Friday, April 01, 2005

Chapter One of The Ethnographic Interview (Spradley, 1979)

The culture concept comes down to behavior patterns associated with particular groups of people, that is to 'customs' or to a people's 'way of life' (Marvin Harris). This behavior patterns, customs, and a people's way of life can all be defined, interpreted, and decribed from more than one perspective. That is why to gain the native's (insider's) point of view is crucial. This shared system of meaning is learned, revised, maintained, and defined in the context of people interacting.

Culture as a system of meaningful symbols has much in common with Symbolic Interactionism (a theory which seeks to explain human behavior in terms of meanings). Facts that this theory plays on are:
#1. Human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them.
#2. Meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with one's fellows.
#3. Meanings are handled in, and modified through, and interpretive process used by the person dealing with the things he encounters.

What do ethnographers do? Making cultural inferences.
Because culture cannot be observed directly, we need to "get inside their heads" by observing other people, listening to them, and then making inferences (efforts to arrive to a logical conclusion of reasons from factual evidence). The evidence derived from what people say, the way people act, and the artifacts people use.

How to do it?
We start by outlining a hypothesis (from initial interview) and test it over and over again to be certain a particular system of cultural meaning is shared by these people. It's not generalization because each person may have different attitude towards one cultural meaning in the system. E.g. the act of surveillance in the kampongs (example provided by Dr Thompson) one person may find it as the benefit of living in such a close-knit society, but another may hate it. The theory (findings/result) is built from the ground up.

What to find?
The initially aimless interviews, will take its shape as new information adds in. Explicit cultural knowledge is easy to find because it's usually expressed in a direct manner. The challenge is to learn about the tacit cultural knowledge. Just as Malinowski said: we cannot expect to obtain a definite, precise and abstract statement from a philosopher, belonging to the community itself. The native takes his fundamental assumptions for granted. E.g. the way a cook does certain routine (example provided by Dr Rao) as his inexplainable trick to do the traditional dishes his mother used to do. He never realized he needed to do such manouver on the dough until an observant asked him why he did so.

What is ethnography for? Systematic understanding.
Comparative work in anthropology could be ruined if you impose Western concepts into non-Western cultures. To describe and explain the regularities and variations in human social behavior that provides people with a way of seeing the world. But to learn other people's culture we are usually imprisoned by our own taken-for-granted reality and be "culture-bound". Therefore before you impose your theories on the people you study, find out how these people define the world! Forget your assumption that in this day and age the world is a melting pot.. because we do not share a homogeneous culture.


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