Principles of Scientific Method

Principles of Scientific Method : Its Applications to Anthropology

Principles of Anthropological Method

  • There are tenets common to all anthropological research
  • Examples: Cultural Relativism (Various Definition) versus Ethnocentrism
  • There are also tenets basic to all scientific research
  • In this case, they involve careful data gathering and logical reasoning—in anthropology or in any other scientific discipline.
  • In that way, information should be reliable and reflect what actually happens, whether in the field or in the lab.
  • Let’s discuss these in turn. 

Anthropological Method I: Fundamental Principles

  • Holism: All aspects of a culture must be considered, especially their interconnections
  • Cross-Cultural Comparison: Comparison of similar cultural traits in two or more cultures
  • Cultural Relativism: Two Interpretations
  • Scientific detachment: One observes what is out there—even cannibalism--dispassionately
  • Noble savage complex: Involves acceptance of a culture according to its own standards—including cannibalism.

Anthropological Method II: Cultural Relativism

  • Cultural Relativism: In either definition, involves judgment of a culture according to its own standards
  • Ethnocentrism: Belief in superiority of one’s own culture, such as the self-styled Aryans in this neo-Nazi rally in London
  • Ethical Relativism: The acceptance of any culture regardless of the harm of its practices, such as like this Chinese prison camp, tolerated in the name of “right to development”)

Anthropological Method III: Culture Relativism and Bounded ness

  • Ethics of Cultural Relativism: How can we berate these Dani for warfare when our own government started a war in Iraq?
  • Cultural Boundedness: The fact that our mental structure is culturally derived, often unconsciously
  • In Britain Muslims sued Burger King’s ice cream lid with its mage of a spinning ice cream cone
  • They took it as an Arabic inscription for Allah (right) (Source: The Scotsman 9/17/05)
    Plaintiff Quote: “How can you say it is a spinning swirl? If you spin it one way to the right you are offending Muslims."

Anthropological Method IV: Universalism

  • Definition: Cultural Practices that occur worldwide
  • The incest tabu occurs everywhere (Egyptian brother-sister marriage, left is a rare exception)
  • There are rules of etiquette everywhere
  • Reciprocity (gift exchange) occurs everywhere.
  • Trobriand islanders trade red necklace (suspended) for white armshells (on floor) in a kula ring

Principles of Science

  • Science involves two principles:
  • Its practitioners seek principles that predict recurring events.
  • As scientific method, it also sets forth a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, obtaining new knowledge, and correcting or confirming previous knowledge
  • It is based on obtaining observable, empirical, and measurable evidence according to specific rules of reasoning
  • We look at some of the basic concepts of scientific method

Some Basic Terms of Science

  • Hypothesis: An educated guess explaining some thing or event that is observed in the lab or field
  • Theory: A hypothesis confirmed by these observations
  • Induction entails identifying patterns of knowledge from field observations or lab experiments
  • Abduction entails formulating hypotheses from the knowledge inferred from observations or experiments
  • Deduction predicts what should occur based on confirmed body of facts, principles, or beliefs

Some Basic Terms of Scientific Research I

  • Sample: Part of a population selected for research
  • Random sample: A sample in which everyone has a chance of being included
  • But random samples do not ensure that all groups, especially small ones, will be selected
  • Representative sample: A sample in which all groups are included for research
  • Universe: Total population from which the sample is drawn

Some Basic Terms of Scientific Research II

  • Bias: Use of any technique that fails to elicit a random or representative sample
  • For example, is a sample of enrollees who use online registration a biased one?
  • Techniques: Procedures used to gather information (observations, interviews, but also the use of videos, CD recorders, GPS mapping devices, and so on )
  • Method: Scientific justification for selection of a technique
  • Methodology: Overall plan that forms a coherent relation among the methods and the techniques they generate

How to Develop a Hypothesis: Induction and Deduction

-> General principal ->Deduction -> Prediction -> Specific instances -> Observation -> Induction ->

The Phases of Scientific Method

  • Phase 1: Observe Things/Events in Field
  • Phase 2: Develop an explanation (hypothesis) using the inductive process
  • Phase 3: Gather relevant data
  • Phase 4: Evaluate hypothesis with data.
  • Phase 5: Repeat procedure if a hypothesis is confirmed only in part or disconfirmed

Formulating and Testing a Hypothesis

  • The inductive/abductive process is shown in yellow
  • It involves recognition of a research problem by (a) field observation, (b) experimentation, and/or (c) theory development
  • Next comes consultation of existing sources
  • Then the scientist formulates a hypothesis
  • The expected outcomes are then specified if the hypothesis is confirmed
  • Finally, the observations and/or experiments are conducted to test the expected outcomes

Consequences of Each Outcome

  • The hypothesis may be modified (red) or rejected (purple)
  • Further developments occur when the hypothesis is confirmed (purple)
  • The hypothesis becomes a theory if confirmed repeatedly
  • It becomes a unifying of theory if the theory is widely supported and applied

Scientific Method as Probabilistic

  • Any theory can be tossed as new information comes in.
  • If a new hypothesis explains existing data better, then the old hypothesis make way for the new
  • Therefore, all theories are probabilistic and none can be stated with finality

A Six-Way Test of Hypotheses

  • Background: James Lett is an anthropologist at Indian River Community College and member of the Committee for Skeptical Investigation.
  • He proposed a six-way test that goes by the acronym FiLCHeRS.
  • It stands for Falsifiability, Logic, Comprehensiveness, Honesty, Replication, and Sufficiency
  • The article “A Field Guide to Critical Thinking” is in your reader


  • Does not mean to cook or fudge the data
  • The hypothesis must be so stated that if unsupported it is rejected (or falsified)
  • Thus, it must specify the conditions under which it is rejected.

Un-falsifiable Propositions

  • Propositions so broadly stated that they can never be rejected
  • Propositions with the multiple out, or what do you say to the Instant Creator?
  • Suppose I say that I created the World five minutes ago
  • And (if you don’t call the local nut house on your cell first) you reply that you’ve been here for years, let alone five minutes.
  • Then I reply “My creation included all your memories.”
  • I will have many ways to squirm out of this and any rebuttal—even though we all know this proposition is ridiculous


  • As you know, there are two basic kinds of logic: inductive and deductive
  • Inductive: gathering enough facts to lead to a conclusion.
  • Deductive: Starting at a major premise and reasoning down to a minor premise then a conclusion.
  • Lett argues from the deductive.
  • Basic statement: Any argument offered as evidence in support of any claim must be both:
  • Valid: follow from accepted propositions of real life or of math, such as the postulate that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, and
  • Sound: that is, the proposition must be true
  • For further details, see your textbook (Ch. 2) or reader (Selection 2)


  • Evidence offered in support of any claim must be exhaustive
  • All relevant evidence must be considered
  • Opposite practice: Selective presentation of evidence that supports the claim
  • Example: political promises, courtroom tactics, even stockbroker “predictions” rely on selective use of the facts for support.
  • Remember George Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” claim about the Iraq invasion on May 1, 2003? Need I say more?


  • Evidence must be evaluated without either self-deception or intent to deceive
  • Examples of temptations toward dishonesty
  • Strong incentives such as funding to support pet theories
  • Basic fault of advocacy groups, politicians, and lawyers
  • Honesty could only lead to better hypotheses--i.e. to better explain facts


  • Positive results on one field study or lab experiment is not enough to verify a hypothesis.
  • To verify positive results, the experiment or field research must be repeated under identical conditions. 
  • Lab experiments fit the demand for replication because the conditions and procedures can be controlled so that they duplicate the first experiment exactly.

Replicability and Anthropology

  • In ethnographic field work, restudies conducted in communities studied in earlier years to verify conclusions from the previous study.
  • Restudies haven’t done well when it comes to replication
  • Lewis v. Redfield in Tepoztlan, Mexico, is one example.
  • Robert Redfield concluded in 1926 that Tepoztlan was a peaceful village
  • In 1943, Oscar Lewis demonstrated that there was fractious conflict between groups: the bosses versus the other villagers, the factions on both sides of the Mexican revolution (1910-1920)

Restudies and the Mead-Freeman Controversy

  • In 1928, Margaret Mead wrote Coming of Age in Samoa, which claimed that teenagers engage in promiscuous sex and grew up without turmoil and rebelliousness
  • The book was a long-term best seller and a great influence on anthropology
  • In 1983, Derek Freeman wrote Margaret Mead and Samoa, a refutation of Mead’s conclusions and showing that the Samoans were indeed puritanical about sex. 

Longitudinal Studies: A Partial Antidote

  • Mead’s fieldwork lasted seven months
  • Most canons of fieldwork call for at least a year.
  • Revisits in communities over a long period of time have become standard
  • Example: Napoleon Chagnon was given false information about Yanomamo genealogy, which he didn’t discover until six months after he started his study.
  • He continued work among the Yanomamo from 1966 to the 1990s.


  • Evidence must be adequate to support any claim
  • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and the burden of proof is on the claimant.
  • Expert testimony is never adequate (Would you buy Nike shoes because Michael Jordan says they’re the best? Or Hanes underwear?)
  • Even James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, made a dubious claim that Africans were low in intelligence.

Welcome Back to the Real World

  • The tests demand a perfect world
  • Real world: the field where ethnographic research is conducted is not a lab
  • Homo sapiens have the same hardware worldwide—brain, bipedalism, tool making and use capacities
  • But individuals and cultures vary
  • The compromise involves a combination of careful preparation and observation, but always being flexible when circumstances affecting fieldwork change.


  • First aim: to develop generalizations that apply to all societies
  • Second aim: to explain the diversity of cultures
  • Research must therefore meet rigorous standards, such as Lett’s Six-Way Test

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