The Anthropologist’s Disclaimer

Many people I meet, even people I talk to on a regular basis, do not have background knowledge of anthropology, and I think that is fairly typical. Anthropology isn’t taught in the American public school system and most people have only had a limited introduction to one of Anthropology’s subfields.   Archeology or Forensic Anthropology are commonly brought up as points of reference. Indiana Jones and the tv show Bones being the most famous, albeit fictional, anthropologists today. These are indeed crucial parts of the holistic endeavor to understand human beings, but the methodology employed is so drastically different that I think people are still left wonder what exactly it is that I do.

Anthropology is the study of what it means to be human, and the wealth of variation of culture and physiology that includes. Cultural anthropologists are primarily focused on cultural groups and cultural issues around the globe as they pertain to currently living people; as you might imagine this takes an incredibly wide range of forms.  From studying HIV clinics in Bolivia to urban development in China to Forestry and Sustainability in the Philipines to grieving practices on Facebook, anthropologists do research anywhere humans are. This research is most commonly referred to as ethnographic fieldwork or sometimes ethnography for short, but an ethnography is really the written product produced documenting anthropologist’s cultural observations. The two most important methodological tools of ethnographic fieldwork are participant observation and ethnographic interviews.

The exact type of hard data each anthropologists documents during this ethnographic experience may vary, but one pattern repeats–tried and true. This method yields incredible, invaluable insight into the culture group being studied, allowing anthropologists to properly situate other more tangible data within its cultural context. Additionally, living with those we study and participating in their daily lives has offered anthropologists countless serendipitous opportunities for uncovering deeply insightful findings. These might come as a chance encounter, an illegal cock-fighting match, a midnight conversation, even in one case a late night police raid on the village an anthropologist was residing in (Greetz 1977; Bernard 2011). Such serendipitous events provide the researcher with an anecdotal stories that exemplify or illuminate key aspects of the human condition, which are frequently worth more than the several months of diligent pursuits of other methods. Other times such as serendipitous event is an experience that provides a unique perspective on the issue being studied, situating the researcher to have both the outsider objectivity and a momentary shared insider experience.

It is fair to say that participant-observation isn’t entirely well-defined even by and for anthropologists who employ it. How do you know when you are doing participant-observation? How do you know you are doing it correctly? These questions have probably haunted anthropology graduate students since the beginning of American Anthropology. Participant-Observation was invented when anthropology first shifted from an armchair discipline to one that required going to the “field.” Now part of the authority of the anthropologist claims comes from actually being there.  This later came under critique, as did the anthropologist’s authority, in general, but the necessity of going to field to gain firsthand insight into a culture weathered the storm.  In essence, participant-observation is about achieving the same type of organic first-hand exposure to a culture that language learners seek from language immersion programs.

Participant-observation might be defined as the process of living in a culture, alternately with the community of people you are studying, while keeping a detailed record of your observations of public events, daily life, and casual conversations. As anthropologists live in their field site, every communal activity, and human interaction offers the potential to yield insightful information. Anthropologists learn through immersion, living in the same cultural context as the people we are studying. We call it participant-observation occasionally even deep hanging out in an attempt to over emphasize the causal nature of one of our greatest tools. But the point remains the same; we need to absorb the social context while simultaneously analyzing the layers of that social reality and how they might affect the situation being studied.

However, the third vital gift of participant-observation is that it is the perfect set up for ethnographic interviews both formal and informal. Anthropological literature talks a lot about building rapport. What this really means is that you need to establish a relationship with your participants and your community. While informed consent in its strictest sense isn’t required, during the participant-observation stage of research, this is the ideal time to inform community members about your research. They need to know who you are, why you are there, and hopefully after you’ve shared some real genuine human interaction you can begin to build a relationship and trust. Being a part of the community, rather someone that just shows up one day out of the blue wanting to ask questions helps. Informal ethnographic interviews, in all honestly, are really just casual conversations. In participant-observation settings, think community social events, these can actually be allowed to start organically and on equal terms. Once the anthropologist has the lay of the land, after conducting participant-observation for a while (the length of time is always up to the researcher), then she can start looking for people who are willing to be interviewed in a more formal setting. But again, it helps here that the people already either know her or know people who know her. I still like to refer to these as ethnographic interviews albeit formal ethnographic interviews to emphasize that the interview is informed by participant-observation unlike for example interviews of randomly selected college students participating in a psychology survey or a sociological questionnaire.

Cultural anthropologists may also employ a host of other data collecting methods: household surveys, kinship charts, taxonomies, ethnographic decision models, photography, videography, cartography, online questionnaires, and even analysis of digital data like tweets.  But participant-observation and ethnographic interviews are our bread and butter.

I have explained them thoroughly to give you my warning, or disclaimer if you will.  Once you start conducting participant-observation and ethnographic interviews, you’ll never actually stop.  Sure, an anthropologist isn’t always keeping detailed notes about all of life’s observations. But come to think of it, even when I’m not on field note taking duty I still make notes about all my “Fascinating!” observations as soon as I can get to my nearest notebook, cell phone or laptop. After I tell someone or write it down, it keeps the idea percolating in my head and it helps me remember. But that’s not the important part. The important part, it that once you learn how to do participant-observation and then follow it up with thoughtful ethnographically charged questions, well… you sort of can’t turn it off.  These tools of inquiry become part of how you think and engage with the world. I was in the mountains on retreat with my friends last weekend and I caught myself doing it, but I didn’t realize what I was doing until I’d already asked the question. It wasn’t in any way related to my dissertation research or really any topic that I’ve directly studied, but I was curious. Then it happened again while I was in a fitness class on Monday. But that is the thing isn’t it, ALL of Human Diversity and what it means to be human, that is what I study.  So if you are human and you are talking and doing your thing, whatever your thing is, I’m probably unintentionally studying you. Dear friends, family, communities in which I live, my apologies and warning in advance.

An anthropologist is always conducting research to some extent. Once you learn the tools of anthropology, you cannot simply turn them off because you are at the dinner table with your in-laws or in dance fitness class or listening to someone tell you about their yarn store. I can’t possibly wipe out informed consent forms every time I get inspired, plus I think it might start freaking out those close to me.

So for my friends and family, this is a friendly reminder, I’m an anthropologist and this is what I do. Before I actually publish any stories directly about you, I will always try to go back and ask your permission and give you a chance to preview it. Don’t worry I always change names to protect the not so innocent. Excepting some of the members of my family, of course, who chose to be identified in previous research as it pertained to family history.

For all my past, current and future research participants reading this, I hope this gives you some insight into what anthropology is and what I do with it. I always want you to feel like we are collaborators in the research projects you work with me on. I want you to feel proud reading what I write especially when it pertains to you. I plan to always publish a public audience version of all my material well in advance of any academic publications. If there is anything that concerns you, please feel free to contact me at