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Home arrow Environment arrow Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches


Naturalistic field experiments appeal to me because they are excellent for comparative research, and comparison is so important for developing theory. Feldman (1968) did five field experiments in Paris, Boston, and Athens to test whether people in those cities respond more kindly to foreigners or to members of their own culture.

In one experiment, the researchers simply asked for directions and measured whether foreigners or natives got better treatment. Parisians and Athenians gave help significantly more often to fellow citizens than to foreigners. In Boston, there was no difference.

In the second experiment, foreigners and natives stood at major metro stops and asked total strangers to do them a favor. They explained that they were waiting for a friend, couldn’t leave the spot they were on, and had to mail a letter. They asked people to mail the letters for them (the letters were addressed to the experiment headquarters) and simply counted how many letters they got back from the different metro stops in each city. Half the letters were unstamped.

In Boston and Paris, between 32% and 35% of the people refused to mail a letter for a fellow citizen. In Athens, 93% refused. Parisians treated Americans significantly better than Bostonians treated Frenchmen on this task. In fact, in cases where Parisians were asked to mail a letter that was stamped, they treated Americans significantly better than they treated other Parisians! (So much for that stereotype.)

In the third experiment, researchers approached informants and said: ‘‘Excuse me, sir. Did you just drop this dollar bill?’’ (or other currency, depending on the city). It was easy to measure whether or not people falsely claimed the money more from foreigners than from natives. This experiment yielded meager results.

In the fourth experiment, foreigners and natives went to pastry shops in the three cities, bought a small item and gave the clerk 25% more than the item cost. Then they left the shop and recorded whether the clerk had offered to return the overpayment. This experiment also showed little difference among the cities or between the way foreigners and locals are treated.

And in the fifth experiment, researchers took taxis from the same beginning points to the same destinations in all three cities. They measured whether foreigners or natives were charged more. In neither Boston nor Athens was a foreigner overcharged more than a local. In Paris, however, Feldman found that ‘‘the American foreigner was overcharged significantly more often than the French compatriot in a variety of ingenious ways’’ (1968:11).

Feldman collected data on more than 3,000 interactions and was able to draw conclusions about cultural differences in how various peoples respond to foreigners as opposed to other natives. Some stereotypes were confirmed; others were crushed. Since Feldman’s pioneering work, dozens of studies have been done on cross-cultural differences in helping strangers (see Levine et al. [2001], for example).

Bochner did a series of interesting experiments on the nature of Aboriginal-white relations in urban Australia (see Bochner [1980:335-40] for a review). These experiments are clever, inexpensive, and illuminating, and Bochner’s self-conscious critique of the limitations of his own work is a model for field experimentalists to follow. In one experiment, Bochner put two classified ads in a Sydney paper:

Young couple, no children, want to rent small unfurnished flat up to $25 per week.

Saturday only. 759-6000.

Young Aboriginal couple, no children, want to rent small unfurnished flat up to $25

per week. Saturday only. 759-6161. (Bochner 1972:335)

Different people were assigned to answer the two phones, to ensure that callers who responded to both ads would not hear the same voice. Note that the ads were identical in every respect, except for the fact that in one of the ads the ethnicity of the couple was identified and in the other it was not. There were 14 responses to the ethnically nonspecific ad and two responses to the ethnically specific ad (three additional people responded to both ads).

In another experiment, Bochner exploited what he calls the ‘‘Fifi effect’’ (Bochner 1980:336). The Fifi effect refers to the fact that urbanites acknowledge the presence of strangers who pass by while walking a dog and ignore others. Bochner sent a white woman and an Aboriginal woman, both in their early 20s, and similarly dressed, to a public park in Sydney. He had them walk a small dog through randomly assigned sectors of the park, for 10 minutes in each sector.

Each woman was followed by two observers, who gave the impression that they were just out for a stroll. The two observers independently recorded the interaction of the women with passersby. The observers recorded the frequency of smiles offered to the women; the number of times anyone said anything to the women; and the number of nonverbal recognition nods the women received. The white woman received 50 approaches; the Aboriginal woman received only 18 (Bochner 1971:111).

There are many elegant touches in this experiment. Note how the age and dress of the experimenters were controlled, so that only their ethnic identity remained as a dependent variable. Note how the time for each experimental trial (10 minutes in each sector) was controlled to ensure an equal opportunity for each woman to receive the same treatment by strangers. Bochner did preliminary observation in the park and divided it into sectors that had the same population density, so that the chance for interaction with strangers would be about equal in each run of the experiment, and he used two independent observer-recorders.

As Bochner points out, however, there were still design flaws that threatened the internal validity of the experiment (1980:337). As it happens, the interrater reliability of the two observers in this experiment was nearly perfect. But suppose the two observers shared the same cultural expectations about Aboriginal-white relations in urban Australia. They might have quite reliably misrecorded the cues that they were observing.

Reactive and unobtrusive observations alike tell you what happened, not why. It is tempting to conclude that the Aboriginal woman was ignored because of active prejudice. But, says Bochner, ‘‘perhaps passersby ignored the Aboriginal . . . because they felt a personal approach might be misconstrued as patronizing” (Bochner 1980:338).

In Bochner’s third study, a young white or Aboriginal woman walked into a butcher’s shop and asked for 10 cents’ worth of bones for her pet dog. The dependent variables in the experiment were the weight and quality of the bones. (An independent dog fancier rated the bones on a 3-point scale, without knowing how the bones were obtained, or why.) Each woman visited seven shops in a single middle-class shopping district.

In both amount and quality of bones received, the white woman did better than the Aboriginal, but the differences were not statistically significant—the sample was just too small so no conclusions could be drawn from that study alone. Taken all together, though, the three studies done by Bochner and his students comprise a powerful set of information about Aboriginal-white relations in Sydney. Naturalistic experiments like these have their limitations, but they often produce intuitively compelling results. And since Bochner’s work, nearly 40 years ago, dozens of other field studies have been done testing for discrimination in housing, lending, and hiring (Ahmed and Hammarstedt 2008; Sharpe 1998).

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