Whether preparing an ethnography or assembling statistics for analysis, anthropologists utilize a number of quantitative and qualitative methods for their research of cultural variation. These tools for study can produce the factors necessary to support a community in need in ways that honor the spirit of the community while bringing beneficial change. Most anthropologists use multiple methods to conduct research in tandem in order to gain a more complete perspective on a community within a specific moment in time and space.
Anthropological research begins with studying any relevant documentation about a culture already available, as well as on topics of interest to the community inviting the anthropologist with whom they intend to collaborate. Reading up on historical and statistical data can prepare you for some of the culture shock you may experience entering as an outsider, or give you awareness of linguistic differences, including slang, with which you might not be familiar. Learning the language, at least conversationally, can prevent translator misinterpretations.
Being a participant within a community not only gives you access to deeper levels of community involvement, it helps you minimize personal bias and experience a shallow level of what community members themselves experience. In the simplest terms, participatory observation involves “getting your hands dirty,” in that you find work that you can do that supports the community, giving you a chance to get to know some of its members and better understand the daily lives of the people with whom you are working. This method is essential to true and valuable development of camaraderie between researcher and community.
Surveys and Statistical Analysis
One of the most reliable quantitative methods is the use of statistics and surveys. By gathering fixed data relevant to your research, you can track on a large scale the facts and figures of a community and the current situation it is facing. For example, if you are attempting to support a community by proving that a company has been the cause of birth defects in a given area, gather the data to show the rate of birth anomalies before the company arrived and after. This data can then be placed on a chart and presented in a suit against the company in question. Surveys can be useful to show the reporting of incidence of a particular behavior or show mundane issues like a change in height over time. Determining the right form of gathering information for the community and situation are essential, as some goals may require the use of double blind studies, while others can rely effectively on self-reporting data collection.
Photography and Drawing
Since the beginning of anthropology’s development as a discipline, photography and graphic representations such as sketches have provided a visual form of the reality of a given situation within the community where words may fail, convey emotions of community members and document important events or issues facing the community. Use of photography requires ethical consideration based on community members’ approval. Making the choice to use any image will demand careful consideration on your part; you must first consider what it is you wish to convey to your audience when presenting your findings and what your ultimate goals are when selecting the photographs or drawings.
Collecting stories of cultural history, traditional tales and personal experience give a richer exploration of your partner community and its background. They can present clues to the ways in which people of the community live and how they, as a whole, perceive their lives and the world around them. They also can support a better understanding of any current challenges they face and give insight into where to go next for your research. While historically, gathering “myths” and other stories were one of the primary methods of anthropology, it is now only one of many tools available to the anthropologist.
Proxemics and Map-Making
Proxemics is “in connection with man’s perception and use of space.” Whether studying the layout of a room, house, neighborhood or city, proxemics can show how spaces are used by people and what meanings they convey to you as a research. Use of maps based on the stories and shared experiences of a given space used by the members of your partner community can help understand what is most important on a community level. Maps are the visual tracking of proxemics that help researcher, community and a potential audience better understand in an immediate way what a physical area or landscape means to a community’s well-being.
Ethics and Transparency
At all times, anthropologists must adhere to a code of ethics. The consequences of acting in a manner that goes against both the anthropologist’s ethics and that of the community with which they work can include a breach of trust, a lawsuit and hostility against any further research being conducted within the community. Establishing a personal code of ethics requires consideration of both personal and community boundaries, mutual respect and sometimes, any organization to which you may be responsible, such as a university or a non-profit agency. Common practices of many anthropologists include transparency at all times: stating upfront what their research will entail, the methods that will be used, who will have access to their research, asking permission for any steps taken beforehand and respecting the boundaries and preferences of the community and its members. Using transparent methods in an ethical and consistent manner, you will be better able to build trust with community members.