How to Define ‘Good’ Ethnography Fieldwork

There are several fundamental aspects related to how to define a ‘good’ ethnographic fieldwork. Each scholar might have different criteria for this issue. For example, Joseph-Marie Degérando explained that a good ethnographic fieldwork primarily requires some methods such as collecting facts and make comparisons in order to gain a better understanding of what we observe. Furthermore, he also argued that ethnographer should not only focus on collecting physical cultural material while gathering data to explain needs, ideas, and habits of a cultural group remain important for a research. To have a proper skill to collect field data is an essential requirement, but to analyze these data is no less important.

Degérando criticized previous studies, which were mainly done by explorer rather than scholars that they were neglecting a generous intention when they observed a new culture that they have found. He also mentioned cruel intentions that have been done by turning these ‘savage peoples’ into slaves, robbed their belongings, or taking them only for these explorer’s benefits. They were interested in discovering new countries rather than to understand them. Degérando further argued that they tended to be biased in understanding these cultures and also try to compare it with their own European society. These attitudes will result not only in biased interpretation, but also in a totally wrong conclusion.

These mistreatments were being worsened by their superficial manner when they were doing observation alongside with a lack of holistic approach. By spending only a brief of time on observation, we will have an incomplete result especially when we only give attention to partial things in the field. Accordingly, too specific attention on observation prevents us to have a good generalization. Additionally, ethnographers should also maintain a sequential order in observing and making interpretation. For example, it is better to start in observing individuals then move into a group or society rather than to do it in reverse. Moreover, to understand how these cultures using their languages such as knowing their grammar and idioms should help us to avoid incorrect interpretation. Degérando insisted that we will never have a proper observation except we are capable in using their languages, therefore, we can communicate sufficiently and also can act like them in order to understand how they live their culture.

Meanwhile, Franz Boas criticized the common law that agreed at that time that the development of civilization is universal and applicable everywhere. Similar with Degérando, Boas said it is incorrect to compare European modern context with another civilization or culture. Additionally, he did not agree with the argument that said cultural development is primarily influenced by migration and diffusion. As American scholars, he suggested that ethnographers should turn their attention to examine the dynamic of cultural changes rather than to try to make a formulaic historical solution for the society. Therefore, a detailed investigation is a crucial factor in this attempt. This idea came from his assumption that the culture merely lives in a flux state because it is changing in a certain period of time. Previous scholars tend to see cultures as a fix state.

Boas also suggested us to consider each culture as unique, partly influenced by outside factors but also affected by internal dynamics of its own social groups. To understand a culture, we should focus on present time to explore changes within the society. However, he argued that all evidence of changes could only be obtained by inferring it from indirect methods. These methods are basically based on comparison of static phenomena combined with the study of their distribution.

Similarly with those two scholars, Malinowski criticized ethnographers who focused on collecting physical material. Although these concrete materials could provide information, it is more important to understand how members of a cultural group think and behave. It will never tolerable to create a distance from the culture we study. In reverse, we have to stay close with them. Therefore, to master their language and also to know how asking appropriate questions and understanding the answers remain significant. Moreover, to be familiar with theories is always useful to interpret the situation but it should not totally control our perspective within the field research.

Malinowski underlined the principle of “embrace the spirit of the natives” while also warned us to keep the scientific aim while doing the fieldwork. To be able to observe sufficiently, we should be able to adopt how the native lives and if possible we also fashioned like them. Additionally, as a researcher we should never be passive and waiting for the data come to us. In contrary, an ethnographer will always active to hunt any important information alongside with the ability to make adjustment and fixing his or her evidence. Therefore, to gather important data is a fundamental factor, while at the same time it is also important to avoid irrelevant information. Finally, Malinowski reminded us that the basic purpose of ethnographic fieldwork is to be able to create a description of social construction. To gain a better understanding of a culture or other social phenomenon through fieldwork is never an easy task, but at the same time it also offers a challenge and adventure to jump into a whole ‘new world’ for us.

However, there are several questions remained related to ethnography fieldwork just like what have discussed above. If we are recommended to become a native, is it possible to remove our own cultural identity? Moreover, how can we guarantee that our writing and interpretation will remove our personal bias? I also wonder if we should reveal our original purpose when we approach the natives during our research while at the same time I am afraid that it may bring them to build barriers and become suspicious with ethnographer’s presence. These questions made fieldwork seems problematic for me to some extents.


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