more deeply we find out that all animals have souls, and that the soul is thought to return to the seal to be reincarnated as another seal. If the dead animal therefore considers that if he ( the correct English pronoun here is "it", but our language forces us to think of animals as non-human) has been treated with respect, he will then be more willing to become prey for the hunter again. But if the soul is insulted, he will avoid that hunter in the future.

          So once we understand the beliefs which lie behind this kind of conduct, the conduct seems to make sense to us.

          A great deal of anthropological explanation is just this sort of thing: finding out the underlying premises in order to make the conduct appear reasonable to us.


But not everything has an explicit meaning that you can get directly at.  Over the door in many Tausug houses there was often a large shell.  I was never able to get an explicit explanation for this other than “ it is custom”  or “that’s the way the ancestors did it”.  Actually, in the course of field work there is an awful lot of stuff that people cannot explain except in this general sort of way.  In these instances the ethnographer must look for patterns in comparable situations: do shells appear in other contexts and what is the meaning there?  Does shell symbolism appear in poetry, for example, or are shells used in religious rituals?  Well for the Tausug the answer to these was no, and I just never was able to figure the meaning.  Perhaps, they are, after all like those buttons on our suit jackets.



The Accuracy of the Native’s Point of View

So one major criterion of anthropological field research is always to try to grasp the point of view of the native actors. This is not actually such a unique method as one might think. If you think about it, all social scientists, implicitly or explicitly attribute a point of view and interpretations to the people whose actions we analyze. In one way or another we always describe how people interpret the events they participate in, so the question is not whether we should look at things from the native point of view, but how accurately we do it .

We can find out, perhaps not with perfect accuracy, but better than zero, the meanings people give to the objects and events in their lives and experiences.


The major technique for this is usually referred to as participant observation: by talking to people in formal and informal interviews, and in the various interchanges in which we participate and observe their ordinary activities, and by watching and listening as they go about their business. In the practice of any social science or social interpretation, if you do not get the meanings from the people themselves, you inevitably will bootleg them into your analysis. This happens all the time, because we are usually not the people we study and we do not live in their circumstances. And it is very tempting, if we do not have data as to how the people themselves give meaning to their conduct, to attribute it to them. To take the easy way out and attribute to them the meanings that we would give if we were in their circumstances, which of course we are not. Thus if a sociologist, comes up with some comparative data on, say, teen age pregnancy, or adolescent delinquency or drug use, as correlated with, say, the presence or absence of a father or male role model in the household, it is very tempting to simply read into our data assumptions about what the people involved "must have been thinking" in order to behave that way. And most of the time our assumptions will be wrong, or at least misleading. (see generally Becker: http://www.soc.ucsb.edu/faculty/hbecker/qa.html.)

This brings up the problem of questionnaires and quantitative and statistical data generally.

[ a word on "official statistics" -- data produced by officials in the course of their duties. Most official statistics tell the ethnographer very little except how the officials keep their records. Thus, official police statistics can only be relied on to tell you how the cops write their reports - everything else should be very carefully scrutinized. There are exceptions to this, of course (some parts of the US census, or the CDC disease reports, etc) ]

Sometime cultural anthropologists do compile census and other statistical data for very specialized purposes. I did a house by house census of all the houses in the Tausug community in which I worked, mainly because that we the only way one could find out household composition patterns, who typically lived with whom, marriage residence patterns (where newly married couples reside) and so forth. But even here you don’t always know at the beginning what to look for. I assumed at first (based upon a knowledge of similar cultures in the area) that it might be nice to know the bridewealth( a payment made by the boy’s kin to the girl’s kin on marriage) given for each marriage in the household, as well as the bridewealth given for the parents and grandparents. Most people were polite enough to try to answer this, even if they didn’t know, but one man, impatient with my apparently silly question, made the remark "How the **** do I know the bridewealth of my grandmother, and who cares?" I that point I realized that the question had no cultural relevance.

Questionnaire methods, which are often used by pollsters and sociologists, thus present some problems, Not that they do not have their use in some circumstances.

  I very frustrated when telemarketers employed by market research firms doing a survey in which I am asked questions which I know are irrelevant to what I think is the purposes of the survey.



Salvage ethnography

Not all traditional anthropological ethnographic research can involve participant observation method. Sometimes (this was especially true in the early history of American anthropology) one is interested in reconstructing the nature of the society and culture which has in many important respects ceased to function in its traditional way. Many American Indian cultures were first encountered by ethnographers after they had been conquered, reduced to poverty, and put on reservations, etc.

The ethnographer is thus faced with the problem of reconstructing some picture of the culture as it once was from the remembrances of (usually) old people. At its best this involved going to the reservation, engaging in participant observation as best one could, and spending time collecting such remembrances as one could find. At its ethical worse it involved getting a drunk Indian in a hotel room and getting what you could.   This is really bad method and even worse ethics, and fortunately did not happen too often.

What are some problems with this approach?

  1. One does not get to see how much of the culture was actually performed. There is always some disparity between what people say should be done, and what they actually do. And one cannot observe this in salvage ethnography. 

[aside: the term “custom” is used when we encounter a bit of culture in which what people do is more or less what they say they should do, like the expectation that people will courteously greet each other by shaking hands or whatever.]

  1. Culture always differs depending on the age and gender of the informant.
  2. There is perhaps a tendency to idealize "the good ol days.’

This is not to disparage salvage ethnography—much of our knowledge of traditional pre contact American Indian societies would not exist if it were not for this method. Good participant observation has been done with many of the Indian societies in the American SW (Hopi, Navaho, Zuni, etc.) which have kept their societies more or less intact. And (recognizing that the colonial situation does impose some restrictions) much decent ethnography based on participant observation has been done in Africa, parts of South America, Southeast Asia, etc.)

Pitfalls of "Going Native"

Participant observation means getting as involved in things as possible. But there is a pitfall if one gets so involved that one literally becomes part of the group itself in every respect. There may be some loss of objectivity.

F.H Cushing was an ethnographer sent out by the BAE (Bureau of American Ethnology) in the 1880’s to work with the Zuni. He eventually pretty much went native(for a while – he eventually left) and was actually inducted as a priest in one of their secret religious societies. If you read his reports back to the BAE they seem to get more and more unintelligible as he began to identify more and more as a Zuni.

Another problem: Some people absolutely will not let you participate in some or many of their activities, while others insist that you live exactly as they do. Both extremes present problems for the ethnographer. I was fortunate with the Tausug – there was very little in their culture that was regarded as "secret" and I could participate as much as a wanted. Yet if there was anything I did not want to do, it was enough to simply say, "Well, that it not an American custom" and they would accept that. I suspect that Malinowski in his Trobriand work had somewhat the same experience.


                   Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativity

          Taking the "natives point of view" requires many things from the anthropologist, and it is not usually all that easy just to ask people what things means and get intelligible answers. But it requires at the very minimum that the anthropologist (or whoever ) minimize the amount of ethnocentrism and adopt-- as far as possible--an attitude of cultural relativity .


          When we are studying other people it is very difficult to avoid strong feeling about our subjects, unlike the physicist who can usually be pretty unemotional about his subject.

          ethnocentrism -- the belief that ones own culture, or group, is more important, valuable, truthful, etc. than any other. Positively, it refers to the pride which most peoples take in their own customs most of the time. But it can take the form of negative value judgments in which the conduct of others is interpreted through the bias and blinders of ones own culture: "The Arabs smell bad", "The Tausug have bad tempers" "Those people over there are cannibals" "Those people have sex with their mothers" "The Dutch are moneygrubbers" etc. All cultures are ethnocentric in some degree but usually in different and various domains of culture. And people in most cultures will admit that other cultures may be superior to them in certain domains.

          Cannibalism and incest are common ways of negatively identifying "the others". In many non literate societies, the name for one's own group turns out to be just a name for "people" or "man" -- the implication being that others are not quite people.

          [cannibalism, by the way, has been more often described than observed. Many of the accounts of cannibalism among tribal peoples (by missionaries, anthropologists, travelers, etc) are descriptions what group A thinks group B does, not what the observer has actually seen. Cannibalism, usually religious, does actually occur, however].


          cultural relativity - idea that all cultures are equally good or bad, or actually that one should make not judgments at all. "Different strokes for different folks"

          The one problem with cultural relativity as an idea is that if pushed to extremes it comes against some of the same logical problems as ethical relativism in philosophy. If everything is culturally relative, then the very idea of cultural relativism itself (which is a product of our culture, after all) is itself culturally relative. Any consistent relativism eventually turns on itself in this way and becomes logically suspect.

          But the anthropological use of cultural relativity is mainly a methodological stance -- it is a tactical device in which the anthropologist asserts -- with good reason -- that if one does not clear ones mind of as many biases as possible you may miss important things. (It is, of course, impossible not to be "biased" to some degree, if only because our scientific interests always influence the kinds of things we look for, and further, the anthropologist’s own personality influences what he "sees". But I am in total disagreement with the view recently espoused by some so called "post-modern" anthropologists that any ethnography is just nothing more than a introspective personal travelogue hyped up as science. Nonetheless, it is the duty of any ethnographer to make the circumstances and possible biases of his work clear, insofar as he is aware of them.)


We can see this clearly in contrast between ethnographic perspectives in the study of topics in our culture which we generally understand to be "social problems."

          One anthropologist did a study of heroin addicts in NYC in shooting galleries. He assumed that the conduct he was observing was normal, and tried to understand what is going on. Or the same for the study of drunks in Seattle.


 During the second hour we saw the film "Off the Verandah". Using old footage and photographs, interviews with former students, and some good recent footage of the Trobriands, the film attempts to present Malinowski"s innovative techniques of field research.