Fieldwork and Research Methods in Anthropology


Anthropology represents a summation of the most diverse theoretical points of view and efficient technologies for studying human beings. This scientific field balances between such strict disciplines as biology and the humanities like sociology and ethnography. This feature made it possible to develop universal approaches to the successful study of various communities and cultures.

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According to Bernard (2017, p. 2), “the questions we ask about the human condition may differ across the social sciences, but methods belong to all of us.” The obtained and analysed data show the effectiveness of research methods and enable anthropologists to prove the fidelity of specific anthropological hypotheses. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the fundamental aspects of a practical methodology in anthropological fieldwork, some theoretical theses, and their combined impact on this discipline.

Fundamental Aspects of a Practical Research in Anthropological Fieldwork

Modern anthropology provides a broad range of tools for direct and indirect research of people and their cultural paradigm. Some of them are contact and collection of information directly from carriers of certain cultural norms. The other part involves an in-depth study of written documents and a general analysis of language rules and features. According to Banerjee (2017, p. 5), “a society can be said to provide a ready-made laboratory for the social scientist.” Research methods may have different names and belong to different groups, but their essence and way of implementation remain the same. Their main goal was and is to collect and analyse data on culture and society.

Two Types of Data Collection Through Observation Practices

In principle, any area of scientific learning includes the investigated entity. This technique is also characteristic of the practical anthropological component. In this discipline, observation means a direct dialogue with members of the studied community and its culture. According to Bernard (2017, p. 272), “it involves getting close to people and making them feel comfortable enough with your presence so that you can observe and record information about their lives.”

The term “life” refers to various sociological and biological data such as the social status or age of the respondents. Respondents can be either individual representatives of the studied society or specific small groups of people united by common cultural characteristics. However, in the course of the development of anthropological fieldwork, the observation method has dramatically developed and has received two directions.

Participant observation is the full introduction of a specialist directly into the cultural environment of the studied society. The anthropologist, for a while, appears as the carrier of the studied public sphere and gets the opportunity to understand and collect data on various ethnic aspects accurately. It is important to note that “this includes … observing members of a culture by taking notes, eating the food that is provided, and participating in festivities” (Fieldworks methods, 2019, para. 5). The pioneers of anthropology used precisely this technique to obtain the first serious practical sociological data.

Non-participant observation serves to notice the small details of the general cultural picture. Scientists are still inside the studied community, but they abstract themselves from many practices to study outside the many unspoken rules of various rites. It is important to note that “an etic approach that researchers often use to examine the details of how the subjects interact with one another and the environment around them” (Fieldworks methods, 2019, para. 6). This method is often preceding or parallels participant observation and, for the most part, is considered auxiliary or secondary. Nevertheless, this approach sometimes allows scientists to explain some cultural aspects that cannot be scientifically expounded by a culture bearer.

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Ethnography as a Part and Approach of Anthropological Fieldwork

The ethnographic method is directly related to the two basic techniques of fieldwork described above. It means communication with representatives of a particular culture. However, in this case, the data collected is the expected system consisting of specific interrelated meanings and symbols that exists in a particular socio-cultural environment. This system is built and confirmed through a dialogue of a polling nature with the most informed and integrated representatives of the studied community.

It is important to note that “they achieve a thick, rich description over a relatively small area” (How to… use ethnographic methods and participant observation, 2019, para. 9). The ethnographic process also involves the collection and study of material aspects of the cultural component of the community, such as historical artefacts, production of photos, and videos for documentary purposes. This approach of learning is often used in relation to local and closed communities.

Comparative Practice in Anthropological Fieldwork

A comparative approach, as well as observation, is one of the pillars of scientific research. This technique is applied to the internal and external principles of various communities and their cultures. A specialist compares different world societies, communities within a standard cultural paradigm, and ways of cultural interaction within commonage. According to Patnaik (2017, p. 12), “to gather a full understanding of a society, it is necessary to examine the same in the context of another.” A comparative approach enables scientists to identify and describe the origins and further ways of cultural norms of interaction in the context of the external environment and the internal situation. This method is crucial, especially in the modern world of globalisation and diversity.

Reflexivity in the Context of Anthropological Fieldwork

Reflexivity, in a sense, is a guiding beacon for an anthropologist. This approach implies constant self-awareness in carrying out the previous three practical methods. According to Evens, Handelman and Roberts (2016, p. 7), “the social sciences are implicitly reflexive, and anthropology explicitly so.” The very presence of an anthropologist in a particular community changes the data received. Their interpretation based on the cultural background of the researcher is also subject to certain influences. Competent professionals should constantly remind themselves that they consider and evaluate communities as active member of another community.

Significance of Research Methods in the Scope of Anthropological Fieldwork

As a science of people, anthropology has gone through many stages of development, especially in the fieldwork. According to Fernandes (2016, p. 166), “in fact, anthropology has but very recently started reflecting thoroughly on its methods for fieldwork.” The observation method can be considered the initial stage for any specialists when they first immerse themselves in another cultural environment and begin to collect data about it.

The ethnographic approach allows anthropologists to competently systematise the data and put forward a scientific assumption based on all the materials obtained. Also, the ethnographic method is unique for the study of communities at a distinct historical interval in view of the form of information sources that commonly have a form of written documents and historical artefacts.

Further analysis through the prism of comparison shows the internal evolution of examined community and its features in comparison with the rest. A particular scientific awareness makes it possible to clarify, explain, and specify many aspects of the study. All these methods of practical knowledge are relevant and authentic, not only for novice anthropologists but also for professionals. Understanding their theoretical and practical basis will help neophytes become first-class anthropologists.

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The Influence of Anthropological Theory on Its Fieldwork Methods

The theory and practice of anthropology have a mutual effect on each other. The theoretical part as the initial stage of research had a greater impact on modern methods of anthropological practice. The theory helps a specialist determine major points of socio-cultural survey and develop ways of their practical realisation. It is important to note “theories help to direct our thinking and provide a common framework from which people can work” (Social evolution of anthropological theory, 2019, para. 1). Like any other scientific field, anthropology contains several theoretical directions. Some of them have long been out of date; some have supporters and remain relevant until now.

The Concept of Social Evolution at the Dawn of Anthropology

This theoretical model was probably the first in the cultural anthropology discourse. The main idea of this speculation was that all societies have the same path of cultural and technological progress. This statement was put forward on the basis of a comparative analysis of European history. It is important to note that in those days, adherents of social evolution considered and used the comparative method as the main principle of cognition and filling of scientific gaps (Long and Chakov, 2019). Although this theoretics strongly influenced the development of this research method, it did not completely take into account others. Over time, it was widely criticised and was found to be erroneous.

Modern Symbolism in Social Anthropology

One of the current theoretical trends is a symbolic approach. The central theme of this theory is that the cultural bases of humankind are embedded in symbolism and exegesis of various phenomena. The ultimate goal of this system is to determine the mechanisms for the formation of interpretations. Symbolic anthropology took as a basis and significantly advanced the ethnographic method of fieldwork. It is important to note that “…Symbolic and Interpretive Anthropology has forced anthropologists to become aware of cultural texts they interpret and of ethnographic texts they create” (Symbolic and interpretive anthropology, 2019, para. 2). This theory also indirectly influenced the methods and rules of modern and historical translation practice.

The Importance and Consistency of Anthropological Fieldwork

As a practical part of the scientific discipline, the fieldwork bears the responsibility of the evidence component. The correspondence of theory and practice largely determines the scientific authority of a particular subject. Anthropologists, through many years of practical experience, have developed the most effective techniques for obtaining information about people and the cultural environment. It is important to note that “through fieldwork, the social anthropologist seeks a detailed and intimate understanding of the context of social action and relations” (Fieldwork, 2019, para. 3). Social anthropology finds confirmed answers to modern phenomena and develops in accordance with the progress of society, and this is primarily due to the fieldwork and methods of its implementation.

Contribution of Ethnography to Modern Anthropology

Anthropology and ethnography can rightfully be considered interconnected scientific disciplines. Ethnographic research methods have brought a new perspective on people’s nature and the principles of human relationships. One of the most influential concepts was the thesis about the introduction of observational practice. According to Howell (2018, para. 29), “anthropology as a discipline without participant-observation fieldwork would have very little to offer the academic world or the general public.” Theories also strongly influenced the anthropological course associated with the importance of an in-depth study of the historical component and their interpretation. Unusual ethnographic techniques for their time forever changed the concept and principles of learning in anthropological research.

Reference List

Banerjee, B. G. (2017). Unit-1 fieldworks and its relevance. Web.

Bernard, H. R. (2017) Research methods in anthropology: qualitative and quantitative approaches. Lahnman: Rowman & Littlefield.

Evens, T. M. S., Handelman, D. and Roberts, C. ed., (2016). Reflecting on reflexivity: the human condition as an ontological surprise. New York: Berghahn Books.

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Fernandes, M. D. (2016) ‘Anthropological practice: fieldwork and the ethnographic method’, Anthropological Journal of European Cultures, 25(2), pp. 166-168.

Fieldwork (2019). Web.

Fieldworks methods (2019). Web.

How to… use ethnographic methods and participant observation (2019). Web.

Howell, S. (2018). Ethnography. Web.

Long, H. and Chakov, K. (2019) Social evolutionism. Web.

Patnaik, S. M. (2017). Unit-1 defining anthropology. Web.

Social evolution of anthropological theory (2019). Web.

Symbolic and interpretive anthropology (2019). Web.

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