509-818-0769 (USA)



Spokane Valley, WA (USA)


Research Methods in Anthropology: Free Listing

whiteboard with different colored sticky notes

In this post, I would like to share more information about Anthropological research methods. In a previous blog post, I explained how Cultural Anthropologists study culture. And, in another post, I explained how to do ethnographic surveys. Also, I talked about some research that I did using participant observation. Now, I would like to share another research method, called free listing, and tell you about a research project that I did using this method. 

What is Free Listing?

What is free listing? This is when you ask people to list all the items they can think of on a particular topic. For example, you could ask people to list all the different kinds of trees. In the USA, you might hear people say, pine trees, oak trees, willow trees, and so on. Or, you could ask people to list all the types of possible pets. In the USA, you may hear people say, dogs, cats, birds, hamsters, etc. Or, you could ask people to list all the types of fruit. In the USA, you may hear people say, apples, bananas, strawberries, blueberries, and so forth.

Free listing. Bulletin board with lots of different colored sticky notes on it.

Why Use Free Listing?

Why would you use free listing as a research method? Free listing is used to find out all the terms in a cognitive domain, meaning a certain conceptual category. Why is this helpful? It gives you an emic view of things– meaning the insider’s perspective. (This is in contrast to the etic view, which is the outside observer’s view.) It helps you understand people’s knowledge and beliefs about a topic.

Emic and Etic Views & Free Listing

Here’s an example of emic and etic views, and using free listing to find out more about the emic view. 

Say that the people in a community in another country were deficient in potassium. An outsider etic view may be that they just need to eat bananas at breakfast. But, if a health program just jumped into the situation with an intervention and said to the local people, you need to eat bananas for breakfast because you need more potassium, this advice could be ignored if bananas are not seen as a breakfast food. Understanding the local people’s ideas about food (the emic view) is important, and Anthropologists are experts on doing that kind of thing.

yellow bananas

Say that you are a Nutritional Anthropologist who is working with this health program in this same community. (So, you are working as an Applied Anthropologist, applying Anthropology to real-world problems.) You would want to first study local dietary habits before you make recommendations on how to improve nutritional health. For example, you need to know what people eat and what they consider to be a meal. You might think that a meal is a meal, but this differs by culture. For example, in some cultures (like in China), eating food is not considered a meal unless there is rice. As another example, in part of India, people feel like they have not eaten unless they have had millet porridge with vegetables–even if they have eaten a lot of other foods. So, thoughts about what makes a meal are different in different cultures.

Back to our Nutritional Anthropology/Applied Anthropology example. You could ask people to list all the breakfast foods they can think of. Then, you will have a good idea of the typical foods that are considered breakfast foods. Next, you could ask about lunch and then dinner foods and also snacks. All of this will you a good idea of what people consider to be food, and what times it is appropriate to eat that food. So, you can factor all this into your recommendations to the health program you are working for. For example, if bananas are not seen as a breakfast food, but instead are seen as a snack, then you could recommend that the intervention encourage people to eat more bananas as snacks, not breakfast.

Examples of Free Listing in Medical Anthropology

So, now that you understand the basic concept of free listing, I’ll give some examples of using it in research. Since I’m a Medical Anthropologist, I’ll share examples related to medical topics: You could ask people to list all the ways you can prevent HIV. Or, you could ask people to list all the treatments for a cough. And, you could ask people to list all the types of diseases that children typically get. Or, you could ask people to list all the causes of fever. Learning about what people think are items in these categories is important in understanding the local culture’s knowledge and beliefs about health and illness. And this understanding is important to consider if you are an Applied Anthropologist creating new health programs and interventions.

Two teddy bears in bed with a hot water bottle, tissues, and a thermometer.

How to do Free Listing

Here’s how to do free listing. First, you ask people to list all the kinds of “X,” where “X” is your topic. People can either write down their lists, or say them aloud to you, and you write them down. Then, you clean the data. This means you rename responses that mean the same thing. For example, if you asked people to list all the kinds of pets, and someone said “dog” and another person said, “doggy,” these are both the same thing, and can be just listed as “dog.” 

Then, you analyze the data. You can see which terms are listed first. Things that we think of first are often seen as more important or more familiar. For example, people usually list “mother” before “grandmother” when listing kinship terms. You can also see what words were most frequent. These are usually locally important things. For example, people living in the state of Florida (USA) may list “palm tree” first when asked to list types of trees, while people living in Washington state (USA) may list “pine tree” first. And you look at the lengths of everyone’s lists. People who know more about a topic tend to list more items than other people. 

Palm trees on a sandy beach with the blue water of the ocean behind them.

My Research Project

Now, I’d like to share a time when I used free listing as a research method. This was while I was a student at Eastern Washington University. As a budding Medical Anthropologist, I was interested in people’s perceptions of health and illness, meaning what they thought about health and disease. I was also interested in how those perceptions impacted their health-seeking behavior–meaning what they do when they get sick. So, for this project, I wanted to ask people to list all the kinds of medicines they can think of. 


First, I had to create a research plan. I decided to collect information from students in 3 classes at a local university using the free listing method. I titled my project, “Salience of Terms in the Domain of Medicine.” Next, I had to apply for IRB approval. IRB stands for Institutional Review Board, and it approves research on people. You can’t just go out and research people–you need permission from an ethics board first.

After I received IRB approval, I started my research. I went to classrooms and introduced myself and explained that I was doing a research project to see what people thought about medicine. I stressed that participation was voluntary and all information would be kept anonymous. I explained that if someone did not wish to participate, then they could just submit a blank sheet of paper. I passed out blank sheets of paper and asked people not to place their names on the paper. I instructed the students to take 2 minutes to “list all the kinds of medicine you can think of.” I then left the room in order to give the students privacy and timed 2 minutes with a timer. When the time had passed, a manilla envelope was passed around the room and students placed their papers inside it. I then collected the envelope and thanked the students and the professor for their help.

Free listing. A stack of paper in different colors, with a blue pen.


I received a total of 56 papers with responses and 1 blank paper with no response, so I had 55 research participants. The number of responses on each list varied from 4 to 24, and the total number of responses was 562. 

I put the responses in a spreadsheet and cleaned the data. First I corrected spellings. For example, I changed “asperin” to “aspirin.” Second, I decided that some responses were so closely related that they should be considered the same response. For example, I said that “NyQuil” and “nightquil” were the same thing, and “pain reliever” and “pain killer” were the same thing. So I changed these responses in the spreadsheet so that the responses were standardized. If a response was similar to, but more specific than another response, the two were considered different responses. For example, I said that “Motrin” and “children’s Motrin” were different responses.

Free listing. multicolored pills (medicine)

Data Analysis & Results

Then, I determined the frequency of each response. There were numerous responses with a very low frequency and a few responses with very high frequencies. A total of 162 different responses were seen only one time in the data, while the highest frequency was one word that was seen 34 times. The top ten responses were ranked based on the frequency they were seen in the data. Some words were tied for a spot (rank numbers 7, 9, and 10). The list of the top 10 responses (by frequency) is below:

  1. Tylenol
  2. Advil
  3. aspirin
  4. ibuprofen
  5. penicillin
  6. NyQuil
  7. morphine; Prozac
  8. Viagra
  9. Robitussin; Vicodin
  10. codeine; Bayer; Zoloft
a pink pill bottle with white circular pills spilling out of it.

Next, I calculated something called “Smith’s S” or salience. Salience is a measure that takes into account not just frequency, but placement on the lists. (Remember that I mentioned earlier that ranking first on the list means it is more important or more familiar–where the response is on the list is important.) Below is the formula for finding salience. Note that: L = the length of the list, R = the rank of an item in the list, and N = the total number of lists.

Free listing. Mathematical equation for salience

It turns out that Tylenol has the highest salience (S=0.469). Here is a ranking of the top 6 responses by salience: (note that this list also happens to match the list by frequency)

  1. Tylenol
  2. Advil
  3. aspirin
  4. ibuprofen
  5. penicillin
  6. NyQuil
a large pile of multicolored pills falling from above.


I expected Tylenol and aspirin to be among the most salient terms but did not expect Advil to be so high on the list. The presence of penicillin in the top 6 was the most surprising. It is also interesting to note that 5 of the 6 top responses were heavily advertised in the media during the time of the study. This may suggest that there is a relationship between the media and participants’ ideas relating to medicine and would be an interesting topic to look at further. 

Several responses were not high in frequency, but still interesting to see in the lists as they were rather unusual compared to other responses. Examples included: “water,” “exorcism,” “soap,” and “leeches.” In addition, while most lists reflected brands of medicines or specific names of medicines, several seemed to focus on types of medicinal practice, for example, “western,” “holistic,” “shamanism,” and “ pediatrics.” I had not anticipated that people would interpret the request to list all the “kinds of medicine” in this way. Perhaps a rephrasing of the question would have given more uniform results. However, this may suggest that the domain of medicine can be broken down into types of specific medications and types of medical practice. 

Free listing. Image of a white pestle and mortar with green leaves and a yellow liquid in small bottles.

Learn More

So, that’s an example of using free listing from start to finish. If you are interested in learning more about free listing, check out American University’s page on free lists,  and also this page from Designing the User Experience at Autodesk.  

If you are interested in reading journal articles that used free listing, check out the articles below (they should be free). Some are Anthropology articles, and some just used Anthropology’s free listing method. 

If you want to read more articles, just go to Google Scholar ( and type in “Anthropology” and “free listing” and you will get a list of articles.

Thanks for reading!

Skip to content