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Participant Observation

Participant observation fieldwork is the foundation of cultural anthropology. It involves getting close to people and making them feel comfortable enough with your presence so that you can observe and record information about their lives. If this sounds a bit crass, I mean it to come out that way. Only by confronting the truth about participant observation—that it involves a deception and impression management—can we hope to conduct ourselves ethically in fieldwork. Much more about this later.

Participant observation is both a humanistic method and a scientific one. It produces the kind of experiential knowledge that lets you talk convincingly, from the gut, about what it feels like to plant a garden in the high Andes or dance all night in a street rave in Seattle.

It also produces effective, positivistic knowledge—the kind that can move the levers of the world if it gets into the right hands. Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1992), for example, developed a nomothetic theory, based on participant observation, that accounts for the tragedy of very high infant mortality in northeast Brazil and the direct involvement of mothers in their infants’ deaths. Anyone who hopes to develop a program to lower the incidence of infant mortality in that part of the world will have to read Scheper-Hughes’s analysis (box 12.1).

 
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