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Cultural Anthropology: The Importance of Methods and Fieldwork in Cultural Research

Cultural Anthropology stands out among other social sciences for the unique value it places on fieldwork as the primary key to the complex realm of human cultures. This was not the case at the outset of the discipline when early generations of cultural anthropologists heavily relied on second-hand accounts to collect and organize ethnographic data (Hannerz et al., 2023). It was only during the 20th century that cultural anthropologists began to discard these unstructured and unreliable sources, opting instead to go into the field to gather firsthand information. Over time, fieldwork underwent several changes and adaptations, resulting in various techniques, including structured interviews, surveys, field notes, and journals, each tailored to the specific cultural setting. Despite the evolution of the discipline, fieldwork remained a shared objective among specialized anthropologists. From that moment on, they never ceased to immerse themselves deeply in the local milieu and meticulously observe other cultural routines to provide scientific documentation of what they saw and experienced.

Although the significance of fieldwork in anthropological research is unquestionable, it is less known that this practice is highly demanding and time-consuming. Not only do cultural anthropologists invest several months, years, or even longer in their research endeavors, but they also frequently deal with a multitude of challenges. They commonly recall their fieldwork experiences as marked by monotony, illness, personal sacrifices, unmet expectations, and frustration from the constant fear of encountering suspicion and hostility while living in a foreign climate (Eriksen, 2010). These challenges, although inevitable, are often concealed by the captivating narratives found in anthropological writings: ethnographies. Such tales have played a substantial role in idealizing fieldwork and presenting the profession of the anthropologist in an excessively romanticized manner, even when the reality of facts diverges significantly from this idyllic portrayal.

Figure 1: "Understanding the Harasis" (Stanfield, 2023).

Considering these crucial factors, this article aims to shed light on the challenges of fieldwork while simultaneously providing a comprehensive description of its most famous methodologies. In the final section, particular emphasis will be placed on the birth of ethical guidelines as a set of norms designed to safeguard the well-being and rights of anthropological subjects from the interest of ill-intentioned and exploitative anthropologists approaching fieldwork.

Participant Observation

An effective way to introduce the topic of fieldwork is by exploring its famous definitions within the discipline. One of the most widely recognized from the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (1969) is attributed to influential U.S. cultural anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker and states:

Fieldwork is the study of people and of their culture in their natural habitat. Anthropological fieldwork has been characterized by the prolonged residence of the investigator, his participation in and observation of the society, and his attempt to understand the inside view of the native peoples and to achieve the holistic view of a social scientist... The publication of Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western Pacific in 1922 revealed the great potentialities of fieldwork. The publication of Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific in 1922 revealed the great potentialities of fieldwork. This study of Trobriand Islanders, among whom Malinowski had lived for almost three years, set new standards for field workers which continue to operate. Fieldwork came to mean immersion in a tribal society—learning, as far as possible, to speak, think, see, feel, and act as a member of its culture and, at the same time, as a trained anthropologist from a different culture (cited in Robben & Sluka, 2012, p. 7).

In such a dense passage, Powdermaker perfectly tackles the two core components of anthropological fieldwork: participation and observation. In particular, she claims that cultural anthropologists need to immerse themselves deeply and for a more extended period in the new society to gain insight into an unfamiliar society. They must strive to develop the ability not only to think but also to perceive, experience, and occasionally even emulate the behavior of a member of another culture, all while maintaining a distinct identity as trained anthropologists coming from different cultural backgrounds (Powdermaker, 1969). This unique approach, known as participant observation, became essential to the discipline precisely because it emphasized the perspectives of both insiders (informants or anthropological subjects) and outsiders (anthropologists). More specifically, this methodology, characterized by the fusion of involvement and detachment, enables fieldworkers to grasp the cultural significance of behaviors within the studied society while facilitating comparisons and objective observations that insiders might not (Sluka & Robben, 2012). In Powdermaker‘s words:

Involvement is necessary to understand the psychological realities of a culture, that is, its meanings for the indigenous members. Detachment is necessary to construct the abstract reality: a network of social relations, including the rules and how they function – not necessarily real to the people studies (1966, p. 9).

Figure 2: "Understanding Aboriginal Art" (Walker, 1949).

The method of examining cultures from inside and outside was borrowed from the American linguist Kenneth Pike and later introduced to the discipline by Marvin Harris (Eriksen, 2010). According to the latter, the practice of anthropological examination involves two distinct "levels": "the Native's point of view", representing life as experienced and recounted by the members of a society themselves, also known as the 'emic' level, and its counterpart, the analytical descriptions or explanations provided by the anthropologist, referred to as the 'etic' level (Eriksen, 2010). Building on this theory, it becomes evident that despite anthropologists' diligent efforts to genuinely depict the reality as perceived by their informants and their deep immersion in the culture under study, an inherent limitation persists: anthropologists who are not native to the cultural group under examination are unlikely to achieve a comprehensive and unbiased picture of that environment. Modern anthropologists now opt for a different approach to address this challenge, openly acknowledging their cultural limitations and potential biases within their written work (Eriksen, 2010).

Because of its importance, cultural anthropologists undergo specialized training to master this technique, enabling them to observe every facet of their surroundings during fieldwork. This encompasses everything from daily activities like meal preparation to significant events such as annual religious festivities (Brown et al., 2020). Additionally, they meticulously examine interpersonal interactions, the reciprocal influence between the environment and individuals, and the impact that individuals have on their surroundings, while recording their own observations, emotions, and perspectives in written form, a practice commonly referred to as ethnography.

Figure 3: Swedish home scientists carrying out observational studies from the movie "Kitchen Stories" (2003).


Although fieldwork remains the primary method for generating new data, the process of categorization and divulgation of this knowledge is equally, if not more, necessary. Ethnography is the vessel through which the data gained during fieldwork is shared, analyzed, and contextualized for a broader audience (Brown et al., 2020). The product of ethnographic research, the ethnographies, become much more than mere repositories of facts and observations but intricate and evocative accounts that bring the fieldwork experiences to life (Brown et al., 2020). They capture the nuances of human existence, the intricacies of cultural practices, and the complexities of social dynamics, thus allowing readers to journey into distant cultures while appreciating the diversity of human societies (Brown et al., 2020). The three primary techniques of data collection that will be discussed in the following section are field notes, interviews, life histories, and testimonios.


Field notes are the first record of an anthropologist’s observations. These notes come generally in two forms: field notes and personal reflections. The former are detailed accounts of everything the anthropologist witnesses and encounters during their research. They delve into specific details about events, sensory impressions, the language used by the informants, and the content of conversations and overheard remarks. Initially, field notes are drafted as brief sketches directly on the field (Brown et al., 2020). Later, they are edited into more formal and organized records and are even often developed into a full-on report, which typically takes several hours each day to accomplish (Brown et al., 2020). The latter typology, personal reflections, comes in journals or diaries and includes anthropologists' emotions and personal experiences during their research process. These personal reflections are just as crucial as field notes because fieldwork, as mentioned before, employs a purely objective and scientific approach and a blend of non-empirical methodologies to strive for maximum accuracy (Brown et al., 2020).

Figure 4: Field note of Altar at Punta Laguna reserve. Taken from "Visual Field Notes: Drawing Insights in the Yucatan” (Hendrickson, 2008).

Renato Rosaldo's work provides a compelling example of how emotional responses to fieldwork situations can equally advance research (Brown et al., 2020). While studying the Ilongots of Northern Luzon in the Philippines, Rosaldo encountered men in the community who had participated in violent acts like headhunting (Brown et al., 2020). Initially frustrated by their seemingly simplistic explanations for their actions, Rosaldo struggled to grasp the depth of their motivations. However, a tragic event in his own life, the accidental death of his wife, changed his perspective. Rosaldo's personal experience of grief and rage helped him empathize with the Ilongot men's emotions. It provided him with a deeper understanding of their actions, as he detailed in his essay "Grief and a Headhunter's Rage" (2003), thus underscoring the extremely positive impact that personal experiences can have on anthropological research (Brown et al., 2020). Precisely in this context, diaries offer a unique outlet to express emotions and experiences encountered during fieldwork for coping with new unencountered feelings and personal biases and traumas (Bernard, 2006).


Another method to gather ethnographic data involves conversing and interviewing people of a specific cultural milieu. In their simplicity, conversations and interviews are pivotal in most cultural research because they provide invaluable insights into individuals' thoughts, beliefs, and perspectives within a community (Brown et al., 2020). These interactions can range from casual, unstructured chats covering everyday topics to more formal, scheduled interviews focused on specific subjects. As stated by the group of scholars Nina Brown, Thomas McIlwraith, and Laura Tubelle de González in their second edition of Perspectives: An Open Introduction To Cultural Anthropology (2020), the key to successful conversations and interviews lies in establishing a good relationship with informants because, in many instances, it contributes to a more open and candid exchange of information, fostering trust and rapport that can yield more profound insights.

Figure 5: "Capturing Knowledge: Ethnographic Interviews" (Leenders, 2014).


Collecting personal life narratives is another valuable technique, often complementing other ethnographic methods in that they offer a more comprehensive view of how culture is both experienced and shaped by individuals over their lifetimes (Brown et al., 2020). They provide a contextual framework to understand how individuals have reacted to, responded to, and contributed to the cultural changes occurring during their lives. Additionally, life histories are helpful in that they enable anthropologists to gain profound insights into what holds meaning for an individual, allowing them to focus on the nuances of individual experiences and the significant patterns that shape their lives (Brown et al., 2020). Anthropologists frequently incorporate these life histories into their works to intimately connect readers directly with the lives of the informants. This inclusion adds depth and richness to the narrative and helpsreaders develop a more profound understanding of the cultural contexts and individual experiences from an insider perspective (Brown et al., 2020). For this reason, life histories serve as powerful tools for bridging the gap between the researcher and the informant, facilitating a more profound and empathetic exploration of the culture under study (Brown et al., 2020).


During the 1960s, as social science researchers began to meticulously consider the influence of their life experiences, social statuses, and roles on their research endeavors and analyses, reflexivity, a relatively recent development in ethnographic research and writing, emerged. This transformative approach encouraged researchers to integrate their own personal experiences, thoughts, and life narratives into their written works while critically examining how these personal characteristics impacted their research and analysis (Brown et al., 2020). The adoption of reflexivity is one of the most profound shifts in ethnographic research and writing over the past five decades. It invited anthropologists to acknowledge their inherent connection to their study subjects, recognizing the impossibility of complete objectivity (Brown et al., 2020). Furthermore, reflexivity has heightened anthropologists' awareness of the imbalanced power dynamics inherent in research and the consequential effects on research outcomes (Brown et al., 2020).

Figure 6: "Ni-Van perceptions and attitudes vis-à-vis biodiversity" (Robillard & Brunois, 2011).

Another critical perspective comes from postcolonial studies, which deconstructs how Western social sciences, including anthropology, construct their unique notions of "otherness". During the 1970s and 1980s, a heightened awareness of the intricate relationship between power dynamics and knowledge construction led to the emergence of new forms of fieldwork relations and ethnographic writing, addressing critical issues such as the discipline's relationship with imperialism, academic colonialism, and gender biases (Sluka & Robben, 2012). Among these innovations, one of the most noteworthy forms of narrative ethnography is the testimonio, which consists of first-person accounts of real situations and centering around repression, marginalization, and violence (Sluka & Robben, 2012). In the words of John Beverly (2004):

By testimonio I mean a novel or novella-length narrative book or pamphlet form, told in the first person by a narrator who is also a real protagonist or witness of the event he or she recounts, and whose unit of narration is usually a "life" or a significant life experience. Testimonio may include, but is not subsumed under, any of the following categories, some of which are conventionally considered literature, others not: autobiography, autobiographical novel, oral history, memoir, confession, diary, interview, eyewitness report, life history, novella-testimonio, nonfiction novel, or "factographic" literature... This situation of narration in testimonio has to involve an urgency to communicate, a problem of repression, poverty, subalternity, imprisonment, struggle for survival, and so on (pp. 30-31).

Originating from Latin America, testimonios aimed to shed light on oppressive conditions, becoming a vital medium through which marginalized communities found a literary voice (Sluka & Robben, 2012). Despite being somewhat controversial, the testimonio represents a form of experimental ethnography, grounded in a new approach to fieldwork and a transformed relationship between anthropologists and the notion of "other", as well as an empowering tactic for raising awareness and advocating for social and political change (Sluka & Robben, 2012). One of the most renowned instances of this unique ethnographic genre is the autobiographical work titled I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, commencing with the following opening paragraph:

My name is Rigoberta Menchú. I'm twenty-three years old. This is my testimony. I didn't learn it from a book and I didn't learn it alone. I'd like to stress that it's not only my life. it's also the testimony of my people. It's hard for me to remember everything that's happened to me in my life since there have been many bad times but, yes, moments of joy as well. The important thing is that what has happened to me has happened to many other people too: My story is the story of all poor Guatemalans. My personal experience is the reality of a whole people (Menchú, 1984, p.1)

Figure 7: "Complex Defeat for Nobel Winner in Guatemala" (Hoagland, 2007).

Collaborative Method

In the realm of postmodern fieldwork, there has been another significant shift emphasizing increased dedication to reciprocity and collaborative research to give something valuable back to research participants in return for their collaboration (Sluka & Robben, 2012). This shift has created to a new trend where serving the local community and collecting ethnographic data are equally important. An example of this unique approach, the collaborative method, is seen in Annette Kuhlmann's research with members of the Kickapoo tribe of Oklahoma. While exploring Kickapoo culture, Kuhlmann collaborated with tribal members to co-create books on Kickapoo history (Sluka & Robben, 2012). Since traditionally the Kickapoo conveyed their history through storytelling, Kuhlmann's project involved interviewing trained tribal members to document detailed and sometimes humorous life histories from elders so as to preserve this tradition in history texts (Sluka & Robben, 2012. This demonstrates Kuhlmann's commitment to the objectives of this approach, which, to quote her, “...include community participation, collaboration of the participants on all aspects of the project, reciprocal learning processes, and respect for the community’s sense of tribal privacy regarding publications” (1992, p. 274).

In the context of collaborative research, partnerships represent another avenue for working together as equals, encompassing various stages such as planning, execution, problem-solving, and evaluation (Sluka & Robben, 2012). Julie Park, who conducted a study on the role of alcohol in the lives of New Zealand women, emphasizes that research partnerships, similar to business agreements, are negotiated relationships (Sluka & Robben, 2012). They must be strictly characterized by mutual engagement through negotiation (Sluka & Robben, 2012). She contends that to prevent exploitation, research relationships must be open to people's experiences and voices while also providing participants with relevant and accessible research-based information as part of an empowering process (Sluka & Robben, 2012). This sharing of skills and resources is vital and, as with other forms of participatory research, necessitates close collaboration with group members, actively involving them in project planning, research, and analysis.

Figure 8: "Ethics" (Stuartmiles, 2014).

Ethical Guidelines in Fieldwork

Alongside the testimonio and reflexive trends, there has been a growing determination among certain cultural anthropologists to confront and rectify the discipline's historical issues, which were tainted by the exploitation and misrepresentation of non-Western cultural groups. According to the American Anthropological Association (2023), as a social enterprise, both research and practice invariably involve a multitude of actors, including colleagues, students, research participants, employers, clients, funders, as well as non-human primates and other animals, among others (p. 3). Given the intricate web of rights, responsibilities, and engagements within this field, the members of this renowned association propose a series of guidelines on ethical fieldwork to guide anthropologists to demonstrate sensitivity to the power dynamics, limitations, interests, and expectations inherent in all these relationships.

1. Do No Harm:

One of the main ethical responsibilities is the commitment to avoid causing harm or distress to the communities and individuals involved in anthropological research. Anthropologists must thoroughly examine potential harm across various dimensions, including legal, emotional, political, economic, social, and cultural aspects (Brown et al., 2020). Although this principle is fundamental, its practical implementation can be challenging, as unforeseen ethical dilemmas may surface during and after the research process (Brown et al., 2020). For instance, anthropologists may encounter situations where cultural practices they observe conflict with their ethical values. Balancing the principles of cultural relativism (understanding practices within their cultural context) with ethical universalism (adherence to ethical standards that apply universally) can be a significant ethical dilemma (Brown et al., 2020). Consequently, they should continuously monitor their research and methodologies to proactively mitigate any identified risks and remain vigilant to ensure the well-being of their informants (Brown et al., 2020). The institutional review board (IRB), for instance, assumes a crucial role by thoroughly scrutinizing the research proposals to ensure that researchers associated with academic institutions seeking approval do not present any potential harm or risks to the human subjects who will be taking part in the study (Brown et al., 2020).

Figure 9: Signing a contract (Skynesher, 2019).

2. Obtain Informed Consent:

Anthropologists must actively seek informed consent from all individuals serving as informants before initiating their research. Informed consent entails ensuring that informants possess a clear understanding of various crucial aspects, including the researcher's identity, the nature of the research topic, its funding sources, how the research findings will be utilized, and who will have access to them (The American Anthropological Association, 2023). Of extreme importance is the voluntary nature of participation, which should be entirely free from coercion or pressure. In the context of research conducted in medical and psychological domains within the United States, the common practice involves prospective participants signing a formal document. This document outlines the research objectives and comprehensively addresses the potential risks of their participation (The American Anthropological Association, 2023). By signing this document, participants acknowledge their willingness to partake in the study. However, it is vital to recognize that in specific anthropological settings, this conventional approach to obtaining informed consent may not be suitable since the mere act of requesting individuals to endorse a formal, legal-looking document could potentially intimidate them and hinder their willingness to participate (Brown et al., 2020). Furthermore, in communities where a substantial portion of the population may lack the ability to read or comprehend written documents, relying solely on signed consent forms becomes impractical (Brown et al., 2020). In such instances, it becomes the responsibility of the anthropologist to carefully assess the most appropriate and culturally sensitive method for obtaining informed consent that aligns with the specific context of the research (Brown et al., 2020).

3. Maintain Anonymity and Privacy:

Protecting the anonymity and privacy of informants is another ethical imperative. Ensuring confidentiality is particularly crucial when informants face risks due to their participation. Using pseudonyms and altering identifying information help preserve privacy and safeguard informants from potential harm (The American Anthropological Association, 2023).

4. Make Results Accessible:

Anthropologists must make their research findings accessible to informants and the broader audience. Accessibility may demand creative approaches such as translation, establishing research databases, film production, or developing practical recommendations (Brown et al., 2020). While achieving cultural appropriateness in sharing results can be challenging, it is essential to enable others, especially those who contributed to the research, to review and benefit from the findings (Brown et al., 2020).

Figure 10: Fieldwork in a Yunnan minority ethnic village (Yang, 2011).


In conclusion, Cultural Anthropology is a discipline whose foundations are rooted in the practice of fieldwork and ethnographic research. Fieldwork, characterized by participant observation and ethnography, marked by written records in the form of field notes, interviews, life histories, and testimonios, serves as the cornerstone of this unique subbranch, allowing researchers to immerse themselves profoundly in the cultures they study. As it was shown, fieldwork is not without its challenges. Anthropologists often spend extended periods away from their homes, facing personal sacrifices and encountering difficulties in providing an excellent and unbiased description of the culture they study. One of the most significant developments in recent decades has been the adoption of reflexivity, which acknowledges the subjectivity of researchers and their role in shaping research outcomes. This approach has brought about a more profound appreciation of the power dynamics inherent in research. It has encouraged anthropologists to integrate their personal experiences into their work, fostering greater inclusivity and diversity of perspectives. Furthermore, postcolonial studies and collaborative research have emphasized the importance of reciprocity and ethical considerations in fieldwork. Collaborative research partnerships, negotiated relationships, and sharing skills and resources have become essential aspects of modern ethnographic research, aiming to ensure that research benefits both the researchers and the communities they study. The third installment of this series ends with an overview of the most important ethical guidelines, such as those established by the American Anthropological Association, which play a pivotal role in ensuring the ethical conduct of anthropological research. These guidelines prioritize the well-being and rights of research subjects, emphasizing the importance of informed consent, maintaining anonymity and privacy, and making research results accessible. Despite the colonial history that influenced the birth and evolution of this discipline, cultural anthropology remains committed to shedding light on the intricate fabric of human societies. While recognizing the responsibilities and challenges entailed in this endeavor, cultural anthropologists employ various tools such as fieldwork, reflexivity, collaborative research, and ethical guidelines to actively contribute to a more inclusive and empathetic comprehension of the diverse cultures and communities that populate our world.

Bibliographical References

American Anthropological Association. Anthropological ethics. (2023, May 31). The American Anthropological Association.

Beverley, J. (2004). Testimonio: On the Politics of Truth, 30-31. University of Minnesota Press.

Brown, N.; McIlwraith, T. & Tubelle de González, L. (2020). Perspectives: An open invitation to cultural anthropology (2nd ed.). American Anthropological Association, 45-68.

Eriksen T. H. (2010). Small Places Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology (3rd ed.), 27-44. Pluto Press.

Kuhlmann, Annette. (1992). Collaborative research among the Kickapoo tribe of Oklahoma. Human Organization, 51(3), 274–283.

Menchú, R. (1984). I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian woman in Guatemala, 1. Verso.

Robben, A. C. G., & Sluka, J. A. (2012). Ethnographic Fieldwork: An anthropological reader. John Wiley & Sons.

Russell Bernard, H. (2006). Research methods in anthropology: Qualitative and quantitative approaches, 1-96. (4th ed.). AltaMira Press.

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