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According to the American Anthropological Association, ethnographic study is a tool used by cultural anthropologists to study a culture up close and personal. While living among the people they are studying, anthropologists observe behaviors and ask questions about cultural norms. The idea is to collect new and first-hand information on a culture with the perspective of the people being studied.
Ethnographic studies can turn preconceived notions and misunderstandings about a particular culture into positive comprehensions. Ethnographic studies can also lend credibility to other interpretations from studies about a particular culture that have been done in the past . In addition, ethnographies can give people a better understanding and insight into their own culture.
However, the ethnographic study of a culture can be time consuming. Even before an anthropologist is immersed in a culture’s natural environment, he must first learn the language and research the culture. This can take an enormous amount of time and it can be extremely dangerous for an anthropologist if he does not understand a culture’s traditions and taboos. An anthropologist must also take the time to gain the trust and respect of a culture’s people, and seek permission to conduct an ethnographic study before he proceeds
Cultural anthropologists use participant observation to study cultures. For instance, an anthropologist might observe a culture’s daily activity or ritual, and then make inferences about its meaning. However, because of the nature of human biases and cultural differences, an anthropologist might misunderstand or misinterpret an observation. It is important for the anthropologist to ask questions, and interview relevant parties to get a better understanding of cultural practices.
Just by being present, an anthropologist may unknowingly influence the natural way a culture behaves. For example, American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead documented Samoan adolescent life. Her conclusions suggested that Samoan teenagers, especially the young girls, were promiscuous. She later published her findings in her book “Coming of Age in Samoa.” Unfortunately for Mead, her book was criticized because other anthropologists, such as Derek Freeman, questioned whether the Samoan girls were acting differently while they were in front of Mead.
Cultural Voice and Rights
Ethnographic studies help people record their way of life and preserve their heritage. There are countless cultures around the world that would go unnoticed if it weren't for ethnographic studies. Some cultural practices are unique to certain cultures, and many traditions are not passed down to the next generation, like they once were. Ethnographic studies help to preserve these customs by recording them so they can be viewed by later generations.
But, ethnographic studies can infringe on the rights of the participants if privacy rights are not understood or upheld. Some cultures may not understand that their pictures and their cultural histories, traditions, rituals and practices will be recorded and documented, studied and viewed by people. A cultural anthropologist must reveal her intentions to the people she will be studying. For example, some Native American tribes, like the Mechoopda of Northern California, believe they will lose their souls if their picture is taken. An anthropologist conducting an ethnographic study should understand and respect such beliefs.
- “Statement on Ethnography and Institutional Review Boards”; American Anthropological Association; 2004
- “The Study of Culture, Third Edition”; L.L Langness; 2005
- “Coming of Age in Samoa”; Margaret Mead; 1971
- Antoinette Martinez, PhD; Anthropology Professor California State University, Chico California