Amateur anthropology?
July 21, 2021 2:24 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in studying and understanding a particular community as an outsider. I understand that this is what anthropologists do. What resources would you recommend for someone who is planning to do anthropological work, but doesn't have any formal training?

Books, articles, videos, etc are all fine. I would particularly appreciate high-level/high-density things (common mistakes, different ways to think about anthropology, etc), but am also open to longer and more detailed things if they're good.
posted by wesleyac to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
I hear Ursula K. LeGuin was raised by an anthropologer and that it shows in her writing.
posted by aniola at 2:31 PM on July 21


Best answer: You might find some ideas in Christena Nippert-Eng‘s Watching Closely: A guide to ethnographic observation. This book provides a guide to thinking about observing, and is food for thought even if you have no plans to do fieldwork.
posted by Erinaceus europaeus at 2:55 PM on July 21 [6 favorites]


You could do a lot worse than Leon Festinger's famous When Prophecy Fails, chronicling an anthropological investigation of an apocalyptic cult -- for all that the study probably wouldn't make it through the Human Subjects Review panel these days -- and then following that up with Alison Lurie's excellent novel Imaginary Friends, which is a very funny satire and an alternately subtle and very pointed critique of Festinger's book as well as the severe ethical problems of the entire anthropological enterprise.
posted by jamjam at 3:38 PM on July 21 [4 favorites]


Best answer: As a former academic anthropologist, I'd recommend that an anthro-inspired approach to learning about a group focus on reasons, respect, and research.

Reasons: Why do you want to know more about this group? What do you want to know? What are you going to do with what you find out? What is your relative position of power to people in this group? How do you intend to find out more? Question your motives and engage your ethics.

Respect: The history of anthropology begins with a lot of white European men seeking fundamental understanding of Why White Europeans Are Better Than Everyone Else. Questioning our reasons for the impulse to study/understand others is a good first step away from the path of looking at people as if they were zoo animals.

If you were an actual anthropologist, you would not be allowed to conduct ethnographic fieldwork without IRB clearance. Even though you're not conducting research, ethics are still important. If you're going to be participating in this group, make sure that people know you're interested in learning [what makes cultural practice X tick]. Surreptitiously observing people and journaling what you've observed, with the explicit project of better understanding those people, is creepy. Here's some more context and advice from the American Anthropological Association's Statement on Ethnography and IRBs.

Other resources on ethnography: an intro chapter from Sage, which publishes ethnography resources that were used in my graduate studies; a super-quick intro with links and study questions to some classic ethnographic works, from Yale's Human Resources Area Files.

Research: Read/watch/listen to everything you can about the group you're interested in understanding. Seek out sources who are members of the group. Document what you've read/seen and why you chose those sources. Take notes. Re-read your notes in the context of what you're learning. Don't be eager to come to conclusions.

If you're going to be participating in this group, (tell people what you're up to! and) journal about the experience. Think critically about the difference between the facts of what you observe and the assumptions/judgments/meanings you assign to those observations.

Build relationships with people who know you're trying to learn about the community. Be mindful of how much time/information you're asking for: pay people or otherwise incentivize their time if you're going to ask for in-depth assistance or feedback, and don't pressure people to answer questions or share their knowledge with you. Ask open-ended questions: how did they start [doing cultural practice X]? What do they like/dislike about it? How does it make them feel? What do they think makes it tick?
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 3:54 PM on July 21 [19 favorites]


Best answer: To rrrrrrrrrt's excellent answer, I'd add - reflect deeply on your role as observer. Be aware that just by being there, whether as participant or 'outsider', you are affecting what happens within the group, how people behave, what they say, and so on.

Avoid the trap of believing that, because you're an 'outsider', that you're capable of being a kind of detached, unbiased observer, who can perceive behaviour and whole systems in a way that's not visible to the partipants themselves (not saying you'll do that; some anthropologists have).

Just like the people you're observing, your view will also only ever be partial, because you cannot see all of the interactions within the group without being an omnipresent being. And your opinions, observations and conclusions about the group will all be entirely coloured by who you are. That's true in two senses: If you're eg. a young woman, maybe older men won't speak frankly with you (or vice versa, or substitute any other combination of traits - your access to group knowledge will be uneven). But also because we can only ever really perceive others in relation to ourselves. We can't observe impartially as a robot or a computer or a video camera might be thought to do: We've always grown up immersed in our own set of very specific cultural norms, which may be invisible to us, and which will always have a bearing on how we view others. It's impossible to surgically remove them in order to make neutral observations of others, but we can watch out for them, reflect on them, and ask how they are affecting what we view as important or interesting in what we observe about others.

(Sorry, that's not directing you to resources, just one of the big things I learned from my anthropology degree).
posted by penguin pie at 4:19 PM on July 21 [6 favorites]


different ways to think about anthropology
Body Ritual Among the Nacirema (Miner, 1956)
posted by Iris Gambol at 4:26 PM on July 21 [1 favorite]


These links cover several ways that doing ethnography can go wrong--most happen to involve sociologists, but they do ethnography too: Honestly that stuff should give you pause. See also "Cat Person and Me" for several commenters on Metafilter talking about how it can feel when someone else writes you into their work, fictional or otherwise. But if you're good with all that, here are a couple of practical resources:
posted by Wobbuffet at 6:11 PM on July 21 [2 favorites]


Another great example of ethnography is Evicted by Matthew Desmond. And yet another is Good Reception by Antero Garcia.

But as so many others said, your positionality is really important and critical to doing this. What are you doing? Whose voices are you going to center and elevate? Whose voices are going to be left out? There are TONS of questions that go along with doing research, and I certainly caution you to beware of the dangers and pitfalls of being anywhere.

And, you need to engage in something called member checking. After you observe, take notes, record, or do whatever you are doing, you will be processing what you have seen. Once you have put those ideas together, you need to take your musings or writings back to those you have been studying. Do they agree with what you have interpreted? Is that what they really said and meant? Did you miss something or exclude important details and context that you might not have even known as an outsider?

You might also want to read up on phenomenology and how you can try to separate yourself from the experiences of others and elide your subjective viewing, as penguin pie said.

Last questions: who is the audience to whom you want to report your findings? Is it just you, and what do you stand to gain from this learning? Are you exploiting others for that knowledge? If there is something important to learn, how would you disseminate that knowledge and ensure that what you are sharing is valid and important and new? Just so much to think about.

So, look for a qualitative research handbook, maybe focusing on ethnography, narrative, or grounded theory. SAGE publications will have many.
posted by Snowishberlin at 7:00 PM on July 21 [1 favorite]


And to get more specific about eliciting knowledge from others:

Qualitative Inquiry & Research Design by Creswell and Poth

Qualitative interviewing by Rubin and Rubin

Reflective Interviewing by Roulston

The Foundations of Social Research by Crotty, but that is maybe way more academic that you want to be (but foundational and germinal).

Other ethnographies as I browse my shelves: Women without Class by Bellie, Holler if you Hear Me by Michie, Ways with Words by Heath (WHICH EVERYONE SHOULD READ IF YOU ARE AT ALL INTERESTED IN LANGUAGE), Reading Lives by Hicks, Critical Literacy and Urban Youth by Morrell, and Partnering with Immigrant Communities by Compano, Ghiso, and Welsh.

Many of these ethnographies are focused on some kind of education, but they will give you a very good and detailed description of their observation methods and protocols, and what the process looks like in general. The two interviewing books will give you good ideas about what does and doesn't work for interviewing. And the first book, Qualitative Inquiry, gives an overview of how to do some of this with standards developed by the research community at large.
posted by Snowishberlin at 7:19 PM on July 21 [2 favorites]


Another entry under the 'be careful' heading:

Anthropologists and Other Friends by Vine Deloria [Scribd, there's a free trial]

Do you have access to a university research library and/or JSTOR, etc?

Or is this going to be what's free, or else out of your pocket?

I hear Ursula K. LeGuin was raised by an anthropologer and that it shows in her writing.


Alfred Kroeber, who in turn trained under Franz Boas. Her mom became an anthropologist later in life too.
posted by snuffleupagus at 10:59 AM on July 22


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