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3.7: Summary

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    1. If you were to conduct anthropological fieldwork anywhere in the world, were would you go? What would you study? Why? Which ethnographic techniques would you use? What kinds of ethical considerations would you likely encounter? How would you disseminate your research?
    2. What is unique about ethnographic fieldwork and how did it emerge as a key strategy in anthropology?
    3. How do traditional approaches to ethnographic fieldwork contrast with contemporary approaches?
    4. What are some of the contemporary ethnographic fieldwork techniques and perspectives and why are they important to anthropology?
    5. What are some of the ethical considerations in doing anthropological fieldwork and why are they important?
    6. How do anthropologists transform their fieldwork data into a story that communicates meaning? How are reflexivity and polyvocality changing the way anthropologists communicate their work?


    • Contested identity: a dispute within a group about the collective identity or identities of the group.
    • Cultural relativism: the idea that we should seek to understand another person’s beliefs and behaviors from the perspective of their own culture and not our own.
    • Deductive: reasoning from the general to the specific; the inverse of inductive reasoning. Deductive research is more common in the natural sciences than in anthropology. In a deductive approach, the researcher creates a hypothesis and then designs a study to prove or disprove the hypothesis. The results of deductive research can be generalizable to other settings.
    • Diaspora: the scattering of a group of people who have left their original homeland and now live in various locations. Examples of people living in the diaspora are Salvadoran immigrants in the United States and Europe, Somalian refugees in various countries, and Jewish people living around the world.
    • Emic: a description of the studied culture from the perspective of a member of the culture or insider.
    • Ethnocentrism: the tendency to view one’s own culture as most important and correct and as the stick by which to measure all other cultures.
    • Ethnography: the in-depth study of the everyday practices and lives of a people.
    • Etic: a description of the studied culture from the perspective of an observer or outsider.
    • Indigenous: people who have continually lived in a particular location for a long period of time (prior to the arrival of others) or who have historical ties to a location and who are culturally distinct from the dominant population surrounding them. Other terms used to refer to indigenous people are aboriginal, native, original, first nation, and first people. Some examples of indigenous people are Native Americans of North America, Australian Aborigines, and the Berber (or Amazigh) of North Africa.
    • Inductive: a type of reasoning that uses specific information to draw general conclusions. In an inductive approach, the researcher seeks to collect evidence without trying to definitively prove or disprove a hypothesis. The researcher usually first spends time in the field to become familiar with the people before identifying a hypothesis or research question. Inductive research usually is not generalizable to other settings.
    • Key Informants: individuals who are more knowledgeable about their culture than others and who are particularly helpful to the anthropologist.
    • Kinship: blood ties, common ancestry, and social relationships that form families within human groups.
    • Land tenure: how property rights to land are allocated within societies, including how permissions are granted to access, use, control, and transfer land.
    • Noble savage: an inaccurate way of portraying indigenous groups or minority cultures as innocent, childlike, or uncorrupted by the negative characteristics of “civilization.”
    • Participant observation: a type of observation in which the anthropologist observes while participating in the same activities in which her informants are engaged.
    • Qualitative: anthropological research designed to gain an in-depth, contextualized understanding of human behavior.
    • Quantitative: anthropological research that uses statistical, mathematical, and/or numerical data to study human behavior.
    • Remittances: money that migrants laboring outside of the region or country send back to their hometowns and families. In Mexico, remittances make up a substantial share of the total income of some towns’ populations.
    • Thick description: a term coined by anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his 1973 book The Interpretation of Cultures to describe a detailed description of the studied group that not only explains the behavior or cultural event in question but also the context in which it occurs and anthropological interpretations of it.
    • Undocumented: the preferred term for immigrants who live in a country without formal authorization from the state. Undocumented refers to the fact that these people lack the official documents that would legally permit them to reside in the country. Other terms such as illegal immigrant and illegal alien are often used to refer to this population. Anthropologists consider those terms to be discriminatory and dehumanizing. The word undocumented acknowledges the human dignity and cultural and political ties immigrants have developed in their country of residence despite their inability to establish formal residence permissions.


    Katie Nelson, PhD is a professor of anthropology at Inver Hills Community College. Her current research focuses on identity, belonging and citizenship(s) among migrant and undocumented populations in the U.S., Mexico and Morocco. She is particularly interested in examining how migrants forge a sense of identity and belonging in the contexts of national discourses that problematize their presence. She serves as the incoming Chair-elect of the Teaching Anthropology Interest Group, a part of the General Anthropology Division of the American Anthropological Association. She is fluent in the Spanish and Portuguese languages and is currently learning French and Arabic. Katie received her BA in Anthropology and Latin American Studies from Macalester College, her MA in Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, an MA in Education and Instructional Technology from the University of Saint Thomas and her PhD from CIESAS Occidente (Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social – Center for Research and Higher Education in Social Anthropology), based in Guadalajara, Mexico.


    • Behar, Ruth. Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza’s Story. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1993.
    • Boddy, Janice. Civilizing Women: British Crusades in Colonial Sudan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.
    • Chagnon, Napoleon. Yanomamö: The Fierce People. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968.
    • Chavez, Leo. The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens and the Nation. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008.
    • Dettwyler, Katherine A. Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2014
    • Frazer, James. The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion. London: Macmillian Press, 1894.
    • Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books, 1973.
    • Gordon, Peter. “Numerical Cognition without Words: Evidence from Amazonia.” Science 306 no. 5695 (2004): 496–499.
    • Malinowski, Bronislaw. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London: Kegan Paul 1922.
    • Mead, Margaret. Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1928.
    • Miner, Horace. “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema.” American Anthropologist 58 no. 3 (1956): 503-507.
    • Nelson, Katherine. 2015. Between Citizenship and Alienage: Flexible Identity Among Informally Authorized Mexican College Students in Minnesota, USA. PhD diss., CIESAS Occidente (Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social – Institute for Research and Higher Education in Social Anthropology).
    • Rosaldo, Renato. “Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage” in Violence in War and Peace, edited by Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe I. Bourgois, 150-156. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.
    • Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. Saints, Scholars, Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural Ireland. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1979.
    • Whorf, Benjamin Lee. “Science and Linguistics.” MIT Technology Review: 42 (1940): 229–248.
    • Whyte, William Foote. Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993[1943].


    1. Franz Boas, “Foreward,” in Coming of Age in Samoa by Margaret Mead (New York: William Morrow, 1928).

    2. Examples of Curtis’ photography can be found in Edward Curtis, The North American Indian: The Photographic Images (New York: Aperture, 2005).

    3. Benjamin Lee Whorf, “Science and Linguistics,” MIT Technology Review 42 (1940): 229–248.

    4. Peter Gordon, “Numerical Cognition Without Words: Evidence from Amazonia,” Science 306 no. 5695 (2004): 496–499.

    5. Janice Bodd, Civilizing Women: British Crusades in Colonial Sudan (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007).

    6. Bronislaw Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea (London: Kegan Paul, 1922), 25.

    7. Renato Rosaldo, “Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage,” in Violence in War and Peace, ed. Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe I. Bourgois (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), 171.