I get asked this question quite a lot and I always give the same answer: humility.
Now, there are many qualities that I think are helpful in being a good anthropologist but I believe, in some sense, humility captures many of them. I should note that, while I definitely believe humility is helpful for archaeologists and biological anthropologists, or anyone for that matter, I am answering the question as a sociocultural anthropologist and, therefore, primarily thinking about the qualities needed to do substantive ethnography. And good ethnography, in my view, is dependent on humility. Without quality ethnography, it is harder to get valuable data that will be credible and useful to the community, as well as researchers and practitioners.
Sociocultural anthropologists use a variety of ethnographic methods, most notably participant observation, to gather data about human culture. We insert ourselves into the everyday lives of communities and ask people to share the intimate details with us, to welcome us into their homes, and give us their time and energy. This is a very bold request. At the very basic level of human interaction, we are grateful for being allowed this level of access. Indeed, showing gratitude is a great quality for an ethnographer to have in addition to being, I would argue, a component of humility.
This is an easy concept to agree with in a classroom (well, mostly) but it is sometimes harder to truly live when we are out in the field. It is quite normal as a human being who is part of a culture, as we all are, to believe that the way we live is a good way, that what we have learned in our lives is good and important and useful- and those things stem from our community or culture.
As a researcher, it might be easy to slip into the idea that your thoughts and ideas are somehow better in that they are well-informed, or in that you are well-educated and successful by the standards of y/our society. It is, therefore, difficult to be sitting with someone in their home or school or farm and truly believe that their knowledge and practices absolutely are just as valid and good and important as yours. This becomes easier with a healthy dose of humility. I always tell my students that anthropology class is not just learning about others, but also turning the mirror on ourselves and analyzing our own culture and behavior.
You know stuff too, of course! About your culture. And, in my experience, the participants in your research are probably pretty interested in what you know as well. Sharing what you know and how you live in a reciprocal “give and take” arrangement is a great ethnographic strategy. Opening yourself up to the same kind of inquisitive scrutiny as you are asking your participants to do is, in itself, an act of humility. That is, of course, if you avoid doing it in a boastful way.
When I employ this strategy, it often leads to everyone laughing about how ridiculous I am in some kind of way- from my paying thousands of dollars to live in a place that I don’t even own (absurd!) to lavishing hugs and kisses on my son who has been away at school for two hours and is coming home for lunch (ummm, you just saw him). Owning your own ridiculousness is an exercise in both humility and cultural relativism, and it celebrates the common humanity of the researcher and the researched.
• Read more thoughts about the importance of cultural relativism at our current moment in time here:
• Read more about the value of good ethnography here: http://www.chalkbeat.org/posts/us/2016/11/22/polls-convinced-me-hillary-clinton-wouldnt-lose-as-an-education-researcher-the-result-was-a-wake-up-call/
Kristina Baines is our resident cool anthropologist. She is an assistant professor at City University of New York – Guttman Community College and has been formally trained in applied, sociocultural, ecological and medical anthropology at Florida Atlantic University (BA, MA), the University of Oxford (MSc) and the University of South Florida (PhD). She has a strong interest in corn, how what we do in our environment makes us well, and using innovative methods to make anthropology relevant and accessible to a wide audience. You can find out more about how these interests translate into projects and pursuits by perusing the rest of our site, or you can contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.