In sociology and anthropology, the choice of research methods often predetermines the quality of the research outcomes. This paper discusses the most common research methods in sociology and cultural anthropology. The paper includes a brief description and evaluation of the experiments and surveys in sociology and ethnographic research and surveys in cultural anthropology. The philosophy underlying ethnographic research and its relation to the fundamental principles of cultural anthropology are discussed in the paper.
Keywords: sociology, anthropology, cultural, surveys, experiments, ethnography.
Sociology and Anthropology
Researchers must be careful in their choice of the research methods – this phrase reflects one of the most serious challenges facing professionals in sociology and cultural anthropology. The choice of research methods is not an easy task, especially when the object of research is fragmented, disjointed, and disorganized. This is particularly the case of the social and cultural narratives that provide invaluable information about the sociological and cultural patterns of life. Experiments and surveys provide sociologists with remarkable research opportunities, whereas ethnography and surveys are extensively used by anthropologists. Ethnographic methods meet the needs and requirements of the anthropological science, by shifting the emphasis from participant observation to observing participation and turning the researcher into an active participant of the major cultural processes.
Researchers in sociology and cultural anthropology should be mindful of the way they choose, develop, and apply various research frameworks. In the field of sociology, experiments and surveys are among the most popular research methods. Experimentation involves “a carefully controlled artificial situation that allows researchers to isolate presumed causes and measure their effects precisely” (Brym, & Lie, 2009, p.18). In experiments, sociologists can monitor changes in behaviors and differences in how the research objects react to the hypothesized cause. However, if experimental conditions cannot be created, sociologists can use the survey method to collect primary data and measure cause-and-effect relationships. According to Brym and Lie (2009), surveys are the most common research method in sociology that enables researchers to collect primary data from a large number of respondents.
The complexity of social realities confirms the difficulty and, at times, impossibility of any artificial experiments in sociology (Schmaus, 1994). Simultaneously, the survey research is built on the philosophic principles characteristic of the entire field of sociology. Both the survey method and the science of sociology rely on the principles of positivism. It is through positivism that sociology became science (Jupp, 2006). This is why surveys represent a critical component of research in sociology.
Cultural anthropologists are also aware of the benefits offered by the surveys. Nevertheless, cultural anthropology is the science of ethnography. Ethnographic fieldwork is, probably, the most important instrument of doing research in cultural anthropology, when anthropologists collect on-site information on a society’s ideas, beliefs, traditions, and values (Haviland, Prins, McBride, & Walrath, 2010). Ethnography fits in the conditions and values of the cultural anthropology, which has a tendency to work with unstructured data and investigate a small number of cases (Atkinson, & Hammersley, 1994). Additionally, ethnography reflects a scientific shift from participant observation to observing participation, which has already become one of the most characteristic features of cultural anthropology (Tedlock, 2003). Through ethnography, the cultural anthropologist becomes an active participant of all cultural processes, whereas all events and encounters are placed into a meaningful cultural context (Tedlock, 2003). Like anthropology itself, ethnography is inherently qualitative and one of the most suitable research philosophies in the context of cultural anthropology.
Based on the methods described, it seems that sociology welcomes both qualitative and quantitative methods of data analysis, whereas cultural anthropology is a predominantly qualitative field. Most probably, it is because cultural anthropology is a complex intersection of individual autobiography and collective cultural thinking, which leaves little room for empirical, positivist analyses. Unlike experiments and surveys, ethnography enables anthropologists to cross the semantic and territorial boundaries (Tedlock, 2003). It is possible to assume that, in the nearest future, cultural anthropology will remain the field of qualitative thinking.
The choice of research methods in sociology and cultural anthropology often predetermines the quality of the study results. Surveys, experiments, and ethnographic approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. Very often, the philosophy of particular research methods reflects the fundamental philosophic principles underlying the target discipline. For example, ethnography remains the central instrument of research in cultural anthropology. While sociology allows for the use of both qualitative and quantitative methods, cultural anthropology favors mainly the use of the qualitative research tools. This, however, does not mean that the study of cultural anthropology and quantitative methods of research are incompatible. Nevertheless, it is possible to assume that, in the nearest future, cultural anthropology will remain a predominantly qualitative field of inquiry.