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?