There were two readings on participant-observation in my Intro-to-Anthropology 2018 course:
- Lavenda and Schultz module 3, “On Ethnographic Methods” in Anthropology: What Does it Mean to be Human?
- “Shakespeare in the Bush” by Laura Bohannan in Natural History (1966)
One great way to introduce the theme of ethnographic methods and participant observation is the video on “Doing Anthropology” made by MIT anthropologists (2008):
On Ethnographic Methods & Participant-Observation
“Ethnographic fieldwork is an extended period of close involvement with the people whose way of life interests the anthropologist” (Lavenda and Schultz, 257). Participant Observation is the principle method cultural anthropologists use for fieldwork.
Fieldwork, Culture, Cultural Relativism
Ideally fieldwork reinforces the main points of the culture concept and helps us with cultural relativism. Through fieldwork, we discover patterns of human life, in their own terms and context. We find that these patterns are learned, variable and transmitted. Previous ideas of racial determinism become untenable.
Anthropologists use fieldwork to document a range of behavior within and across human groups. Lavenda and Schultz talk about fieldwork as dialectic (263), in that it should be humanizing rather than hierarchizing. They discuss the reflexivity of fieldwork, in that it brings to consciousness meanings for both the anthropologist and the people involved in the study (264).
“Anthropological knowledge as open-ended”
Lavenda and Schultz conclude this module with the somewhat curious phrase that “we can never escape from our humanity” (269). In a sense, fieldwork is not to observe from afar or a distance, but to be immersive and subjective:
We can never escape from our humanity to some point of view that would allow us to see human existence and human experience from the outside. Instead, we must rely on our common humanity and our interpretive powers to show us the parts of our nature that can be made visible. (Lavenda and Schultz, 269)