1. N. Anderson, 2014



Anthropology has developed some excellent methods over time, and so have other social sciences.  Not using these is comparable to an astronomer using a spyglass instead of computer-integrated information from modern telescopes, or an anatomist using a paleolithic handaxe instead of a scalpel and microscope.  There is simply no excuse for doing poor work, especially on a genuinely valuable project, because of failure to learn a few simple methods.


  1. General Background


Technically, a methodology is a suite of methods entailed by a particular theory.  One uses these methods because they are the proper or best way to test hypotheses generated by the theory.

A theory, in turn, is a general assumption (or set of interconnected assumptions) about how things work.  (The best account of such matters is Kitcher 1993).  The theory may be just guesses, like string theory, or may be very obvious statements that need formalization and extension, like the theory of gravity. Newton did not discover that things fall down instead of up; his genius was to explain why they did, as well as could be done at the time, and to state it mathematically.

A theory should lead to hypotheses (predictions or similar bets) that can be tested; otherwise it’s too vague to count.  Many theories get along without making clear testatble statements, though, in spite of positivism.  Still, if the theory doesn’t make you formulate some sort of testable hypotheses, it’s a waste of time.  Marxism and capitalist economics are both famously untestable bodies of theory, but do lead to testable statements.  The failures of the USSR and Mao’s China show that, whatever Marxism-in-general has to offer, some orthodox Marxisms don’t work.  The Great Depression and the world recession of 2008 show that capitalism doesn’t always work, either.  Many do not count Marxism as a body of theory, however.

Some theories are disproved and are essentially dead.  The most famous of these is Galen’s theory of humoral medicine, which guided medical science throughout the Old World for centuries.  Usually, however, a theory does not totally die; it generates a few useful formulations that go on and on.  And even a bad theory can generate useful hypotheses and conclusions.  Galen’s ideas about moderation in diet and exercise are still with us, since he was perfectly right about them, though for the wrong theoretical reasons.

A theory differs from several theory-like formulations, all of which can be useful but are not really theories.  Orienting statements are one type.  An orienting statement gives you a general way of looking at things, but is too general and abstract to test or to suggest testable statements.  Recent “theories” about globalization, for instance, direct us to look at global-scale phenomena, but usually do not make testable claims about those.  Often an orienting statement is a moral claim, and therefore untestable because it is about what we should do, rather than what we do.

Another shaky type of “theory” is the banal, trivial sort of statement for which certain branches of sociology are infamous (Mills 1959).  Saying that humans are social, that society requires organization, and that organization requires leadership is too bland to be worthy of the name “theory.”  Theory begins when we make claims about how organizations form, how leaders come on board, and what form leadership structures take under given social circumstances.

Another, and much worthier, alternative to true theory is interpretation (Geertz 1973).  Interpretation is, by definition, unprovable.  It can range from my idiosyncratic take on something to a generally accepted understanding, but it is not provable in the scientific sense.  We find it most frequently in literary studies.  Science cannot prove that one or another understanding of the Bible or Hamlet is the “right” one, or that Beethoven’s Ninth is noble and imposing, or that Dutch still-life paintings were comments on the transience of life.  We do not have the creators of these works around to ask.  Yet, it is well worth while to talk of such matters and speculate about them, and anthropology would be immeasurably poorer without such discourse.

One goal of theory and interpretation is to “tell the story behind the story”—i.e., to figure out what is actually causing the events we see.  In social science, theories often divide into broad categories according to what is assumed to be the main cause of action.  Economists tend to assume people want money or material goods.  Sociologists often assume social solidarity or social position are especially important.  Political theorists, including “critical” thinkers like Foucault, often assume power is the most basic thing (though they often have a hard time defining it).  There are other possibilities.  The wise social scientist will keep an open mind, and see how all factors play in a given situation.

Finally, we have philosophy, classically defined by Plato as the study of “the true, the good and the beautiful.”  Neither science nor interpretation will ever tell us what those are, but the human race cannot stop speculating and arguing about them.  We are better and nobler for doing so, in spite of the ultimate hopelessness of the task.

Hopefully, all this will save readers from the all-too-common tendency in anthropology to write a fun story about one’s field work, and then—after the fact—hang some sort of “theory” on it because an editor demanded same.  A decent anthropologist goes to the field with a body of theories, or interpretive ideas, or philosophic concepts, and expects to test them, or at least learn something important about them.


Methodology comes in as a way of testing the hypotheses and examining the theory.  It can also greatly sharpen, expand, and improve the quality of interpretation and philosophy.

Usually, we in anthropology do not follow the rigorous positivist rule that a given theory must call forth a specific methodology and a given method-set must be theory-driven.  (Some anthropologists, especially in archaeology, do follow the positivist rules on this.)  We use the term “methodology” to refer to methods in general.  Moreover, all the methods I describe below can be used with almost any theory, though a particular mix of them may be appropriate to only one body of theory.  However, it is well to remember the connection with theory.  Most current cultural anthropology is weakly theorized; at worst, it is mere travel writing.  So-called “theory” is often no more than a positive attitude toward the people studied and a negative attitude toward outsiders that have an effect on their lives.  This is bias, not theory.

Physical anthropology uses Darwinian theory, archaeology often uses ecological or processual or post-processual theories, but cultural anthropology currently uses actual theory rather sporadically.  Theories of the past (Boasian, Durkheimian, Marxian, etc.) are now used only in a rather loose or general way.  Some ecological, linguistic, and economic theories are still used, but are often dated by now.  The theories of mid-20th-century writers like Michel Foucault remain valuable, but often used vaguely or loosely.  This has produced a situation in which much of anthropology reads like poor-quality journalism—a situation in serious need of correction.


It is extremely valuable to go into the field with a full tool kit of theories and methods.  No theory is adequate by itself.  Even the most comprehensive social-science theories need major supplementation.  The more you reject theories, the more limited and hard to use your results will be.  Both the “postmodern” anthropology that rejected science or even systematic data collecting and the hyper-“scientific” work of the early optimal-foraging-theory days have turned out to be too limited to use for any purpose except stimulating others to go beyond them.  A simple theory is always a good starting point, but anthropology by 100 years ago had reached a stage where truly simplistic theories were known to be inadequate (see e.g. Lowie 1937).

Many anthropologists over the years have found great consolation in T. C. Chamberlin’s classic essay “The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses,” originally published in Science in 1890 (republished 1965) and now available online on many websites—just search the title.  Chamberlin, a geologist, learned to go into the field with multiple theories and hypotheses available for every observed event.  His explanation of how and why to do this has never been surpassed.  I have actually found this method the most valuable I have ever used.  It means you have to be familiar with the widest possible range of high-level and mid-range theories, from functionalism and structuralism to Foucaultian ideas and Darwinian biology.

Thus, you might think of using some or all of the methods below, so as to get at least some real control on data.


Anthropology is based on a methodology consisting of three fundamental approaches:

–Extended field work, usually lasting at least a year, with a particular community.  The preferred method is “participant observation,” in which one lives as much as possible in the way the local people do.  Of course, really living as the locals do is possible only if one is a local; many anthropologists study their homelands, but most go to some less familiar group, which involves adjustment and makes participant observation a rather qualified matter.

–A holistic approach, which involves taking into account ecological, economic, technological, social, psychological, and political factors.

–Cross-cultural comparison, which involves comparing as many different cultures as possible, to establish or disprove generalizations about people.

This methodology was devised by Lewis Henry Morgan, the father of American anthropology, in the 1850s and 1860s.  I think of it as the three stones that hold up the cooking pot— a metaphor used for social categories (rather than anthropological methods!) by indigenous peoples from the Toba Batak of Sumatera to the Maya of Quintana Roo.


The leading methods book for anthropology is Russell Bernard’s classic Research Methods in Anthropology (now in its 4th edition, 2006).  This is a genuinely great work, a real Bible, and must be kept at hand in field work and analysis.

The only other work I consider indispensable for all ethnographers is Charles Frake’s Language and Cultural Description (1980), which contains several essays on methods that are vitally important.  These essays include especially the classic descriptions of frame elicitation (see below)

There are specialized journals devoted to field work and methods.


  1. The Question of Interpretation and Reality


The key thing anthropologists can do is find out about the local culture.  This does not mean “getting inside the heads” of the locals or “finding out what they think”; it means finding out about what they share.  As an outsider, you will not have the level of access to that shared knowledge and behavior that an insider has, but by using specialized anthropological techniques you can get very close.  You can learn just as well as any immigrant and almost as well as any child.  Frake gives excellent discussions of what the ethnographer can and cannot do.  You can’t read the local minds, but neither can the locals; they have to infer rules, structures, and understandings, just as you do.

The goal of the field worker should be what Frake (1980) calls “appropriate anticipation”—be able to predict, more or less as well as the locals do, what will happen in a given situation.  The goals of the ethnographer, again following Frake, should include telling the reader enough that the reader could act appropriately if s/he were there.  Think of a language textbook:  it should, at the very least, tell you what to say in given situations.  Similarly, an ethnography of local religion should at least tell you how to act and what to expect if you go there and are asked to a ceremony.  (Of course, a work on general theory, or on comparative mythology, or on demographic history, will probably not have such instructions.  We are discussing ethnography, specifically, in this case.)

On the one hand, this means you can learn the culture, and claims that the locals have some mystic telepathic sharing denied to you are just silly.  On the other hand, it means you should be exceedingly modest about “interpretation”—even if you are a local!  Geertzian “interpretive anthropology” (Geertz 1973) and its ancestors (“national character” studies, etc.) have a dubious record.  Unless you are a cultural insider, you will not normally share individual or collective experiences of war, genocide, bias, or for that matter the joys of good harvests or religious ceremonies.  It is wise to simply quote the locals, extensively, on such matters.  Let them do the sophisticated interpreting.

In short, you should do everything possible to find out shared knowledge and shared behavior, but you should be appropriately modest about your ability to understand personal experiences of particularly intense, evocative states and situations.

There was a major debate within anthropology in the 1960s over whether we can get at “what people think.”  Marvin Harris (1968) took an extreme view on the “no” side.  He maintained that we can record only behavior, and cannot trust what people say, let alone our interpretations.  People lie, misrepresent, misunderstand their own motives, etc.  At the other end of the scale, interpretivists like Geertz and cultural psychologists like Rick Shweder (1991), without making a huge point of it (as Harris did), took relatively strong “yes” positions.  Geertz and Shweder implied that understanding what is in people’s heads is relatively unproblematic, at least if one uses modern methods of finding out.   Geertz is modest about his interpretations, leaving the possibility of other interpretations quite open.  Shweder, and  others, have been more assertive.

The field basically solved the problem by voting with their feet for the latter position.  I do not know of anyone maintaining Harris’ position today.  All anthropologists now infer, to varying degrees, “what people think.”  All anthropologists admit that people do sometimes say what they think, and that by careful cross-verification and other techniques (see below) one can get at, or at least approximate, truth.  Even archaeologists are increasingly confident in their ability to infer at least some simple, straightforward ideas from material remains and ethnographic parallels, though this is a tricky game.

There is, however, a huge range.  Some extremely careful anthropologists use a whole armamentarium of techniques to establish meticulously a few rather simple understandings; this would include many cognitivists, who work hard to find the meanings of “simple” plant and animal names, food lore, kinterms, landscape terms, and other straightforward terms that can be grounded in visible reality.  (I am in this category.)  Others make really quite wild assumptions about their ability to understand in depth the most arcane and abstruse religious and philosophical ideas.  This is obviously a dangerous game, since even the locals may not share abstruse ideas very widely.

One necessary part of this is getting a thorough sense of what words mean.  You don’t have to be totally fluent in the local language, though it helps.  Systematic questioning, coupled with lots of listening and observation of how words are used in actual conversations, is necessary.  (See Frake, again.)  Using the words yourself is obviously desirable—you’re sure to misuse them in interesting ways, thus producing innnocent amusement for your subjects as well as a learning experience for yourself.  (Every ethnographer has a favorite story.  Mine is:  when first in Hong Kong I had to buy water from a local standpipe.  People would give me the standard greeting, “Where are you going?”  I would answer “I’m going to buy water.”  After a couple of shocked looks, I realized something was wrong, and found out that the phrase “buy water” is used only when you are getting water to wash the corpse of a family member!  Just one of those idioms….)


Finally, it is abundantly clear that anthropologists have been far too dismissive of local interpretations, theories, and wisdom generally.  The interpretive or functionalist anthropologist, the optimal-foraging or economic theorist, often assumes his or her interpretations and theories are better, truer, more privileged, and more insightful.  Comment should be unnecessary; you come for ONE year and you know more about these people than they know about themselves from thousands of years of interaction?  Right.  But traditional and local people are not used to verbalizing their philosophies and social theories.  You have to be sensitive and keep asking.  Also, as an outsider (if you are one), you CAN see things that the locals don’t notice because they are so used to them.  Proper humility is needed, but is not self-abnegation!

There is the notorious risk, though, that if you do that you will get into a dialogue with a local thinker and wind up with something marvelous and original but outside normal local thinking.  The type case is Marcel Griaule’s Conversations with Ogotemmeli (1965), a wonderful and classic book by a larger-than-life French adventurer-ethnographer and the brilliant (if illiterate) Dogon sage Ogotemmeli, in Mali, Africa.  This book is a philosophical classic that you should read, but it is the philosophical speculation of Ogotemmeli as prompted and encouraged by Griaule, not the traditional Dogon view.  Of course, in the world I usually work in (China), traditional philosophy is more well known, and the fact that individuals have different philosophies is also well known, but very few non-Chinese ethnographers have used Chinese social theories to explain anything.  Fortunately, Chinese ethnographers do, so we have that benefit.

Now that there are many Native American and other ethnographers, we have many books explaining traditional philosophy from within, such as Richard Atleo’s Tsawalk (2004) and Traditions of Tsawalk (2011; Richard is Nuu-chah-nulth, from Vancouver Island, Canada, and like several other Nuu-chah-nulth he has an anthropology Ph.D.).


  1. Techniques


Field work by cultural anthropologists usually involves participant observation (DeWalt and DeWalt 2001; Spradley 1980), lasting at least six months and usually a year or more.  Serious comprehensive ethnographic research requires this.  However, for many reasons, we also do quick visits, long-distance studies (using other people’s findings), straight interviews, visual studies, library and documentary research, and cross-cultural comparative studies, among other things.  Limited projects (e.g. to find out about one narrow subject—say, fish names or vegetable marketing) can be completed in a few weeks, especially if one is familiar with the area and people.

One valuable technique is rapid rural assessment (RRA), which is a specialized interview-and-observation technique that allows very rapid discovery of a lot of data (Gladwin 1989 covers it; there are more up-to-date, complete sources).  Related is participatory rural assessment, which involves organizing local people to do their own fact-finding and synthesis.  In participatory rural assessment, local people set their own goals, map their communities, figure out what they need by way of development or problem-solving, figure out what resources they have, and so on; the anthropologist guides the approach and sets the tasks.


Getting started:  Every community has somebody who knows everybody.  Frequently, this individual is a minor government functionary in a “helping” role (as opposed to a person keeping the place in line).  The local postmaster filled the role in American small towns.   So did the waitresses at the local coffee shop.  Sometimes the village storekeeper is a contact person, but sometimes he is seen as the village skinflint.  Check around!

Then, wander around the community being very nice to everyone, greeting them, learning their names, introducing and explaining yourself.  Become a local fixture to the point where you are semi-invisible—just the local foreigner.

A census is a good way to start serious work and get to know everyone.  Ask very nonthreatening questions on an initial census!  See below on finding out about local question etiquette.

There is a whole literature on field notes (Canfield 2011 provides perspectives from all field sciences, not just anthropology).  Suffice it to say that recording everything is impossible, but getting as near as you can is a good idea at first, till you figure out what is really important.


Interviewing is the basic technique in ethnography.  This can mean anything from applying a set questionnaire (closed-ended interviewing) to free-ranging questions and discussion (open-ended interviewing).  I get best results with a semi-structured questionnaire, one that you memorize thoroughly before the interview and then apply in a rather improvisational manner—not letting the interviewee escape without getting all the questions answered, but letting some free play happen, so the interviewee can get clear about meanings, discuss points, clear up ambiguities, etc.  See any good book on social interviewing, as well as Bernard.

Keep working on the language—we could all use better fluency.  I am a terrible linguist, but I try.

The whole issue of how to interview and ask questions is the first thing to address when you get to the field.  Cultures differ dramatically as to what types of question are acceptable.  Many Americans are astonishingly open about sex but hate to disclose their income.  Chinese (at least the ones I worked with) are the reverse.  Americans also hate to admit they are racist.  A colleague of mine was amazed at how little racism his students found in our city of residence.  I asked him if it had occurred to him that having bright young university students doing the interviewing might possibly bias the responses.  “Why, no….”  Another colleague was similarly surprised by how carefully people were shopping in the supermarket—I was less surprised, since he and his co-worker had followed shoppers around with a videocamera.  Having (again) bright young university students watch every move would make anyone more careful!  Such examples are so obvious as to be funny, but the danger is in far more subtle matters, especially when one is translating a perfectly innocent question in English into what may be a subtly leading question in Spanish or Chinese.

See also The Long Interview (McCracken 1988) and James Spradley’s The Ethnographic Interview (1979)Others recommend (but I have not seen) a book by Charles Briggs called Learning How to Ask (1986), one by Meyer and Booker (1991) on interpreting interview data, and a book on “active interviewing” by Holstein and Gubrium (1995).  It is also very worthwhile to spend a while with reporters finding out about journalistic methods of interviewing and getting data.

One absolutely critical interviewing technique that nobody covers well is depth interviewing.  This is a 2- to 4-hour interview in which the ethnographer probes deeper and deeper into the interviewee’s emotions, feelings, and personal stories.  A good interviewer tries to keep questions down to a minimum, and usually just makes encouraging noises (“and then…?”  “mm-hm?”).  The interviewer must appear relaxed but thoroughly engaged—completely present, interested, and supportive.  A good interviewer will appear not to “pry” or “apply pressure” but will be sympathetic and concerned and genuinely interested.  This involves being comfortable with silences—Native American informants in particular often remain silent for a minute or even several minutes during such conversations.  On the other hand, very gentle questioning of the type “How did you feel about that?” and “are you comfortable talking with me about that?” is necessary.  In such cases, DO take “no” for an answer; be comfortable with letting the interviewee set limits.

Almost anyone loves to talk about almost any subject, if they are given this level of genuine concern.  (Be prepared for tears and other emotional releases.)  Such interviewing is an art form, though it is basically developed from what close and empathetic friends and family members do for each other all the time.  It is also so intensely personal that unless you are genuinely concerned and caring about the interviewee, YOU SHOULD NOT ATTEMPT IT.

Depth interviewing is necessary in many, many ethnographic cases, especially in interviewing about tragedy and major stress.  It is astonishingly rarely taught or used.  Psychotherapists are supposed to learn it but often do not.  The literature that alleges lack of mother love and lack of regret for dead infants in certain societies is evidently based on lack of familiarity with this interviewing technique.  I know this not only from the literature but more directly from my own field work in at least one society where such lack was widely alleged by superficial ethnographers, but instantly disappeared under depth interviewing, when grief could come out openly.


Finally, never underestimate the value of “deep hanging out”—an excellent phrase used by Clifford Geertz to describe everyday ethnography.  Just hanging around keeping your eyes and ears open remains the best of all field techniques.  I have found I talk less and look more every time I do field work.


Etics and emics:  Kenneth Pike liberated the linguistic endings from “phonetic” and “phonemic.”  He meant something really creative:  Etics involve studying a system by applying a universal metric or analytic system—in the case of phonetics, the international methods of studying sounds, via the sonagram and other mechanical/impersonal techniques.  Emics involves studying a system by finding its internal structure and the units that make that up—in the case of phonemics, the sounds recognized by speakers of the language as making meaningful contrasts.

Etics does not mean “outsider’s view” and emics does not mean “insider’s view,” contra the sloppy usage in many anthro books (including Conrad Kottak’s widely-used textbooks).  Using the terms this way loses all their value.  Both emics and etics can be done by either outsiders or insiders, but only when trained in structural analysis. In language, for example, any trained insider can use a sonagram as well as any outsider; conversely, most people cannot provide a phonemic analysis of their own language—only trained linguists do that.

A good ethnographer, whether outsider or insider, will study both etics and emics, just as any decent linguist will record both the phonetics and the phonemics of a language.  Consider food:  a good ethnographer will do a nutritional analysis and some kind of optimal foraging model or Bayesian-optimizing model (all these are etic), but will also find out what the locals call their foods, how they classify them, how they structure them in terms of nutrition and social use, and other emic matters.  Neither of these has anything to do with outsider vs insider per se.  (The typical outsider’s view of local foodways is “yuck!”  The typical insider’s view is “yum!”  This does not get us far analytically.)


Stories and texts:   These were the bread-and-butter of old-time ethnographers, and often is to this day.  Nothing beats collecting stories—personal stories, stories about the community, about the origin of the world, about the economy, anything.  People love telling stories.  In most cultures, stories are teaching devices; people teach their children and each other through this medium.  Any and all texts and accounts are valuable.  Record them and transcribe them.  A particularly good authority on working with stories is Julie Cruikshank (1998, 2005).

A specialized, extremely important story to collect is the life story. Since the brilliant and innovative work of Paul Radin in the early 20th century, collecting detailed life stories from interviewees is a key part of many anthropologists’ work.  Most, however, do not do it; it tends to be rather a specialized thing to do.  I have collected brief life stories in Hong Kong and a long, detailed one in Mexico (Anderson and Medina Tzuc 2005).

There is now, in psychology rather than anthropology, a valuable and widely-used interview prompt for this work:  The McAdams Life Story Interview (1995; Google it; it is available to download).

One standard thing to do with life stories is textual analysis.  This often begins with, but does not end with, analysis of words.  Psychologists have developed a terrific software for scanning a document for important words (Pennebaker et al. 2007).  From words, one often progresses to themes, and here McAdams has developed some key themes to look for in the life stories he collects (McAdams et al. 1996, 2001).


Decision-making is also a very important, basic approach, best introduced in Christina Gladwin’s little booklet Ethnographic Decision Tree Modeling (1989, Sage) is basic.  A classic study, with methodological reflections (especially in the 2nd edn., 1994) is James Young and Linda Garro: Medical Choice in a Mexican Village.  Shankar Aswani has done some good work on decision-making in fisheries, and thoughtfully related that to more purely economic and biological methods (e.g. Aswani and Weiant 2004).  Basically, the idea is to ask people in detail about the steps that they went through to make a particular decision—what crop to plant (Gladwin), what to do when someone in the family is sick (Young and Garro), what to do about fishing and fish conservation (Aswani), and so on.  This technique assumes that decisions can be broken down into ordered sequences of yes/no answers:  Can I get the seed for this crop?  Can I get fertilizer for it? Can I get enough water for it?  And so on.  People usually do decide that way, at least in clear-cut matters like crop choice, and even if they don’t you can break down decisions into yes/no or more-versus-less choices.  But sometimes people decide on impulse, or subconsciously integrate several factors at once.  Careful questioning allows you to deal with such cases, and continue to use decision tree analysis.  It is a particularly powerful technique, especially for decisions that are important but that involve well-known, rather routine choices, like agricultural decisions.  A farmer or gardener normally knows exactly what crops she can plant and how to grow them, and how to get information if she does not know enough about something.  Decisions about what to do in an unforeseen new emergency are less clear-cut and consequently harder to analyze, but in principle can be covered the same way.

Decision-making studies have led to looking at cultural models, but so far little methodology has been developed for this; for a major exception that gets us fairly far in doing comparable analyses of this difficult realm, see Victor de Munck (2011) on romantic love.


Another absolutely essential technique is the focus group, in which the interviewer recruits 4-6 people or so and gets them to talk about the specific subject under investigation.  This has turned out to be a major winner as a research method for political researchers and marketers as well as for anthropologists.  See David Morgan (1996).


Another universally used technique is the Likert scale, that little scale where you get to rank things from “agree strongly” to “disagree strongly” or “most liked” to “most disliked,” as on student evaluations, political surveys, etc.   It works well only if you use 5 or 7 cells.  5 is generally better.


A large range of personality tests and other psychological tests is available.  In general, I advise against using these, because they rarely work in local conditions—the local worldview and language are probably too different from the testmakers’.  But they may be useful where this does not apply and where you can get a psychologist to help administer them.


Other formal techniques include frame elicitation.  This is best explained by Frake (see above), but basically it consists of looking around and asking everyone “what’s that?”  When you have names, you sit down with a consultant and ask “what kinds of X are there?” till there are no more divisions.  Then you can work up:  “Is X a kind of…?”  Beware, though; this can force a spurious level of systematization on your consultants.  Better to do all this informally in the field, one question at a time, and to use focus groups to get people talking about how they conceptualize things.  Carefully used—with much asking, pointing, and walking around, rather than mechanical frame interviewing in a house—this is the most valuable of all the analytic or specialized techniques.

Related are card-sorts and pile-sorts, in which names of things are written on cards and sorted into piles according to whatever criteria you want to study.

On all these formal methods, and on basic statistics, see, in addition to Bernard’s book, the superb article by W. Penn Handwerker in A Companion to Cognitive Anthropology (2011).  Handwerker manages to get into a few pages more solid advice and reference material on methodology than many authors get into whole books.  On statistics, however, be sure to read Darrell Huff’s classic How to Lie with Statistics (1954).  “Figures don’t lie but liars figure,” as the proverb says, and Huff warns you of a lot of ways they do it.


Walking around in the fields and woods, asking about everything, remains the best of all techniques for finding out about names, categories, and ethnobiological knowledge.  A formalization is a “nature trail,” in which the investigator lays out a short set course with known plants along it.  Then the investigator can walk this trail with different subjects, seeing how many plants they can name.  This is particularly useful with children—one can see how much they know at what age.  (Brian Stross, Gene Hunn, Rebecca Zarger, and J. R. Stepp, studying children in the south Mexican highlands, have worked particularly with this technique.)

Child-following is used to advantage in such situations, and in nutrition research.  You just follow a child around, seeing what she does.  It’s the only way to find out what children actually eat, as memorably shown by the late Christine Wilson in her field work.

For that matter, following adults is necessary too, but has to be done with more circumspection.


There are also censusing, surveying, survey design, optimal foraging study and modeling, GIS and GPS, statistics, economic data management, and other formal techniques; Bernard covers all of them adequately, though if seriously interested in optimal foraging or in economics you will need supplementary reading on these (they have a large, specialized literature).

Surveys often involve poorly designed questions that lead to misleading results.  Most people agree with both “Individuals are more to blame than social conditions for crime” and “Social conditions are more to blame than individuals for crime”—depending on which one you ask (Radwin 2009:B9).  In other words, people love to agree with any old statement.  It’s all in the way you phrase it.  Question order, bias words, and so forth all influence the result.  Some questions are so poorly worded that a large percentage of the respondents cannot figure out what is being asked.  This is particularly common when a questionnaire is translated from one language to another, as very often happens in anthropological research, so watch out; pre-test questionnaires for comprehensibility.

Remember to avoid leading questions (now often called “push questions”):  questions that imply you want a certain answer.  Indeed, avoid everything that might be taken as implying you want to hear a particular kind of answer.  Find out what counts as leading questions in the culture you are studying.  Many questions that are perfectly innocent and non-leading in English turn out to be strongly leading when translated into Chinese.  I found out the hard way—but at least I learned it fast—that “how are you?” was interpreted as “you look sick, what’s wrong?”  Similar pitfalls occur in other languages.

Response bias can enter quite dramatically.  Surveys of food consumption in the United States correlate very well with sales figures at stores, but sales figures of liquor consumption can be up to five times what the surveys show!  People may understate consumption, but more important here is the fact that an extremely high percentage of liquor is drunk by relatively few people, and those few are rarely in any condition to answer a survey.

Finally, people lie, almost always to give the socially “correct” response.  Many more people say they voted in the last election than could actually have done so (Radwin 2009:B9).  And almost no racists exist in the United States—if you believe the survey results!

Anthropologists also do a great deal of visual anthropology: photography, recording, film and videotape work, and other methods of making a permanent and more-or-less-objective record of what we find.  There is also ethnomusicological recording to worry about.  There are specialized works on this.   My experience is that it is difficult to do quality visual work and quality interviewing or other talking-ethnography at the same time.  One can work as a team, or do the interviewing first and visuals later.  Some geniuses can do both at the same time, but I am far from this level.

I’m not an expert, and will not push this one, but a useful tip from Douglas Medin (presentation at Society for Anthropological Sciences, 2010) is that there are four general ways to do a picture:  directly on (the usual approach—“voyeur”), embodied (shows hands working, from the viewpoint of the worker—as if you and the camera are doing the work with your hands), over the shoulder (of your main subject—so you are standing behind her and seeing what she sees), and “fourth wall” or “breaking the wall,” in which case the people in the photo are all looking at you (as in a standard group shot).  Doug showed that Native American children’s book illustrations (drawings, not photos) have much more of the last three types of pictures than Anglo ones, a culturally very interesting observation.

This brings home the point that interpreting others’ photos and pictures is a major part of visual anthro.  Both interpreting cultural representations (pictures, etc.) and getting your subjects to take photos for you are standard techniques and very effective if well done.


Another under-taught topic is historical research–documentary, archival, and text work.  Historians learn as a kind of second nature how to evaluate a document—how much to trust it, how to cross-check, how to allow for biases, etc.  The best way to find out about this is to ask a historian.  They have their own books, but an hour with a seasoned historian will give you a good enough start.

At the very least, read the major anthropological and historical works on your area!  I am appalled at the illiteracy of some graduate students.  What were their professors thinking?  Egregious mistakes even get into the published literature.  This is inexcusable.  Much more common is the field worker who misses a great deal for lack of knowing the questions to ask, the deeper matters to look for, and the contexts to use in interpretation.


How to take and keep field notes is the subject of Roger Sanjek’s Fieldnotes and a lot of journal articles.  Some other useful lore is in Tony Robben’s Ethnographic Fieldwork:  An Anthropological Reader; Joseph Casagrande’s marvelous and far too neglected anthology, In the Company of Man; and Michael Agar’s classic The Professional Stranger.  See also LeCompte and Schensul, Designing and Conducting Ethnographic Research (2nd edn. 2010).


Multi-sited ethnography:  this has been advocated by George Marcus and many others.  Obviously it’s appropriate if you’re studying mobile, transnational, or migrant populations.  It isn’t if you’re studying people who stay put, unless you want to do systematic or controlled comparisons (very valuable, but a different issue).  Use common sense and don’t feel compelled to do it just because it was a buzz word for a while.  If you have only a year, as most of us do, it’s better to stay put.  Finding out much about even a very small community in a year is already challenging enough.  The great transnational studies, like Michael Kearney’s (see Kearney 1996—a “must read” if you’re working with this), were 30-year or 40-year projects.


Teamwork:  The day of the lone field worker who found out “everything” about the Trobriands or the Nuer is most emphatically gone.  Do what you do best, and collaborate with other people who do what they do best.

Work with biologists, political scientists, photographers, anyone that has expertise you need.  Many ethnographers go in as part of a team.  I find it more useful to work with people on the ground.  Local scholars generally need and appreciate the opportunities.  (On the other hand, many see outside scholars as a threat to their monopoly and their status.  Be careful about this.)

One type of “teamwork” is working as a family.  Fortunate is the anthropologist who has a spouse who can work with him or her.  Alas, field work is not always the easiest posting, and some spouses do not adjust well.  Most valuable of all is working as a family with children.  Children disarm suspicion, attract friendly and solicitous attention, evoke stories, and allow study of child-training practices.  Also, when they are old enough, they are born ethnographers.  They are curious about everything and are amazingly quick with social cues and social learning. (They are wired for it.  The human animal evolved as a social creature, and social learning is a child’s main occupation.)  However, working with children is reasonable only if you are near a good hospital.  Children have died in remote field situations.


“Studying up”:  Laura Nader and others have advocated studying the rich and powerful.  Unfortunately, I could never get a million-dollar grant for subsistence.  More seriously, most anthropologists don’t have the tools and training to do this effectively.  If you want to study up, work with and learn from political scientists and sociologists!  They have the methods and tools!  When faced with the need to find out what the powerful were up to, I have worked with political scientists, and have also picked the brains of anthropologists who had done that type of work and had learned the techniques and methods.

There are lots of political scientists, sociologists, historians, and others studying elites, but only anthropologists study the people low on the political hierarchy.  We thus best use our talents and training in the latter cause.  We are generally the only people that can bring their words and concerns to a wide audience.  Now and then we get the chance to help them bring their own voices or causes to the wide arena—a blessed and wonderful chance if carefully done.  I thus strongly recommend studying ordinary people and especially neglected and oppressed ones.


  1. General Philosophical Concerns


Completeness and comparability are major concerns, and major problems with many field projects.  Be sure to get all the data possible on the subjects under study.  Be sure that interviews, forms, and data recording makes findings strictly comparable between subjects and situations.  The same information has to be collected in the same way.


One word of philosophical guidance about culture in general:  Only real people (or animals) do things.  This should be obvious, but anthropologists all too often fall into the social science trap of saying that Capitalism, or The State, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster did such-and-such a thing.  No.  They didn’t.  People did.  Capitalism and the Flying Spaghetti Monster don’t exist (the former is an analytical abstraction that bears only some resemblance to any current real-world referent).  The State exists, but if you think it acts or is real by itself, look at Somalia, DR Congo, or Afghanistan.  The State functions because the people in it have decided that preserving it and working for it will best accomplish their human goals.  It becomes a true emergent, like a kinship system or a myth, and thus has a genuine reality (unlike capitalism).  However—again like a kinship system—it exists only as long as a lot of people buy into it and don’t question it too strongly.  Always study emergents and recognize their reality, but remember they don’t really act by themselves.  The ability of people to believe in such things, and to believe they act on their own, is fascinating, and related to the belief in supernatural beings.


As Andrew “Pete” Vayda has been insisting for years (Vayda 2008), some background in the philosophy and history of science (specifically, epistemology) is absolutely essential.  This would include, at least, Thomas Kuhn’s classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) and Philip Kitcher’s The Advancement of Science (1993).  See also Ian Hacking (1999), Bruno Latour’s work (esp. 2004, 2005), Alison Wylie’s work (2002, 2004), and Pete Vayda’s and others’ relevant writings.  Some background in the history of anthropology is essential (see many books by Adam Kuper and by George Stocking).  Theory and history are not covered adequately in many anthro graduate programs, so read these on your own.

Perhaps the most valuable thing one learns from these works is how to avoid mindless use of current buzzwords.  Buzzwords usually start out as useful concepts, but lose it all when they become too widely used.  Go back to the original source and read the full, properly qualified story.  Those of us who have checked are always astonished at how wrong even the best secondary sources get the classic writers, to say nothing of slapdash textbooks.  Reading Durkheim, for example, is a real revelation if you knew him only from even the best histories of anthropology.


Ethics:  Here again, one can start with Bernard, but an excellent practical guide to working ethics has now appeared (Whiteford and Trotter 2004)  Many ethical questions have been treated in detail in Anthropology News over many decades.  The American Anthropological Association’s Code of Ethics is easily available online from the Association, and is basic.

Always be meticulous about touching bases in the field area.  Contact local scholars, and promise to help and work with them if possible.  Go through all the bureaucratic hoops uncomplainingly.  Find people you can work with, institutes you can collaborate with, and universities you can hang out at.  Be humble; First World investigators are threatening to many Third World bureaucrats and scholars.  Many—if not all—Third World and indigenous scholars have encountered arrogant, overbearing, and inconsiderate First Worlders.  These were not usually anthropologists, but you will pay the price even if it was a diplomat or an agricultural advisor that dissed the local scholars.  Bear it and be genuinely polite.  Save your hate for the diplomat or advisor, not the locals.

In your community, similarly, get the official cooperation of the local authorities—complete with signed permission to workShare your results, in so far as possible, when you do any writing up.

Questions that permanently concern anthropologists include:  Are we really somehow ripping off the “natives” by finding out things?  How does one collaborate?  Coauthor?  How does one “represent the other” without being a mental colonialist?  How to get honest responses and publish them?  How much can one publish the local dirt—corruption, conflict, sordid tales?  (My recommendation is simple:  don’t unless you have to.)   How to be tactful?  How much to get involved in local matters?  How to avoid factions?  How to avoid local entanglements? One would, for instance, think it unnecessary to warn people NOT EVER to get sexually involved with people one is doing field work with!  But I hear that some people do this—a good way to get killed.

Err on the side of caution.  Remember the first clause in the AAA’s Code is that your most immediate duty is to the people you are working with.  It is not acceptable to put them at serious risk.  It is not acceptable to exploit them for money, e.g. by selling photos or writing a bestseller without cutting them in on the profits.  It is not acceptable to use their words and information without giving full credit, including coauthorship if their input is really significant.  It is not acceptable to refrain from helping them with medicines, etc., if you have the knowledge or connections; if it messes up your medical anthro research a bit, too bad; their lives are more important than any dreams of intellectual purity.  Do not let yourself be exploited or “used,” but be as helpful as possible when help is needed.

Avoid involvement with local factions, no matter how right your favorite one seems to be.  Involvement ruins your field work, endangers your safety, and inevitably makes local politics worse.  Let them sort it out.

The wider question of advocacy is more serious.  Anthropologists almost always find that their groups are getting a raw deal, because we usually study small, less-than-affluent communities who are low on the political hierarchy.  Serious advocacy is often desirable, but should take the form of “speaking truth to power” as the phrase goes.  It is not usually appropriate to get off into strong statements or political action in the field site  On the other hand, it sometimes is appropriate, e.g. in cases of outright genocide.  Generally, the very best thing is to carry local voices to the wide world—if you can do it without endangering your subjects.  For example, giving quotes that can be traced to an individual is not a good idea in a state that is persecuting that community.  Confidential reports to trusted government people who can really help your community are sometimes desirable.  The best thing is usually to do the best job you can at getting the facts right and producing a scholarly book.  Do what is morally right, but in the most cautious and least overstated way.

Think seriously about who can hear your message and use it.  I did one substantial piece of field work in a really dangerous situation.  I never published or disclosed the worst and most hidden material.  I got the rest of the really touchy material to people in the government whom I knew I could trust and whom I knew would use the information wisely.  I kept everything else on ice for years, until the situation changed and I could safely publish the less touchy chunks of it.

Anthropologists are driven almost mad by the steadily increasing obsessiveness of institutional review boards (IRB’s, a.k.a. Human Subjects Review Committees).  They exist to prevent lawsuits over problems arising in sensitive, invasive, or dangerous medical and psychological research.  Thus they are often inappropriately restrictive for anthropological field work.  We cannot always get signed, detailed protocols proving that our subjects know every possible risk they are incurring.  And we may have to take photographs and films of large ritual or market situations where we cannot possibly get signed permissions from every man, woman and child.

And we rarely do anything that puts subjects at any real risk.  The main exception, and it is an important one, is research in or on military, criminal, or other genuinely dangerous matters.  For these, the investigator does need to worry about the full IRB panoply of concerns.  For the full story, see the fall 2007 issue of American Ethnologist, which has a whole excellent section on IRB’s.


Applied anthropology is a whole separate area that I do not want to cover here; suffice it to say that the same general moral rules apply.  Do what will actually help and what will actually not be undercut by someone else.

Collaboration with local communities in getting particular projects done is another enormously complex and involved topic, beyond my range here.  See the journal Human Organization—just search back through it.


The question of objectivity always surfaces.  No, you aren’t totally objective; you’re involved with your subjects.  But, as one anthropologist wrote, “just because you can’t maintain pure asepsis doesn’t mean you can do surgical operations in a sewer” (Geertz 1973).  Be solidly grounded in facts and establish everything as solidly as possible.  I once worked with an anthropologist, a superb field worker, who collected over 50 detailed stories of the same event—and stayed perfectly neutral and calm through it all, properly writing down everything, though the stories wildly disagreed about basic details!  Then we sat down to analyze why the stories were so different.

The idea is to be as factual, or objective, as possible, but be open about your biases, too.  Self-awareness is important.


  1. Final Tips


Field work is lots of fun, but one thing we face is culture shock, a useful term coined by the Finnish-Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg.  This condition is not confined to anthropologists.  What typically happens, when Person A goes to live in Society B, is that the first 3 to 6 months are a sort of honeymoon period.  After that, Reality hits, and it can hit pretty hard.  A period of painful adjustment follows—the 6th month is usually the hardest!  It’s good to plan a brief vacation from your field work at that time.  After the 6th month, things get easier.  Students are familiar with a mild form of this from adjusting to college (dorms, roommates, classes…).  Adjusting to marriage or any other life-and-residence change is comparable.  There is a honeymoon period, a let-down period, and then adjustment, hopefully peaceful and contented.

Once you have adjusted to a new community, adjusting back to your own home typically involves some “reverse culture shock.”  Do not be surprised at this; it’s normal.


Field work is normally one of the least dangerous activities on earth.  I have always been healthier in the field than at home.  Forget the poisonous snakes and scorpions of the travel books—you won’t see any, or if you do they will be the least of your worries.  (I have had to kill more than one cobra in my field dwellings.  They don’t usually strike.)

However, don’t take insane chances.  Take a first-aid kit and standard first-aid medications, notably general antibiotics that will quickly knock out skin infections, traveler’s diarrhea and food poisoning (Salmonella, Shigella, etc.), and the like.  Be sure to take the proper anti-malarial medicine in malarial areas; the medicine of choice varies from region to region.

Use tough, sturdy shoes or boots if in a literal “field” situation.  Today, the “field” is often an urban neighborhood, but some of us still work in actual fields.  You are far more likely to come to grief from wearing inadequate shoes than from all those poisonous critters put together.  Take sunblock and suchlike things as appropriate.  DO ask people who have been in the area you are going, and DO read the Lonely Planet guides, or similar guides for active and enterprising travelers.

Don’t worry about the local food, including “street food.”  It’s safe enough if cooked at high heat.  Any fruit or veg with a tough peel (bananas, mangoes…) is safe if the peel isn’t broken.  In most of the tropics, the water is still dubious, however, and so is raw seafood.  The only time I got really sick in 2 years of field work in Mexico was from eating undercooked oysters in a fancy restaurant.


The fad for “reflexive” ethnography a few years ago gives you lots of accounts to learn from.  Many are far from exemplary.  One particularly candid account of a particularly intelligent, sensitive researcher’s first taste of the field is found in Eric Mueggler’s The Age of Wild Ghosts (2001).  I could name many others.  A nice balance of self-revelation with consultant’s own stories is Zapotec Women by Lynn Stephen (1991).  She has her opinions and experiences; she also gives the facts; and she gives the women’s own testimonies, which often disagree with her interpretation.  Stephen makes their lot sound very bleak, but the women she quotes sound decidedly more happy.  I visited her field site and did some field work myself to understand this.  It turned out that Stephen emphasizes the hardship which is indeed the lot of most Zapotec women, but the women she quoted in the book were a relatively more successful group who were generally more upbeat on their situation.  Also, Mexican women are taught to aguantar—bear uncomplainingly.  They don’t expect as much from life as an elite American academic does.


This shows the advantages of field-checking anything one reads, if one possibly can.  More:  it shows how much perspective and outlook matter, and how they can color analysis by even the best anthropologists.  Always double-check.  Always look for alternative views.  Always try to find someone else from a different perspective and training who can study your area and hopefully validate your work.



Thanks to many people, notably Russ Bernard, Nick Colby, Victor De Munck, Norie Huddle, Eugene Hunn, Dell Hymes, Michael Kearney, Tara McCoy, Evelyn Pinkerton, and above all David Kronenfeld for discussions that taught me what I know about these matters.





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