Cultural Anthropology

Explaining the Inductive Approach Cultural Anthropology



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Cultural anthropologists are faced with a problem: how do they arrive at scientific conclusions that help us understand human societies, when the researchers themselves are influenced by their own cultural biases and preconceived notions concerning the society that they are studying?

This question was one that Franz Boas raised in the early twentieth century, and Boas was the one who proposed the inductive approach to ethnography as one of the methods to correct the problem. Back then, ethnographic fieldwork was approached with a theory in place which the ethnographer wished to test, much the same way that scientists perform experiments to support or disprove a hypothesis.

According to Boas, however, starting fieldwork with a hypothesis in mind (known as a deductive approach) would narrow the researcher's focus and emphasis their own cultural biases enough that important information would be glossed over or overlooked. For example, if an ethnographer is looking for evidence to support a presupposed hypothesis that corn is important in Native American peoples' diets. Corn is, indeed, grown by many native groups, especially in the southern United States and Mesoamerica. It is viewed as an important crop because of the huge amount of food it can provide, so the anthropologist might feel that their hypothesis has been verified. The hypothesis is "corn is important", though, so they might underestimate or downplay the fact that corn, beans, and squash are referred to as the "Three Sisters" by many native groups, and that if corn is important, but beans and squash are equally so.

An inductive approach to ethnographies, however, formulates theories from the 'bottom-up' rather than from the 'top-down'. This means that the researcher starts by observing the community and for repeated patterns of behaviour. If certain themes continue to crop up, the researcher can develop a tentative hypothesis that can be verified and turned into a theory once more corroborating data is gathered from other communities within the same society. Using the same example, an anthropologist living with an Iroquois community notices that the Iroquois place a high value on corn, but corn is always referred to as one of "three sisters" who are always planted together: corn, beans, and squash. This data might provoke them into creating a hypothesis that states that corn is important, but is intrinsically linked to two other crops: beans and squash. One cannot think of one without thinking of the other two.

The inductive approach is therefore more flexible when it comes to addressing human societies, as it helps the researcher let go of their own preconceived (and often culturally biased) ideas of what the society they are studying is like. While the inductive approach is still used in cultural anthropology today, current theory has focused the ethnography from Boas' time from 'start fieldwork and wait for answers' to 'start field with a few general questions to answer' so that there is enough of a framework to focus the research, but the questions remain general enough (ie. how do Native Americans think about crop foods?) to allow for the flexibility that studying human culture needs.

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