Essay Malinowski's Participant-Observation in Modern Anthropology

2209 Words Oct 3rd, 2010 9 Pages
Where does Malinowski’s conceptualization of participant-observation sit in the landscape of modern anthropological fieldwork?
A primary objective of the modern ethnographer is to glean insights into the ways people relate to and interact with one another and the world around them. Through participant-observation, Malinowski (1922) offered a valuable tool with which to uncover these insights and understandings, the ethnographer. The ethnographer as research tool has become the basis of much modern anthropological research. As a method, it was a radical departure from the typical approach to fieldwork used in Malinowski’s time which involved techniques that kept the ethnographer distanced and distinct from those they studied (McGee
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It was only through a ‘process of reengagement’ that she was able to again locate herself within the group and successfully analyze her data, a process at odds with Malinowski’s second imperative (Krieger, 1996, p 183). Thus, Malinowski’s ‘ethnographer as tool’ is still a guiding principle of anthropological fieldwork. However, the location and position of this tool with relation to the community under study has evolved from Malinowski’s limited perception of its scope. To simply be positioned ‘right among the natives’ (Malinowski, 1922, p. 6) does not automatically provide the ethnographer with an insider’s view. It is this realization that has shaped and is still shaping the way fieldwork in modern anthropology is approached.
The focus of anthropology can also been seen to have evolved in terms of the premises upon which Malinowski based his anticipated outcomes of research when compared to those of modern ethnographers. The primary purpose of anthropological research identified by Malinowski was that of understanding tribal life objectively and scientifically, in terms of systems of ‘social machinery’ and presenting this for consumption to a Western audience (Malinowski, 1922, p. 109; McGee & Warms, 2008). This raises two issues apparent in modern anthropology. First, the relevance, usefulness and problematic nature of a purely objective paradigm within anthropology; and second, the motivations underlying anthropological research and