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4: Methods and Fieldwork

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    Learning Objectives

    • Discuss what is unique about ethnographic fieldwork and how it emerged as a key strategy in anthropology.
    • Explain how traditional approaches to ethnographic fieldwork contrast with contemporary approaches.
    • Identify some of the contemporary ethnographic fieldwork techniques and perspectives.
    • Discuss some of the ethical considerations in doing anthropological fieldwork.
    • Summarize how anthropologists transform their fieldwork data into a story that communicates meaning.

    • 4.1: Finding the Field
      Fieldwork is the most important method by which cultural anthropologists gather data to answer their research questions. While interacting on a daily basis with a group of people, cultural anthropologists document their observations and perceptions and adjust the focus of their research as needed. They typically spend a few months to a few years living among the people they are studying. Anthropologist, Katie Nelson, talks about her fieldwork experience.
    • 4.2: Making the Strange Familiar and the Familiar Strange
      The cultural anthropologist’s goal during fieldwork is to describe a group of people to others in a way that makes strange or unusual features of the culture seem familiar and familiar traits seem extraordinary. The point is to help people think in new ways about aspects of their own culture by comparing them with other cultures. Anthropologists first uncover a studied people’s understanding of what they do and why and then develop additional explanations for the behavior based on anthropologica
    • 4.3: Traditional Ethnographic Approaches
      Before ethnography was a fully developed research method, anthropologists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries used techniques that were much less reliable to gather data about people throughout the world. This section looks at the early development of the ethnographic techniques of contemporary research.
    • 4.4: Ethnography Today
      Ethnography is cultural anthropology’s distinctive research strategy. It was originally developed by anthropologists to study small-scale, relatively isolated cultural groups. Like the cultures and peoples studied, anthropology and ethnography are evolving. This section covers the methods of research used in contemporary ethnography.
    • 4.5: Research Techniques and the Written Ethnography
      Of the various techniques and tools used to conduct ethnographic research, observation in general and participant observation in particular are among the most important.  It is essential for anthropologists to rigorously document their observations, usually by writing field notes and recording their feelings and perceptions in a personal journal or diary. Once the fieldwork is complete, ethnographers analyze their data and research findings before beginning to write the final ethnography.
    • 4.6: Ethical In Anthropology
      From the earliest days of anthropology, concern about the ethical treatment of people has been an important consideration. Ethical matters are central to any research project and anthropologists take their ethical responsibilities particularly seriously. Many anthropologists have a sense of personal responsibility for the well-being of the local people with whom they work in the field.
    • 4.7: More on Ethics
      As anthropologists developed more sophisticated concepts of culture, they also gained a greater understanding of the ethical challenges associated with anthropological research. Because participant-observation fieldwork brings anthropologists into close relationships with the people they study, many complicated issues can arise.
    • 4.8: End of Chapter Discussion
    • 4.9: About the Authors

    Adapted From

    "Doing Fieldwork: Methods in Cultural Anthropology" by Katie Nelson, Inver Hills Community College. In Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology, 2nd Edition, Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges, 2020, under CC BY-NC 4.0.

    Image: Bronislaw Malinowski with Natives on Trobriand Islands, 1918, by Wikimedia Commons under Public Domain.

    4: Methods and Fieldwork is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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