Anthropologists use various methodologies in the aim of understanding different lives and cultures. Which methodology used is dependant on what the anthropologist wishes to achieve. Ethnography is a popular and successful methodology with Sociocultural Anthropologists as it is the direct study of culture and society through interaction and immersion in a society via fieldwork. Ethnographers seek to dispel ignorance about a culture through asking for assistance from the people who belong to it (Handwerker, quoted in Fetterman 1988: 4).
When planned and conducted correctly ethnography can provide an invaluable and wonderful amount of insight into other cultures. Many ethnographic reports describe the success and failure of fieldwork. A great deal note the success of ethnographic research is dependent on the level of community acceptance achieved by the anthropologist. Karim suggests that acceptance into a community is required so that the community is not “tainted with misconceptions” (1993: 89) and act in a way they assume is expected by the anthropologist1.
Rasmussen & Warren (2001: 21) indicate that first impressions are essential to community acceptance and the quality and type of data collected by the anthropologist. A combination of an anthropologist’s appearance, characteristics, age, experience, gender and the current political climate are influences that may effect the first impression an anthropologist has on a community, thus inadvertently affecting the process of the research (Golde: 2). Gender is a strong influence as all communities consist of two sexes, male and female, and all have expectations and views of appropriate behaviour and appearance in relation to it.
Difficulties in community acceptance occur when an “outsider” contradicts these expectations and/or experience has led the community to gender association. In 1957 Laura Nada conducted her first fieldwork research in Mexico with her base camp at San Miguel Talea de Castro. After two weeks of residing in their community, the people of Talea accused Nader of being a “Protestant missionary” (2001: 6) for the sole reason she was a white, woman, thus limiting her interaction with them. Previously the only white, females the people of Talea had been exposed to were missionaries with whom they had experienced negative encounters.
Bell also experienced gender association in her 1976 research as she realised she was not always welcome by the local advisers in Australian Aboriginal village communities, “especially meddling women and women libbers” (2001: 90). These comments demonstrate the political climate of the 1970’s with the introduction of the Women’s Movement and the perception associated with Bell as a female divorcee with two children conducting research in the field. Today there are many female anthropologists where as in the past it was dominantly a male discipline.
Depending on gender, the style and subject matter of ethnographic reports appear to differ. This raises the questions – Can there be gender-neutral ethnographers? Can one ethnographer generalise that all of a society thinks and acts in a certain way? Some anthropologists believe women are more successful ethnographers than men as they are more people or social orientated and their perceived “vulnerability” is less of a threat than that of a male (Golde 1970; Nader 2001; Rasmussen & Warren 2001).
Bell (2001: 92) believes the success is more associated with assimilation between the female ethnographer and female community members. She found community women to be patient and more accepting to teach an “outsider” whom they can relate to than one they could not. When researching at nudist beaches Rasmussen and Warren realised that assimilation was “something that anthropologists need to be aware of in the field” (2001: 23). Rasmussen’s female field partner, Flannigan, was able to converse more effectively with other women about “female secret sexual interests” (2001: 25) than Rasmussen as he was a man.
Assimilation can happen in a number of ways not necessarily only gender, for example, age, marital status, employment and the number of children one has. Bell found herself assimilating on a number of levels with Australian Aboriginal women, as she was female and a single mother of two children when conducting her research. Besides the sharing of childbirth experiences and dealings with husbands, the aboriginal women assimilated with Bell as she was in receipt of a single mother’s pension that was familiar to them and was a respectable category for women.
The women also trusted Bell with their secrets, as seeing she was divorced she did not have to report to man who would ask about her daily activities (2001: 91). Limitations confront some anthropologists when they attempt to obtain information from the opposite sex. Abramson believes his difficulty to learn the “ways” of Fijian married women was due to cultural restrictions in relation to his gender (1993: 71). He obtained information about their role through their “husbands and fathers voice” (1993: 73).
Another example, in c. 974, due to Warren’s gender, she was not able to access certain “meeting places” of gay men in her research on the “secret gay male world” (Rasmussen & Warren, 2001: 25) which restricted her research. She also attributes this restriction to the non-sexual attraction between the gay men and herself and believes the research would have been easier for a young, attractive male (Rasmussen & Warren, 2001). Sexual attraction can be “used as a strategy, in obtaining access or data” (Rasmussen & Warren, 2001: 26); it may inhibit it or facilitate it.
Sexual attraction can lead to the perception that an anthropologist is a threat or a prize (Rasmussen & Warren: 2001). Rasmussen observed in this Massage Parlour research that the massage parlour owners, the masseuses’ boyfriends and husbands perceived him as a threat where as the masseuses’ saw his physique, youth and single marital status a prize (2001: 24). Rasmussen’s status as a “prize” enabled him to obtain more information off the female masseuses than the males involved in the massage parlours.
As part of Rasmussen’s nude beach research, his young, attractive female team member, Flanigan, and he interviewed a number of couples. On many occasions when they interviewed a couple, the female partner would become jealous of Flanigan and therefore lacked in cooperation (Rasmussen & Warren: 2001). With the increase of age, sexual attraction diminishes thus the threat/prize association diminishes as age implies a decrease in the interest of sex and desirability but it may attract a greater status and power within a community (Golde: 6).
In both large and small-scale societies, differences will continue in the division of male and female labour, which will influence areas of ethnographic research. An anthropologist develops certain biases due to experiences and education that reflects in and influences, at times unwittingly, their research (Agar, 1980: 99), including their own perception of gender equality. This is demonstrated when Karim (1993: 86) unexpectedly found herself researching a non “engendered” society and discovered she was not used to sexual equality and experienced difficulty accepting it.
As men and women have different values and behaviour, depending on their “identity”, I believe it is impossible for a gender-neutral ethnographer to exist. In my opinion, anthropologists are able to produce more accurate and informative reports when researching their own sex due mainly to assimilation and recognition of gender restrictions. According to Morgan (1981, quoted in Black, n. d. 993: 218) an anthropologist’s gender restricts them in certain situations due to cultural reasons pertaining to their sex and should be viewed as an advantage, not a hindrance, in researching specific areas. Many generalisations exist about communities and their members. Evans-Pritchard’s writings on the Azunde people of Africa are an example of this generalisation. These writings portray Evan-Pritchard’s generalised opinion of the Azunde’s, not necessarily that of all the Azunde community (Moore, 2002).
Black suggests that male ethnographers need to learn from female ethnographers’ methodology and for their reports to “move beyond” (1993: 215) telling stories and folklore. In my opinion, the way to curtail this generalisation is for anthropologists to restrict their ethnographic research to areas that they are able to access without any limitations. Thus, until there is equal equality in differing societies or written research results are “moved beyond story telling” and state the facts there will be gender orientated ethnographers and generalisation.