Anthropological Musings

Hello again ladies and gents. This is my first topic starter, and it’s related to our class discussion today about Luker, anthropology and participant observation. One of the most interesting subjects Luker touches on is the idea of trust in anthropological methods. This reminded me of a study conducted by famed anthropologist Margaret Mead. Her classic anthopological study Coming of Age in Samoa involved both participant observation and interviews, but also the building of relationships and trust. Mead lived in a Samoan village of about 600 people for her study, and got to know people very well. She concluded that Samoan girls transitioned into adulthood with relatively little turmoil (compared to American girls) because they had strong rolemodels and belonged to a community where they were well educated about sexuality, bodily functions, and death. She claimed that Samoan girls were free to explore their sexuality until they settled down and married later on. This quite shocked the American public when her study was first published. Mead’s work was later criticized by Derek Freeman, who returned to the Samoan village she lived in and concluded that her research was based on falsehoods. He even wrote a book attacking her findings, Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth.

However, Freeman’s work was also criticized, because his evidence was based on interviewing the same women Mead had spoken to years earlier. These women were now mothers and grandmothers, who had converted to Christianity in the meantime. Freeman’s critics argued that this conversion and the adoption of American cultural practices had changed Samoan life to the point that it was relatively incomparable to the culture Mead had lived in previously. Others pointed out that Freeman’s gender (male) could have made the female participants hesitant to tell him truths about sexuality that they had been willing to reveal to Margaret Mead, because she was female but also because she had spent time earning their trust, and was of a similar age to them.

I think this tale illustrates the issue of trust and participant observation. It seems to me that Margaret Mead’s approach was to surround herself in the culture and even make friends with the Samoan girls who were the “subjects” of her study. Freeman’s work was later criticized more thoroughly, with some scholars suggesting he had some kind of personal vendetta against Mead.

Can you think of other examples, from Anthropology or other fields, where these issues of trust/gender/participation might have effected the outcomes of studies? I think this is a really interesting topic to navigate, and hope you’ll join me in discussing it.

-Katherine Laite

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3 thoughts on “Anthropological Musings

  1. Hey Katherine,

    Thanks for an excellent post- this is a fascinating subject. While I was reading your summary, I was thinking about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, http://www.trc.ca and the various issues faced in regards to the collection of data through research, interviews and participation observations. TRC’s aim is one of healing, and it is understandable how trust can be a serious matter in this process. This is an example where research must be conducted carefully, ethically, and in a way where the participants are able to express themselves and the way they see things- openly. Similar to your example of Mead and the Samoan girls, in order to gain results, there must be no threat of harm.
    Knight (p. 170) provides twelve tips to building relationships of trust which is irrefutably necessary in the design and implementation of research involving human participants. They all are pretty straight forward- but one point is made that I would like to pitch to my fellow bloggers:
    Can you only gain “real trust” by being, or becoming accepted as an insider? Katherine’s example of Mead would suggest so, but inclusion is not always possible. So what do you think? Is all research askew if researchers are not insiders?

  2. Hi Kait! Thanks for the reply! It is a really interesting topic, for sure, and Knight’s tips on p. 170 are interesting. I think the question you’ve asked is very appropriate. I can’t help but wonder about researchers who study animals. In this case, is it always even possible for a human to become an insider? I’m wondering about Jane Goodall. Her wikipedia page claims that she was “the only human ever accepted into chimpanzee society” but I’m not so sure how that claim could be verified!

    After all, how can we ever really understand if a troupe of chimpanzees truly accepted her, or merely tolerated her presence? Even if they did accept her and trust her, did they think of her like themselves? Ie; as another chimpanzee. I won’t pretend to have the answers, nor do I think I know more about chimp society than Jane Goodall does! I just think your question is a great one when applied to human research projects, but especially when considered in cases of animal/human interactions! After all, is it ever possible to get an animal’s informed consent – which is #1 on Knight’s suggestions (p.170). And to what extent can a human really “blend in” as an animal? (#11 on Knight’s list). I guess these things have been on my mind since the Theory, Practice, and Praxis conference last weekend, where I participated in the Animal Roundtable! It was a really interesting discussion, and fits in well with anthropological musings. I think it will continue to be a fascinating side debate for a long time, especially as we learn more about animal behaviour. For example, there are some researchers now who suggest that orca whales have culture just as advanced and complex as humans. If you’re interested in reading more about this, please see:

    Rendell, Luke, and Hal Whitehead (2001). “Culture in whales and dolphins”. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 24 (2): 309–324.

    – Katherine

  3. Hi Katherine,

    An interesting thought about the animals- I’ve only just seen your comment now.
    I would agree with your reflection on Knight- but I suppose to be an insider you need to gain the trust of those you study- (Knight, p. 170), and I think Goodall was able to do that, don’t you? Do you think that counts?
    As for her research, does it even need to be verified? Goodall was able to make assumptions of a population in predictable ways.
    Just some last minute musings, all the best.

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