When anthropologists study different societies and their cultures, we look at many different things.
Religion and mythology
Clothing and fashion
And much much more
And the way we study most of these things is through participant observation. This means that we do our best to join in everyday activities, experiencing first hand what people do, how they act, and their motivations. Participant observation is no easy task, anthropologists were often thrown headfirst into a community without so much as a ‘goodbye and good luck.’ Some anthropologists had no understanding of the language before they left for fieldwork!
The product of this type of fieldwork is called ethnography, which is a body of research pertaining to a particular culture. The slightly less common ethnology is research that compares aspects of different cultures. For example, the project I did in undergrad that looked at the use of candles by different religions was an ethnological study. We can also use other mediums to present our research, like ethnographic film. Nanook of the North is considered the first ethnographic film, and you can find the significantly less important ethnographic film I made in undergrad on gender in zombie pop culture on YouTube somewhere.
Nothing says participant observation like getting trampled in the final round of Human vs. Zombies.
There are a few challenges that anthropologists have to deal with during ethnographic fieldwork. While anthropologists are academics, we’re also human beings with biases that can get in the way of objective observation. And these biases can often lead to ethnocentrism, the mindset that your culture’s values are superior to others. Very often, people don’t even realise their attitudes are ethnocentric as these biases are so insidious. A way we combat this is through something called cultural relativism, which is the acceptance of the legitimacy of a people’s way if life to them, even if it’s not legitimate to you. And if that makes some of you uncomfortable, well, it’s supposed to. Cultural relativism is an exercise in being uncomfortable.
It’s not about forcing yourself to accept a practice or way of life as legitimate, which is what anthropologists call amoral relativism, but merely embracing that some people will find them legitimate. As one of the foremothers of anthropology, Ruth Benedict, said, ‘the purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.’
This system is not without problems, especially for an anthropologist like me who studies forensic anthropology within a social anthropological context. After genocide, it can be difficult to maintain objectivity while studying victimisers when you’ve just excavated 200 of their victims. And this extends to other controversial circumstances as well. The noted anthropologist, and cool dad, Dr. David Rosen, is largely known for his research into child soldiers. He encourages the abandonment of the ethnocentric Western narrative of the child soldier as the product of adult abuse, for the far more complex understanding of children as autonomous actors.
If you are a Harry Potter fan who wants to know more about child soldiers, check out our work here.
For more information on what cultural anthropologists study, look out for upcoming posts or ask in the comments section!