Methods and Techniques in Anthropology

What are Techniques in Anthropology?

In Anthropology a researcher may use comparative, historical and cross-cultural methods. The comparative method refers to the method of comparing different societies, groups or social institutions within the same society to show whether and why they are similar or different in certain aspects.

Cross-cultural comparison is a method of studying cultural phenomena across cultures of the same period. In the historical method, the origin, development and gradual evolution of institutions, societies and cultures are studied.

The ethnographic method is the core of anthropological research which is essentially based on fieldwork. A researcher has to collect reliable and accurate data systematically. The following are different types of data such as primary data, secondary data, qualitative data and quantitative data.

Primary data is collected by the researcher directly from the field. Secondary data are the data collected by someone other than the researcher. The qualitative data are expressed in the form of words, whereas quantitative data are expressed in the form of numbers.


Methods and Techniques in Anthropology

Following are the methods and techniques in anthropology explained below:

  1. Observation as a Method
  2. Case Study Method in Anthropology
  3. Genealogical Method in Anthropology
  4. Survey Method in Anthropology

Observation as a Method

In the contemporary western world, the people are under constant observation wherever they go, as they come under the close circuit television. The non-western world is also fast catching up with it. Observing and being observed are two important features of modern society.

It is said that ours is becoming an observation society (Silverman; 25, 2012). In social research, one of the most important and extensively used methods is observation. All observations are not scientific. An observation becomes scientific only if it is planned and executed systematically.

This may take place in a real-life setting or in a laboratory. An anthropologist as an ethnographer observes individual and collective behaviour in real-life settings. Hence, Herskovits, the American Anthropologist terms the field as the ‘ethnographer’s laboratory’.

There are several types of field observation have been used in anthropological research. A researcher can observe the day-to-day life of the group under study either by participating or without participating in it. Observation is categorised mainly into two types:

  1. Uncontrolled Observation
  2. Controlled Observation

Uncontrolled Observation

Uncontrolled observation is a type of observation which is made in the natural environment without being influenced by outside control or external factors. Most of the knowledge about social phenomena is generally derived through uncontrolled observation.

The following are two types of uncontrolled observations, participant observation and non-participant observation.

  1. Participant Observation: When a researcher actively participates in the activities of the group under investigation, This is known as participant observation. In the extreme level of participant observation, the researcher might conceal one’s identity. This can be called total participant observation. Such kind of observation is resorted to when the researcher intends to keep the natural setting intact, without any kind of disturbance. In situations in which one’s role is confined to that of a researcher and it is openly declared, is known as quasi-participant observation.

  2. Non-participant observation: When an observer does not actively participate in the activities of the group and simply observes them as a total outsider, it is called non-participant observation.

    It can be conducted by the researcher either by keeping away from the group, without revealing the identity to the subjects or by being present in the group, but without involving in their activities. Sometimes, this is impossible for a non-participant observer to be totally passive and therefore might try to associate with the group. In such an event, a Non-participant observer would be moving from a total non-participation to becoming a Quasi-participant observer.

Controlled Observation

In this form, an attempt is made to exercise control over the phenomena or observation. It is done according to a particular plan. Thus, This is possible to make an objective study and keep the observation free from biases and prejudices.

As it is difficult to impose control on the phenomena in Anthropological observation, generally controls are imposed on the observer. Such controls increase precision, ensure reliability and increase objectivity.

The devices used for making control over the observer are given below. Could you complete the list?

  • Detailed observation plan
  • Use of schedules and check-lists
  • Use of socio-metric scales
  • Use of hypothesis
  • Mechanical instruments like

Though anthropologists widely make use of observation for data collection, many other data collection methods are also extensively employed. A case study is one such method which is used by Anthropologists to undertake an exhaustive study of a person, a group or institution, a place or an event. Case study research in social Cultural and Linguistic Anthropology consists of intensive periods of ethnographic field work.


Case Study Method in Anthropology

A case Study means an intensive study of a case. A case is a social unit with deviant behaviour. It is a method of qualitative analysis. This is extensively used in psychology, education, sociology, anthropology, economics and political science.

Which aims at obtaining a complete and detailed account of a social phenomenon or a social unit, which may be a person, family, community, an event, or institution.

Important characteristics of the Case Study are:

  • It is an intensive, comprehensive and detailed study of a social unit.
  • It helps to understand the person as well as the hidden dimensions of human life.

The Case study method helps retain the holistic and meaningful characteristics of real-life events such as individual life cycles, small group behaviour, etc. It is like a case history of a patient.

As a patient goes to the doctor with some serious disease, the doctor records the case history. Analysis of case history helps in the diagnosis of the patient’s illness. Anthropologists study the case history of a group.

Case history may be obtained, using a combination of different methods and techniques such as interviews, participant observation etc. However, the questionnaire and schedule are highly ineffective in the Case Study.

Major Sources of Case Study

These are the major sources of case studies for the collection of important information:

  • Life histories
  • Personal documents, letters and records
  • Biographies
  • Information obtained through interviews
  • Observation.

Advantages of Case Study in Anthropology

The following are some of the advantages of a Case Study:

  1. A Case Study helps to probe the in-depth analysis of a social unit.
  2. This is suitable for collecting data pertaining to sensitive areas of a social phenomenon.
  3. This helps to collect details regarding the diverse habits, traits and qualities of the unit under investigation.

  4. The data obtained through Case Study is useful for the formulation of the hypothesis and also to provide clues for further research.

Limitations of Case Study

These are some limitations of the case study:

  1. Case history records could be open to errors due to faulty selection of cases and inaccurate observation.
  2. This is very difficult to draw generalisations on the basis of a few cases.
  3. No uniform and standardised systems have been developed for recording case history.
  4. The investigator’s bias might distort the quality of the Case Study.
  5. Case Study is time-consuming and costly in certain cases.

Genealogical Method in Anthropology

Genealogy is the study of one’s ancestors parents, grandparents great grandparents and so on. The genealogical method was originally developed by W.H.R. Rivers during the Torres Straits expedition of 1898-99. Later this became one of the standard procedures adopted in ethnographic research in Social Anthropology.

The primary aim of the genealogical method is the analysis of the social organisation, i.e. the interpersonal relations and living arrangements between members of society. The method required extensive interviewing of individuals in order to record their descent, succession and inheritance.

The genealogical method was used, along with the observation method census and settlement plans, first by W H R Rivers in field research and produced his classical monograph on the Todas, and later by many anthropologists.

A genealogical method is very much helpful in studying kinship, and thereby in understanding the social structure or network of relationships among individuals. This is done through the collection of demographic and social data and by charting pedigrees and mapping residence details.

In the studies of migration and to trace out early migrants, the genealogical method is found very useful. Internationally accepted simple sets of kinship symbols are used in Anthropology to draw kinship diagrams or genealogical charts.


Survey Method in Anthropology

The survey method is a systematic collection of data from a population or sample of the population through the use of personal interviews, questionnaires, schedules or other data gathering tools/devices.

This is the most traditional and common form of the data collection method. Through surveys, a researcher can elicit the views, attitudes, perceptions and sometimes behaviour of different groups or individuals.

Surveys are the only data collection method through which desired information can be obtained more easily and less expensively from a large population. Usually, in a survey method, data can be collected through either conducting an interview or administering a questionnaire. You shall familiarise yourself with interview and questionnaire techniques in the latter part of this unit.

Characteristics of Survey Method

Following are the characteristics of the survey method:

  1. A survey mostly involves a representative sample of a population and enables to describe and generalise the entire population.
  2. Survey seeks responses directly from the respondents.
  3. Conclusions are drawn from the data collected from the sample population.

Types of Surveys in Anthropology

A survey method is used to cover a wider geographical area involving various languages, customs, races etc. On the basis of the subject matter and technique of data collection, this may be classified under the following heads:

  1. General Survey: In this survey, data are collected in a general manner without any specific objective.

  2. Specific Survey: Specific survey is just the reverse of a general survey. When the survey is conducted for testing the validity of some hypothesis, it is called a specific survey.

  3. Regular Survey: When the survey is conducted at regular intervals it is called a regular survey. Banking, marketing and economic institutions generally conduct this type of survey to frame and implement their policies and programmes concerning economic matters.

  4. Sample Survey: When the survey is done only among a fraction of a total population, it is called a sample survey. This is applied when one studies a very large population where house to house survey is not possible. Samples are the representative unit of the total population. A generalisation can be made on the basis of a sample survey.

Advantages of Survey Method

Following are the advantages of the survey method:

  1. Data could be collected from a large population covering an extensive area.
  2. Survey research has its broadest application in public issues.
  3. This also has a great impact on political research, especially in the area of voting studies. This is also used to study community and market behaviour.

  4. Data obtained through this method are considered as more reliable and valid because survey method is based on statistical analysis, which is an objective method of data collection.

Disadvantages of Survey Method

Following are the disadvantages of survey method:

  1. Low response rate or non-response rate where the questionnaires are mailed to respondents.
  2. Possibility of recording biased responses, especially if the interviewer is inexperienced.
  3. Historical events cannot be studied through this method.
  4. Sampling error might affect the results of the research.
  5. Survey method consumes a longer time and greater human resources.

FAQ Related to Methods and Techniques in Anthropology

What are methods and techniques in anthropology?

Following are the methods and techniques in anthropology explained below:
1. Observation as a Method
2. Case Study Method in Anthropology
3. Genealogical Method in Anthropology
4. Survey Method in Anthropology etc.

What is Case Study?

A case Study means an intensive study of a case. A case is a social unit with deviant behaviour. It is a method of qualitative analysis. This is extensively used in psychology, education, sociology, anthropology, economics and political science.

What are the 4 types of surveys?

Following are the 4 types of surveys:
1. General Survey
2. Specific Survey
3. Regular Survey
4. Sample Survey etc.

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