Cultural Anthropology and Ethnographic Fieldwork
James P. Spradley (1979) described the insider approach to understanding culture as "a quiet revolution" among the social sciences (p. iii). Cultural anthropologists, however, have long emphasized the importance of the ethnographic method, an approach to understanding a different culture through participation, observation, the use of key informants, and interviews. Cultural anthropologists have employed the ethnographic method in an attempt to surmount several formidable cultural questions: How can one understand another's culture? How can culture be qualitatively and quantitatively assessed? What aspects of a culture make it unique and which connect it to other cultures? If ethnographies can provide answers to these difficult questions, then Spradley has correctly identified this method as revolutionary.
Cultures are infinitely complex. Culture, as Spradley (1979) defines it, is "the acquired knowledge that people use to interpret experiences and generate social behavior" (p. 5). Spradley's emphasizes that culture involves the use of knowledge. While some aspects of culture can be neatly arranged into categories and quantified with numbers and statistics, much of culture is encoded in schema, or ways of thinking (Levinson & Ember, 1996, p. 418). In order to accurately understand a culture, one must apply the correct schema and make inferences which parallel those made my natives. Spradley suggests that culture is not merely a cognitive map of beliefs and behaviors that can be objectively charted; rather, it is a set of map-making skills through which cultural behaviors, customs, language, and artifacts must be plotted (p. 7). This definition of culture offers insight into the need for the insider perspective which ethnographies provide.
Foundational to the modern discipline of cultural anthropology is the assumption that, in order to accurately understand a culture, one must interpret it as a native does-as an insider. This interpretation must make meaning from the culture in the same way that natives draw meaning. According to Spradley (1979), the structural components of cultural meaning come from what people say, what they do, and what artifacts they use (p. 9). In anthropological field work, he or she attempts to observe and document these cultural aspects. In addition, and more importantly, the anthropologist must then, as accurately as possible, make inferences which parallel those of the natives.
The grandiose task of wearing another's cultural skin understandably comes with a host of opinions on how such a job can be accomplished. Anthropologists have long argued about the accuracy of ethnographies (Levinson & Ember, 1996, pp. 419-21). Much of the discussion stems from the assumption that some cultural aspects are ineffable and subconscious. Can an anthropologist approach his subject, as Spradley argues, "with a conscious attitude of almost complete ignorance"? Is it...