Week 13: Ethnography and the study of cultural differences

Week 13: Ethnography and the study of cultural differences

Week 13 (, for posts the week of Nov 9)

Topic:  Ethnography and the study of cultural differences

Reading:  Yousafzai Chapters 5 – 11

Assignment for next weeks posts:  Please read the narrative below.  Also please read chapters 1 and 39 (“Ethnography and Culture” and “Using Anthropology”) in the book of readings in Anthropology (Conformity and Conflict) attached to this week’s material.  Post your reflections on the readings and course material for this week by 11:59 pm Wednesday, be sure to include a summary of the two chapters from Conformity and Conflict and a discussion of what you learned visiting some of the websites I link to below in your post, and reply to another students post by noon Sunday Nov 15.  Keep in mind that the 11th is a campus holiday (Veteran’s Day) so you may want to post by Monday the 9th or Tuesday the 10th if you are going to be busy during the holiday

Ethnography and the study of cultural differences

            Anthropologists and Sociologists share many of the same research methodologies, including participant observation.  However, anthropologists tend to especially depend on enthnography – the detailed recording of everyday activities of a group.  By comparing ethnographic records of different cultural groups, the goal of anthropology is to better understand the similarities and differences between different cultures.  While the book you are reading by Yousafzai is a autobiography and therefor focuses on the life experiences of one individual, in their everyday work anthropologists usually depend on a wide variety of sources of information to develop an ethnography, including interviews with people of a culture describing their lives.  Please read chapters 1 and 39 of the attached text which discuss the value of ethnography as a method for studying different cultures and methodologies in anthropology.

Typically, an anthropologist will record all sorts of different facts and observations about a culture – from childrearing practices to food preparation, from religious practices to approaches towards outsiders or concepts of time.  The goal of an anthropologist is to develop as complete a record of another culture as possible, using historical records, personal observations, interviews with members of the culture, recording of myths and rituals as well as careful recording of everyday life.

One of the most famous examples of ethnography is the several decade long study of the Yanomamo tribe of the Amazon by the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon.  Since the 1960’s, Chagnon has been living for extended periods with a tribe in the Amazon that previously had very little contact with outsiders.  Chagnon’s careful documentation of all aspects of Yanomamo life is a model of how to do ethnography, but some of his conclusions and approaches have been questioned.  You can learn more about his research and watch interviews with him as well as some of his films of his work here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGfoPK7TQbs, and here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxCXOfC-aMs, and learn a bit about the controversy surrounding his research here: http://cogweb.ucla.edu/Abstracts/Chagnon_00.html


Regardless of the controversy, Chagnon’s ethnography gives a good sense of what can be learned using this method.  For example, Chagnon over the years documented on film many of the everyday activities of the tribe, which provides an interesting view of the lifestyle of a group of people living a very different life from those of us in the western world. 

Another research method closely allied to ethnography is the method of naturalistic observations which is employed by students of animal behavior to record the behaviors of wild populations of animals.  Perhaps the best known example of this approach is that of the primatologist Jane Goodall who as famously devoted the past 50 years of her life living with and documenting the lives of groups of chimpanzees.  Over the course of these years, Goodall has documented all sorts of astonishing behaviors in chimpanzees, starting in the 1960’s with her observation of tool use (something that until then had been considered an exclusively human ability).  Goodall was able to record these phenomena only because she spent years living close to the animals she was observing and was able, over time, to get very close to them – not very different from an anthropologist developing an ethnography of an unknown culture.  You can learn more about Goodall’s work and discoveries here:  http://www.janegoodall.org/


While ethnography and naturalistic observation has been a valuable method of research and anthropologists using this method have added a lot to our understanding of other cultures, by the 1970’s there was some dissatisfaction among anthropologists using this method.  The problem that many anthropologists had was that as ethnographers, they were always outsiders in a culture – they would spend all their time interviewing people, filming behaviors, and in other ways recording daily life, and this constant recording kept the anthropologist in the role of an outsider – someone who really did not belong in the society.  This also made it more likely that the ethnographer may be misled – if you are not part of culture, only documenting it as a film maker or interviewer, you will not know how accurate the information you are recording is – could you be misled (either on purpose or simply because what you are observing is not typical) – assuming that this information came from an anthropologist who interviewed a few people in these cultures, how sure can we (and the anthropologist) be of the accuracy of this information?  Are the interviewee’s typical of the culture as a whole?  Are they the best people to ask?  Are they telling the truth?  This is a particularly important question because there have been some spectacular cases of anthropologists conclusions being questioned because of the untrustworthyness of the sources and observations.  The best known example of this is Margaret Meads work in Samoa.  Mead was one of the most important figures in the history of Anthropology, and she first became famous because of the ethnographic work she did as a young anthropologist in Samoa in the 1930’s.  Mead wrote a famous book about her findings “Coming of Age in Samoa” that for many decades was required reading for students of anthropology.  In her study of Samoa, Mead reached the conclusion that adolescence in Samoa was a very different experience from adolescence in the west.  At the time (1920’s and 1930’s) there was a growing concern in the United States about this newly identified age group – teenagers (adolescence had only been viewed as a distinct period in life since the turn of the 20th century).  Teenagers in the west were (are?) rebellious, prone to violence, and sex obsessed.  Mead studied adolescents in Samoa, and concluded that in Samoa, the adolescent stage was a very different experience – she claimed that Samoan teenagers were not prone to rebellion, and showed no tendency to violence, in part because they practiced “free love” from an early age – Mead argued that Samoan teens were encouraged to experiment sexually and had no sexual hang-ups, leading to a much more harmonious and peaceful transition to adulthood.  You can learn more about Mead and her impact on anthropology here: http://www.interculturalstudies.org/Mead/biography.html.

  Mead’s conclusions about Samoan adolescence were incredibly influential in that they suggested that changes across the lifespan are determined more by our culture than by biology – this view has dominated anthropology since then – you can read about Meads influence and work here as well:  http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/mead/field-samoa.html . Unfortunately for Mead’s legacy, there is a lot of good evidence that suggests that her conclusions about Samoan adolescents was completely wrong.  Later anthropologists concluded that teenagers in Samoa did not have any easier a time of it than in the west, and they certainly were not more sexually liberated than their western counterparts.  How could Mead have been so wrong?  As an outsider, she have to rely on interviews with informants for her data – she interviewed a group of teenage Samoans, who apparently in typical teenage fashion decided to lie to her and fabricated a story about teenage life in Samoa that was very different from the truth. You can learn more about this case here http://www.nytimes.com/2001/08/05/world/derek-freeman-who-challenged-margaret-mead-on-samoa-dies-at-84.html?pagewanted=1.

Incidents such as the Mead case lead some anthropologists to argue for an alternative approaches to studying a group of culture – one of those approaches is one you are already familiar with, Participant Observation.  Unlike an ethnography, where the researcher, as an outsider, records all aspects of life, a participant observer becomes part of the culture or society, and observes from the inside.  This means that the participant observer does not do formal interviews (with note pads and tape recorders) but instead engages in conversations and only records what was discussed later, in private.  The participant observer does not film an event, but is part of the event, and records their impressions later.  The participant observer is more like a spy than an outsider.  The idea is that by engaging in participant observation, you get a more accurate sense of what a culture is like from the inside, and do not depend on others to provide you with information.  There are both positive and negative consequences to this approach.  The positive is that the participant gets a more first had sense of the culture.  In addition, as a participant observer you are more unobtrusive (as compared to the ethnographer with film camera and note pad) and people are more likely to act naturally around you. The negative is that the participant observer, because they are not recording events as they occur (so that they can fully participate in events) is not going to have as complete and accurate a record of events.  As you know from your previous book, participant observation has become increasingly popular not only in anthropology but in other related fields such as sociology and psychology as well. 

Another way that anthropologists try to improve on traditional ethnographic methods is to rely on documents recorded by members of the culture under study themselves – written records, history, stories, works of art, and other documents that may support information collected by observation.  An example of this approach would be Yousafzai’s descriptions of her own experiences – in a way she is a participant observer of life in a small Pakistani village under the Taliban, and someone with detailed lived knowledge of the culture she is writing about.  As such, her autobiography can be seen as a piece of anthropological data.

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