Archive for the ‘Course-related’ Category

My Anthro 320 students will be excited to see that we have a speaker coming to campus with amazing timing (again!).

Professor Matthew J. Liebmann, will speak broadly about anthropological views of religion, and specifically about the role of charismatic leadership in the history of Native American religion, with a case study drawing on his archaeological research on Pueblo Indian cultural revitalization in 17th Century New Mexico. You can view Matt’s bio by clicking here:

You can hear Dr. Liebman at the  Mauthe Center on Tuesday, December 6 at 7 p.m.

“Golden States of Grace: Prayers of the Disinherited” at the St. Norbert art gallery inside the Bush Art Center. This exhibit captures moments of worship and other spiritual moments of 11 different types of marginal religious communities in California (For example, Muslims formerly from Cambodia whose family and friends were victims of genocide in the 1970′s; an ashram mainly for people with HIV; a Buddhist program for prisoners, etc.). This exhibition runs until October 22nd but the gallery is only open on weekdays from 9:00-3:00, so it may be hard for some of you to get a chance to see the exhibit. But if you can make it, it will be well worth your time. The photographer, Rick Nahmias, also has a book based on the exhibit with the same title “Golden States of Grace”, which is probably available at the St. Norbert bookstore.



   Posted by: Jill White

In my course, 342 Cross-Cultural Human Development, students have the opportunity to engage in a couple of different kinds of qualitative research.  They can conduct life-history interviews or they can do participant-observation while providing service to a local organization.  I love these assignments because they are interesting to read (the students turn in narratives of their interviews and/or fieldnotes several times during the semester) and they provide opportunities to learn the material of the course in ways that far surpass any reading or in-class assignment I could ever devise. 

I just find myself wishing, sometimes, that there were more opportunities like this spread out over more time, so that students could build on the skills they pick up.  There is only so much you can do in one semester, right?  I mean, when I think about my own experience, and all the mistakes I needed to make in order to learn what I now know about how to get fieldnotes that will be usable – or how to set up an interview such that I’ll be able to ask the questions I most want the answers to . . . well, it took more than a couple of tries. 

On the other hand, I don’t want to issue a bunch more “directives”; ethnography is something you need to feel out, to a certain degree, on your own.  In attempting to find a middle way, I thought perhaps an occasional post here might be the answer.  Maybe we could even get a discussion going – perhaps some of those in graduate school out there would join us? – about what works and what doesn’t. 


So here is the first recommendation: Describe what you see. 

 Sounds simple, but let’s unpack it.

  • Whenever you want to say someone “seemed” sad, happy, excited, etc., ask yourself why you think so.  You are seeing something that gives you that idea.  Describe that.  What expressions, gestures, behaviors, etc. gave you the impression of sadness or happiness?         

Example: Rather than “She seemed worried.”

 Write “She sighed.  Her brow was wrinkled in a kind of frown.  She rubbed her forehead and then her cheek with her right hand and then kind of dropped her hand in her lap while she sighed again.  Her eyes were unfocused or looking down, towards the floor as she spoke.”

  • Use value-neutral terms; avoid value-laden ones.  For example, don’t say that someone was “well-behaved” or “badly dressed.”  What do those terms mean?  They are only meaningful in particular cultural contexts; they are necessarily meaningless in other cultural contexts.  Therefore all they do is tell you about YOUR culture and/or YOUR value system.  So they can be marginally useful for that; I have learned some things about myself in that way.  But they aren’t that useful in understanding the people you are trying to describe.  Instead, force yourself to describe what you are actually seeing.  What are they wearing?   And what is the behavior, exactly, that gets someone classifed as “well-behaved”?  Just doing that exercise will give you a wealth of information about the norms of the culture you are attempting to understand.

Let me explain a little bit more about this.  Let’s say you are observing in an elder-care facility.  The staff there have clear ideas about who the easy clients are, and who are the more troublesome characters.  As a young volunteer, someone eager to learn and please, it will be very tempting to follow their lead and adopt the language the staff uses.  But you – remember – are a social scientist too.  So you need to be a cool observer, a part of whom stands back and notices, “Hmm.  That’s interesting, the staff refers to Mrs. Smith as ‘well-behaved’ because she always does what she’s told.  She makes things easy for them.  But she is really kind of a zombie, isn’t she? She just shuffles around and never initiates any action on her own.   And Mr. Jones, they call him a trouble-maker but objectively, all he does is ask to be taken to the bathroom when it is inconvenient for them.  And he has opinions that the director doesn’t agree with.”  Obviously, the details would be different in every case.  But you get the point.  Question labels and describe the actual behavior.

  • Finally, don’t make assumptions.  If you think you have a good idea of what is going on – you have identified a pattern, analyzed a relationship, recognized an emotion, etc., you don’t need to assume it to be true.  Instead, list it as a possibility to be checked out.  That gives you the opportunity to think about alternate possibilities, too.   When appropriate you can try to determine which of the hypotheses is correct.  I often include at the bottom of my day’s fieldnotes a list of hypotheses that I still need to test, or a list of questions that I would like to answer.

This goes for very basic things like seeing a woman and a child at the park; we can’t assume that the woman is the child’s mother.  Likewise, children together can’t be assumed to be siblings, adults can’t be assumed to be heterosexual, and so on.  The world is a blank slate and everything must be established.  That is really the only way to go about doing research in your own culture and ensuring that you are not imposing your own preconceptions on the data.

 Just following those three “rules” will tighten up your descriptions a great deal; I think you’ll find they help you observe more details, too.  What other things have you learned from these first few times observing?  What about former students in the class?  Does anyone have any other ideas about description they’d like to pass on?  We’d love to hear them . . .