Research Methods in Anthropology

a)Fieldwork tradition in anthropology

b)Distinction between technique, method and methodology

c)Tools of data collection: observation, interview, schedules,questionnaire,case study,genealogy,life history,oral history, secondary sources of information,participatory methods.

d)Analysis,interpretation and presentation of data.

Fieldwork tradition in anthropology:

What is fieldwork?

The term ‘fieldwork’ is used to describe research in all areas of anthropology from social and cultural anthropology to medical or biological anthropology. The practice of ‘fieldwork’ can be done in a variety of different settings such as an urban or virtual environment, a small tribal community, a museum, library, cultural institution, business, or a primate conservation area.

Have anthropologists always engaged in fieldwork?

There is a general consensus amongst anthropologists today that fieldwork came to be considered part of the practice of social anthropology with the work of one of the founding fathers of British anthropology, Bronislaw Malinowski. Unlike the ‘armchair anthropologists’ before him, Malinowski advocated, instead of studying other peoples from the comfort of university libraries, going ‘into the field’: that is, living with the people he was studying, engaging in their community, learning their language, eating their food, and taking part in their everyday life. Since Malinowski’s time, fieldwork – traditionally, away from one’s own society – has been regarded as an essential and necessary part of an anthropologist’s professional training. Fieldwork over an extended period – typically 1-2 years – has been thought of as particular to social anthropology, and part of what distinguishes the discipline from other social sciences.

Why is it important to anthropology?

Fieldwork is among the most distinctive practices anthropologists bring to the study of human life in society. Through fieldwork, the social anthropologist seeks a detailed and intimate understanding of the context of social action and relations. Fieldwork in a previously unfamiliar setting has among its aims a deep understanding that encompasses as much as possible of an ‘insider’s’ perspective. Conducted in a more familiar setting, it can lead the anthropologist – and those for whom he or she writes – to look at everyday reality in new and unexpected ways.

Where fieldwork is conducted within museums, archives, or cultural institutions, the process can be similar in that the social anthropologist seeks to understand the underlying symbolic and cultural meanings of a text, or a collection of objects. Equally, biological anthropologists frequently base research projects on human remains or artifacts held in museum collections.

What types of fieldwork do anthropologists undertake?

Fieldwork can take many different forms, shaped by factors such as: the topic of investigation, questions guiding the research, where the research will be carried out, who is funding it, external political or economic factors, the age, sex or ethnicity of the anthropologist, the technological facilities available. Newer formats for research, such as use of multiple sites and the study of large-scale centres of power such as intergovernmental organisations, are becoming increasingly common; as is the use of visual technologies and methods of presentation such as film, photography and digital media.

What are some of the fieldwork methods anthropologists adopt?

Anthropologists may assemble data in numerous ways. They may gather quantitative information by conducting surveys or analysing records such as historical archives, government reports and censuses. Quantitative data is often useful for biological anthropologists in mapping physical traits within a population, or making cross-population comparisons. Quantitative information is also useful and often necessary when anthropologists work on interdisciplinary projects with other specialists. However, for the most part social anthropologists concentrate on gathering qualitative data. They do so by conducting individual and group interviews, by undertaking oral histories, through online discussion forums and, most importantly, through the Malinowskian tradition of ‘participant observation’.

Participant observation enables the social anthropologist to undertake detailed, lengthy and often complex observations of social life in fine detail. It may be directed to such disparate groups as a virtual network, a tribal village, or an activist group in an urban environment. By participating in the fabric of daily life as well as more formal ceremonies and rituals, and discussing his/her developing ideas with willing members of the community (sometimes termed ‘informants’) the fieldworker builds up a progressively deeper understanding of what is happening. Many fieldworkers find this a personally transforming experience.

What do anthropologists do with the material they have collected?

Anthropologists may write up their data in reports, articles, or journal contributions. Where the project is interdisciplinary or team-based, these may be co-authored. Alternatively, they may describe their experiences and findings in the form of an ethnography.

Distinction between technique, method and methodology:

A method is a way of conducting and implementing research, while methodology is the science and philosophy behind all research (Adams John 2007). Thus in the strict sense, a method refers to a particular methodological tool such as case study, participant observation etc.

In general usage, a method is a broader term than a technique, which is very specific. A method could make use of more than one technique to achieve a given end. In this sense, a case study could be said to be a method, for which one might have to use different techniques such as interview, observation, questionnaire etc. However, it is not uncommon to call an interview or observation a method, though they would strictly fit into the label of technique.

Tools of data collection: observation, interview, schedules,questionnaire,case study,genealogy,life history,oral history, secondary sources of information,participatory methods.

A tool merely refers to the specific devices or instruments that are required to use a particular technique in a particular context. For instance, if one has to carry out an interview, it is not possible without a set of well planned interview guide or interview schedule which are merely the devices for carrying out the interview.


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

How can a researcher conduct observation in the field?

By establishing good rapport – friendly relation based on personal contact – with the members.

By paying attention to every minute detail of life and situations in life.

By recording what you see exactly as you see it (without interpreting or attributing any of your own meaning to it).

By recording your impression in your personal diary or field notes.

Observation is divided mainly into two types: Uncontrolled observation and Controlled observation.

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

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

a)Participant observation:When the researcher actively participates in the activities of the group under investigation, it is known as participant observation. In the extreme level of participant observation, the researcher might conceal one’s identity. It 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.

The features of participant observation are detailed below: The observer –

Takes part in the social events which she or he is observing.

Assumes a role or undertakes a job that is acceptable in the given social context. Ensures that the observer’s presence in the group does not disturb the normal life of the group. Observation is the accurate watching and noting of phenomena as being occured in nature.

Generally lives, shares and participates in the everyday life of the group. Associates with the group not as a researcher but as a full-fledged member of the group.

Observe the behavior of the members of the community.

Discerns the inter-action and relationship between them.

Engages in conversation with them to find out their responses, meanings and explanations of the events that occur.

Studies the life of a community or social unit as a whole (holistic study).

b)Non participant observation:When the observer does not actively participate in the activities of the group and simply observes them as a total outsider, it is known as non-participant observation. This 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, it 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 become a Quasi-participant observer

2)Controlled Observation: In this type, an attempt is made to exercise control over the phenomena or observation. This is done according to a particular plan. Thus, it 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.

detailed observation plan

Use of schedules and check-lists

Use of socio-metric scales

Use of hypothesis


In simple terms, interview means ‘conversation with a purpose’. It is a procedure used for collecting data through a person to person contact between an interviewer and respondent(s). In interview, data collection is done mainly through the verbal interaction between the respondent(s) and the interviewer. The views and ideas of other persons can be elicited through interview. Interview can be defined as a system in which both the investigator as well as the informant discuss the problem under research, the former usually taking the initiative with the object of extracting maximum information from the latter.

According to Goode and Hatt, interviewing is fundamentally a process of social interaction. From the above description the important characteristics of interview can be drawn.

Characteristics of Interview:

Interview is a direct method of data collection.

In interview there is a face-to-face contact between the individuals.

It is mainly through close contact or interaction including dialogue between two or more persons.

It can be used for all segments of population.

Past events can be studied through interview.

Information that could not be collected through survey method and questionnaire can be collected through interview.

It is possible to study the events that are not open to observation.

Interview is also helpful to find out the reactions of different individuals in different situations.

However, in interview, too much importance is given to the respondents. The researcher is fully at the mercy of the respondent and has to believe in what the respondents say. Lot of subjectivity and individual feelings may creep in interview.

Different Types of Interviews:

Interviews can be categorised based on different criteria. On the basis of persons involved, there are Individual interview and Group interview. On the basis of nature of questions included, it could be classified as structured interview (Formal interview) and unstructured interview (Informal interview).

Process of Interview: There are three important phases of interview. They are, rapport building, probing and recording of the response.

Rapport building: The success of the interview mainly depends on the capacity of an interviewer to build rapport with the respondent(s). The term ‘rapport’ means keeping a friendly relationship with the respondents.

Probing: Probing is an exploratory action to obtain information on a remote or unknown topic or theme. The right type of questions should be asked in the right manner and using the right language. In interview, sometimes, the respondent may talk many things which may not be relevant for the given research. the researcher will be able to bring back the respondent to the topic of discussion without hurting the feelings of the respondent.

Recording the response:


Schedule is a set of questions asked and filled by the researcher. How is a schedule more advantageous than a questionnaire?

A schedule provides an opportunity to establish rapport with the respondent. The researcher has a chance to explain the meaning of certain unclear items and the purpose clearly.

When we use the term ‘Schedule’ in research, it is with reference to the Interview Schedule. But Interview Schedule is only one of the types of schedules.

Types of Schedules :

Normally there are five types of schedules as explained below.

a) Observation Schedule: – An Observation Schedule contains some specific aspect on which, the observer has to concentrate and collect information. For example, if an anthropological researcher has to collect details of food gathering and forest products by a given tribal group, an observation schedule can be prepared.

b) Document Schedule: -This is used to collect data from official documents, auto biographies and records.

c) Rating Schedules: – These are used to measure attitudes, behaviour and opinions in psychological and sociological research.

d) Evaluation Schedules: – These are used to get information about some institutions and agencies.

e) Interview Schedule: – This is normally used as a synonym for Schedule. It contains questions to be asked by the researcher and space for recording answers. House hold Schedule is a type of Interview Schedule widely used in anthropological field research to collect data on demographic profile of households.


Questionnaire is considered as the heart of social survey because it is the main technique of data collection employed in survey method. It is a better instrument for obtaining information about personal life, feelings, expectations or future plans.

A questionnaire consists of a set of questions in a definite order and form.

The systematic compiling of questions is necessary in a questionnaire.

It is distributed to obtain responses from respondents.

The respondent is expected to fill up the form by her/him self

Most of the questions in a questionnaire can be classified into factual questions and opinion questions

Three types of questions are generally adopted in a questionnaire. They are openended questions, closed questions and contingency questions.

Open ended questions are not followed by any type of specific answers. The respondents are free to answer the way one wants. An example of open ended question is given below: “Which one do you think is the best teaching method?”

In a closed-ended question the respondents are asked to select the response from the options provided. For example: Do you think nuclear family system is suitable for bihar?

The contingency question is a special case of close ended question which applies to only a sub-group of respondents. The questions that need to be answered only when the respondent provides a particular response to a question prior to them are called contingency questions. For example: Have you ever participated in a tribal marriage?

Questionnaires are divided into structured questionnaire, unstructured questionnaire, mixed questionnaire and pictorial questionnaire.

Structured questionnaire:- In structured questionnaires, the questions are prepared in advance and not constructed on the spot during the question period. In this type of questionnaire, same wording and same order are maintained to all respondents. Unstructured questionnaire: – In unstructured questionnaires, the questions are not structured in advance. The questions may be adjusted according to the needs of the situation, with maximum flexibility to collect as much information as possible.

Mixed questionnaire: – A partly structured and partly unstructured questionnaire is called mixed questionnaire. This has the quality of both types of questionnaire.

Pictorial questionnaire:- In pictorial questionnaire, the selected alternative answers are given in the form of pictures.

Characteristics of a Good Questionnaire:

Construction of a good questionnaire is not easy.

The following are some of the guidelines to be followed in making a good questionnaire.

a) The physical form of the questionnaire should be attractive i.e. the size of the questions must be small.

b) The appearance should evoke the interest of the respondents.

c) It should be printed legibly with a good lay out.

d) The item-wise classification should be done in the questionnaire. In the first part, the space may be provided for writing the name of the organisation and the name and address of the respondents. Space for factual data like age, members of family,education, marital status and religion are to be provided. The subject matter or theme should be given in a separate section.

e) The questions should be analytical, clear, short and understandable.

f) Emotional, embarrassing and threatening questions should be avoided.

g) Questions must be asked according to the level of the respondent. Never assume that the respondent knows everything about the problem.

h) Never ask two or more questions at a time.

i) Questions should be well arranged to enable tabulation and analysis.

j) Correct instructions should be provided to make the questionnaire self explanatory.

k) After constructing the questionnaire a pre-test or trial in a sample of respondents is to be done. This will help to overcome the draw back in the questionnaire.

l) Selection of respondents should be done thoughtfully.

m) A carefully-worded introduction or covering letter should be prepared. It should explain the purpose and importance of the study.

n) Method of administering-whether mailed, personal interview, telephonic interview – should be decided in advance.

Case Study method

Case Study means intensive study of a case. Case is a social unit with a deviant bahaviour. It is a method of qualitative analysis. It is extensively used in psychology, education, sociology, anthropology, economics and political science. It aims at obtaining a complete and detailed account of a social phenomenon or a social unit, which may be a person, family, community, institution or an event.

Essential characteristics of Case Study are:

It is an intensive, comprehensive and detailed study of a social unit

It helps to understand the personal as well as the hidden dimensions of human life

The Case study method helps retaining the holistic and meaningful characteristics of real life events – such as individual life cycles, small group behaviuor, 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 Stuart Chapin had once said that “observation instruments are just as truly as the thermometer or the stethoscope of the physician” be obtained, using a combination of different methods and techniques such as interview, participant observation etc. However, questionnaire and schedule are highly ineffective in the Case Study.

Sources of Data for Case Study: In Case Study, information may be collected from various sources.

The important sources include :

Life histories

Personal documents, letters and records


Information obtained through interviews

Observation Like every method, Case Study also has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages of Case Study:

The following are some of the advantages of Case Study.

A Case Study helps to probe the in depth analysis of a social unit.

It is suitable for collecting data pertaining to sensitive areas of a social phenomenon.

It helps to collect details regarding the diverse habits, traits and qualities of the unit under investigation.

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

Limitations of Case Study:

Case history records could be open to errors due to faulty selection of case and inaccurate observation.

It is very difficult to draw generalisations on the basis of a few cases.

No uniform and standardised system has been developed for recording case history.

The investigator’s bias might distort the quality of the Case Study.

Case Study is time-consuming and costly in certain cases.


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 it became one of the standard procedures adopted in ethnographic researches in Social Anthropology. The primary aim of genealogical method is the analysis of social organisation, i.e. the interpersonal relations and living arrangements between members of a society. The method required extensive interviewing of individuals in order to record their descent, succession and inheritance. The genealogical method was used, along with 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. Genealogical method is very much helpful in studying kinship, and thereby in understanding the social structure or network of relationship among individuals. It 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, genealogical method is found very useful.

Life history:

Oral history:

Oral history is the systematic collection of living people’s testimony about their own experiences. Oral history refers both to a method of recording and preserving oral testimony and to the product of that process. It begins with an audio or video recording of a first person account made by an interviewer with an interviewee (also referred to as narrator), both of whom have the conscious intention of creating a permanent record to contribute to an understanding of the past. A verbal document, the oral history, results from this process and is preserved and made available in different forms to other users, researchers, and the public. A critical approach to the oral testimony and interpretations are necessary in the use of oral history.

General Principles for Oral History

Oral history is distinguished from other forms of interviews by its content and extent. Oral history interviews seek an in-depth account of personal experience and reflections, with sufficient time allowed for the narrators to give their story the fullness they desire. The content of oral history interviews is grounded in reflections on the past as opposed to commentary on purely contemporary events.

Oral historians inform narrators about the nature and purpose of oral history interviewing in general and of their interview specifically. Oral historians insure that narrators voluntarily give their consent to be interviewed and understand that they can withdraw from the interview or refuse to answer a question at any time. Narrators may give this consent by signing a consent form or by recording an oral statement of consent prior to the interview. All interviews are conducted in accord with the stated aims and within the parameters of the consent.

Interviewees hold the copyright to their interviews until and unless they transfer those rights to an individual or institution.

Secondary sources of information:

In contrast to primary sources in research activities, secondary sources consist of information that has been gathered and often interpreted by other researchers and recorded in books, articles and other publications.

In her “Handbook of Research Methods,Natalie L. Sproull points out that secondary sources “are not necessarily worse than primary sources and can be quite valuable. A secondary source may include more information about more aspects of the event than did a primary source.”

Most often though, secondary sources act as a way to keep up with or discuss progress in a field of study, wherein a writer may use another’s observations on a topic to summarize his or her own viewpoints on the matter to progress the discourse further

The Difference Between Primary and Secondary Data

In the hierarchy of the relevance of evidence to an argument, primary sources like original documents and first-hand accounts of events provide the strongest support to any given claim. By contrast, secondary sources provide a type of back-up to their primary counterparts.

To help explain this difference, Ruth Finnegan distinguishes primary sources as the forming the “basic and original material for providing the researcher’s raw evidence” in her 2006 article “Using Documents.” Secondary sources, while still highly useful, are written by someone else after an event or about a document and can therefore only serve the purpose of furthering an argument if the source has credibility in the field.

Some, therefore, argue that secondary data is neither better or worse than primary sources — it’s simply different. Scot Ober discusses this concept in “Fundamentals of Contemporary Business Communication,” saying “the source of the data is not as important as its quality and its relevance for your particular purpose.”

Advantages and Disadvantages of Secondary Data

Secondary sources also provide advantages unique from primary sources, but Ober posits that the major ones are economic saying that “using secondary data is less costly and time-consuming than collecting primary data.”

Still, secondary sources can also provide hindsight to historical events, providing the context and missing pieces of narratives by relating each event to others happening nearby at the same time. In terms of evaluations of documents and texts, secondary sources offer unique perspectives like historians have on the impact of bills such as the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution.

However, Ober warns researchers that secondary sources also come with their fair share of disadvantages including quality and scarcity of sufficient secondary data, going so far as to say “never use any data before you have evaluated its appropriateness for the intended purpose.”

A researcher must, therefore, vet the qualifications of the secondary source as it relates to the topic — for instance, a plumber writing an article about grammar may not be the most credible resource, whereas an English teacher would be more qualified to comment on the subject.

Participatory methods:

What is participatory research?

Participatory research comprises a range of methodological approaches and techniques, all with the objective of handing power from the researcher to research participants, who are often community members or community-based organisations. In participatory research, participants have control over the research agenda, the process and actions. Most importantly, people themselves are the ones who analyse and reflect on the information generated, in order to obtain the findings and conclusions of the research process.

Participatory research involves inquiry, but also action. People not only discuss their problems, they also think about possible solutions to them and actions which need to be taken. The research conducted by the Participatory Research Group (PRG) aims to influence decision-making processes and impact peoples’ lives locally and nationally. The challenge is that the views of the most marginalised people are by definition largely absent in public forums, which further excludes them and in turn amplifies the perspectives of the more powerful groups. Bringing these people and perspectives into policy processes is not a straightforward task. Participatory research is one way that these perspectives can be articulated, and yet there are many challenges in how to do this well.

Methods used in Participate research

The research studies used a range of techniques. These included focus groups and multi stakeholder meetings, participatory inquiry, action research, oral testimonies and story collection as a foundation for collective analysis, photo- digital stories, photovoice, drawing and essay writing competitions, participatory video, and immersions.

Analysis, interpretation and presentation of data:

Data presentation and analysis forms an important part of all academic studies, commercial, industrial and marketing activities as well as professional practices. It is necessary to make use of collected data which is considered to be raw data which must be processed to put for any use. Data analysis helps in interpretation of data and take a decision or answer the research question. Data analysis starts with the collection of data followed by sorting and processing it. Processed data helps in obtaining information from it as the raw data is non comprehensive in nature. Presenting the data includes the pictorial representation of the data by using graphs, charts. maps and other methods. These methods help in adding visual aspect to data which makes it much easier and quick to understand.

Significance of data presentation and analysis

Data presentation and analysis plays an important role in every field. A great presentation can be a deal maker or deal breaker. Some people make extremely effective presentation with the same set of facts and figures which are available with others. At times people who did all the hard work but failed to present it present it properly have lost important contracts, the work which they did is unable to impress the decision makers. So in order to get the work done especially while dealing with clients or higher authorities presentation matters! No one is willing to spend hours in understanding what you have to show and this is exactly why presentation matters!

Data analysis helps people in understanding the results of surveys conducted, makes use of already existing studies to obtain new results. Helps in validating the existing study or to add/expand existing study.

Data presentation and analysis or data analysis and presentation?

These two go hand in hand and it will be difficult to provide a complete differentiation between the two. Adding visual aspect to data or sorting it by means of grouping and presenting it in form of table is a part of presentation which further helps in analyzing data. During a study with an aim and multiple objectives, data analysis will be required to complete the required objectives and compiling or presenting the analysed data will help in overall analysis and concluding the study.

You can have variety of data which can be used in presentations. Some of these type include :

  • Time Series Data

  • Bar Charts

  • Combo Charts

  • Pie Charts

  • Tables

  • Geo Map

  • Scorecard

  • Scatter Charts

  • Bullet Charts

  • Area Chart

  • Text & Images


Data analysis is considered to be important step and heart of the research in research work. In the beginning the data is raw in nature but after it is arranged in a certain format or a meaningful order this raw data takes the form of the information. The most critical and essential supporting pillars of the research are the analysis and the interpretation of the data. With the help of the interpretation step one is able to achieve a conclusion from the set of the gathered data. Interpretation has two major aspects namely establishing continuity in the research through linking the results of a given study with those of another and the establishment of some relationship with the collected data.

Interpretation can be defined as the device through which the factors, which seem to explain what has been observed by the researcher in the course of the study, can be better understood. Interpretation provides a theoretical conception which can serve as a guide for the further research work. Interpretation of the data has become a very important and essential process, mainly because of some of the following factors –

1. Enables the researcher to have an in – depth knowledge about the abstract principle behind his own findings.

2. The researcher is able to understand his findings and the reasons behind their existence.

3. More understanding and knowledge can be obtained with the help of the further research.

4. Provides a very good guidance in the studies relating to the research work.

Sharing is caring!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *