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Anthropology in Action: Disease & Poverty in Nairobi, Kenya (Part 1)

"Slums" of Nairobi, Kenya

In my recent blog posts, I have discussed how to start a research project involving surveys. But, the process I described can be applied to other types of research methods as well. So, now I’d like to show you an example of when I used this process for a real research project, and show Anthropology in Action! This blog post will focus on the background work and methods used in a small research project. The results of the research will be shared in the next blog post.

Introduction: Anthropology in Action

In January 2007, I had the great opportunity to conduct some Anthropological research while working on my first Master’s degree. I’d like to share the process with you as an example of Anthropology in Action! I presented this research at the Eastern Washington University Student Research and Creative Works Symposium in May 2007, and I’ve used portions of that poster presentation here in this blog post. Please note: the images used in this blog post are from free sources, not from my actual trip. I did this to protect the people in my study from possible identification through the pictures I took. The header image is from Colin Crowley, and the link to the image license is

Background Research (How I started the research)

Finding a Research Topic

Just like I’ve described in previous blog posts, first I identified a general topic to research. Since I was focusing my graduate studies in the field of Medical Anthropology, I decided to study the topic of health and illness. Next, I narrowed down my topic of health and illness to specifically infectious diseases.

I also chose a theoretical approach. In the field of Medical Anthropology, there is an approach called Critical Medical Anthropology. This approach considers the connections between poverty and disease (among other things). So, I decided to focus my study of infectious diseases around this approach. 

Choosing a Population

So at this point, my research project was to study the relationship between poverty and disease in areas with a very high poverty level. Then, I had to choose a population to study. During both my undergraduate and graduate studies, I focused on countries in Africa, so I decided to choose a location there.

One city with very high poverty areas was Nairobi, Kenya, and it had multiple “slum” areas. So, I chose the slums of Nairobi for my research site. (Please note: I use the word “slum” not as an insult to the people who live in these areas, but because that is the word the people themselves used to describe their communities while I was there.)  

Now I had a final research question. Two questions, actually. 1. What diseases are of concern in slum communities around Nairobi, Kenya? And, 2. What is the relationship of these diseases to local living conditions?

Doing a Literature Review

Next, I conducted a literature review and learned everything I could. For example, I learned about Nairobi in general, including the landscape, climate, flora and fauna, economy, communications, transportation, and more. I learned about the different ethnic groups living in Nairobi, the languages spoken, and the religions observed. I also learned about various topics related to daily life, such as typical foods, education, health, family, and economics. 

In addition, I spent a lot of time learning about the many infectious diseases found in that area as well, with a special emphasis on HIV/AIDS. I already knew that HIV/AIDS would be a big concern in the slum areas of Nairobi, so I made sure to learn a lot about it. For example, I studied the relationships between HIV and ethnicity, HIV and gender, and HIV and age in Kenya. I studied the local impacts of HIV and local efforts to treat it. Also, I examined cultural factors that impacted HIV, including knowledge of the disease, beliefs related to the disease, perceptions of risk, and practices such as condom use. 

In addition, I learned some Kiswahili (often known as Swahili), one of the languages spoken in Nairobi. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to become fluent before I left for Nairobi, but I did learn enough everyday phrases to get by,—like please, thank you, how are you, and so on. 

So, you can see how much background research is needed to conduct even a small research project in Anthropology! This shows you real Anthropology in Action! Now, I’ll talk about the rationale for the research, and then the research methods.

Slums of Nairobi, Kenya
Image Credit: Ninara on Flickr,

Rationale for Research (Why the research is important) 

Every researcher needs to have a reason why they conducted their study. In my case, it is important for researchers to look at the relationship between poverty and infectious disease in the developing world. (The term, “developing world,” is used to describe the areas of the world that are less developed than others).

This relationship is important because poverty creates conditions that increase the potential for the transmission and spread of infectious diseases. Poverty also limits proactive treatments and responses to epidemics.

This case study of slum communities in Nairobi, Kenya, is also an example of what’s called “structural violence.” Structural violence is where social structures (like social hierarchies) harm people, in this case by affecting health and illness. 

Research Methods (How the research was conducted)

Research Questions (What question is the research asking?)

  • 1.  What diseases are of concern in slum communities around Nairobi, Kenya?
  • 2.  What is the relationship of these diseases to local living conditions?

Research Sites (Where did the research take place?)

The research sites consisted of three health clinics located in different slum communities around Nairobi, Kenya. (Note that I don’t name the specific communities—this is a common practice among Anthropologists, to protect the people they study.)

Research Participants (Who participated in the research?)

I approached adults who came to any of the three health clinics, gave them a description of the research project, and asked if they would like to participate. This is called getting informed consent. A total of 24 participants gave oral consent, including 6 males and 18 females, with ages in the 20’s and 30’s. Most participants were of Kikuyu ethnicity, while others belonged to unspecified ethnic groups. (Note that I don’t provide people’s names or give much specific information about them. This is also to help protect the people under study.)  

Data Collection (How was information collected?)

Ethnographic research was conducted for 3 weeks. Typically, ethnographic research is done for a lot longer, but my stay was limited to 3 weeks for several reasons. First, this was just a small preliminary study, not a full-scale research study like what one would do for a Ph.D. Second, I was a single mom to 2 small children and someone needed to take care of them while I was gone. Third, I only had enough funding for a 3-week trip. 

I used participant observation and conducted unstructured interviews as opportunities arose throughout the study period, at the 3 clinics and during 13 home visits. (The home visits involved visiting people in their homes when they could not get to the health clinic.) Most Anthropologists use participant observation along with unstructured interviews, which is basically living among people, observing them, taking part in their daily lives, and asking them lots of questions. 

I recorded data by hand in field notebooks. Anthropologists take lots of notes throughout the day in small notebooks that they carry around, and then in the evening they expand on the notes and write a much fuller description of what happened during the day in larger notebooks (or they use a computer). 

Data Analysis (How was the information analyzed?)

Data was analyzed in consideration of the research goal, both in the field and afterward. The type of data analysis I used was qualitative data analysis. This includes categorizing data and looking for patterns in the data. I identified major diseases that people in the field site were concerned about and examined how the living conditions affected their risk of disease.

Researchers also need to make sure that they note any limitations to the data analysis. My limitations included a limited research time (only 3 weeks) and a limited number of research participants (only 24).

Slums of Nairobi, Kenya
Image Credit: Ninara on Flickr,

Conclusion: Anthropology in Action

So, this research project is an example of Anthropology in Action! It also shows how the process used to conduct a survey research project can be used for other research projects. Check out my next blog post for the results of this research project!

Are you interested in research methods in Anthropology? Check out my Udemy course, “Exploring Surveys in Anthropology Research: Anthropology 4U” at this website:

Thanks for reading!

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