Methodology is Important

To me, the heart of anthropology is “fieldwork” – participant-observation of a site where the anthropologists both lives in and studies a particular group of people. Nearly all of the classes I teach have some kind of fieldwork component as an assignment, and many are designed to allow a field project to be the central component of a term-long project. While there are various systems of categorizing anthropological methodology (quantitative vs. qualitative data, for example, all methods involve extensive periods of living in a particular fieldsite.

There are methodologies in all academic disciplines, whether it means specifically conducting an experiment in science or tracking character development in literature. With the emphasis on participant-observation fieldwork in anthropology, however, the anthropologist him or herself serves as a “black box” – the fieldworker can be seen as the instrument of measurement through his or her own reactions to particular cultural practices or social arrangements.

This means that in all my classes, it is a good exercise when reading ethnographic works to re-construct what you see as the author’s methodology. You can do this by asking yourself, “how does the author know the things that are used to support the conclusion?” All ethnographies (to varying degrees) are explicit about how the anthropologist interacted with people at the fieldsite, and the types and interpretation of data further reinforces the methods that a particular anthropologist used. Are people, events, stories, dialogue at the forefront of ethnographic description?