What is Culture?

What is Culture?

The word culture has many different meanings. For some it refers to an appreciation of good literature, music, art, and food. For a biologist, it is likely to be a colony of bacteria or other microorganisms growing in a nutrient medium in a laboratory Petri dish. However, for anthropologists and other behavioral scientists, culture is the full range of learned human behavior patterns. The term was first used in this way by the pioneer English Anthropologist Edward B. Tylor in his book, Primitive Culture, published in 1871. Tylor said that culture is "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." Of course, it is not limited to men. Women possess and create it as well. Since Tylor's time, the concept of culture has become the central focus of anthropology.

Culture is a powerful human tool for survival, but it is a fragile phenomenon. It is constantly changing and easily lost because it exists only in our minds. Our written languages, governments, buildings, and other man-made things are merely the products of culture. They are not culture in themselves. For this reason, archaeologists can not dig up culture directly in their excavations. The broken pots and other artifacts of ancient people that they uncover are only material remains that reflect cultural patterns--they are things that were made and used through cultural knowledge and skills.

Layers of Culture
There are very likely three layers or levels of culture that are part of your learned behavior patterns and perceptions. Most obviously is the body of cultural traditions that distinguish your specific society. When people speak of Italian, Samoan, or Japanese culture, they are referring to the shared language, traditions, and beliefs that set each of these peoples apart from others. In most cases, those who share your culture do so because they acquired it as they were raised by parents and other family members who have it.  

The second layer of culture that may be part of your identity is a subculture . In complex, diverse societies in which people have come from many different parts of the world, they often retain much of their original cultural traditions. As a result, they are likely to be part of an identifiable subculture in their new society. The shared cultural traits of subcultures set them apart from the rest of their society. Examples of easily identifiable subcultures in the United States include ethnic groups such as Vietnamese Americans, African Americans, and Mexican Americans. Members of each of these subcultures share a common identity, food tradition, dialect or language, and other cultural traits that come from their common ancestral background and experience. As the cultural differences between members of a subculture and the dominant national culture blur and eventually disappear, the subculture ceases to exist except as a group of people who claim a common ancestry. That is generally the case with German Americans and Irish Americans in the United States today. Most of them identify themselves as Americans first. They also see themselves as being part of the cultural mainstream of the nation.

The third layer of culture consists of cultural universals. These are learned behavior patterns that are shared by all of humanity collectively. No matter where people live in the world, they share these universal traits. Examples of such "human cultural" traits include:

1.  communicating with a verbal language consisting of a limited set of sounds and grammatical rules for constructing sentences
2. using age and gender to classify people (e.g., teenager, senior citizen, woman, man)
3. classifying people based on marriage and descent relationships and having kinship terms to refer to
them (e.g., wife, mother, uncle, cousin)
4. raising children in some sort of family setting
5. having a sexual division of labor (e.g., men's work versus women's work)
6. having a concept of privacy
7. having rules to regulate sexual behavior
8. distinguishing between good and bad behavior
9. having some sort of body ornamentation
10. making jokes and playing games
11. having art
12. having some sort of leadership roles for the implementation of community decisions

While all cultures have these and possibly many other universal traits, different cultures have developed their own specific ways of carrying out or expressing them. For instance, people in deaf subcultures frequently use their hands to communicate with sign language instead of verbal language. However, sign languages have grammatical rules just as verbal ones do.

Culture and Society

Culture and society are not the same thing. While cultures are complexes of learned behavior patterns and perceptions, societies are groups of interacting organisms. People are not the only animals that have societies. Schools of fish, flocks of birds, and hives of bees are societies. In the case of humans, however, societies are groups of people who directly or indirectly interact with each other. People in human societies also generally perceive that their society is distinct from other societies in terms of shared traditions and expectations.

While human societies and cultures are not the same thing, they are inextricably connected because culture is created and transmitted to others in a society. Cultures are not the product of lone individuals. They are the continuously evolving products of people interacting with each other. Cultural patterns such as language and politics make no sense except in terms of the interaction of people. If you were the only human on earth, there would be no need for language or government.

Is Culture Limited to Humans?
There is a difference of opinion in the behavioral sciences about whether or not we are the only animal that creates and uses culture. The answer to this question depends on how narrow culture is defined. If it is used broadly to refer to a complex of learned behavior patterns, then it is clear that we are not alone in creating and using culture. Many other animal species teach their young what they themselves learned in order to survive. This is especially true of the chimpanzees and other relatively intelligent apes and monkeys. Wild chimpanzee mothers typically teach their children about several hundred food and medicinal plants. Their children also have to learn about the dominance hierarchy and the social rules within their communities. As males become teenagers, they acquire hunting skills from adults. Females have to learn how to nurse and care for their babies. Chimpanzees even have to learn such basic skills as how to perform sexual intercourse. This knowledge is not hardwired into their brains at birth. They are all learned patterns of behavior just as they are for humans.

Characteristics of Culture

In order to better understand culture, it is useful to closely examine its characteristics and their ramifications. In this section of the tutorial, you will learn about the specific advantages that culture gives our species. You will also learn about culture's limitations and shortcomings.

Culture Is An Adaptive Mechanism

The first humans evolved in tropical and subtropical regions of Africa about 2.5 million years ago. Since then, we have successfully occupied all of the major geographic regions of the world, but our bodies have remained essentially those of warm climate animals. We cannot survive outside of the warmer regions of our planet without our cultural knowledge and technology. What made it possible for our ancestors to begin living in temperate and ultimately subarctic regions of the northern hemisphere after half a million years ago was the invention of efficient hunting skills, fire use, and, ultimately, clothing, warm housing, agriculture, and commerce. Culture has been a highly successful adaptive mechanism for our species. It has given us a major selective advantage in the competition for survival with other life forms. Culture has allowed the global human population to grow from less than 10 million people shortly after the end of the last ice age to more than 6.5 billion people today, a mere 10,000 years later. Culture has made us the most dangerous and the most destructive large animal on our planet. It is ironic that despite the power that culture has given us, we are totally dependent on it for survival. We need our cultural skills to stay alive.

Over the last several hundred thousand years, we have developed new survival related cultural skills and technologies at a faster rate than natural selection could alter our bodies to adapt to the environmental challenges that confronted us. The fact that cultural evolution can occur faster than biological evolution has significantly modified the effect of natural selection on humans. One consequence of this has been that we have not developed thick fat layers and dense fur coats like polar bears in the cold regions because our culture provided the necessary warmth during winter times.

 Culture is learned

Human infants come into the world with basic drives such as hunger and thirst, but they do not possess instinctive patterns of behavior to satisfy them. Likewise, they are without any cultural knowledge. However, they are genetically predisposed to rapidly learn language and other cultural traits. New born humans are amazing learning machines. Any normal baby can be placed into any family on earth and grow up to learn their culture and accept it as his or her own. Since culture is non-instinctive, we are not genetically programmed to learn a particular one.

Every human generation potentially can discover new things and invent better technologies. The new cultural skills and knowledge are added onto what was learned in previous generations. As a result, culture is cumulative. Due to this cumulative effect, most high school students today are now familiar with mathematical insights and solutions that ancient Greeks such as Archimedes and Pythagoras struggled their lives to discover.

Cultural evolution is due to the cumulative effect of culture. We now understand that the time between major cultural inventions has become steadily shorter, especially since the invention of agriculture 8,000-10,000 years ago. The progressively larger human population after that time was very likely both a consequence and a cause of accelerating culture growth. The more people there are, the more likely new ideas and information will accumulate. If those ideas result in a larger, more secure food supplies, the population will inevitably grow. In a sense, culture has been the human solution to surviving changing environments, but it has continuously compounded the problem by making it possible for more humans to stay alive. In other words, human cultural evolution can be seen as solving a problem that causes the same problem again and again. The ultimate cost of success of cultural technology has been a need to produce more and more food for more and more people.

Parallel Growth of the Human Population and Cultural Technology

The invention of agriculture made it possible for our ancestors to have a more controllable and, subsequently, dependable food supply. It also resulted in settling down in permanent communities. This in turn set the stage for further developments in technology and political organization. The inevitable result was more intensive agriculture, new kinds of social and political systems dominated by emerging elite classes, the first cities, and ultimately the industrial and information revolutions of modern times. City life brought with it the unexpected consequence of increased rates of contagious diseases. Large, dense populations of people make it much easier for viruses, bacteria, and other disease causing microorganisms to spread from host to host. As a result, most cities in the past were periodically devastated by epidemics.

The rate of cultural evolution for many human societies during the last two centuries has been unprecedented. Today, major new technologies are invented every few years rather than once or twice a century or even less often, as was the case in the past. Likewise, there has been an astounding increase in the global human population. It is worth reflecting on the fact that there are people alive today who were born before cell phones, computers, televisions, radios, antibiotics, and even airplanes. These now elderly individuals have seen the human population double several times. The world that was familiar to them in their childhood is no longer here. It is as if they have moved to a new alien culture and society. Not surprisingly, they often have difficulty in accepting and adjusting to the change. The psychological distress and confusion that accompanies this has been referred to as future shock.

Cultures Change
All cultural knowledge does not perpetually accumulate. At the same time that new cultural traits are added, some old ones are lost because they are no longer useful. For example, most city dwellers today do not have or need the skills required for survival in a wilderness. Most would very likely starve to death because they do not know how to acquire wild foods and survive the extremes of weather outdoors. What is more important in modern urban life are such things as the ability to drive a car, use a computer, and understand how to obtain food in a supermarket or restaurant.

The regular addition and subtraction of cultural traits results in culture change. All cultures change over time--none is static. However, the rate of change and the aspects of culture that change varies from society to society. For instance, people in Germany today generally seem eager to adopt new words from other languages, especially from American English, while many French people are resistant to it because of the threat of "corrupting" their own language. However, the French are just as eager as the Germans to adopt new technology.
Change can occur as a result of both invention within a society as well as the diffusion of cultural traits from one society to another. Predicting whether a society will adopt new cultural traits or abandon others is complicated by the fact that the various aspects of a culture are closely interwoven into a complex pattern. Changing one trait will have an impact on other traits because they are functionally interconnected. As a result, there commonly is a resistance to major changes. For example, many men in North America and Europe resisted the increase in economic and political opportunities for women over the last century because of the far ranging consequences. It inevitably changed the nature of marriage, the family, and the lives of all men. It also significantly altered the workplace as well as the legal system and the decisions made by governments.

People Usually are not Aware of Their Culture
he way that we interact and do things in our everyday lives seems "natural" to us. We are unaware of our culture because we are so close to it and know it so well. For most people, it is as if their learned behavior was biologically inherited. It is usually only when they come into contact with people from another culture that they become aware that their patterns of behavior are not universal.

The common response in all societies to other cultures is to judge them in terms of the values and customs of their own familiar culture. This is ethnocentrism . Being fond of your own way of life and condescending or even hostile toward other cultures is normal for all people. Alien culture traits are often viewed as being not just different but inferior, less sensible, and even "unnatural." For example, European cultures strongly condemn other societies that practice polygamy and the eating of dogs--behavior that Europeans generally consider to be immoral and offensive. Likewise, many people in conservative Muslim societies, such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, consider European women highly immodest and immoral for going out in public without being chaperoned by a male relative and without their bodies covered from head to toe so as to prevent men from looking at them. Ethnocentrism is not characteristic only of complex modern societies. People in small, relatively isolated societies are also ethnocentric in their views about outsiders.

Our ethnocentrism can prevent us from understanding and appreciating another culture. When anthropologists study other societies, they need to suspend their own ethnocentric judgments and adopt a cultural relativity approach. That is, they try to learn about and interpret the various aspects of the culture they are studying in reference to that culture rather than to the anthropologist's own culture. This provides an understanding of how such practices as polygamy can function and even support other cultural traditions. Without taking a cultural relativity approach, it would otherwise be difficult, for example, to comprehend why women among the Masai cattle herding people of Kenya might prefer to be one of several co-wives rather than have a monogamous marriage. 

Taking a cultural relativity approach is not only useful for anthropologists. It is a very useful tool for diplomats, businessmen, doctors, and any one else who needs to interact with people from other societies and even other subcultures within their own society. However, it can be emotionally difficult and uncomfortable at first to suspend one's own cultural values in these situations.

From an objective perspective, it can be seen that ethnocentrism has both positive and negative values for a society. The negative potential is obvious. Ethnocentrism results in prejudices about people from other cultures and the rejection of their "alien ways." When there is contact with people from other cultures, ethnocentrism can prevent open communication and result in misunderstanding and mistrust. This would be highly counterproductive for businessmen trying to negotiate a trade deal or even just neighbors trying to get along with each other. The positive aspect of ethnocentrism has to do with the protection that it can provide for a culture. By causing a rejection of the foods, customs, and perceptions of people in other cultures, it acts as a conservative force in preserving traditions of one's own culture. It can help maintain the separation and uniqueness of cultures.

We Do Not Know All of Our Own Culture

No one knows everything about his or her own culture. In all societies, there are bodies of specialized cultural knowledge that are gender specific--they are known to men but not women or vice versa. In many societies there are also bodies of knowledge that are limited largely to particular social classes, occupations, religious groups, or other special purpose associations.

Gender based skills, knowledge, and perceptions largely stem from the fact that boys and girls to some extent are treated differently from each other in all societies. While there may be considerable overlap in what they are taught, there are some things that are gender specific. In the Western World, for instance, it is more common to teach boys about the skills of combat and how machines work. Girls are more often exposed to the subtleties of social interaction and the use of clothing and makeup to communicate intentions. Not surprisingly, men are more likely to know how to fix their car or computer, while women generally are better at predicting the outcome of social interaction and make finer distinctions in fabric and color terms.

There are many professions in large-scale societies. Each one usually has its own terminology and specialized tools. Lawyers, medical doctors, soldiers, and other specialists use numerous technical terms in their professions. To make it even more obscure for outsiders, these professionals often use abbreviations to refer to their technical terms. For instance, orthopedic surgeons commonly refer to a particular kind of knee operation as ACL surgery. ACL stands for anterior cruciate ligament. Most people outside of the medical fields who have not had this surgery are unlikely to know where this ligament is and what it does, let alone know what the abbreviation means. 

Culture Gives Us a Range of Permissible Behavior Patterns

Cultures commonly allow a range of ways in which men can be men and women can be women. Culture also tells us how different activities should be conducted, such as how one should act as a husband, wife, parent, child, etc. These rules of permissible behavior are usually flexible to a degree--there are some alternatives rather than hard rules. In North America, for instance, culture tells us how we should dress based on our gender, but it allows us to dress in different ways in different situations in order to communicate varied messages and statuses. The clothing patterns of women in this society can be particularly rich and complex. Their clothing can be intentionally business-like, recreational, as well as sexually attractive, ambiguous, neutral, or even repulsive. North American women are generally more knowledgeable than men about the subtleties of using clothing and other adornment to communicate their intentions. The wide range of permissible ways of being a woman in North America today makes women somewhat unpredictable as individuals when others are trying to understand their intentions but do not fully comprehend the cultural patterns. It is particularly hard for men from other cultures to comprehend the subtle nuances. This at times can result in awkward or even dangerous situations. For instance, the easy friendliness and casual, somewhat revealing dress of young North American women in the summertime is sometimes interpreted by traditional Latin American and Middle Eastern men as a sexual invitation. What messages do the clothes and body language of the women in the pictures below communicate to you? How do you think they might be interpreted by members of the opposite gender and by people in other cultures? Do you think that the age of the observer might play a part in their interpretation?

The range of permissible ways of dressing and acting as a man or woman are often very limited in strictly fundamental Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Hindu societies. In Afghanistan under the Taliban rule during the late 1990's, men were expected to wear traditional male clothing and were beaten or jailed by morality police for not having a full beard, playing or listening to music, or allowing female family members to go out in public unchaperoned. Women were similarly punished for being in public without wearing a plain loose outer gown that covered their face and entire body including their feet. They also were not allowed to go to school or to work outside of the home. To the surprise of Europeans and North Americans, many of these conservative cultural patterns did not disappear with the end of Taliban control. They are deeply ingrained in the Islamic tradition of Afghanistan and in the more conservative nations of the Middle East.

Cultures No Longer Exist in Isolation

It is highly unlikely that there are any societies still existing in total isolation from the outside world. Even small, out of the way tribal societies are now being integrated to some extent into the global economy. That was not the case a few short generations ago. Some of the societies in the Highlands of New Guinea were unaware of anyone beyond their homeland until the arrival of European Australian miners in the 1930's. A few of the Indian tribes in the Upper Amazon Basin of South America remained unaware of the outside world until explorers entered their territories in the 1950's and 1960's. Members of these same New Guinean and Amazonian societies today buy clothes and household items produced by multinational corporations. They are developing a growing knowledge of other cultures through schools, radios, and even televisions and the Internet. As a result of this inevitable process, their languages and indigenous cultural patterns are being rapidly replaced. Virtually all societies are now acquiring cultural traits from the economically dominant societies of the world. The most influential of these dominant societies today are predominantly in North America and Western Europe. However, even these societies are rapidly adopting words, foods, and other cultural traits from all over the world.

The emergence of what is essentially a shared global culture is not likely to result in the current major cultures disappearing in the immediate future the same way many of the small indigenous ones have. Language differences and ethnocentrism will very likely prevent that from happening. There are powerful conflicting trends in the world today. At the same time that many people are actively embracing globalism , others are reviving tribalism . The break-up of the former empire of the Soviet Union into largely ethnic based nations is an example of the latter. Likewise, some of the nations in Africa whose boundaries were arbitrarily created by Europeans during the colonial era are now experiencing periodic tribal wars that may result in the creation of more ethnically based countries.

Methods for Learning About Culture

Anthropologists learn about the culture of another society through fieldwork and first hand observation in that society. This kind of research is called ethnography . Since culture primarily relates to the way people interact with each other, it is not possible to adequately observe it in a laboratory setting. Imagine how much more would be learned about the actual patterns of interaction of a typical American family by living in their home rather than asking one of the family members in a college or university office.

Cultural anthropologists also do systematic comparisons of similar cultures. This is called ethnology . An example of an ethnological study would be a comparison of what cultures are like in societies that have economies based on hunting and gathering rather than agriculture. The data for this sort of ethnology would come from the existing ethnographies about these peoples. In other words, an ethnology is essentially a synthesis of the work of many ethnographers.

Participant Observation

Anthropologists have discovered that the best way to really get to know another society and its culture is to live in it as an active participant rather than simply an observer. This is called participant observation . By physically and emotionally participating in the social interaction of the host society, it is possible to become accepted as a member. In practice this requires learning their language and establishing close friendship ties. It also usually involves living within the community as a member, eating what they eat, and taking part in normal family activities with them. This can be a physical hardship and emotionally stressful, particularly when the host society is in a rural area of an underdeveloped nation. Sanitation may be poor or non-existent, the diet may be unsatisfying, and there may be minimal privacy for personal hygiene and your sex life. However, the trust and familiarity that can result from participant-observation reduces the cultural barriers and allows anthropologists to understand the culture of the host society they are studying.

It is rarely possible to grasp much of another culture during a short visit. Anthropologists have learned that long-term residence lasting years is necessary to see the range of cultural behavior. If a researcher lives in a small community for only a few months and no one gets married, gives birth, or dies during that time, it is unlikely that the culturally defined ways of dealing with these situations will be observed and understood. Likewise, a short-term visitor is not likely to learn about the intricate details of religious beliefs or even the complex culturally defined patterns of male-female relationships and parent-child interaction.

How long should an anthropologist live within the society being studied? There is no simple answer. It depends on the focus of the study. In some cases the research may be as narrowly focused as learning about agricultural practices. In such cases, a stay of a few months to a few years may be adequate. However, if the focus is the entire culture, many more years may be required. In practice, anthropologists are likely to initially stay for a year or two and then make shorter visits back to the host society every few years over the next decade or more. The American Anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon, spent more than 30 years learning about the Yanomamö Indians of Venezuela and Brazil, though he did not live with them all of that time.

An anthropologist coming as a single visitor to a relatively isolated community, such as an Indian village in Brazil or a small farming town in Pakistan, is likely to be viewed with suspicion. An adult male visitor may be looked at as a potential enemy spy from the outside world or as a sexual predator threatening to seduce their wives, sisters, and daughters. An unchaperoned female visitor may be viewed as a prostitute who might corrupt the women of the community. A husband and wife team of anthropologists is likely to be more acceptable in these cases because their familiar relationship would allay some of the fears of community members about the visitors' intentions. They are more likely to be viewed as non-threatening. If the visitors bring their young children with them, they are even more likely to be seen as fitting a "normal", peaceful pattern. Members of the host society also may be more likely to pass on valuable cultural information about every day living skills to children because they consider this information to be too obvious to need explanation for adults.

Ideal, Actual, and Believed Behavior

When learning about another culture or subculture first hand, it is always wise to be cautious about taking at face value what people say about their way of life. They may be politely deceiving you because they are not sure of your intentions or they may want to provide a more favorable view of themselves, their culture, and their society. That is natural. Most of us would do the same thing. If you knew that important visitors from another country were coming to your home, would you clean it first, put on nicer clothes, and make sure that everyone in the house will be on their best behavior? In other words, would you want them to see your home and family as you think that they should be rather than how they actually are most of the time?

Human social behavior is often complicated. In trying to comprehend the interaction between people, it is useful to think in terms of a distinction between ideal, actual, and believed behavior. Ideal behavior is what we think we should be doing and what we want others to believe we are doing. Actual behavior is what is really going on. Believed behavior is what we honestly think we are doing. In reality, our actions are often different from what we believe them to be at that time. For example, many North American husbands assume that they do roughly half of the work of cleaning and maintaining their home. Their wives would probably dispute that assertion. Does this mean that the husbands are not telling the truth? No, it usually means that their perception of what they are doing may not be realistic in this case. Anthropologists are not only interested in learning about actual behavior. Ideal and believed behavior also can tell us much about how a society and its culture work.

In the more traditional regions of Latin America, the ideal behavior of men and women is usually more dissimilar than it is in most of North America and Northern Europe. Latin American men are expected to be macho's --i.e., they should be overtly masculine, confident, strong, dignified, brave, always in control of their emotions, and sexually demanding. Women are expected to be emotional, nurturing, faithful, and passive in response to the demands of their husbands. In other words, men and women should have polar opposite but complementary personalities and roles in life. There is no room in this ideal Latin American perception for passive men and aggressive women. In reality, however, few people actually fit the ideal of extreme masculinity or femininity in their daily lives. This discrepancy between male and female ideal and actual behavior is not limited to Latin America, but the contrasts are more apparent in male dominated societies that tolerate little variation in their permissible cultural patterns. The cattle ranching life of Western North America is another subculture that has traditionally placed high value on the ideal of strong, "in control" men and supportive, faithful women.

Observant visitors usually can find clues to the fact that it is difficult to live up to the cultural ideals for gender roles. In rural South China, for instance, there is a traditional saying that encapsulates the complicated relationship between husbands and wives. It is "the husband is the outside master, the wife is the inside master." This alludes to the fact that the public image in the past was one in which Chinese husbands were in total control of their wives and families, but within the home when no one else was present, wives shared in the decision making process. The reality of urban life in mainland China today has begun to alter this husband and wife relationship. Beginning in the late 1970's, the national government's desire to stem population pressure led to a one child policy. Most couples are only allowed to have one child without paying stiff penalties. Because of the traditional pressure on parents to have a son, girl babies have often been aborted even though this practice is illegal. The result has been a disproportionately high percentage of boy babies being born over the last several decades. An unexpected consequence of this has been that young marriageable women are now in relatively short supply. They are in a position to make greater demands on prospective husbands. Young men in China are faced with the reality that if they want to have a good chance of finding an educated wife, they must secure a well paying job and have enough money to buy her a car and a new condo. In addition, they must be prepared to cook, wash dishes, and do other home maintenance jobs traditionally done by wives.  

Gathering Data About Culture

In most ethnographic fieldwork, only a portion of the host society is actually studied intensively. Due to the practical impossibility of observing and talking at length with everyone, only a sample of a community is selected. If the sample of people is chosen carefully, there is an expectation that it will be representative of the entire community. This is referred to as a probability sample --i.e., a sample that has a high probability of reflecting the entire population. Choosing who will be in the sample can be difficult, especially at the beginning of a research project when the first contacts are made and the composition of the society and its culture are still poorly understood.

Usually ethnographers opt for one of three types of probability samples--random, stratified, or judgment. A random sample is one in which people are selected on a totally random, unbiased basis. This can be accomplished by assigning a number to everyone in a community and then letting a computer generate a series of random numbers. If a 10% sample is needed, then the first 10% of the random numbers will indicate who will be the focus of the research. This sampling approach is reasonable for ethnographic research only when there does not seem to be much difference between the people in the population. Since this is rarely the case, random sampling is not often used for ethnographic research.  

A stratified sample is one in which people are selected because they come from distinct sub-groups within the society. This is essentially what the U.S. Census Bureau does in its national census every 10 years. One member from each family is asked to answer for the entire family. This approach may be used by ethnographers as well if there are distinct, identifiable groups of people in the society and the information that is being sought is not specialized knowledge such as the esoteric activities of a secret organization with restricted membership.

Most ethnographers rely on a judgment sample . This is a limited number of key people selected on the basis of criteria deemed critical to the research questions. For example, religious leaders would be the focus if research concerns religious beliefs and practices. Likewise, talking mostly to women would make sense if the research concerned women's roles within society. The judgment sample approach works best if good informants can be found. These are people who are not only knowledgeable about their own culture but who are able and willing to communicate this knowledge in an understandable way to an outsider. Not everyone has the ability to do this. The quality of data usually depends on the relationships with informants. Ethnographers try to develop a warm and close relationship with their informants. This makes it more likely that they will learn what the host culture is really like.

Culture Shock

Any person, including an anthropologist, who goes to live in another society that is culturally very different is likely to initially develop culture shock. This is a feeling of confusion, distress, and sometimes depression that can result from the psychological stress that commonly occurs during the first weeks or months of a total cultural immersion in an alien society. Until the new culture becomes familiar and comfortable, it is common to have difficulty in communicating and to make frustrating mistakes in interactions with people in the host society. This is usually compounded by feelings of homesickness. These feelings can be emotionally debilitating. However, culture shock eventually passes and productive fieldwork can begin.


Ethnographers can collect reliable data and develop a realistic understanding of the cultural patterns in another society through a combination of five things:
1.  Proper mental preparation (including adopting the cultural relativity perspective)
2. Participant-observation
3. Competence in using the host culture's language
4. Long-term residence
5. Luck in being at the right place at the right time.

Over months and years, the cultural distance between an ethnographer and the people being studied is reduced. As a result, the complex cultural patterns become understandable. These five things apply whether research is in a small-scale society or a large one. They also apply to non-anthropologists who want to learn about another culture.

In the course of research, anthropologists may gather information about individuals in the host society that can be embarrassing or even dangerous if made public. For instance, if during the study of a Maya Indian village in Central America, paramilitary soldiers arrive and terrorize or even kill community members, it could be very dangerous for the survivors. Publishing a report of the incident might result in the soldiers returning to the village and killing potential witnesses named in your account. In an attempt to help the Indians by exposing what happened to them, you could be putting their lives in even greater danger. In these cases, a sense of professional ethics usually keeps anthropologists from reporting the incident. These are not easy decisions to make.

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