Cultural Anthropology and Ethnographic Fieldwork Essay

Cultural Anthropology and Ethnographic Fieldwork Essay

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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 ethnographies can provide answers to these difficult questions, then Spradley has correctly identified this method as revolutionary.

Cultures are infinitely complex. Culture, as Spradley (1979) defines it, is "the acquired knowledge that people use to interpret experiences and generate social behavior" (p. 5). Spradley's emphasizes that culture involves the use of knowledge. While some aspects of culture can be neatly arranged into categories and quantified with numbers and statistics, much of culture is encoded in schema, or ways of thinking (Levinson & Ember, 1996, p. 418). In order to accurately understand a culture, one must apply the correct schema and make inferences which parallel those made my natives. Spradley suggests that culture is not merely a cognitive map of beliefs and behaviors that can be objectively charted; rather, it is a set of map-making skills through which cultural behaviors, customs, language, and artifacts must be plotted (p. 7). This definition of culture offers insight into ...


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..."Not a Real Fish: The Ethnographer as Insider-Outsider." In P. R. DeVita (Ed.), The Naked Anthropologist: Tales from Around the World (pp. 73-8). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Co.

Mead, Margaret. Margaret Mead: Taking Note. (video)

Raybeck, D. (1992). "Getting Below the Surface." In P. R. DeVita (Ed.), The Naked Anthropologist: Tales from Around the World (pp. 73-8). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Co.

Spearman, A. M. (1988). Yoqui: Forest Nomads in a Changing World. Fort Worth: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.

Spearman, A. M. Fighting the Odds for Cultural Survival. (publishing information was unavailable)

Spradley, J. P. (1979). The Ethnographic Interview. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Pub.

Spradley, J. P. & McCurdy, D. W. (1972). The Cultural Experience: Ethnography in a Complex Society. Chicago: Science Research Associates.

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