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Anthropological research


Explanations > Social Research > Design > Anthropological research

Background | Observation | Participation | See also


Anthropological research is very different from laboratory-based experimental research.


At one time, psychology research was based in the study of Western people by Western (largely European or American) psychologists, whilst anthropological research involved the study of non-Western people by Western anthropologists.

Whilst anthropologists were not considered 'real' scientists by many, they at least gained a grudging respect with regard to their dedication in spending sometimes years at a time living in primitive and potentially dangerous conditions.


The problem with studying people who are not brought up in a Western culture is that they do not have the same values or schema. Putting them into a laboratory could result in fear responses or other reactions that destroyed the experiment. Even a simple interview can be distorting when there are large cultural and linguistic gaps between researcher and the researched. The only solution, it seems, is to study such people in their natural environment.


Anthropological research deals largely with qualitative aspects and focuses on the creation and transmission of meaning. Meaning is mediated through language and action and the best way of understanding this is through observation and engagement that is difficult through more 'traditional' research methods.

Understanding meaning is about making distinctions, differentiating between one thing and another, between the significant and the less significant. In social settings, small rituals or non-verbal signals can be throwaway trivialities or hugely important


As psychological research progressed, it was realized that laboratory experiments and even simple interviews could distort results or be simply inappropriate for some studies. There are also social groups, such as street gangs and travelers, who would likely refuse to cooperate with rigorous studies or who might covertly sabotage such research.

It was thus perceived that quantitative research only goes so far, and that, to further understand the human condition, the inner world and qualitative social interactions must be examined.

As a result, anthropological methods have been adopted into the arsenal of psychological research methods.


Observation takes the position of the third person, watching the people being studied in natural settings. This is a particularly effective method when societies are being studied, rather than individuals.

A key principle in research is to study what is real and to avoid the researcher changing what the objects of study would normally say and do. The observer thus tries to become as invisible as possible. Sometimes this can be done by quietly sitting in a corner, becoming a 'piece of the furniture' such that the people being studied get used to you and eventually ignore you.

A modern addition to the arsenal of the researcher is the video camera which can be conveniently small and unobtrusive (within ethical considerations, of course).

'Reality television' uses the principle of observation and it is a testament to the method that individuals and families will fall into embarrassing dysfunctional behavior in front of an entire film crew.


Observation is sometimes not enough for the researcher to understand deep meaning. It may also be impossible to prevent the observed from reacting to the observation. In such cases, participation can be a viable alternative.

In participative research, the researcher throws themselves into the world of the objects of study, eating, sleeping and living with them, effectively hiding in full view. Whilst being far from an objective position, this does give the researcher the ability immerse themselves in the world they are studying and perhaps experience first-hand the meaning-making processes they are studying.

This process requires the researcher to reach a tricky balance, where they are engaged enough in the context to gain a visceral experience whilst being sufficiently detached to be able to make neutral observations. They must also be sufficiently engaged with the people under study to avoid disturbing the natural order of things.

See also

Idealism, Hermeneutics, Phenomenology

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