What makes research anthropological?

Asking anthropological questions about the world

One of the orienting questions in anthropology is about what humans share and where humans differ. Words such as culture, norms, ideology, hegemony, discourse, and symbols—all common in the discipline of anthropology—describe in different ways point out what anthropologists believe humans to share with others around them. 

Anthropological questions tend to be about how individuals craft their lives, their dreams, their beliefs, and their actions in relation to this shared context— what an anthropologist or sociologist might term a “social” context. 

Since there is consistency but also variation and contradictions in what people do and what they believe between and within social contexts, anthropologists conduct careful historical and cultural research rather than assume an easy, overarching "worldview" or logic. 

Analyzing data with an anthropological lens

Anthropological "data"

One of the primary ways in which anthropologists analyze their data is through a consideration of whether individual conversations, attitudes, stances, and practices that are gathered as "data" in our field sites can be read as part of larger social phenomena. Anthropologists focus in on the details of individual utterances or actions or events while also forcing their gazes outward to consider the broader social context. That is, anthropologists ask to what extent a particular action or event or practice can be understood as (at least partially) shaped or impacted by other individuals, communities, practices, or events.

Anthropology at different scales

This means that anthropologists are constantly moving back and forth between what others have called different “scales” of human life— whether individual, communal, regional, national, or even international— to gain new insights and understandings of the complexity of human life as it is lived.

This approach is visible in research projects and ethnographies, which tend to move between detailed descriptions of conversations, events or vignettes and discussions of larger phenomenon (whether historical, regional, political, aesthetic, material), and back again.

Guiding anthropological questions

Anthropologists have long found that the social world is complicated and always shifting. The work of cultural anthropologists have tended to coalesce around two sets of related questions: 

❶  What shared meanings or conventions or practices are in place in any given context or field site? To what extent are there patterns or norms that impact the way people see and act in their world?

❷  How are the social norms, cultures, ideologies, or shared symbolic systems that we see in ❶ made possible? And how are they challenged, reproduced , or enforced across time and space? 

Questions ❶ and ❷ correspond to stances that anthropologists have about how to ask anthropological questions and how to collect data and evidence to answer these questions. 


Initial ethnographic investigation

Ethnographic investigation into day to day lives often serves as the basis for answering questions about that which is conventional or shared.

Here, it is important to remember that anthropologists take different stances on what that may consist of, and look for different things, including cultural symbols, ideologies, discourses, interactions, etc. Whatever their stance is, they begin by focusing on data from the everyday realities of people from one or more field sites to begin getting a sense for patterns or discrepancies in how people view and act in the world. Most often, anthropologists are not looking to identify a truly individual stance, but to get a grip on a range of stances that are socially present. 

Examples of anthropologists asking questions in the vein of (1) include:


Contextualizing ethnographic findings: paying attention to process, and production

Anthropologists rely on theory and long-standing discussions in the discipline of anthropology as well as their intuition in the course of their own research to begin answering the questions of what is helping to shape and reproduce conventions big or small, and what possibilities there are for change or disagreement.

Sometimes, answering this second set of questions involves looking at the ways in which people are taught to follow conventions (often in institutional sites like schools or places of worship), or the ways in which people explain the origin of their beliefs (in terms of justice, or tradition, or a sense of right and wrong), or even at historical and material circumstances that could have shaped and reproduced these conventions. 

Examples of anthropologists asking questions in the vein of (2) include:





Sites of reseearch in the department