- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Researchers' personalities, cultural orientations, social statuses, political philosophies, and life experiences will colour how they interpret other cultures.
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 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.
View Assignment, Essay #1
Ethnography and Theory: Selected Texts
This information is for the 2017/18 session.
Dr Harry Walker OLD 5.06B and Prof Matthew Engelke OLD 6.12
This course is compulsory on the BA in Anthropology and Law, BA in Social Anthropology and BSc in Social Anthropology. This course is available as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit and to General Course students.
This course discusses important aspects of anthropological and sociological theory in relation to modern ethnographic texts. It ranges from the classical social theory by Marx, Durkheim and Weber to the most recent theoretical advances in the discipline. The course is intended to give students a sound grasp of central theoretical concepts and of their significance for empirical research.
10 hours of lectures and 10 hours of classes in the MT. 10 hours of lectures and 10 hours of classes in the LT.
This course has a reading week in Week 6 of both MT and LT.
Students are expected to prepare discussion material for presentation in the classes and are required to write assessment essays. Anthropology students taking this course will have an opportunity to submit a tutorial essay for this course to their personal tutors. For non-Anthropology students taking this course, a formative essay may be submitted to the course teacher.
R Aron, Main Currents in Sociological Thought; A Giddens, Capitalism and Social Theory; R Nisbet, The Sociological Tradition; L Coser & B Rosenberg, Sociological Theory: a Book of Readings; K Morrison, Marx, Durkheim, Weber; R Borofsky (Ed), Assessing Cultural Anthropology; C Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures; GW Stocking, Observers Observed; GW Stocking, Victorian Anthropology; B Malinowski Argonauts of the Western Pacific; R Benedict, Patterns of Culture; E E Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft oracles and magic among the Azande; V Turner, The Forest of Symbols; M Sahlins, Culture and Practical Reason; J Clifford The Predicament of Culture; M Engelke, Think like an anthropologist. Detailed reading lists are provided at the beginning of the course.
Exam (70%, duration: 3 hours) in the main exam period.
Essay (15%, 2500 words) in the MT.
Essay (15%, 2500 words) in the LT.