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Why Ethnography Is Important

Zande warriors

Zande warriors

What Is Ethnography?

Ethnography is the description of cultures and the groups of people who live within them. It can be useful in personal adaptation, personal success, and to better understand other cultures.

A prime example of using ethnography for success is in US foreign relations, particularly where the work of anthropologist Ruth Benedict was used in deciding how to handle the rebuilding of Japan after the end of WWII.

General MacArthur, after listening to Benedict, chose to keep the emperor of Japan on his throne. This was particularly useful in initializing a working peace in Japan during the post-war period and is a source of the positive relationship the United States has with Japan today.

Understanding Cultural Differences

Understanding other cultures is of major importance in ethnography. People from a different culture may do something that is not only different from what we do but is something we might instantly consider to be “weird” and “messed up” without considering the source of the difference.

For example, the Azande people who live in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the South Sudan, have beliefs in witchcraft. The Azande believe that disease and (other human misfortune) is caused by the ill will of others. How absurd is this? We know that germs and viruses are the cause of disease.

To the Azande, who, at the time of the study, had little to no exposure to scientific methods, witchcraft is a perfectly legitimate reason that a person becomes ill. In fact, an Azande person, upon hearing about bacteria and viruses, might scoff and think it's ridiculous. Think about it. We actually believe that tiny beings attack our bodies. Though modern medicine allows us to show that viruses do exist, it does nothing in the way of proving that the Azande are, in fact, completely wrong about witchcraft.

Missionary in a Tapuyos village, Brazil

Missionary in a Tapuyos village, Brazil

Missionary Work and the Development of Ethnography

Missionaries found that understanding another culture was important in achieving their goals of conversion. By immersing themselves in a culture, missionaries found that not only were they able to weave Christianity into the target culture, but groups were more receptive to the missionaries' messages than in cases where missionaries refused or were unable to engage with a group.

When working with various cultures, missionaries often took copious notes describing various mechanisms of society within various ethnic groups. This documentation was one of the earliest forms of ethnography. Because of the work they put forth in getting to know other cultures, missionaries can be considered as ethnographers themselves.

Missionaries created an early framework for ethnography, but it wasn't until anthropologists such as Boas, Malinowski, Mead, Benedict, and Evans-Pritchard hit the scene that ethnography started to grow into what it is today.

Kwakiutl mask drawing from "The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians", Boas (1897)

Kwakiutl mask drawing from "The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians", Boas (1897)

Franz Boas: Cultural Relativism

Franz Boas, who is widely considered to be the father of cultural anthropology, really got the ball rolling for ethnography (and cultural anthropology as a whole).

Boas stressed that cultural differences were the cause of the unique development of various societies and that these developments weren't due to what uni-linear evolutionists believed: that Western society was the pinnacle of society on the basis that cultures evolve and that the "Others” were a part of somehow less evolved societies.

Boas's idea of cultural relativism, that every culture should be judged by its own premises, was used by anthropologists after him and is a belief many anthropologists hold today.

Bronislaw Malinowski with natives on Trobriand Islands (1918)

Bronislaw Malinowski with natives on Trobriand Islands (1918)

Bronisław Malinowski: Participant Observation

Bronisław Malinowski, who was essentially marooned on the Trobriand Islands during the extent of WWI, formed what we know as participant observation.

Malinowski became immersed in the culture of the Trobriand people. He learned their language and worked directly with the people he studied with a focus on understanding cultural customs in their own context.

Many ethnographies written today are drawn from participant observation, where anthropologists live within a group while performing interviews and creating detailed accounts of the lives of members of the group and their society as a whole.

Samoan girl (1896)

Samoan girl (1896)

Margaret Mead: Reflexivity

Margaret Mead, who did her fieldwork in Samoa and Bali, described cultural differences between adolescents in Western culture and other cultures. Mead hypothesized that problems in adolescents were a result of culture and not the widely help western idea that they were a result of changes in hormones.

Unfortunately, Mead's beliefs in this (as well as her belief that sexual division of labor was also a product of culture) led others in her field to accuse her of sloppy fieldwork, skewing the facts, and completely fabricating her facts.

These accusations opened up the idea of reflexivity in anthropology, rather, what effect a researcher has on their own research and that a researcher should be aware of their own subjectivity in research.

Margaret Mead at the New York Academy of Sciences in June 1968

Margaret Mead at the New York Academy of Sciences in June 1968

Ruth Benedict: The Essence of Culture

Ruth Benedict, an anthropologist from Columbia University, felt that her own culture made for an inadequate “yardstick” with which to compare other cultures, so she went on to study the “essence” of other cultures.

Benedict drew heavily from Nietzsche and described cultures as being Dionysian (emotional) or Apollonian (intellectual.) While her work is widely considered inadequate in terms of describing a culture, she did bring forth the idea that if a person had been raised a Zuni, they would grow up to be a different person than he would have been had he grown up in Dobuan or Kwakiutl culture.

E.E. Evans-Pritchard: Judging Premises, Not Beliefs

E.E. Evans-Pritchard, a student of Malinowski, studied the Azande people. From his fieldwork, he published Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. With this book, he illustrated the very idea that Boas had stressed: cultural relativism.

With Evans-Pritchard's description of the Azande people, he was able to show that the people's strongly held belief in witchcraft made total sense . . . within their premises. Evans-Pritchard showed that “if you are going to attack Azande beliefs, you will have to attack their premises, not their logic or rationality.”

Ethnography for Cross-Cultural Understanding

There are various ways in which ethnography can be used in personal success (or in the success of foreign relations) and in understanding other cultures.