Culture shock and ethnocentrism

Culture shock and ethnocentrism may also stand in the way of ethnographers. Culture shock is a state of anxiety that results from cross-cultural misunderstanding. Immersed alone in another society, the ethnographer understands few of the cultur- ally defined rules for behavior and interpretation used by his or her hosts. The result is anxiety about proper action and an inability to interact appropriately in the new context.

Ethnocentrism can be just as much of a liability. Ethnocentrism is the belief and feeling that one’s own culture is best. It reflects our tendency to judge other peo- ple’s beliefs and behavior using values of our own native culture. Thus if we come from a society that abhors painful treatment of animals, we are likely to react with anger when an Indian villager hits a dog with a rock. Our feeling is ethnocentric.

It is impossible to rid ourselves entirely of the cultural values that make us eth- nocentric when we do ethnography. But it is important to control our ethnocentric feeling in the field if we are to learn from informants. Informants resent negative judgment.

Finally, the role assigned to ethnographers by informants affects the quality of what can be learned. Ethnography is a personal enterprise, as all the articles in this section illustrate. Unlike survey research using questionnaires or short interviews, ethnography requires prolonged social contact. Informants will assign the ethnogra- pher some kind of role and what that turns out to be will affect research.

The selections in Part One illustrate several points about culture and ethnogra- phy. The first piece, by the late James Spradley, takes a close look at the concept of culture and its role in ethnographic research. The second, by Richard Lee, illustrates how a simple act of giving can have a dramatically different cultural meaning in two societies, leading to cross-cultural misunderstanding. In the third selection, Claire Sterk describes how she conducted ethnographic field research under difficult cir- cumstances. She sought to learn the culture of prostitutes working in New York City and Atlanta as part of a broader research interest in the spread and control of AIDS. The fourth article, by George Gmelch, explores how naive realism nearly ended a student’s field research in Barbados.

Key Terms

P A R T O N E Culture and Ethnography 5

culture p. 2 culture shock p. 5 detached observers p. 4 ethnocentrism p. 5 ethnography p. 3 explicit culture p. 3

informant p. 4 microcultures p. 4 naive realism p. 4 respondent p. 4 subject p. 4 tacit culture p. 3


1 Ethnography and Culture James P. Spradley

Most Americans associate science with detached observation; we learn to observe what- ever we wish to understand, introduce our own classification of what is going on, and ex- plain what we see in our own terms. In this selection, James Spradley argues that cultural anthropologists work differently. Ethnography is the work of discovering and describing a particular culture; culture is the learned, shared knowledge that people use to generate be- havior and interpret experience. To get at culture, ethnographers must learn the meanings of action and experience from the insider’s or informant’s point of view. Many of the exam- ples used by Spradley also show the relevance of anthropology to the study of culture in the United States.*

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Ethnographic fieldwork is the hallmark of cultural anthropology. Whether in a jun- gle village in Peru or on the streets of New York, the anthropologist goes to where peo- ple live and “does fieldwork.” This means participating in activities, asking questions,

* “Ethnography and Culture” from Participant Observation by James P. Spradley. Copyright © 1980 by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Barbara Spradley.

C H A P T E R 1 Ethnography and Culture 7

eating strange foods, learning a new language, watching ceremonies, taking field notes, washing clothes, writing letters home, tracing out genealogies, observing play, interviewing informants, and hundreds of other things. This vast range of ac- tivities often obscures the nature of the most fundamental task of all fieldwork: doing ethnography.

Ethnography is the work of describing a culture. The central aim of ethnography is to understand another way of life from the native point of view. The goal of ethnography, as Malinowski put it, is “to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world.” 1 Fieldwork, then, involves the disciplined study of what the world is like to people who have learned to see, hear, speak, think, and act in ways that are dif- ferent. Rather than studying people, ethnography means learning from people. Consider the following illustration.

George Hicks set out, in 1965, to learn about another way of life, that of the moun- tain people in an Appalachian valley. 2 His goal was to discover their culture, to learn to see the world from their perspective. With his family he moved into Little Laurel Valley, his daughter attended the local school, and his wife became one of the local Girl Scout leaders. Hicks soon discovered that stores and storekeepers were at the center of the val- ley’s communication system, providing the most important social arena for the entire valley. He learned this by watching what other people did, by following their example, and slowly becoming part of the groups that congregated daily in the stores. He writes:

At least once each day I would visit several stores in the valley, and sit in on the groups of gossiping men or, if the storekeeper happened to be alone, perhaps attempt to clear up puzzling points about kinship obligations. I found these hours, particularly those spent in the presence of the two or three excellent storytellers in the Little Laurel, thoroughly enjoyable. . . . At other times, I helped a number of local men gather corn or hay, build sheds, cut trees, pull and pack galax, and search for rich stands of huckleberries. When I needed aid in, for example, repairing frozen water pipes, it was readily and cheerfully provided. 3

In order to discover the hidden principles of another way of life, the researcher must become a student. Storekeepers and storytellers and local farmers become teach- ers. Instead of studying the “climate,” the “flora,” and the “fauna” that made up the environment of this Appalachian valley, Hicks tried to discover how these mountain people defined and evaluated trees and galax and huckleberries. He did not attempt to describe social life in terms of what most Americans know about “marriage,” “family,” and “friendship”; instead he sought to discover how these mountain people identified relatives and friends. He tried to learn the obligations they felt toward kinsmen and discover how they felt about friends. Discovering the insider’s view is a different spe- cies of knowledge from one that rests mainly on the outsider’s view, even when the outsider is a trained social scientist.

Consider another example, this time from the perspective of a non- Western eth- nographer. Imagine an Inuit woman setting out to learn the culture of Macalester Col- lege. What would she, so well schooled in the rich heritage of Inuit culture, have to do

1 Bronislaw Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (London: Routledge, 1922), p. 22.

2 George Hicks, Appalachian Valley (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1976).

3 Hicks, p. 3.

8 P A R T O N E Culture and Ethnography

in order to understand the culture of Macalester College students, faculty, and staff? How would she discover the patterns that made up their lives? How would she avoid imposing Inuit ideas, categories, and values on everything she saw?

First, and perhaps most difficult, she would have to set aside her belief in naive realism, the almost universal belief that all people define the real world of objects, events, and living creatures in pretty much the same way. Human languages may differ from one society to the next, but behind the strange words and sentences, all people are talking about the same things. The naive realist assumes that love, snow, marriage, worship, animals, death, food, and hundreds of other things have essen- tially the same meaning to all human beings. Although few of us would admit to such ethnocentrism, the assumption may unconsciously influence our research. Ethnog- raphy starts with a conscious attitude of almost complete ignorance: “I don’t know how the people at Macalester College understand their world. That remains to be discovered.”

This Inuit woman would have to begin by learning the language spoken by stu- dents, faculty, and staff. She could stroll the campus paths, sit in classes, and attend special events, but only if she consciously tried to see things from the native point of view would she grasp their perspective. She would need to observe and listen to first- year students during their week-long orientation program. She would have to stand in line during registration, listen to students discuss the classes they hoped to get, and visit departments to watch faculty advising students on course selection. She would want to observe secretaries typing, janitors sweeping, and maintenance personnel plowing snow from walks. She would watch the more than 1,600 students crowd into the post office area to open their tiny mailboxes, and she would listen to their com- ments about junk mail and letters from home or no mail at all. She would attend fac- ulty meetings to watch what went on, recording what professors and administrators said and how they behaved. She would sample various courses, attend “keggers” on weekends, read the Mac Weekly, and listen by the hour to students discussing things like their “relationships,” the “football team,” and “work study.” She would want to learn the meanings of all these things. She would have to listen to the members of this college community, watch what they did, and participate in their activities to learn such meanings.

The essential core of ethnography is this concern with the meaning of actions and events to the people we seek to understand. Some of these meanings are directly expressed in language; many are taken for granted and communicated only indirectly through word and action. But in every society people make constant use of these com- plex meaning systems to organize their behavior, to understand themselves and oth- ers, and to make sense out of the world in which they live. These systems of meaning constitute their culture; ethnography always implies a theory of culture.


When ethnographers study other cultures, they must deal with three fundamental aspects of human experience: what people do, what people know, and the things peo- ple make and use. When each of these is learned and shared by members of some group, we speak of them as cultural behavior, cultural knowledge, and cultural arti- facts. Whenever you do ethnographic fieldwork, you will want to distinguish among these three, although in most situations they are usually mixed together. Let’s try to unravel them.

C H A P T E R 1 Ethnography and Culture 9

Recently I took a commuter train from a western suburb to downtown Chicago. It was late in the day, and when I boarded the train, only a handful of people were scattered about the car. Each was engaged in a common form of cultural behavior: reading. Across the aisle a man held the Chicago Tribune out in front of him, looking intently at the small print and every now and then turning the pages noisily. In front of him a young woman held a paperback book about twelve inches from her face. I could see her head shift slightly as her eyes moved from the bottom of one page to the top of the next. Near the front of the car a student was reading a large textbook and using a pen to underline words and sentences. Directly in front of me I noticed a man looking at the ticket he had purchased and reading it. It took me an instant to survey this scene, and then I settled back, looked out the window, and read a billboard advertisement for a plumbing service proclaiming it would open any plugged drains. All of us were engaged in the same kind of cultural behavior: reading.

This common activity depended on a great many cultural artifacts, the things people shape or make from natural resources. I could see artifacts like books and tickets and newspapers and billboards, all of which contained tiny black marks arranged into intricate patterns called “letters.” And these tiny artifacts were ar- ranged into larger patterns of words, sentences, and paragraphs. Those of us on that commuter train could read, in part, because of still other artifacts: the bark of trees made into paper; steel made into printing presses; dyes of various colors made into ink; glue used to hold book pages together; large wooden frames to hold billboards. If an ethnographer wanted to understand the full cultural meaning in our society, it would involve a careful study of these and many other cultural artifacts.

Although we can easily see behavior and artifacts, they represent only the thin surface of a deep lake. Beneath the surface, hidden from view, lies a vast reservoir of cultural knowledge. Think for a moment what the people on that train needed to know in order to read. First, they had to know the grammatical rules for at least one language. Then they had to learn what the little marks on paper represented. They also had to know the meaning of space and lines and pages. They had learned cultural rules like “move your eyes from left to right, from the top of the page to the bottom.” They had to know that a sentence at the bottom of a page continues on the top of the next page. The man reading a newspaper had to know a great deal about columns and the spaces between columns and what headlines mean. All of us needed to know what kinds of messages were intended by whoever wrote what we read. If a person cannot distinguish the importance of a message on a billboard from one that comes in a letter from a spouse or child, problems would develop. I knew how to recognize when other people were reading. We all knew it was impo- lite to read aloud on a train. We all knew how to feel when reading things like jokes or calamitous news in the paper. Our culture has a large body of shared knowledge that people learn and use to engage in this behavior called reading and make proper use of the artifacts connected with it.

Although cultural knowledge is hidden from view, it is of fundamental impor- tance because we all use it constantly to generate behavior and interpret our expe- rience. Cultural knowledge is so important that I will frequently use the broader term culture when speaking about it. Indeed, I will define culture as the acquired knowledge people use to interpret experience and generate behavior. Let’s consider another example to see how people use their culture to interpret experience and do things.

10 P A R T O N E Culture and Ethnography

One afternoon in 1973 I came across the following news item in the Minneapolis Tribune:

Crowd Mistakes Rescue Attempt, Attacks Police Nov. 23, 1973. Hartford, Connecticut. Three policemen giving a heart massage and oxygen to a heart attack victim Friday were attacked by a crowd of 75 to 100 persons who appar- ently did not realize what the policemen were doing.

Other policemen fended off the crowd of mostly Spanish-speaking residents until an ambulance arrived. Police said they tried to explain to the crowd what they were do- ing, but the crowd apparently thought they were beating the woman.

Despite the policemen’s efforts the victim, Evangelica Echevacria, 59, died.

Here we see people using their culture. Members of two different groups ob- served the same event, but their interpretations were drastically different. The crowd used their cultural knowledge (a) to interpret the behavior of the policemen as cruel and (b) to act on the woman’s behalf to put a stop to what they perceived as brutality. They had acquired the cultural principles for acting and interpreting things in this way through a particular shared experience.

The policemen, on the other hand, used their cultural knowledge (a) to interpret the woman’s condition as heart failure and their own behavior as a life-saving effort and (b) to give her cardiac massage and oxygen. They used artifacts like an oxygen mask and an ambulance. Furthermore, they interpreted the actions of the crowd in an entirely different manner from how the crowd saw their own behavior. The two groups of people each had elaborate cultural rules for interpreting their experience and for acting in emergency situations, and the conflict arose, at least in part, because these cultural rules were so different.

We can now diagram this definition of culture and see more clearly the rela- tionships among knowledge, behavior, and artifacts ( Figure 1 ). By identifying cultural knowledge as fundamental, we have merely shifted the emphasis from behavior and artifacts to their meaning. The ethnographer observes behavior but goes beyond it to inquire about the meaning of that behavior. The ethnographer sees artifacts and natu- ral objects but goes beyond them to discover what meanings people assign to these objects. The ethnographer observes and records emotional states but goes beyond them to discover the meaning of fear, anxiety, anger, and other feelings.

As represented in Figure 1, cultural knowledge exists at two levels of conscious- ness. Explicit culture makes up part of what we know, a level of knowledge people can communicate about with relative ease. When George Hicks asked storekeepers and others in Little Laurel Valley about their relatives, he discovered that any adult over fifty could tell him the genealogical connections among large numbers of peo- ple. They knew how to trace kin relationships and the cultural rules for appropriate behavior among kins. All of us have acquired large areas of cultural knowledge such as this, which we can talk about and make explicit.

At the same time, a large portion of our cultural knowledge remains tacit, out- side our awareness. Edward Hall has done much to elucidate the nature of tacit cultural knowledge in his books The Silent Language and The Hidden Dimension. 4 The way each culture defines space often occurs at the level of tacit knowledge. Hall points out that all of us have acquired thousands of spatial cues about how close to

4 Edward T. Hall, The Silent Language (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959); The Hidden Dimension (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966).

C H A P T E R 1 Ethnography and Culture 11

stand to others, how to arrange furniture, when to touch others, and when to feel cramped inside a room. Without realizing that our tacit culture is operating, we be- gin to feel uneasy when someone from another culture stands too close, breathes on us when talking, touches us, or when we find furniture arranged in the center of the room rather than around the edges. Ethnography is the study of both explicit and tacit cultural knowledge. . . .

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