Essay on Cultural Anthropology and Ethnographic Fieldwork

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Cultural Anthropology and Ethnographic Fieldwork

James P. Spradley (1979) described the insider approach to understanding culture as "a quiet revolution" among the social sciences (p. iii). Cultural anthropologists, however, have long emphasized the importance of the ethnographic method, an approach to understanding a different culture through participation, observation, the use of key informants, and interviews. Cultural anthropologists have employed the ethnographic method in an attempt to surmount several formidable cultural questions: How can one understand another's culture? How can culture be qualitatively and quantitatively assessed? What aspects of a culture make it unique and which connect it to other cultures? If
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This interpretation must make meaning from the culture in the same way that natives draw meaning. According to Spradley (1979), the structural components of cultural meaning come from what people say, what they do, and what artifacts they use (p. 9). In anthropological field work, he or she attempts to observe and document these cultural aspects. In addition, and more importantly, the anthropologist must then, as accurately as possible, make inferences which parallel those of the natives.

The grandiose task of wearing another's cultural skin understandably comes with a host of opinions on how such a job can be accomplished. Anthropologists have long argued about the accuracy of ethnographies (Levinson & Ember, 1996, pp. 419-21). Much of the discussion stems from the assumption that some cultural aspects are ineffable and subconscious. Can an anthropologist approach his subject, as Spradley argues, "with a conscious attitude of almost complete ignorance"? Is it possible to consciously withhold one's own cultural interpretations while attempting to study that very thing in another culture?" (Spradley, 1979, p. 4 & Levinson & Ember, 1996, pp. 419-21).

Anthropologist Robert M. Keesing, in his essay "Not a Real Fish: The Ethnographer as Insider-Outsider," (1992) deals candidly with the problems of fully becoming an

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