Module I: Introduction

II. Method and Theory in Cultural Anthropology.

B. Objectivity in Ethnography

Current issue in research ethics and objectivity: Darkness in Eldorado
You will probably already have realized that the conditions and techniques of ethnographic fieldwork impose many challenges to the goal of providing an objective picture of a cultural reality. All the information that contributes to the ethnography is filtered through the researcher's impressions and his/her biases inherent in theoretical orientation, research strategy, social status, and individual background and personality. The following constitutes a partial listing of the biases that ethnographic observers can introduce into their representation of other cultures.

Biases in ethnographic fieldwork:

  1. Skewed (nonrepresentative) sampling.

    1. Informant selection. Since anthropologists work with a small number of informants, it is difficult to guarantee that interview information collected is fully representative of all possible experiences or even taps the predominant cultural perspective.
    2. Field location. Anthropologists need to develop an identity and role and make intensive firsthand observations within a single community, which is usually only a small component of the total cultural community and social matrix under consideration. Yet he/she will generalize about this totality from a relatively microcosmic view. This perspective neglects variations in traits, patterns, and values, that are often present within a culture. Focus on a single location also limits the extent to which the researcher can recognize significant influences that are present on wider regional or national levels.
    3. Time frame. The anthropologist's observations are limited to a short time horizon, but many cultural processes may involve longer cycles unperceived by a short term visitor.

  2. Theoretical biases.

    Current strategies in fieldwork emphasize the importance of formulating a research hypothesis on theoretical grounds and testing it through the research activity. However, the presence of a hypothesis and commitment to a theoretical orientation may lead the researcher to selectively collect information that is consistent with his/her preconceptions and to ignore any counter evidence. The interview process in itself may include leading questions that influence the character of the informant's answer.

  3. Personal biases.

    Researchers' personalities, cultural orientations, social statuses, political philosophies, and life experiences will colour how they interpret other cultures.

  4. Ethical considerations.

    Anthropologists often uncover information, which might be harmful to their study community or otherwise threaten its cultural integrity. They may, accordingly, limit discussion of some issues to protect their sources of information.

The convergence of all the biases inherent in the ethnographic process may result in a description that is uniquely the product of a particular observer. Accordingly, two different researchers may produce contradictory accounts of the same culture. This situation has occurred on several occasions, most notably in the analysis of child-rearing practices and adolescent behaviour on the Polynesian island of Samoa. The noted anthropologist, Margaret Mead, published an anthropological classic on this subject (Mead 1928). Her research was based on a hypothesis that adolescent behaviour, and, in particular, adolescent crises typical in American family life, was culturally determined and not influenced by biological processes, such as hormonal changes during maturation. Accordingly, she observed Samoan parents raised their children in a permissive, manner which brought them to a healthy adulthood without the anxieties and frustrations of American teenagers. Another anthropologist, Derek Freeman, carried out a study of the same culture that started from the opposite hypothesis (Freeman 1983). His data firmly supported his position that Samoan adolescence was just as restrictive and turbulent as the American experience and that both reflected universal biological tendencies. You can learn further details of the Mead/Freeman debate

The problems of ethnographic objectivity identified here have led some anthropologists to conclude that unbiased research is an impossibility and that all ethnography is subjective. Postmodern anthropologists take this position one step further and argue that ethnography is fiction and is to be evaluated on the basis of literary form as well as scientific principles. My own perspective on this issue is that, although perfect objectivity may not be attainable, it can be approximated. We must maintain scientific standards and procedures to try achieve as impartial a perspective on cultural data as possible. We must also acknowledge and clearly discuss our sources of bias when reporting research results.

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