Culture and Ethnography

Most Americans associate science with detached observation; We learn to observe what we want to understand, we introduce our own classification of what is happening and we explain what we see in our own terms. In this selection, James Spradley argues that cultural anthropologists work differently. The ethnography is the work of discovering and describing a particular culture; the culture is learned and shared knowledge that people use to generate behavior and interpret the experience. To reach culture, ethnographers must learn the meaningsof action and experience from the informant’s point of view . Many of the examples used by Spradley also show the relevance of anthropology for the study of culture in this country.

The ethnographic field work is the hallmark of cultural anthropology . Whether in a town in the Peruvian jungle or on the streets of New York, the anthropologist goes where people live and “does field work.” This means participating in activities, asking questions, eating strange foods, learning a new language, seeing ceremonies, taking field notes, doing laundry, writing letters home, looking for genealogies, observing games, interviewing informants, and hundreds of other things. This wide range of activities often obscures the nature of the most fundamental task of all fieldwork: doing ethnography .

Ethnography is the job of describing a culture . The central objective of ethnography is to understand another way of life from the native point of view . The objective of ethnography, as Malinowski said, is “to capture the native’s point of view, his relationship with life, to account for his vision of the world.” Fieldwork, then, involves disciplined study of what the world is like for people who have learned to see, to warm up; speak, think and act in different ways. Rather than studying people, ethnography means learning from people. Consider the following illustration.

George Hicks set out, in 1965, to learn about another way of life, that of the mountain people in an Appalachian valley. Her goal was to discover her culture, learn to see the world from her perspective. With his family he moved to Little Laurel Valley, his daughter attended the local school, and his wife became one of the local Girl Scout leaders. Hicks soon discovered that stores and warehouses were at the center of the valley communication system, providing the most important social arena for the entire valley. He learned this by observing what other people were doing, following his example and gradually becoming part of the groups that gathered daily in the stores. He writes:

At least once a day I visited various shops in the valley, and sat in groups of gossips, or, if the grocer was alone, perhaps he was trying to clear up confusing points about kinship obligations. I found these hours, particularly the ones I spent in the presence of the two or three excellent storytellers in Little Laurel, to be very enjoyable. . . . At other times, I helped several local men collect corn or hay, build sheds, cut trees, mine and pack galaxies, and search for rich stands of blueberries. When I needed help on, for example, repairing frozen water pipes, it was provided easily and cheerfully.

To discover the hidden principles of another way of life, the researcher must become a student. Shopkeepers, storytellers, and local farmers become teachers. Instead of studying the “climate,” the “flora” and the fauna “that formed the environment of this Appalachian Valley, Hicks sought to discover how these mountain people defined and evaluated trees, galaxies, and blueberries. He did not attempt to describe social life in terms of what most Americans know about “marriage,” “family,” and “friendship”; instead, he sought to discover how these mountain people identified family and friends. He tried to learn the obligations they felt towards relatives and discover that they felt for their friends.

Consider another example, this time from the perspective of an ethnographer who is not us. Imagine an Eskimo woman preparing to learn the culture of Bethel College. What would she, well educated in the rich Eskimo heritage culture, need to do to understand the culture of Bethel College’s students, faculty, and staff? How would she discover the patterns that shaped their lives? How would she avoid imposing Eskimo ideas, categories, and values ​​on everything she saw?

First, and perhaps most difficultly, he would have to put aside his belief in naive realism, the almost universal belief that all people define real world objects, events, and living creatures in the same way. Human languages ​​may differ from one society to the next, but behind the strange words and sentences, all people speak of the same things. Naive realism assumes that love, snow, marriage, worship, animals, death, food, and hundreds of other things have essentially the same meaning for all humans. Although few of us would admit that ethnocentrism, the assumption will unconsciously influence our research. Ethnography begins with a conscious attitude of almost total ignorance: “I don’t know how the people at Bethel College understand their world. It remains to be discovered. ” This Eskimo woman would have to start by learning the language spoken by the students, faculty, and staff. She could wander the campus trails, sit in classes, and attend special events, but only if she consciously tried to see things from the native point of view, would she capture his perspective. He would have to observe and listen to the freshmen during his one-week orientation gram. You would have to queue up during registration, listen to students discuss the classes they were hoping to get, and visit the departments to see how they advise students on course selection. I would like to observe the secret typing, sweep up the janitors and maintenance staff plowing in the snow. She would see more than 1,600 students huddle in the post office to open her little mailbox, and she would listen to her comments on spam and letters from home or without mail.) She would attend faculty meetings to see what was going on. , recording what teachers and administration said and how they behaved. She sampled various courses, attended church on the weekends, read the Bethel Beacon, and listened hourly to students talking about things like their “relationships,” the “soccer team” and the “work study.” I wanted to learn the meanings of all these things. You would have to listen to the members of this university community, observe what they did and participate in their activities to learn these meanings. The essential core of ethnography is this concern with the meaning of actions and events for the people we are trying to understand. Some of these meanings are expressed directly in language: many are taken for granted and communicated only indirectly through word and action. But in every society people make constant use of these complex meaning systems to organize their behavior, understand themselves and others, and make sense of the world in which they live. These systems of meaning constitute their culture, ethnography always implies a theory of culture. many take it for granted and communicate only indirectly through word and action. But in every society people make constant use of these complex meaning systems to organize their behavior, understand themselves and others, and make sense of the world in which they live. These systems of meaning constitute their culture, ethnography always implies a theory of culture. many take it for granted and communicate only indirectly through word and action. But in every society, people make constant use of these complex meaning systems to organize their behavior, understand themselves and others, and make sense of the world in which they live. These systems of meaning constitute their culture, ethnography always implies a theory of culture.

One afternoon in 1973 I came across the following news at the Minneapolis Tribune:

Attempt to rescue crowd errors, police attacks

November 23, 1973. Hartford, Connecticut . Three police officers giving a heart attack and oxygen massage to a heart attack victim on Friday were attacked by a crowd of 75 people on children who apparently did not realize what the police officers were doing.

Other police officers defended themselves from the crowd, mainly Spanish-speaking, until an ambulance arrived. Police said they tried to explain to the crowd what they were doing, but the crowd apparently thought they were hitting the woman.

Despite the efforts of the police, the victim, Evangelica Echevacria, 59, died.
Here we see people using their culture. Members of two different watched the same event, but their interpretations were drastically different. The crowd used their cultural knowledge (a) to interpret men’s behavior as cruel and (b) to act on behalf of women to end what they perceived as brutality. They had acquired cultural principles to act and interpret things in this way through a particular shared experience.

The policemen, on the other hand, used their cultural knowledge (a) to interpret the woman’s condition as heart failure and her own behavior as a saving effort and (b) to give her cardiac massage and oxygen. They used artifacts like an oxygen mask and an ambulance. Furthermore, they interpreted the actions of the crowd in a completely different way from how the crowd viewed their own behavior. The two groups of people had elaborate cultural rules to interpret their experience and act in emergencies, and the conflict arose, at least in part, because these cultural rules were very different.

We can now diagram this definition of culture and see more clearly the relationships between knowledge, behavior, and artifacts (see Figure 1). By identifying cultural knowledge as fundamental, we have simply shifted the emphasis from behavior and artifacts to their meaning. The ethnographer observes the behavior but goes further to inquire about the meaning of that behavior. The ethnographer sees artifacts and natural objects, but goes beyond them to discover what meanings people assign to these objects. The ethnographer observes and records emotional states but goes beyond them to discover the meaning of fear, anxiety, angel; and other feelings

As depicted in Figure 1, cultural knowledge exists at two levels of consciousness. Explicit culture is part of what we know, a level of knowledge that people can communicate with relatively easily. When George Hicks asked store owners and others in Little Laurel Valley about their relatives, he discovered that any adult over the age of fifty could tell him about the genealogical connections between large numbers of people. They knew how to trace the kinship relationship and the cultural rules for appropriate behavior among relatives. All of us have acquired large areas of cultural knowledge like this that we can talk about and make explicit.

At the same time, a large part of our cultural knowledge remains outside of our consciousness. Edward Hall has done much to elucidate the nature of tacit cultural knowledge in his books The Silent Language and The Hidden Dimension. The way each culture defines space often occurs at the level of knowledge. Hall notes that all of us have acquired thousands of spaces about how close you are to others, how to arrange furniture, when to others, and when to feel cramped inside a room. Not realizing that our unspoken culture is operating, we begin to feel uncomfortable when someone from another culture gets too close, breathes when we talk, touch, or when we find furniture arranged in the center of the room instead of on the edges.

The concept of culture as acquired knowledge has much in common with symbolic interactionism, a theory that seeks to explain human behavior in terms of meanings. Symbolic interactionism has its roots in the work of sociologists such as Cooley, Mead, and Thomas. Blumer has identified three premises on which this theory rests.

The first premise is that “human beings act towards things in the ha, the meanings that things have for them”. 5 The police officers and the cm our previous example interacted based on the meanings of things for geographic location, types of people, police car, police movements, sick woman behavior and the spectator’s activities were symbols with special meanings. People did not act towards things themselves, but towards their meanings.

The second premise underlying symbolic interactionism is that the “meaning of such things is derived from, or arises from, the social interaction one has with his fellow man.” Culture, as a shared system of meanings, is learned, reviewed, maintained, and defined in the context of the people who interact. The crowd came to share their definitions of police behavior by interacting with each other and through past partnerships with the police. Officers acquired the cultural meanings they used when interacting with other officers and community members. The culture of each group was inextricably linked to the social life of their particular communities.

The third premise of symbolic interactionism is that “meaning is handled and modified through an interpretive process used by the person who deals with the things he finds.” Neither the crowd nor the police were automatons, driven by their culture to act on the road they did. Rather, they used their cultural knowledge to interpret and evaluate the situation. At any time, a member of the crowd may have interpreted the police officers’ behavior in a slightly different way, prompting a different reaction.

We can see this interpretive aspect more clearly if we think of culture as a cognitive map. In the recurring activities that make up daily life, we refer to this map. It serves as a guide to act and interpret our experience; it does not require us to follow a particular course. Like this brief drama between the cops, a dying woman, and the crowd, much of life is a series of unforeseen social occasions. Although our culture may not include a detailed map for such occasions, it provides principles for interpreting and responding to them. Rather than a rigid map that people must follow, the best way to think about culture is:


a set of principles for creating dramas, writing scripts and, of course, for recruiting players and audiences… Culture is not simply a cognitive map that people acquire, in whole or in part, with greater or lesser precision, and then learn to read. People are not just map readers; they are cartographers. People are expelled on imperfectly revised and continually revised schematic maps. Culture does not provide a cognitive map, but rather a set of principles for mapping and navigation. Different cultures are like different sailing schools to deal with different terrains and seas.


If we take meaning seriously, as symbolic interactionists argue that we must, it becomes necessary to study the meaning carefully. We need a theory of meaning and a specific methodology designed for its investigation.

Adapted from “Ethnography and Culture” in Participant Observation by James P. Spradley. 1980 by Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston, Inc.

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