What is the most important quality I need to be an anthropologist?

I get asked this question quite a lot and I always give the same answer: humility.


Humility is a critical quality for ethnography.

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.

If we define humility as being humble or modest, gratitude shows that there is no inherent expectation that someone will share their time and experience with us- we don’t expect people to do this. We are not special or privileged or important, and knowing this is an expression of our humility. This understanding of our relative unimportance- having a modest view of ourselves- I think is critical to really operationalize one of the core tenets of anthropology: cultural relativism.

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.

Now you don’t have to be scathingly critical about yourself and your own society to be a good anthropologist. It helps, though, if you really can be humble enough to know that you have a lot to learn and the people you are sitting next to, whether they are farmers or business executives or drug addicts or housewives, know more about a lot of things than you do. You are the one figuring out what the rules of their culture are- they already know.

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.

Kristina Baines in the Maya community of Santa Cruz, Belize

Kristina Baines in the Maya community of Santa Cruz, Belize

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.

This idea of the anthropologist- the ethnographic researcher- as human, and that humanity being an asset rather than a liability in the research process, is critically important. To answer this question, I could have easily said that anthropologists need good attention to detail, or that they need to be un-biased or non-judgmental, or that they need to have stamina and be flexible and have patience. Or that it helps if they are nice. All these things are true, but I believe humility covers them all. Collecting complex, in-depth data from and about people, while negotiating the complexities of being a person yourself, is difficult to do well. However, I believe the pursuit and process of anthropological research is part of its incredible value. The culture of what counts as research is beginning, it seems, to realize the value of in-depth qualitative research to stand alone as well as to provide critical context for many forms of quantitative work. Ethnographic research done well has the power to both harness and foster human empathy to promote deep understanding of the human experience. So, get out there, be humble, and share your findings! We need you now more than ever.

• 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 kristina@coolanthropology.com.

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