Dr. Crystal Patil in Tanzania

Nancy Bonvillain (2010: 54-57) outlines the basic approach to cultural anthropology fieldwork.
The first step is define a problem and choose a field site. Identifying a problem can happen multiple ways; it might stem from something an anthropologist has read about; it might begin with a long-term interest in a particular region or country, or in the case of graduate students, it might be a class that captures an interest.

The second step is to do background research. Before leaving for the field it is imperative for anthropologists to do a thorough literature search. This involves doing library research to determine what research has already been done by other anthropologists. It also involves learning about the area in which they are going to study--the history, politics, environment, climate, customs, etc. It is particularly important for anthropologists to find out if there are legal restrictions for working outside of their home country. Many anthropologists do mini-trips to their research ares to make preliminary contacts, learn the language, and make plans for a longer stay.

The third step is actually going to the field to conduct research. this can be the most exciting and most nerve-racking part of anthropological work. Until steeped in the local traditions, there is always a chance that the researcher will unwittingly violate local norms, making it more difficult to get to know the study group. Being in the field can lead to culture shock. One of the first things anthropologists will do in the field is find a place to live. Choosing to live in the same place as the study group is the best way to conduct research, but living in close proximity can make it difficult for the anthropologist to remain neutral local conflicts, something that is important for the researcher to do.

Once settled in, data collection can begin. Anthropologists can collect both qualitative and quantitative data while in the field. Qualitative data might include information gleaned from interviews or participant observation. Quantitative data could be anything that can be measured statistically, e.g., mortality rates, birth rates, etc.

The interpretation of data occurs both in the field and once the anthropologist returns home. Hopefully, the research will be published in some form, whether that be in an academic journal or as an ethnography. If the data is not published then it does not do the academic comunity much good as the information is inaccessible.



Bonvillain, Nancy. 2010. Cultural Anthropology, 2nd edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Kottak, Conrad Phillip. 2008. Mirror for Humanity, 6th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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