Saturday, August 23, 2014

What is the difference between Ethnography and Anthropology?

Ethnography and Anthropology are terms that sometimes get confused in the public's mind. This is in part due to the role ethnography plays in cultural and social anthropological research. And in part by the dominance of the socio-cultural sub-field in the organization and teaching of anthropology. What I want to do here is attempt to clarify the difference and interdependence of these two terms. 

Ethnography is a method of study and data collection involving a trained observer documenting the life of an extant people or group using a participant/observe strategy. It also refers to the product of such research which takes the form of a monograph organizing, describing, and analyzing the data collected. Ethnography is the method most common used by social and cultural anthropologist to collect qualitative data, although it is also used by archaeologist and biological anthropologist for certain types of problem that require data from living people or people living in a natural environment.

Anthropology is the scientific discipline that focuses on the human species, its origins, its evolution, distribution, commonalities and diversity in the way human organize and adapt over time and space. It is self reflective since humans are both the subject of the study and the instigators of the study. Anthropology is the coalescence of the social science movement begun in the late 18th and early 19th century when Western (European) society began to apply the ideal of science to study itself. That is when social philosophy began to shift from a subjective focus to an objective one regarding mankind. Anthropology took on the problem of the study of the non-European and non-literate (no written history) peoples that Europeans encountered in their commercial and imperial expansion out of Europe.

Ethnography became the method adopted to gather first hand information to document the lives,societies, and cultures of the peoples encountered. In a way it is the same approach as a field biologist or primatologist uses except that human have language and express both their emotions and the reasoning through language. Fieldworkers who learn the language are capable of participating as well as observing the life and culture of their subjects. Language also enables a degree of interaction between observer and subject that is not possible in the case of field biologist. Thus the anthropologist can, through ethnography gain a deeper understanding of his/her subject than the field biologist, At the same time, the ethnographer can never be certain how much of what is observed is as meaningful to the subjects as it may seem to the observer since the observed is also observing the observer and reacting to him/her. This is a far more intimate relationship than one finds in most science. It might be equated to the medical researcher using her/himself as the guinea pig.

Short answer Anthropology is a discipline Ethnography is a method

Friday, August 8, 2014

Do you have the people skills to be a "career" anthropologist?

I was recently contacted by a graduate student from a prestigious local university where I had volunteered to provide counseling/mentoring assistance. The student is enrolled in a PhD program and going through an identity crisis -- to be an academic/researcher or to pursue a career outside of the academy, i.e. real world. The student wanted to discuss options in "consulting" and "management" as career paths. I have done a bit of  each  most of my professional career, so I accepted the student's request to meet and discuss the topics.

Arriving at a time and place, of course, is always a challenge first time out. So when we didn't connect immediately, we exchanged emails and eventually synchronized our schedules. Personally, I found the meeting to be interesting and hopefully the student did too. But there are a few things I observed that, should we meet again I will have to bring up, especially if the student plans to succeed in the real world. This is what I want share here.

About the initial contact:

In the email exchange to set up the appointment, the first message was initiated by the student and was correctly addressed and in the salutation my name was correctly spelled. In my response, I signed the email with my full name. Subsequently, the student responded but misspelled my surname and continued to do so in all subsequent emails.  This could easily have lead to a decision on my part to cancel the meeting. My response would have been, "If you are not concerned enough to spell my name correctly what value are you going to give to my time spent helping you?"


The Meeting: The meeting was scheduled for a local coffee shop, "my office" so to speak. I generally like to hold my first meeting with a client or student in a public setting to see how they act in public and to assess the areas that they might feel free to discuss candidly and what they might prefer to hold back on to discuss privately. An important part of this first contact is punctuality. This student was 10 minutes late and gave only a very cursory or flippant excuse. BAD IMPRESSION. Not being on time can be viewed as a sign of disrespect if not for the person with whom the appointment is made, then at least a sign of how important the meeting is to the one who asked for it. Excuses don't work, an explanation is called for. That, "sorry to be late" is weak. "I had trouble finding a parking spot" especially in the reality of our meeting would have been quite valid.


The Discussion:  When one is asked to counsel or mentor someone, you want to learn both what their concern is for seeking help and also something about where they are coming from emotionally and objectively. That is you want to know what the personal context is which brought them release there  is an issue. This means you want, in this case, the student to carry most of the conversation. To do this the student should be the interviewer. They should have a "story" which outlines who they are; why they have a problem:; what they are looking for in the way of assistance; and most of all why they picked you.   Next, they should have a series of specific questions they hope to find answers to. These don't need to be detailed or require detailed answers. But, they should be topical covering such things as "what do I need to know?" "Where should I look?" What can I expect ?"or What was your experience?" That is, the student should take charge of the interview. It is as much an audition as it is a research project

In this case, I found myself carrying the conversation. The questions that would have lead to answers the student might have been interested in hearing where not asked. Instead I found myself being expected to raise the questions and the answers. There is enough of the academic in me to fall into the lecturing trap, especially when a student takes the passive role.

But as a mentor, there is a buyer's regret that sets in afterwards when you realize that you have lectured the mentee rather than mentored or coached an "aspiring professional."  Lesson: If you ask someone for help -- know what it is you want before hand and use the mentor/coach/counselor's time efficiently, especially when it is given for free. You may think it is free and treat as such, but the mentor does not see it either as free nor worthless just because he/she does not charge you for it.


Follow-up:  After our hour long  "discussion" or better "session," we parted with the normal courtesies. I left it open as to whether the student wanted to do follow-up meeting. Later in the day, since I had mentioned several books that might be consulted to followup on points raised in the "lecture.", I wrote an email to the student with information and links to the source. I include a confirmation of the meeting. Here it is a week later and I have not yet received either a email thank you for the meeting or the follow up information I sent, but more importantly no feed back about what had transpired been helpful or not has come from the student. Which begs the question, Do we meet again? I doubt it.


What has been your experience?

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Autoethnography -- Calibrating the ethnographer as instrument

 I've been asked, "Could we define "auto-enthnography" as reflexivity?

I would argue that "reflexivity" is a method, one of several, that might be used to produce a product -- an autoethnography. To be reflective is to think objectively and critically about events, feelings and experiences one has witnessed. It is psychological and not anthropological.

An autoethnography is a scientific study of the "other" from the personal, professional point of view of the ethnographer as both the participant and as accepted as a member by the "other".

Let's look at the word behind the concept. "Auto" means "self", Someone or something is "auto" when it performs necessary functions for itself independent of outside influence. "Ethno" means "group", "race", "culture", that is, a collective set of people, their characteristic, behaviors, and/or beliefs. "Graphy" is a term that is attached to an object to imply a representation of the object such as "photo," "phono," "bio," or "ethno" Thus an autoethnography is a representation of a group, culture, race, or society as seen and experienced by one's self.

From my perspective and readings of "autoethnographic" essays and reports, the key difference between an autobiography which is an exercise in reflexivity and autoethnography is the emphasis on the "ethno" and not the "bio." That is the emphasis and point of view is that of the writer as a member of the group and not the self as the outsider.

How does one do this while avoiding "self-referencing? One does this by distinguishing between the group definition of who the ethnographer is and who the ethnographer believes she/he is. One does this by identifying explicitly what status the Other assigns the ethnographer and how the ethnographer interprets that status. This can be done by comparing the role performance expected by the Other as described in the ethnography for someone of that status with the ethnographer's testimony of his/her experience playing that role in the group.

Why is this important at all to anthropology as a science and how can this be of use to the humanist? As a scientific tool, autoethnography is a calibrating process for the reader and to a degree the ethnographer. It describes and documents the conditions under which the recording instrument, the ethnographer, experienced the culture of the group by defining the status/role positions the ethnographer occupied when making the observations. Anthropology is a natural science, in part, because it has no way of replicating the unique events it records. The autoethnography attempts to capture those aspects of the event that might be replicated and/or evaluated by a trained third party.

For the humanist, this is the source of drama, comedy and tragedy. Drama is all about conflict and cognitive dissonance where status and roles get confused and misinterpreted. For the humanist anthropologist, the autoethnography can be the first step in the process of writing a more philosophical ethnography.

The auto ethnography is not a replacement for the scientific ethnography or philosophical treatise, it is an adjunct to it that provides the reader with the context for the main object, the study of the Other.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Two Cultures of Anthropology

When we speak of anthropology, most often we are referring to the cultural sub-field or the socio-cultural sub-field, of the discipline. The question of whether anthropology is a method or science really only arises in the cultural sub-field. Here is where the dualism between mind and body, individual and society, history vs science, subjective vs objective, are played out on both the theoretical level and the practical level. This is the zone C P Snow labelled the Two Cultures.

We, as cultural anthropologist, use a method we call ethnography as our basic research method and ethnology as our analytical approach. The former is conducted, we claim, by a combination of participant-observer field research where we look for and document the emic and the etic domains of our "subjects." We practice a form of natural history. Our focus is the qualitative data, meaning we seek to describe a society and its culture rather than measure it.

Our analytical method, ethnology, is based on a set of three principles -- holism, relativism, and comparative analysis. We apply these principles when we study the similarities and differences in the ethnographies that comprise the our corpus of ethnographic data. In this regard, "culture" is the guiding concept, or filter for our analysis. Here we seek to arrive at some understanding and consensus of "cultural/social" universals and processes at work in human existence. It is here where we attempt to link our ethnographies with our discoveries from the physical, linguistic and archaeological sub-fields to obtain an overall picture of what it means to be human and what it has taken to become human. This is the goal of the academic research branch of anthropology.

The applied branch, on the other hand, seeks to apply the principles and understanding of the human and institutional processes articulated by the academic branch to the solution of practical problems confronted by individuals and society in the real world of every day life.

In this regard, the academic research branch is free to move between the two cultures of science and humanities, while "applied" branch, whether it is recognize or not, is morally, ethically and possibly legally bound to an application of techniques and principles which can withstand at least the minimal standards of good science, i.e. validity and reliability. The practitioner must balance "generally accepted 'anthropological" standards" with the academic "state of the art."

The divide between Theory and Practice within the discipline has been a costly one for both the development of the discipline and for the thousands of students trained in anthropology who have not been able to find a professional acceptance as professional equals within the broad definition of anthropology as a discipline.

 [In the interest of full disclosure, I am a four field anthropologist (and two branch "academic research" and "applied")].

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Auto-ethnography, a validation process for ethnographic research

Auto-ethnography is the second tier in validating the scientific (objective) observations of the field ethnographer. Auto-ethnography is those observations and recordings that the field ethnographer makes that describe what they did as both observer and more importantly, as a participant in the community being studied.

In socio-cultural anthropology, the data is behavior, human behavior recorded by and through the observations and participation of a human being of the socio-cultural system or subsystem of a community of human actors. The questions that haunts cultural anthropologists are, "How objective is the reporting?" "Can the anthropologist truly divorce him/herself from ones own cultural and gender biases?" "How do we deal with subjectivity?" Unlike the other three field of Anthropology, there are no real external standards for judging the validity and reliability of the data reported.

In archaeology, one has the physical evidence of the artifacts collected, and the maps drawn of the site according to well established mapping techniques and standards including the physical measurements of the relationship between features and feature and artifacts. Because archaeology is a destructive activity, it is crucial that the research and future generations can reconstruct the site from the records long after they have been destroyed in the initial process of recovery.

In biological and physical anthropology there are protocols, standardized physical instruments and biological test. These standard instruments and procedures produce a data set that can be replicated if desired when applied to the same or similar subjects at another time by the same or different trained researcher. This insures the validity of the first study and demonstrates the reliability of the record and procedures used.

In linguistics data collection is fairly simple using audio equipment to record the phonetics, and morphemes as well as spoken sentences which once captured can be analyzed by standard procedures. Where and when recording devices were not available, a standardized phonetic alphabet was used to record sounds, words, and word elements. Anyone trained to read and write the alphabet could reconstruct the language as recorded and if necessary test the meanings reported in a translation against what any native speaker of the language in question would interpret the translation.

Cultural anthropology historically has been carried out by lone wolves who went off to an "unknown" or "little" known "primitive" community and came back to write an ethnography in which they described the "culture" of the studied group. This description was to be in objective terms based on the data collected by the researcher in field notes and photographs etc. All of these would be the product of the field worker. Yet there was no calibration the principle instrument, the field worker him/herself, to any "real" standard other than the claims of the researcher him/herself. There was no way to replicate the research at one point in time by a restudy at a different point in time.

As an undergraduate, in the early 1960, I was told that it would be best, if one planned a career in cultural anthropology, that one  have themselves psycho-analyzed before going into the field in order to understand what biases they bring to the field situation. Whether this was ever a widely held belief or practice I can not attest to, however, the idea of some form of "calibration" of the field worker as the recording device struck me as sound at the time. Later, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I experienced what I suspected that process might be when we underwent extensive psychological evaluation before being finally selected to serve overseas.

So how do field ethnographers validate their work and how do they evaluate each others' work?

One of the first ethnographies I read as an undergraduate was Allen Holmberg's Nomads of the Long Bow. Its format was very typical of the time with sections on the social structure and kinship system, the economic system, political and religious systems, the annual group and individual life cycles. As far as I could tell, and I guessed the University of Chicago and my professors at Brown, this was a model ethnography. Yet there was something I found disturbing in the study. It was my first exposure to what has come to be called "auto-ethnography." Let me quote from Holmberg

“…in a society like the Siriono, where the food supply is both scarce and insecure, a person’s status necessarily depends on his ability as a provider of food than on any other single factor. This was clearly brought home to me [Allan Holmberg] time and time again while I was at Tibaera [located along the Rio Blanco in eastern Bolivia]
“One case deserves special mention. Enia (Knee) was the brother-in-law of Chief Eantandu.  He had  had some contact with the outside, but because of maltreatment had run away from his patrón and returned to native life. He was an intelligent man with an unusual ability (for a Siriono) to adjust to White civilization. He was a hard worker and reliable, and he knew considerable Spanish.  His one weakness was that he could not hunt as well as his countrymen. Time after time I saw him leave with his bow and arrows, and time after time I watched him return empty handed, while his fellow tribesman left after him on the same trail and return with game.He was generally referred to as "not knowing how to hunt." He was openly insulted at drinking feasts for his inability to hunt.He had lost one wife to a better man. His status was low; his anxiety about hunting, high. He had, however, made some kind of readjustment to native life by planting more crops and collecting more forest products than the others and trading some of his vegetables for meat. But still he was not satisfied. Noting this condition, I set out to raise his status. First he accompanied me with his bow and arrows on hunting trips. He carried in game which I shot [Holmberg had a shotgun to hunt for his own food], part of which was given to him and which we told others was shot by him. His status began to improve. Shortly thereafter, I taught him to use a shotgun, and he brought in game of his own. Needless to say, when I left Tibaera he was enjoying the highest status, had acquired several new sex partners, and was insulting others, instead of being insulted by them." (Holmberg, Allen 1960 p.60)
Here is a case of autoethnography where the researcher in the role of participant describes how he intervened into the lives of the people he was stdying and was able to test a hypothesis developed in the field about the relationship between male hunting skill and his social status or rank. He also reports on an intervention to teach one of his subjects how to use a shot gun in place of the traditional bow and arrows to hunt meat.

When I read this, back as an undergraduate I was struck by what I saw as the unanswered ethical question -- what happened when Holmberg left? Did he take the shot gun with him? How and where did Enia acquire shells for the gun, if Holmberg left it with him? These questions would not even have come up, had Holmberg not self reported his own role in the lives of this particular Siriono Indian and indirectly in the power struck of the band.

At the time I did not see this as an example of auto-ethnography. The term had not yet been invented. But situation Holmberg describes, did raise certain ethical questions in my mind about just how involved should or could a field researcher become with his subjects in the participant observer role?

It does, looking back on it today, provide an insight into Holmberg, as an activist field ethnographer who later chose to lead the legendary Vicos project..

Source: Nomads of the Long Bow: The Siriono of Eastern Bolivia. Allan Holmberg (Reprinted for the Second-Year Course in the Social Sciences) Syllabus Division, University of Chicago Press, Chicago. March 1960

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Boasian Ethic of American Anthropology

The 11 Rules of an Boasian Anthropological ethic form a American anthropological tradition and ethic.
These rules are:
1. a combination of humanistic and scientific values;
2. a focus on the concept of culture;
3. an emphasis on non-literate, small scale sociocultural systems as the subject of study;
4. a holistic perspective in the study of sociocultural phenomena;
5. a reliance on the comparative method of analysis;
6. a tradition of employment in a research setting associated with a museum or university;
7. an orientation toward historical particularism, i.e. understanding the role and function of sociocultural phenomena in context;
8. a tradition of participant-observation in a personal field work experience;
9. the ideal of the scientific role as a standard for judging professional status;
10. an objective and relativistic moral and ethical position;
11. a four field approach in the basic training of recruits to the profession and in the organization of the profession. (Bainton 1979: 127 - 128)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Is Anthropology a method or a science?

In a recent discussion about the central focus of anthropology, what distinguishes anthropology from other disciplines, an argument was made that we do have a central theoretical focus. In fact, the argument goes, that theory is based on the fact that we are holistic and yet culturally relative. We are, in this formulation, the combination and contradiction of C. P. Snow's Two Cultures - Science vs Humanities. This approach, which goes back at least to Boas, is proposed to be the anthropological method.

 I agree that we have a central methodology. It is a methodology that in many ways also reflects our underlying philosophy of science and the nature of things -- that is, the objective (etic) observation of the world and the subjective (emic) nature of the observing instrument -- the anthropologist. We incorporate a "quantum" perspective which recognizes the fact that the observer IS part of the system being observed and thereby influences the observation -- i.e. creates a degree of uncertainty.

But a methodology is not a theory or explanation. It is only a process which without direction and purpose is like the mouse running on the wheel in its cage. Good exercise going nowhere. Theory is by its very nature "inductive" speculations based on deductive analysis of the observations made of nature. Induction is the "If, then" statement where the "if" statement is based on a known set of data, and the "then" statement is a generalization of that data into an unknown future event or situation. Deduction is tautological. It too is a set of "If, then" statements. However, these statement are known facts and relationships from which a new or previously unknown fact is "deduced" If A = C, and B = C, then A = B.

As "natural history" anthropology is a deductive science. But as an predictive science and an applied science, an inductive science. That is, in the former case we report what we see and then analysis it to see more detail in the facts we already have. In the latter case, we detect patterns from past observations and hypothesize or predict future outcomes based on the correlations found between variables from past observations, e.g. what the population of X will be in ten years based on the population rate for the past 30 years..

Inductive models or theories point out problems for study and to validate observed patterns or to disprove the pattern. Anthropology today, especially ethnography, does not seem to have an inductive focus -- a set of principles or correlations that drive the research or analysis. Instead we seem to be happy pursuing our own idiosyncratic emic agendas -- "description and deductions" based on a sample of one at one moment in time and space.

My personal bias in this regard is the broad generalized question of the human condition and what we can infer about it based on a 150 or more years of anthropological research. Some might say anthropology is the study of "culture" (e.g. Leslie White, Tylor, Kroeber) which is phenomenon oriented, while others might say anthropology is the study of mankind ( or pc "humankind") which is species (biologically) oriented.

In this regard, the concept "meme" or "trait" or any other term that one chooses that distinguishes the physical "gene" concept from the ideational "superorganic" concept presents us with an interesting and promising why to inductively test propositions that relate directly structure and dynamics of "culture" on one hand, and on the other to the "tipping" point between Hominid to Homo (Human like animal to the self aware Human animal).

Finally, those who question the validity of Memetics argue that it "is not a theory by any reasonable definition thereof. More a model, and a rather questionable one to anyone who has studied semiotic"

First, anthropology is not semiotics, although semiotics has much to contribute to anthropology. Second, "meme" is a theoretical concept, the same way the Higgs Particle is/was a theoretical concept, it is not a fact. As a theoretical concept it calls for an inductive approach.

The "meme" provides a basis for directing research by focusing on creating hypotheses to prove or disprove its existence. And if "meme" is not the right concept, the question still exists, how did man or culture become what it is and what it means to be human? Unless, of course, you accept the orthodoxy of the breath of life and the apple in the Garden of Eden.But then we have ceded a scientific approach to the study of culture and humanity to a religious orthodoxy.