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How Do Anthropologists Study Culture?

Several grass huts.

So, in previous blog posts, you learned that Cultural Anthropologists study culture. But how do they do that? There are 3 ways that Cultural Anthropologists study cultures:

  1. they study living cultures
  2. they study past cultures
  3. they compare cultures

#1: Cultural Anthropologists Study Living Cultures

Some Anthropologists study living cultures. This is called ethnographic fieldwork. In this kind of research, Anthropologists study a culture by going to the place where the culture is located and living with the people of that culture. The Anthropologist collects information about the people’s way of life. Fieldwork can be anywhere people are, such as in a far-off village on the other side of the world or maybe in a supermarket in an urban area. Anthropologists typically spend several months to at least a year in the field. This allows them time to gather detailed and in-depth information on the culture they are studying. 

A Cultural Anthropologist uses several research techniques while doing ethnographic fieldwork. This can include:

  • participant observation
  • interviewing
  • cultural consultants & key consultants
  • surveys & questionnaires
  • ethnographic mapping
  • genealogical methods
  • life histories 
  • photos & videos

Participant Observation

Participant observation is when the Anthropologist observes daily life in the culture, and participates in daily life, too. For example, they live in the same type of housing the people live in, eat the same food as the people eat, and do the same daily tasks that the people do. The Anthropologist even learns the local language, so they can interact with the people every day. 

Image of 2 women talking at a cafe


Besides observing and participating in daily life, Anthropologists also interview people. Interviewing means asking people questions, for example, about their culture, about what they are doing, and why they are doing it. Interviews can provide information on what people think and feel, which is called attitudinal data, and what people do, which is called behavioral data.

Cultural Consultants & Key Consultants

Some people in a culture may be willing to teach the Anthropologist about their culture. These people are called cultural consultants. (They used to be called informants.) A few people may be experts in a certain aspect of the culture. These people are called key consultants, or key cultural consultants. (They used to be called key informants.) For example, if an Anthropologist wants to learn about a culture’s religion, a key consultant would be a priest or shaman, because they have more knowledge of religion than the other members of the community.

Surveys & Questionnaires

Anthropologists also use surveys and questionnaires to gather information about the culture they are studying. For example, the Anthropologist can take a census, and collect demographic information about a culture. This includes asking people about their age and occupation, if they are married or not, and asking who lives in the household. 

Ethnographic Mapping

Ethnographic mapping is when an Anthropologist creates a map of the community being studied. The map can show where people live, where important buildings are located, places where medicinal plants can be found, favorite fishing areas, where people work, and more.

Genealogical Methods

Anthropologists also use the genealogical method, which is making family trees. That way, the Anthropologist knows who is who in the community.

Life Histories

Collecting life histories is another research method used by Anthropologists. This is when an Anthropologist interviews a person about their whole life.

How do Anthropologists Study Culture? Image of a woman taking a photo of a world made up of small photos.

Photos & Videos

Anthropologists also take photos and videos, to document parts of life in the community. Photos can document things like technology, and show everything from tools to machines. Videos can document things like rituals and dances. 

Data Collection

During ethnographic fieldwork, the Anthropologist collects a combination of qualitative data and quantitative data. Qualitative data is data that is not numbers, like data from interviews, observations, and life histories. Quantitative data is data made up of numbers, like how many people are in a village, how many houses there are, and how much wood is used each day for fuel. All the data collected is written down in notebooks, which are called field notes

When the Anthropologist returns home, they compile all the information they gathered in their field notes and write a detailed description of the culture they studied. This is called an ethnography

A coffee cup with a pad of paper and a pen next to it.

#2: Cultural Anthropologists Study Past Cultures

Some Cultural Anthropologists study past cultures. This is called ethnohistoric research. In this kind of research, Anthropologists study written accounts and other documents about a culture. For example, they study: 

  • books
  • articles
  • newspapers
  • archival documents
  • journals
  • maps

They may also study any audio-visual materials about the culture, such as photographs or films. The Anthropologist tries to reconstruct the culture by studying these materials.

#3: Cultural Anthropologists Compare Cultures

Some Cultural Anthropologists compare cultures. This type of research is called ethnology. The Anthropologist tries to explain some type of cultural diversity by comparing two or more cultures. For example, they may do a cross-cultural comparison. In this kind of research, the Anthropologist is trying to figure out if two or more aspects of culture are consistently found together in different cultures, or not. 

First, the Anthropologist creates a hypothesis, which is a statement that can be tested and then found to be true or not true. Next, the Anthropologist chooses a random sample of societies around the world, and studies the information on each society. Then, the Anthropologist does a statistical test to figure out if the aspects of culture are usually found together, or not. Finally, the Anthropologist determines if the hypothesis is true or not. 

For more information about research methods in Anthropology, check out the American Anthropological Association’s Research Methods webpage.

Thanks for reading!

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