Teaching Methodology

I have to admit, despite having studied Anthropology since I was a teenager (my High School offered anthropology), I never really had much in the way of methodology training. And, except for people in applied anthropology programs, I’m afraid that this is the norm rather than the exception. Even my graduate seminar on methodology ended up being a largely theoretical discussion. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing, but lately I’ve noticed that some of the jobs I’d like to apply for expect you to be able to teach a methods course. I thought of this as a good challenge and have been reading up on methodology and looking at examples of other syllabi (see here, here, here, and here) in order to develop my own course.

I often require students to engage in hands-on ethnographic work in my courses. In the visual anthropology course I taught at Haverford last term, students were expected to produce a visual ethnography. But a general methods course presents its own problems. Many of the books I’ve read on the matter just don’t seem to suit themselves to the structure of such a course. For instance, Habermas’ Knowledge and Human Interests would require a course of its own to teach. I had high hopes for Flyvberg, but was ultimately disappointed. Etc. I just can’t seem to find the books or articles that I’d really like to teach. (Perhaps I’ll eventually have to write one of my own…)

My first efforts are up on my wiki here. Please take a look and either offer feedback here, or edit the wiki directly. I’m not very attached to what I’ve done so far. I’ve put a lot of work into it, but it often takes me years and several times teaching a course before I’m happy with a syllabus. Because this is a first effort, I know it will need work. Please focus on the course outline (i.e. the reading list), I’m fairly happy with the general structure of the course.

Thanks for your help!

23 thoughts on “Teaching Methodology

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  2. These aren’t specific to anthropology by any means, but some works I’ve found very useful in working with undergraduates on qualitative social science methodology are:

    Yin, Robert (2003) Case Study Research: Design and Methods, 3rd ed, Thousand Oaks California: Sage Publications.


    Dey, Ian (1999) Grounding Grounded Theory: Guidelines for Qualiltative Inquiry, San Diego: Academic Press.

    Yin is good for helping undergraduates understand and think about the relationship of the evidence they’re collecting, to the kinds of argumentative claims they’re making. Yin is trained in the natural sciences, and so the work can be a bit positivist in its approach – but also contains a level of clarity often not available in works that are less positivist in their orientation.

    Dey provides a good intro to the “grounded theory” debates and can assist students in thinking about ways in which they might use their qualitative research to develop their own “theoretical” categories. Although I’d be critical of the “grounded theory” paradigm in a number of ways, I still find the book useful for undergraduate teaching…

    I narrowly avoided being tapped on the shoulder for a generic social science methods course myself this past term, and am expecting to have bite the bullet next year, so this is a topic I’m very interested in, as well…

  3. I wonder if other anthros feel as ambivalent as I do about the utility of “methodology” in general. On the one hand, I definitely felt the lack of any sense of method during my own fieldwork (we didn´t get a methods course of any kind before being turned loose). And it would have been nice to have had some kind of formal approach to reference or try out, if for no other reason than to stave off the general feeling of hapless panic the early stages of fieldwork famously induce. I ended up inventing not so much a “methodology” as a “something to do with the endlessly long days” on the fly – a household survey that was of limited utility on its own merits (I asked about use of traditional medicine) but had the advantage of introducing me to everybody in villages that have a meandering layout and in which near neighbors can go for months without paying one another a visit. But these are things I learned later, I couldn´t have incorporated them into a methodological design at the outset, and anyway the interesting bits of fieldwork came long after that formal survey was over.

    But on the other hand, I feel like — it´s a fact about fieldwork that no one approach (or set of approaches) will work in every context, there is no escaping the scariness of getting started, there is no escaping the ongoing weirdness of the enterprise, and — ultimately — the most valuable documents of ethnographic experience are produced by smart sensitive souls possessed of a gift for observation and documentation.

    I actually think the mania for “method” has a lot more to do with the merciless realities of competing for funding than with the enterprise of anthropology as a discipline or an enduring corpus of work. There are so many applicants for any kind of research money that evaluators have no choice but to look for reasons to reject projects, and methodological weaknesses are plausible and documentable grounds for rejection. They also provide a reliable wellspring of quibbles for sholars who haven´t otherwise got anything particularly clever or interesting to say — an attack on “methods” is always a safe manuever, yet another variety of gunboat criticism.

    all of that being said, I do wish I´d been taught how to do two things before going to the field:

    1) how to hand-draw a rough map of landscape features and settlement patterns

    2) something about sketching — just a basic drawing class would have been nice.

  4. It’s not only anthropologists who feel ambivalent… As one of my supervisors has said, there are basically only a few ways we gather information: we listen, we read, or we watch… Unfortunately, my other supervisors do feel that there is more of an… er… method to method…

    Personally, I think there’s often a kind of category mistake (accentuated by a bit of status envy from the social sciences to the natural sciences) in attempts to develop methodologies for qualitative social science research. While there are certainly poor social science methodologies for a particular project – claims not corresponding to the evidence, etc. – qualitative social science really does rely on old fashioned argumentative persuasion…

    I’m in a similar position of being pressed to develop “scientific” questions for a series of interviews I will be conducting when, in reality, I’m actually just using the interviews as an excuse to get to know people, and am relying on my ability to get them to open to me, and on their ability to say something interesting. I’m not planning on generalising from this interview “sample”, since I’m essentially conducting an oral history. But I’ve been asked to develop a type of interview protocol that would be meaningful only if I were planning to generalise or extrapolate from my interview “data” in ways that would not be appropriate to this project… Unfortunately, method can too easily become mantra…

  5. I wonder if other anthros feel as ambivalent as I do about the utility of “methodology” in general.

    If you look at my syllabus you’ll see that I frame the whole course in terms of this abivalence. Here is the first paragraph of the course description:

    In her study of how researchers view their own fieldnotes, Jean Jackson reported, “I found a remarkable amount of negative feeling: my interview transcripts contain an extraordinary number of images of exhaustion, anxiety, inadequacy, disappointment, guilt, confusion, and resentment” (Jackson, 1990:10). This course seeks to explore the tensions in the history, practice, and theory of ethnography which produce such anxiety in its practitioners, as well as seeking to alieviate it by providing hands-on practical training in the ethnographic method. The goal of this course is to produce ethnographers who are confident in all stages of the research process: defining a problem, picking the appropriate investigative methods, writing a research proposal, recording data, and the final analysis of that data.

  6. I suppose I’m in the minority in that I support methods classes, at least in principle. In a perfect world, ethnographic field schools would be open to all anthro students, but otherwise, methods classes are good enough. And if you take a methods class before going on an ethnographic field school (one in which teaching fielwork methods is a specific goal), then you’ve got a great advantage. It’s bad enough feeling lost during your first field experience, but having an idea of what to expect helps tremendously. Plus, if you’re in an ethnographic field school, you’ve also got the psychological reassurance of not being the only one who feels lost.

    Anyway, I nominate Social Research Methods: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches (2000) by H. Russell Bernard, Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications, Inc. as a good textbook for a methods class. It’s what mine used two years ago, and if it wasn’t so big, I would have taken it with me during fieldwork.

    The book is an expansion of a previous textbook by Bernard, Research Methods in Anthropology (1994), so it definitely leans more towards examples from anthropology, but it also mentions classic studies which students in social sciences should know about. It’s in this book that I learned about that classic Yale prison experiment, plus also the one about fake electroshock torture. Those were mentioned in the section on ethics, by the way.

    And the book doesn’t have the traditional anthropological fetishization of participant observation, either. Don’t get me wrong, there’s an entire chapter on participant observation, but interviewing gets two chapters, scales and scaling gets one, and direct and indirect observation also gets one, so you get the sense of good old participant observation as just one of many data collection methods available to researchers. The quantitative section is also useful in reminding us qualitative types that other methods exist, and it’s probably a good idea to at least be familiar with them. Besides, budding archaeologists and physical anthros will definitely need instruction in quantitative methods anyway.

    The book also has this passage which I particularly liked:

    “There is no value-free science. Everything that ineterests you as a potential research focus comes fully equipped with risks to you and to the people you study. In each case, all you can do (and must do) is assess the potential human costs and the potential benefits. And when I say “potential benefits,” I mean to you, personally, not just to humanity through the accumulation of knowledge.

    Don’t hide from the fact that you are interested in your own glory, your own career, your own advancement . . . We have all heard of cases in which a scientist put his or her own career aggrandizement above the health and well-being of others. . . [It] happens when otherwise good, ethical people (1) convince themselves that they are doing something noble for humanity, rather than for themselves; and (2) consequently fool themselves into thinking that justifies their hurting others.”

    Good advice, I’d say. Here’s the table of contents if you want to know more: http://www.sagepub.com/booktoc.aspx?pid=4545&sc=1
    The About Social Science section is actually a discussion of the philosophical background behind social science research — you know, epistemology, positivism, criticisms of positivism, etc. Anyway, I think it’s all good stuff, I can see myself keeping this book with me as I go through anthropology.

  7. Yes, I took the H. Russell Bernard’s book with me to the field and it proved invaluable. In terms of method, the discipline that seems to me to be most worth comparing to anthropology is history — there’s no doubt that it’s rigorous, and that you learn to do it, and some are better than others but historical method is something that is hard to teach.

    On the other hand there are specific methods of gathering information that are valuable and that you do have to be taught — one can fetishize censuses and questionaires, but I think it’s important to have some basic proficiency in putting these things together. Ditto with genealogy and language, which is much simpler if you grok immediately that your folks have an Iroquois system and consider vowel length contrastive.

  8. Interesting to compare the statements (which I don’t question, having no idea about fieldwork myself–I’m a philologist) about the importance of initiatory disorientation and raw, individual interpretive virtuosity with the classic, if irritating, account of anthropological self-fashioning in Clifford’s The Predicament of Culture.

    In Semitic philology we generally feel no methodological problems because nobody cares what we have to say and we are specially trained to produce statements of no general consequence whatsoever; it’s kind of peaceful that way, like owning your own godforsaken island.

  9. If I were asked to teach methodology, two readings that I would certainly include are Howard S. Becker (1998) Tricks of the Trade: How to Think About Your Researchg While You’re Doing It and the essay “Social Dramas and Ritual Metaphors” in Victor Turner (1974) Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society.

    Yes, Becker is a sociologist, but as readers of, say, his Art Worlds know, he could have called himself an anthropologist. What makes the book great is the understated but very sharp intelligence of focusing on “tricks” instead of “methods.” Where the latter suggests recipes that must be followed exactly, the former suggests that confronted with problems in your data, there may be interesting ways to reframe them to produce interesting insights.

    Thus, for example, the book begins with Becker describing his mentor Everett Hughes.

    Huges had no love for abstract Theory. A group of us students once approached him after class, nervously, to ask what he thought about “theory.” He looked at us grumpily and asked, “Theory of what?” He thought that there were theories about specific things, like race and ethnicity or the organization of work, but that there wasn’t any such animal as Theory in general.

    To illustrate Hughes’ approach, Becker takes up the subject of how ethnic groups are defined. Like the good University of Chicago students that Becker and his classmates were, they instantly began to think about traits (physical characteristics, language, religion, etc.) that could be taken as necessary and sufficient conditions for including people as members of a group. Hughes trick was to turn the question on its head and formulate the answer this way.

    An ethnic group is not one because of the degree of measurable or observable difference from other groups; it is an ethnic group, on the contrary, because the people in and the people out of it know that it is one; because both the ins and the outs talk, feel and act as if it were a separate group.

    The trick, as Becker describes it, is “the device of looking for the network in which definitions arise and are used.”

    In five short but eloquent chapters Becker covers 1. Tricks, 2. Imagery, 3. Sampling, 4. Concepts, and 5. Logic, with each topic not only explored abstractly but illustrated with cleverly chosen examples like the one mentioned above.

    The essay by Turner is only one of many in which he muses on the relationship between his Ndembu field data and the ideas he brings to bear on them. I ask people to read it largely because of its opening paragraph,

    In moving from experience of social life to conceptualization and intellectual history, I follow the path of anthropologists almost everywhere. Although we take theories into the field with us, these become relevant only if and when they illuminate social reality. Moreover, we tend to find very frequently that it is not a theorist’s whole system which so illuminates, but his scattered ideas, his flashes of insight taken out of systemic context and applied to scattered data. Such ideas have a virtue of their own and may generate new hypotheses. They even show how scattered facts may be systematically connected! Randomly distributed through some monstrous logical system, they resemble nourishing raisins in a cellular mass of inedible dought. The intuitions, not the tissue of logic connecting them, are what tend to survive in the field experience.”

    I would also recommend, Aristotle on Argumentation
    Nichomachean Ethics, Book I-3.

    Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts. Now fine and just actions, which political science investigates, admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion, so that they may be though to exist only by convention, and not by nature. And goods also give rise to a similar fluctuation because they bring harm to many people; for before now men have been undone by reason of their wealth, and others by reason of their courage. We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premises to indicate the truth roughly and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true and with premises of the same kind to reach conclusions that are no better. In the same spirit, therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand for a rhetorician scientific proofs.

    And, finally, out of sheer vanity, I might ask my students to read my article, “Negotiating with Demons: The Uses of Magical Language,” American Ethnologist, Vol.22, No.1, February 1995, in which I explore the methodological issues confronted in trying to interpret a text, the transcription of a recording of the incantations used by a Taoist healer in performing an exorcism. Like Peter Metcalf in his study of Berawan prayer I want to substantiate my interpretations and build a case that the systems of meaning I discover in my text are more than “symbolic guesses,” the sort of thing that fills journals with cookie-cutter application of the theory of the month to examples chosen to confirm, not challenge, the application in question.

  10. I don’t have my Aristotle at hand, but Rex may be right. That said, I also notice a number of typos, which reminds me to ask Kerim why this blog doesn’t have an edit-after-posting feature like those in Blogger. It would be nice to be able to take a second look and tidy things up.

  11. The Yin and Dey books look interesting. I’m going to take a look at them. Thanks.

    To all the H. Russell Bernard fans: you’ll see that I include him in the syllabus for weeks 6,7, and 8, but I think I’m actually leaning towards the other text I have listed for those weeks:

    DeWalt, Kathleen M., and Billie R. DeWalt. 2002. Participant Observation: a Guide for Fieldworkers. New York: AltaMira Press

    It seems like much of the same information, but better presented.

    Also, I see Bernard’s new book listed on the Sage web site, but the NY Public Library has an older title with exactly the same name by a different author and publisher:

    Neuman, William Lawrence, Social research methods : qualitative and quantitative approaches. Boston : Allyn and Bacon, c1991.

    Funny that. Do you think Sage bought right to the title and then had it re-written? Or just coincidence?

    Rex: I’d forgotten about “Learning how to ask” I have to look at that again. Thanks!

    John: Regarding Becker. Thanks! I’d been looking at his edited volume, “What is a Case?” which I’m using. But I didn’t know about “Tricks of the Trade” which looks very interesting. Unfortunately it isn’t at the library so I’ll have to hunt it down.

    Thanks everybody, and please keep them coming if you have any suggestions. What I’d really like are some better texts that discuss the epistemological basis of the ethnographic method in a short, concise, way.

  12. Amazon.com lists “The Craft of Research” out of Chicago as a suggested title when looking up Becker’s book. Looking at the description it seems like something I probably won’t use, but which I would want to recommend to my students as a “suggested reading” – especially useful for non-traditional students who might have less experience doing academic research and/or writing academic papers.

  13. The De Walt one was the textbook for the field school I did (at a different school from the one I attended). I only skimmed parts of it since I’d already read the Bernard and it seemed to be pretty much the same thing.

    About Week 10 and Cyberethnography, my own research involves exactly that topic, I’ll post my reading list sometime between now and Monday. What months are your articles in Anthropology News from?

  14. “Craft of Research” by Booth et. al. is really about how to write undergraduate research papers (although it is a great book). Also I forgot “The Art of Fieldwork” by Wolcott, which contains the all-important chapter “Being in the field is NOT the same as actually DOING fieldwork.”

    Robbins Burling’s “Learning a Field Language” is great if you do research in an area where no one has produced grammar/dictionaries.

    Finally, I took a copy of Notes and Queries to the field with me — you laugh but now I know the names of all the different parts of a bow and how to fire one. So there.

  15. Well, I just added in part of my reading list to your wiki. You’ll note that I didn’t specify which Monday I was referring to. Connected to the Wikipedia discussion, I would have never done something like this for Wikipedia because I feel no connection to it, nor do I like the idea of people who know less than me screwing around with my words.

  16. Oh, and you might consider adding how to do presentations somewhere in your course. It seems odd, but if you think about it, eventually every researcher will end up having to present their research, and you’d better make sure your students won’t present like crap, as a service to future audience members.

    My methods course had one or two classes about presentations with a section on how to do Powerpoint presentations correctly (i.e., not boring). Those classes ensured that I didn’t fall asleep during any of our end of year presentations, despite it being an evening class and despite me falling asleep in other evening classes.

  17. Kerim, I’ve been trying to take out the Riles reference in your Cyberethnography section because I’ve decided it doesn’t really belong, but my edit doesn’t seem to save. All I get is the preview page. Anyway, maybe you can just take it out yourself.

  18. Jesse, that seems to be a bug with Firefox and the latest version of MediaWiki. Try logging out, clearing your cache, and then logging back in again. Or using a different browser. I’m also happy to fix it myself when I get a chance.

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