What are some of the issues involved in doing research?

Most people, if they have any idea of what it is anthropologists do, probably associate us with living in a remote village in the middle of a rain forest, getting excited when we uncover some seemingly trivial fact or ritual. And, well, to be honest, the image is a bit of a caricature, but not totally.

What this image captures is what we refer to as fieldwork, or “being in the field.” It’s the actual data gathering aspect of our research, and it is what many of us live for. This type of research is also what sets anthropologists apart from most other social scientists. Like most things, doing fieldwork both is and isn’t more complicated than the stereotype would suggest. What I am going to do in this section is talk a little bit about why this is so.

The classic research method employed by anthropologists is known as participant-observation because that is what we do. We participate and we observe. (You’d think perhaps someone could have come up with a catchier name, no?) On the one hand, we observe what is going on around us. On the other hand, we try to participate as much as possible in the daily life of the group of people we want to learn about.

Our origin myths tell us that it was Malinowski who first argued we needed to get off the verandas of the missionaries’ and government officials’ houses and go see what is really going on among the people. (Reality is a bit more complex, since there were American anthropologists doing fieldwork in a similar way around the same time, or earlier.) The idea was – and remains – that only by immersing yourself in the daily minutiae of actually-lived lives can you even hope to obtain the sort of deep understanding that anthropologists strive for. And many of the things anthropologists do are a direct outcome of this research method.

In many ways, doing fieldwork is like leading two lives. In the participant part, you try to take part in daily life as much as possible. One colleague I know, for example, worked in a fish processing plant as part of his research. (Obviously, he didn’t work in Mongolia!) Another lived with a herding family out in the Gobi desert and helped herd livestock. You hang out with people, you talk to them, you listen to and trade in gossip, you go shopping where everyone else does (if there are stores!). You go to bars or nightclubs. While you are participating, you are also often asking questions. Why do you do this? Why don’t we do that? How come…? As I usually tell my students, we anthropologists often make a pest of ourselves, and at first at somewhat like children in adult bodies.

At the same time you are doing all of this, part of you tries to keep a certain mental distance and take notes of everything. This is the observation part. If you go to a meeting, you are interested not only in what is said at the meeting, but who is there, what the gender make-up of the group is, ages, attitudes and interactions between the different people and so on. Then, at the end of the day, or whenever you have a spare moment, you write it all down.

The goal of all this observing and participating is, of course, to be able to understand whatever question it is that interests you. The reason we use participant-observation is that many of the things that anthropologists are interested in can not be recovered through surveys or reading official documents. These are useful (and I return to them below) but they do not tell the whole picture.

Simply asking a person what they think about a topic will get you an answer, but what it really gives you is an answer to your question. This is not necessarily the same thing as what people really think, or how they act. If you want to understand people’s views about corruption, for example, you can ask them. And they will probably tell you. But it is more enlightening – if a lot more work – to hang out with people and see how they talk about corruption as they go about their daily lives. You will also pay attention to what they actually do. People would probably tell you that corruption is wrong and should be stopped. And if you just did a survey, that is what you would learn. But as you go about trying to be a member of a community and watching people, you will probably see that the people who told you corruption is wrong doing something that, to you, seems like corruption: offering a bottle of vodka in exchange for some help in hurrying paperwork along. What this should alert you to is the fact that you as the anthropologist and the people you are talking with, have different understandings of what corruption actually is.

Anthropologists (or most of us, anyway) feel that it is this extra depth to our understanding that is important and interesting. Clifford Geertz once described it as being able to tell the difference between a wink and a blink. He notes (somewhere in The interpretation of cultures, I believe) that a wink and a blink are physically the same action. But they carry deeply different meanings. The goal of an anthropologist is to be able to understand a culture well enough to be able to tell the difference between the local equivalent of a wink and a blink. This means understanding the meanings that people attribute to things (at least in certain contexts) better than you can do by just reading about a place.

Such a depth of knowledge clearly takes a long time. This is why anthropologists typically measure time spend in fieldwork in months rather than weeks or days (as I’ve seen economists and political scientists do). We also spend lots of time in the field for other reasons. If the first is that learning a culture well takes time, another is that picking up information through conversation and observation is also slow. Yet, for the reasons mentioned in the example above, we think it is almost always better to learn something through it being offered or mentioned in passing rather than through explicit questioning. Also, our very presence as researchers affects the community we are living in. We anthropologists are, after all, outsiders. Our being there disrupts the very things we want to learn about. So we often spend weeks or months letting people get used to us hanging around and learning – hopefully – that we can be trusted before we start poking our noses into more sensitive areas, or before people feel comfortable enough to talk more freely about politics or whatever.

Notes: When anthropologists do research, there are two basic types of notes we use. There are the on-the-spot (or immediately afterwards) notes. If you are doing an interview or observing a political rally, you can usually jot down a few notes to serve a memory aids. If you are chatting over dinner, it is usually considered bad form to pull out a notebook, so it has to wait. These notes are usually fairly short and semi-cryptic. I use a stenographer’s pad, as they give a fairly good balance between size and actually having enough space to write things down in.

Even if you use a tape-recorder, you still tend to take notes, for a number of reasons. The first is the possibility of a tape-recorder malfunction, or other loss of data. The second is not everything shows up on a tape – where was the interview, what does the person look like, what where his or her physical expressions, and so forth. And, last but not least, having a notepad in front of you is a good way to stall for time or to go back and check for things you might have missed. It’s a good prop.

Later in the day, or at some later time, the anthropologist will work up his or her rough notes into fuller ones. These days I use a computer and a database program, so I can search the notes much more easily. (Besides, I can type faster than I can write neatly, so I tend to have fuller notes if I type.) But on my first research trip, I wrote out notes in bigger notebooks longhand. In these notes you expand on your rough notes. You put down fuller accounts of what happened, but you also reflect on things. My fieldnotes are full of observations and notes to myself to back and check out things.

Other research methods: While participant-observation is the key method we anthropologists use, it isn’t the only one. Depending on what you are studying, you will use a number of different sources of information. We do often use surveys and questionnaires to cover more ground quickly. If you live in an area that has newspapers, that is another source of information. If you do work that has a historical bent, you probably will end up in the archives at some point. I’ve spent weeks sitting in the national historical archives in Mongolia reading old government resolutions and proclamations, as well as reports from the countryside to the Council of Ministers in an effort to understand better the socialist-era government and how people reacted to it. Basically, anything that gives you information or insight into a topic you are interested in is fair game as a source of information.

Ethics and research: I could probably write for several more pages on various aspects of fieldwork, but I think for the time being I’ll just add one more section. Probably the most important thing about anthropological research is the ethics aspect. To me, the most important thing about research is the people you work with. They should always come first.

At one level, this is fairly basic and straightforward. Anthropologists are (or should be) clear about who they are and what they are doing. We are not investigative reporters. When I talk to people, I am clear that I am researcher and why I want to talk to them. In our publications, we do not use real names if at all possible. Since people are going to be telling us things – or letting us see things – that would have concrete ramifications if they were attached to a specific, identifiable person, we must do our best to mitigate these. What I mean is more than someone leaking us confidential government information. Simply writing about social interaction can be hazardous to the people who trust us if it gets back to the community that person A, whom everyone thinks is person B’s best friend, actually can’t stand him or her. Lives might not be lost as a result, but damage will still be done.

In an attempt to mitigate this, even my fieldnotes are coded. “Today B-3 told me that…” When I write up, names are changed and descriptions left vague enough to try to cover up characteristic traits. (This isn’t always successful, especially in a small community like Mongolian academics.) Although (at least in the US) anthropologists do not have the legal protections against naming sources of information that journalists are usually afforded, we should hold ourselves to those sorts of standards.

At another level, ethics are much more of a judgement call. Especially if you return to the same research site multiple times, people whom you work with become friends. And conflicts between respect for friends and research are sure to arise. There are no simple or easy answers here – you must draw your own line where you feel comfortable. In the end, I like to think that I have done the right thing and chosen friendship over research when the choice had to be made. But I am sure there are anthropologists who would choose otherwise, and feel that they made the right choice.

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