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Objectivity and Neutrality

Objectivity does not mean (and has never meant) value neutrality. No one asks Cultural Survival, Inc. to be neutral in documenting the violent obscenities against indigenous peoples of the world. No one asks Amnesty International to be neutral in its effort to document state-sanctioned torture. We recognize that the power of the documentation is in its objectivity, in its chilling irrefutability, not in its neutrality.

Claire Sterk, an ethnographer from the Netherlands, has studied prostitutes and intravenous drug users in mostly African American communities in New York City and Newark, New Jersey. Sterk was a trusted friend and counselor to many of the women with whom she worked. In one 2-month period in the late 1980s, she attended the funeral of seven women she knew who had died of AIDS. She felt that ‘‘every researcher is affected by the work he or she does. One cannot remain neutral and uninvolved; even as an outsider, the researcher is part of the community’’ (Sterk 1989:99, 1999).

Laurie Krieger, an American woman doing fieldwork in Cairo, studied physical punishment against women. She learned that wife beatings were less violent than she had imagined and that the act still sickened her. Her reaction brought out a lot of information from women who were recent recipients of their husbands’ wrath. ‘‘I found out,’’ she says, ‘‘that the biased outlook of an American woman and a trained anthropologist was not always disadvantageous, as long as I was aware of and able to control the expression of my biases’’ (Krieger 1986:120).

At the end of his second year of research on street life in El Barrio, Phillipe Bourgois’s friends and informants began telling him about their experiences as gang rapists. Bour- gois’s informants were in their mid- to late 20s then, and the stories they told were of things they’d done as very young adolescents, more than a decade earlier. Still, Bourgois says, he felt betrayed by people whom he had come to like and respect. Their ‘‘childhood stories of violently forced sex,’’ he says, ‘‘spun me into a personal depression and a research crisis’’ (1995:205).

In any long-term field study, be prepared for some serious tests of your ability to remain a dispassionate observer. Hortense Powdermaker (1966) was once confronted with the problem of knowing that a lynch mob was preparing to go after a particular black man. She was powerless to stop the mob and fearful for her own safety.

I have never grown accustomed to seeing people ridicule the handicapped, though I see it every time I’m in rural Mexico and Greece, and I recall with horror the death of a young man on one of the sponge diving boats I sailed with in Greece. I knew the rules of safe diving that could have prevented that death; so did all the divers and the captains of the vessels. They ignored those rules at terrible cost. I wanted desperately to do something, but there was nothing anyone could do. My lecturing them at sea about their unsafe diving practices would not have changed their behavior. That behavior was driven, as I explained in chapter 2, by structural forces and the technology—the boats, the diving equipment—of their occupation. By suspending active judgment of their behavior, I was able to record it. “Suspending active judgment’’ does not mean that I eliminated my bias or that my feelings about their behavior changed. It meant only that I kept the bias to myself while I was recording their dives (box 12.6).

BOX 12.6


Objectivity gets its biggest test in indigenous research—that is, when you study your own culture. Barbara Meyerhoff worked in Mexico when she was a graduate student. Later, in the early 1970s, when she became interested in ethnicity and aging, she decided to study elderly Chicanos. The people she approached kept putting her off, asking her ''Why work with us? Why don't you study your own kind?'' Meyerhoff was Jewish. She had never thought about studying her own kind, but she launched a study of poor, elderly Jews who were on public assistance. She agonized about what she was doing and, as she tells it, never resolved whether it was anthropology or a personal quest.

Many of the people she studied were survivors of the Holocaust. ''How, then, could anyone look at them dispassionately? How could I feel anything but awe and appreciation for their mere presence? . . . Since neutrality was impossible and idealization undesirable, I decided on striving for balance'' (Meyerhoff 1989:90).

There is no final answer on whether it's good or bad to study your own culture. Plenty of people have done it, and plenty of people have written about what it's like to do it. On the plus side, you'll know the language and you'll be less likely to suffer from culture shock. On the minus side, it's harder to recognize cultural patterns that you live every day and you're likely to take a lot of things for granted that an outsider would pick up right away.

If you are going to study your own culture, start by reading the experiences of others who have done it so you'll know what you're facing in the field (Further Reading: studying your own culture).

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