Ethnography and Ethnology Research Paper

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Ethnography and ethnology are related disciplines within the field of cultural anthropology. Cultural anthropology deals with all aspects of human culture from social to religious, to political, and beyond. Ethnography focuses on single cultures or specific structures within one culture, while ethnology is a study of the members and structures of cultures and of the relationship of members to their cultures. Ethnology is highly theory driven, using a comparative approach with the writings of ethnographers to search for commonalities that may underlie all cultures or human behaviors. In addition, ethnology takes a broad view, comparing cultures or looking at the deep history of a culture in order to explain why and how it functions as it does. In recent years ethnologists have moved into many subfields of anthropology, such as gender studies and folklore.

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Fieldwork with participant observation is the defining method of the ethnographer. Ethnography applies in two ways. It is both an in-depth study of people within their own culture and based on their own words, and it is the detailed written record of that study. Often the ethnographer focuses either on the development of the culture and its operation over time or on how individual behavior and the culture relate to each other. Ethnographies differ from ethnologies in that the former are descriptive and are based on direct participant observation and interview transcription, while the latter are comparative and generally based on studies of material already written about aspects of cultures.

Learning the culture from the inside is termed the emic point of view. The emic view acknowledges that group members themselves are the true knowledge holders within their society. Hence the ethnographer attempts to reach as close to the insider’s understanding as possible. Ethnographers cannot bring ready-made assumptions into a study, although they will have formulated a theory to investigate with respect to the culture. The point of view of the ethnologist, who looks at reports already completed, is etic. It is a view from the outside. There are a number of classic ethnographies, including the following: The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People (1940/1969) was written by Edward Evans-Pritchard, who studied African societies and focused especially on witchcraft and magic. Bronislaw Malinowski wrote The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia: An Ethnographic Account of Courtship, Marriage, and Family Life Among the Natives of the Trobriand Islands, British New Guinea (1929/1962), among other works, and Margaret Mead is well known for her study, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928/1961). Another classic writing in the field of ethnology is Patterns of Culture (1934) by Ruth Benedict.

Culture itself is defined variously as the shared knowledge passed on by learning that unites a group, or, in a broader sense, all of the institutions, material culture, beliefs, traditions, and knowledge within the human world. For cultural anthropologists culture is that which is both shared and transmitted within a particular group. Culture includes the underlying beliefs and ideologies that motivate the actions and behaviors of people within a particular society—of interest to the anthropologist is what underlies this overt behavior. The term culture involves the meanings a group attaches to occurrences and objects, and it encompasses the way societies create those meanings. Cultural values are learned from infancy and become a part of the person through observation, learning, and imitation of the actions of family and community. Along with this, the values and beliefs of the society are reinforced by ritual practices and use of symbols.

The potent influence that all aspects of a culture have over individual members was first recognized and investigated by the sociologist Émile Durkheim at the end of the 19th century. Later, 20th-century anthropologists came to see that the influence did not move in only one direction. They now study humans as they relate to and interrelate with their material culture, the rituals and practices of their society, and the surrounding environment. Humans are extremely adaptable—a product of the fact that they learn much of their behavior. They do not respond by instinct alone.

Historically, anthropology focused only on studying primitive cultures, yet this focus has shifted as the world has undergone a period of rapid change since the first recorders of such primitive societies did their work. The globalization of Western civilization has influenced, and often changed, societies, no matter how remote. Consequently the fields of study have diversified considerably. Today, the discipline of anthropology encompasses the study of humankind from prehistory to the present, and includes, but is not limited to, biological, social, cultural, and psychological elements. Major divisions are archaeology; biological anthropology; linguistics; cultural/social anthropology, which incorporates ethnology and ethnography; and applied anthropology, in which research is conducted to solve real-world problems. Subdisciplines fall into these major categories.

In the mid-20th century, anthropology passed through a period of criticism from within and from other disciplines, particularly criticism of its major form of communication, the written results of tribal and cultural studies. Cultural anthropology, sometimes termed sociocultural anthropology, already changing with the lack of untouched primitive cultures to study, was under attack for its seemingly literary, rather than scientific, approach. Critics questioned the authority and accuracy of the ethnographic records, generally monographs, produced by anthropologists after months to years of focused study. They claimed that the written record was stylistic, demonstrating the author’s voice in too subjective a manner, and suggested that the writing often was meant to entertain more than to present objective, quantitative evidence.

Ethnography and Ethnology Theory

In the 19th century, ethnologists believed that cultures evolved from primitive to advanced civilizations over long periods of time. Therefore the study of primitive societies defined the role of anthropology, as it was believed that the roots from which modern man sprang could be understood by studying primitive cultures currently in existence. Edward Tylor was a major proponent of this evolutionary view and contributed significant writings to the field. Early ethnographies, including Tylor’s, focused particularly on religion and on magical practices. Influenced by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and other speculation about evolution at the time, ethnographers considered the primitive societies, as well as fundamental aspects of those societies, such as religion, to be evolutionary in their development. In this way, Tylor believed he saw evidence of predictable advances in religion from the simple belief that all things are animated with some form of spirit to the more complex belief in multiple gods and on to the belief in a single god. Lewis Henry Morgan, another early ethnologist, operating within the evolutionary theory of cultures, focused on a study of kinship systems.

These early theories grew within the historical period of colonialism and imperialism. Tribal societies, so different from Western culture, were seen as primitive, and their own inherent developments and complexities often not recognized as such when compared with modern Western societies. The structures within such societies were perceived as static, operating within a system of natural law just as the rest of the natural world. This theory arose from the 18th century, which had witnessed great advances in the understanding of physical processes, for example, in geology and physics. Early anthropologists reasoned that such natural laws must permeate the world, including the way in which societies were organized and functioned. Franz Boas, an early significant figure in the shaping of anthropology as a discipline, believed that some underlying laws could be recognized after cultures were thoroughly studied and compared. This remained the goal of ethnologists for many years, until the true complexity even of so-called primitive societies was recognized.

Many earlier 20th-century anthropological studies revealed the Marxist materialist view that focused on methods of and control over production. Class conflicts and economic forces were among the factors believed to bring about change within society. This is a form of materialist theory, which is based on how people behave, not what they might be thinking. Customs, how people live on a daily basis, and other observable behavioral patterns are seen to drive the culture. Somewhat remodeled, materialist theory is one of two major approaches applied today. Interpretation and understanding is based on customs, how group members live on a daily basis, and other observable behavioral patterns. Modern theories of production and control are more sophisticated and complex, particularly as the world has become more industrialized and developed a global economy. Production and economic factors remain a significant focus in ethnographic research, often in applied research.


At about the mid-20th century, a theory referred to by some as “The New Ethnography” was introduced. Since a key aspect of human society is language, anthropologists began to see language as a model for cultural studies. Researchers attempted to improve the rigor of the ethnographical method, making it more of a science. They believed that since linguists had already found structure and order in human language, this order would assist in understanding human behaviors revealed through speech. A learned process, language is orderly, obeying certain underlying rules, and humans are born with the capacity for language. Individuals need not understand all of those rules in order to speak. Early learning and correction gradually render spoken language grammatically correct without thought given to the process. It is automatic, unconscious. This seemed to confirm a theory of structure in human behavior—a behavior bounded by learned habits and unconscious choice built into the function of the brain. Such linguistic determinism, as discussed first by Edward Sapir in the early 1920s and later by Benjamin Whorf, left no room for conscious human intervention in the structure of culture. Whorf suggested that ideas were a result of the format of a particular language, again leaving little conscious choice to humans.


Claude Lévi-Strauss advocated a view of society as built on particular structures that needed to be understood in relation to each other in order to make sense of the society as a whole. To begin a system of classification required collecting a great deal of data, where meanings varied according to the culture. Lévi-Strauss believed the human mind operated under constraints, while the culture was in part determined by the conditions of its economic situation and its technology. Influenced by linguistics, his theory of structuralism brought the human and the world together as one: The human is able to understand his world because he is literally a part of it. Lévi-Strauss considered much of the structure of human society to be a result of patterns built into the human brain. The structures were not conscious choices but inevitable. Therefore the combined limitations of human thought and of cultural developments produced a structural order that could be observed.

Gradually, developments in other fields led to a reexamination of the language process. Studying the manner in which sounds are made and by which meanings are created revealed a set of grammatical structures that did not rely on unconscious processes. This and other discoveries demonstrated that humans are not rigidly wired. They become active agents in their behavior and interact with their environment. Theories of structuralism as applied to primitive societies thus came to be seen as limiting, accounting neither for the historical background of each society nor for the flexibility and adaptive nature of individuals within the culture. Culture is now recognized as dynamic, not static. Individuals learn, react, and change. Collectively, this in turn brings change to the culture.

Cognitive Theory

The redirected focus, from culture to individual, led to the growth of cognitive theory. Cognitive theory sees change arising primarily out of mental constructs—ideas and thoughts. Cognitive theorists focus on what people actually say to get a grasp on their thoughts, beliefs, and viewpoints, with clues from linguistic information and the use of symbols. Semiotics, the study of signs and symbols, is one form of ethnographic or ethnological study, depending on whether the study focuses on one culture or compares uses across cultures. Each society has its own meanings and symbols to denote those meanings, although the same symbol may be used in different ways by different societies. Cognitive theory, based on thoughts and ideas, is the opposite of materialist theory.

By the early 1980s, ethnographic theory incorporated aspects from fields as diverse as hermeneutic philosophy (the question of how humans are able to communicate at all), semiotics, linguistics, and psychology. Hermeneutic studies consider how people can understand a culture that is not their own. This allows more insight into the observational methods and results reported by the ethnographer. It also highlights the interpretive abilities of the ethnographer who must be careful not to read more into what he sees than is really there.

Contemporary Theory

Linguistics provided evidence of the complex, interactive relationship of humans and their societies. The changes wrought among societies after the Great Depression and World War II proved beyond doubt that cultures can change, often dramatically, as the people within the cultures respond to new stressors placed upon them. Anthropologists could no longer maintain the theory of static structures within societies.

Contemporary fieldworkers may study the culture of an institution, an industry, or a profession, with the group dynamic a key feature of such a study. Symbolic, social, economic, or other aspects of any given culture may be the major focus of fieldwork, driven by current theory.

As theories have shifted and globalism brings interconnectedness to all cultures of the world, primitive, untouched societies no longer exist. The era of colonialism and conquest introduced change to conquered societies through material exchange and introduction of new ideas. Such societies must be studied in their historical context to appreciate what has changed and how it has changed. The modern theory having perhaps the greatest impact is that of humans as true actors in the drama of the cultures. The rigid structure of societies, as conceived by early anthropologists, has given way to the notion of flexible, dynamic societies that change as their members change. Humans respond and evolve in emotion and cognition. Humans adapt to their cultures, and the cultures in turn adapt to them. This forces ethnographers to position the culture under study in a historical context and affects their understanding of it. In this framework, members of a society may be studied in terms of current cognitive theory with ideas and thoughts being of central interest.

The materialist approach is also important today, with ethnologists classifying societies by political organization or methods of production. Although theories have changed, the essential methods and desired goal—understanding humans in every aspect of their lives and cultures—remain the same.

Throughout the later 20th century, outside critics as well as anthropologists themselves recognized a need to redefine, even re-create, the methodology of cultural anthropology. Underlying these concerns has been the question of whether anthropology falls into the major discipline of science or of the humanities. Questions about the rigor of research methods and possible subjectivity of ethnographies led many to reject anthropology as a science. But current methods incorporating statistical data and surveys bring anthropological studies into the sphere of science.

Two very important concepts embraced by contemporary cultural anthropologists also serve to reduce the level of subjectivity. The first is holism, meaning all-encompassing. Holism posits that events and behaviors must be viewed in the larger context of the culture in which they occur. Actions and events are never isolated, but are informed by the conditions and society within which they take place. Holism recognizes all societies of the world and views them in relation to each other. This comparative approach helps anthropologists recognize underlying patterns in the human experience. The second concept is cultural relativism, which means that a given culture can only be understood on its own terms. Value judgments cannot be made, for these judgments would entail assessing one society on the basis of the beliefs and understandings of another.

Ethnography and Ethnology Methods


The fieldworker may spend from several months to a year or more learning the language of the society under study, observing the rituals and interactions of its members, and when possible, finding informers or interpreters who will explain the reasons behind specific conduct and practices. Fieldworkers must find a way to fit in, without becoming one with their subjects of study. Integration and objectivity must both be achieved. It is therefore necessary to find people who are willing to explain the meaning of their actions and behaviors. Sometimes informers choose to mislead, but generally, observation and discussion combined with note taking, sound recording, and other techniques help the fieldworker to put together a picture of the worldview of the society. Observation is neither casual nor sporadic, and anthropologists walk a fine line between observing and actively engaging in the culture under study. They must be careful not to influence or attempt to change the behavior of those observed yet must get close enough to learn the intricacies not evident to a casual observer. There is an element of chance and even luck in fieldwork. The cooperation of chosen informers plays a part in the results, as does the timing. Ultimately, the goal is to understand the people and their culture in their own terms, to come to the insider’s point of view. Actions that seem irrational to outsiders make sense within the context of the world in which members of the society live. This is cultural relativism.

Methods are dictated by choice of study area and topic; this in turn may be prompted by the agency from whom the field researcher is able to receive funding. Current fashions in theory, academic budgets, and departmental decisions all contribute to the final choice of fieldwork location and the tone of the ethnography that follows. Before actually entering the field, the ethnographer has already designed a study based on a particular theory or problem and selected the techniques and tools that will be used to elicit the information sought. The methodology may call for a qualitative, description-driven approach, or it may require quantitative data, including statistics. The style of writing will depend on the ultimate purpose and reader audience. Multi-sited research is a method where the choice of topic dictates that the anthropologist will travel to several sites during the fieldwork term in order to make comparisons and build a larger picture. The researcher will not focus on one culture in depth but follow some aspect or object of culture as it spreads geographically or through time.

Participant Observation

The role for fieldworkers is especially difficult because ethnographers need to be participants in the culture they study as well as objective observers. This forces the researcher to be aware of his own biases, to acknowledge personal viewpoints, and to consider how these influence the final report. This is known as reflexivity and has become a major part of the process in recent years. The researcher’s expectations or hopes about what she will discover are additional impediments to a completely objective account. This too requires the fieldworker to constantly reassess and reanalyze during the processes of observation and writing. In addition, subject awareness of the researcher’s presence can inhibit open and honest discussion or behavior, and some local practices are apt to shock and disturb the observer who is committed to remaining neutral. In some societies, views about gender may also limit what information the ethnographer obtains, depending on whether the ethnographer is a man or woman. In the early years anthropologists were careful not to allow any criticism of the imperial regime into their colonial studies. Even today political power is a sensitive matter. Researchers must tread very carefully in regimes where their presence and constant observation might be misconstrued.

The observer’s field notes can include interviews, observations, quotations, descriptions, surveys, and any other pertinent data. Other tools used may include recordings, pictures, and videos or other newer technologies. Out of all of this, a meaningful ethnography must be created, keeping in mind the purpose of the study within current anthropological theory. When these are combined, a distilled product, the ethnography, is the result. It cannot be the whole story, and it is a story that would be different for another observer. Culture is complex, not countable nor easily classified. These realities underlie the debate about whether anthropology is a science or a humanities study.

Among the objects and behaviors the observer will likely focus on are symbolic items and symbolic gestures, as well as rituals performed. Symbols represent particular meanings and evoke strong feelings or emotions for members of the group. The same symbol can have a different meaning in another culture, so the ethnographer makes careful note of how and when it is used. Clifford Geertz has written much about the importance of studying the symbols and gestures of a society in order to make sense of what its members believe. He suggests that the researcher needs to refer back and forth between larger cultural practices and symbolic actions by individual members of the society to gain a better understanding of how members conceive of themselves and their world. Rituals are modes of behavior that are repeated patterns and represent something significant in the society’s religion, politics, or daily life.

The relationships of systems and structures are other facets of the culture that the ethnographer attempts to understand. Some ethnographers will focus on the structures themselves, while others will look at the individuals and note how they respond and adapt. Gestures, motions— nodding the head, for example—and other forms of communication provide important pointers to the thought system of the society. Fieldwork and observation, then, are the hallmarks of the ethnographic method.

Ethnography (Writing)

The ethnographer begins by observing, striving to gain the view of the insider in order to understand the reality of a particular culture. As noted earlier, this is known as the emic perspective. The emic, or insider’s, approach requires the ethnographer to take into account his own biases and cultural background in order to avoid ethnocentrism, a belief that one’s own culture is the best. The native point of view may be very different from the ethnographer’s worldview and cannot be understood in terms of the ethnographer’s background. This can be true even of studies done in one’s own society.

Once fieldwork is completed, the ethnographer organizes notes, surveys, interviews, and other data collected into a written report—the ethnography. The writing process may reveal insights and lead to a better understanding of the culture or group than the ethnographer was able to grasp in the field. In the ethnography the researcher may make certain predictions based on, but beyond, her own observations. If independent observers agree upon what is likely to occur in given circumstances, such predictions fall into the category of etic (outsider) statements.

The most important task for the ethnographer is to describe what has been observed, considering both individual elements and the function of those elements or structures within the culture. Without good description or ethnography, comparisons cannot be made by others, nor is anyone else privileged to learn about such cultures. Writing it all down thus becomes essential.

The writing, however, has come under considerable scrutiny since the third quarter of the 20th century, and much has been written about it. Early ethnographers distanced their own voices from the cultures they described and observed certain stylistic conventions. In the 1960s, however, stylistic changes appeared, altering the balance between subjectivity and objectivity. Following these, the rise of feminism caused cultural anthropologists to reevaluate viewpoints and recognize that previous ethnographies were generally biased toward forwarding the males of the society. This not only caused subtle changes in the approach to the writing but also provided new grounds for fieldwork—gender studies.

In practice, perhaps the first decision made by the ethnographer is to what audience the description will be directed. The choice at once determines a style and a point of view. A second choice is how much detail to provide. The goal is to convince others that the ethnographer has truly come to understand the culture under study. Too much detail can cause readers to become bored and lose interest or even to lose the basic sense of what the author means to convey. Too little description may lack the power to convince others that this ethnography is authoritative. Outside criticisms of the lack of a scientific approach in anthropological studies have convinced many that a very granular description and inclusion of other data is necessary. As a result, modern ethnographies seek a balance between description and data-driven reporting.

Ethnography is the writer’s interpretation of the field experience, a summation that takes place long after the actual event. Specific theories applied to field research, along with point of view and the expectations carried into the study, will influence what the ethnographer sees and hears. Original conversations explaining activities and meanings within the culture will be condensed, no longer the direct words of individual group members but rather a re-presentation offering a general explanation. Out of respect for the people and values of the culture, an anthropologist may withhold some information, thereby coloring the interpretations others apply to the reading. The ethnographer must then decide whether omitting sensitive material will give the reader too incomplete a picture. Ethnographers also must adapt the style to the expected audience, considering their backgrounds and expectations as well.

Van Maanen (1988) identified certain narrative conventions associated with ethnographic writing. First, he discerned those presenting a direct discussion format that offered the facts without embellishing on the ways the information was obtained. The second and nearly opposite format placed the fieldworker at center stage above the culture under study. A third and more dramatic form presented both the cultural aspects and fieldworker’s experiences in a personalized voice. In Works and Lives, Geertz (1988) studied the ethnographic production of many anthropologists, along with the reception given those works, and concluded that the key to a positive acceptance was the ability to convince. An authoritative voice that could not convey the reality of first-hand experience with the culture was not as highly regarded as one that drew the reader in, convincing him of the ethnographer’s presence in the midst of that culture. Yet one of the most difficult things to do is to transform real experience and real voices into a condensed written account.


The ethnologist looks at ethnographic studies already completed and views them from the outside, using the etic approach. Ethnologists, dealing in comparative studies, may use the valuable resources of the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF; for substantive information, rather than conducting intensive fieldwork— generally the preserve of the ethnographer. These files, created in 1949 at Yale University, constitute a database composed of text from manuscripts, articles, books, and other sources that bring together several hundred ethnographies. Works on ethnic groups, religious groups, and other cultures provide a rich source for material. The HRAF are still being developed, particularly as indexed electronic collections available online. Today there are a large number of online resources created for the many areas of anthropological study, and academic and special libraries provide additional print resources as well as digital collections from which material can be obtained. Ethnologists may now more easily make comparisons across time focusing on a particular group or culture. They may also engage in multisited field research as they make comparisons of cultural elements and structures or aspects of human behavior.

Historical Changes

Initially, in the late 19th and early 20th century, ethnographies were derived by “armchair” scholars from the reports of missionaries, colonial administrators, or travelers. Each of these sources had its own particular view to report and none were interested in the primitive society’s own reasons for its rituals and patterns of behavior. The theories held by early anthropologists, in combination with the already biased reports they received, had a significant effect on their writings, which were not impartial, although they might contain a great deal of description. Those who happened to travel to other locales to study the society did not employ the method of participant observation or fieldwork. They might have conducted a few interviews and made some observations, likely based on preconceived notions of the culture. In fact, there was little interest in how those within the culture actually behaved or thought.

Early in the 20th century, Franz Boas in America and Bronislaw Malinowski, working for the British, encouraged anthropologists to begin doing their own fieldwork and making their own observations. Thus, late in the first quarter of the 20th century, the central practice of the cultural anthropologist became fieldwork. The anthropologist spent months to years living within the society she was studying. The Chicago School is credited as a key factor behind the impetus for conducting serious fieldwork within sociology. This evolved when, just prior to the Great Depression, a group of social scientists at the University of Chicago began to promote empirical research, using both qualitative and quantitative methods in the urban environment. Cultural anthropologists, influenced by Boas and Malinowski, adopted the new fieldwork methods.

Early ethnographies were based on descriptions, as detailed as the writer was able to make them. In part this was intended to distinguish them from the less “scientific” travelers’ reports. The detail was also meant to enable classification of societies from primitive to the most advanced, fitting in with the evolutionary theories of the time. Today ethnographers design a specific research topic, bringing the study into greater focus. In part, this change is due to the direction taken by American college students in the 1970s in which they demanded more relevance in what they studied and in its practical use. Today, field research may be in the ethnographer’s own society, and the research may cut across more than one site. Yet another change in ethnographical forms arose out of a movement toward a more literary writing style. Margaret Mead’s book Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) enjoyed popularity among nonacademics and exemplifies a literary style. More recently, Clifford Geertz and Claude Lévi-Strauss demonstrated interest in the literary style.

Globalism is another major issue in modern cultural studies. Understanding ourselves and others is critical. W. Penn Handwerker (2002) stated that we may now come face-to-face with people whom we previously considered to be “other”—that is, from distant, unfamiliar cultures— yet who might now very well share many of our patterns of thought and behavior. This opens up new fields of research and a need for better understanding in order to interact at all levels. People of cultures formerly viewed as “primitive” or different are not willing to be studied as exotic subjects. They ask for a return of something that can benefit their own societies, or at the least they prefer to be considered a part of the larger, more modern world. Earlier cultural studies placed given societies within the larger world in terms of how that world might surround them and occasionally have some impact. Today, anthropologists recognize that all cultures exist as part of the larger world, and no society can be described or understood in complete isolation.

Finally, the field of anthropology has been affected by modern changes in the way universities are managed and funded. Scientific research is emphasized, often de-emphasizing the importance of anthropological studies that are seen as humanities-based, using qualitative rather than quantitative research. This compromises the amount of funding available, the ways in which ethnographical research is presented, and even the choices of topics made. The immediate relevancy of application becomes more important in order to attract support.

Applications and Criticisms of Ethnography and Ethnology

Major events in the 20th century, including World War II and the passing of colonialism, brought about a greater communication and interconnectedness among all world cultures. The untouched primitive society no longer existed. The discipline of anthropology, developed for the specific purpose of studying just such societies, foundered. Social scientists already studied other aspects of society, so it seemed there was no need for the cultural anthropologist in an increasingly complex and technological world. As society changed, new theories arose in other academic disciplines. One of these was postmodernism.

Postmodernism strongly influenced anthropology’s reevaluation of its methods. Essentially postmodernism does not acknowledge a single view or explanation but considers that each mind brings in its own interpretation, creating its own reality. There is no single, ultimate explanation, and hence any ethnography is only in the mind of that particular writer. Indeed, early ethnological comparative work soon revealed that ethnographic reports addressing the same topic often appeared quite different, depending on the particular academic training of the ethnographer. Some, for instance, would be more likely to explain or describe using a psychological approach, while others were more influenced by learning theory. Other differences arose out of the specific audience the ethnography was written for or the time when it was written. Earlier and later ethnographies of the same society might vary due to changes in the culture or because of the relationship established between the particular ethnographers and the groups they studied.

In spite of attempts to maintain a nonjudgmental evaluation, based on the theory of cultural relativism, ethnographies of the same society have even been shown to differ based on the culture from which the ethnographer came. It is not possible to remain completely objective. Instead there is interpretation and mediation in the ethnographic report, and description filtered through the trained eyes of the beholder. These reconsiderations of the written material meant that fieldwork itself needed changes in planning and design. This opened up new directions for practice.

During the same period, academic realignment also contributed to greater diversification in anthropological fields of study. Often anthropology departments were subsumed into other departments in the humanities, no longer maintaining a separate identity within their institutions. Anthropologists began to explore areas of specialty within their own culture, some doing fieldwork among urban gangs, others researching such subcultures as education or science. Today there are biological anthropologists, psychological anthropologists, linguistic anthropologists, and many more subdisciplines with anthropologists exploring every facet of the human experience from birth to death and in between.

Applied Anthropology

These changes and diversification contributed to the growing field of applied anthropology in the United States. Since many anthropologists had also begun to look closer to home for areas in which to do fieldwork, the ethnographies they produced could be tailored to assist in answering questions critical to setting policy and making decisions. A better understanding of how humans and cultures function at every level sheds light on the many problems faced by urban planners, military personnel, international businesses, educators, epidemiologists, public health officials, and others. With boundaries breaking down and the variety of ethnic groups within a given city multiplying, it is ever more essential to understand the human experience in all of its facets. Cognitive or psychological anthropologists can point to the commonalities of human thought and to the likely responses of humans under stress or threat, thereby assisting urban planners or educators.

Anthropologists work within industry and other institutions, with Native American organizations, or in the government. They work in hospitals, mental health centers, and utility companies, with public interest groups, with education facilities, and in countless other areas. Practical applications of ethnographic research involve close observation of some particular group within a society, such as experts in a given field, the middle or upper class, or the linkages and relationships among certain institutions, such as industries and the media. Such ethnographies reveal a great deal to the political or social scientist charged with helping to shape policy. These fields of research place applied anthropologists more in the public eye and increase accountability. The work they produce may additionally be of value in determining how funds will be apportioned, what is the best way to move forward with a project, or who or what will be most affected and how. Such studies can be applied to areas of public assistance, for example, where the way in which assistance is designed, such as in job training, has a significant impact on the success of that program. Whatever the study and tools used, fieldwork and participant observation remain the foundation upon which the studies are conducted.

Future Directions in Ethnography and Ethnology

Some of the new directions anthropology has taken are now well under way. The process of reflexivity or selfreflection is a method by which anthropologists look into their own attitudes and biases to understand why and what they are writing, and to attempt to bring about a more objective view. Following criticisms invoked during the literary postmodernism movement, writers of ethnographies are more aware of the problem of what truly is reality versus what a person experiences and interprets through the lens of his own life. This has led to relying upon archival research, statistics, and other cross-checks along with the writer’s own experience before writing. Where ethnographies were once monographs they may now be written in a scientific format or as articles for various publications. The style of writing varies considerably. Fieldwork itself no longer always involves trips to remote areas of the earth but may take place in one’s own hometown or some other familiar area where the focus is on feminist issues, studies of professions, or other fine-grained topics once more familiar to social scientists.

Cognitive anthropology is an important direction for new studies. Recognizing the role of the individual as an active rather than passive participant is a significant contribution to contemporary theory, reshaping fieldwork design. The question addresses whether individuals are in control of or products of their culture. Over time it has been shown that individuals learn to cope with changing circumstances in their environment and may make changes in the culture to adapt. While the culture changes somewhat as a result, a balance between individual and culture will eventually be achieved again. Recent history demonstrates this. Major 20th-century events such as war, depression, and greater communication bringing globalization have all produced the circumstances that wrought changes in cultures, forcing anthropologists to abandon previously held, more rigid theories.

Applied anthropology appears to be the new face of the field. Studies are expected to provide useful information that can be applied to improving situations, making changes, recognizing problem areas, and making policy and other decisions. This has influenced the method, calling for more rigorous—often quantitative—data, along with the qualitative ethnography. Surveys and statistical studies are just two of the tools that may be used to provide hard evidence for particular conclusions. These methods may be used in studies of subcultures within society, such as gangs, the drug culture, or the commune. As this illustrates, the areas into which applied anthropologists are moving are constantly expanding. The long view for anthropologists is changing as they consider their individual studies within the context of a more global picture. Rather than focusing on a culture alone, they look at a group as it interacts regionally or even internationally.

A very important direction of future studies is in the fields of science and technology, perhaps especially biotechnology. As John Bennett (1998) stated, “Race is out; genes are in” (p. 2). The latter areas are of critical importance in decision and policy making. Ethnologists and ethnographers have moved into the present, finding the interconnections, interrelationships, and emerging trends among peoples, institutions, specific groups, and professions that define our highly technological societies today.

Political and economic structures are a target of research, viewed in a global context. Popular culture and media studies will also continue to be a focus. With the world in a period of rapid change due to greater industrialization and advances in technology, the need to revisit other geographically situated cultures to study how such changes have affected them will continue. Such studies require revisions in the earlier thinking and methodology of cultural anthropology. Whereas previous fieldwork called for long-term observation, many of the types of studies conducted today, both at home and in other societies, will be multisited with descriptions of association and linkages among the sites. Single sites that have already been visited may be visited again, but with new questions asked and perhaps new ways of observing and interviewing subjects. Fieldwork will require a more collaborative approach as cultures formerly considered “other” are now a part of the global community.


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