Malinowski's Participant-Observation in Modern Anthropology

2237 words 9 pages
Where does Malinowski’s conceptualization of participant-observation sit in the landscape of modern anthropological fieldwork?
A primary objective of the modern ethnographer is to glean insights into the ways people relate to and interact with one another and the world around them. Through participant-observation, Malinowski (1922) offered a valuable tool with which to uncover these insights and understandings, the ethnographer. The ethnographer as research tool has become the basis of much modern anthropological research. As a method, it was a radical departure from the typical approach to fieldwork used in Malinowski’s time which involved techniques that kept the ethnographer distanced and distinct from those they studied (McGee
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The challenge raises two primary questions. First, is it possible or useful within such a personal contextual field as anthropology to discount subjectivity as an authentic mode of analysis. Krieger (1996) identifies this as a problem inherent in the writing of social science and argues that through ethnography we are not writing about the other but, in fact, writing about the self. She also touches on the second question, from where have our acceptable scientific/objective truths originated? The objective paradigm underlying social science denies self-expression, narrowing the scope of understanding to that of a predominately male, middle-class, Western, academic one. This point appears to lie outside the realm of Malinowski’s consideration and is indicative of his socio-historical epoch.
The purpose of research for Malinowski (1922, p. 25) was to ‘shed light on our own (Western)’ mentality, informing Western science and academia. While modern anthropology still endeavours to uncover systems and social structures it does so from the standpoint of advancement or empowerment of those communities it studies, not to exclusively inform Western science (Kirby, Greaves, Reid, 2006). For example, Annette Lareau’s (1996) study seeks to reveal patterns of achievement in relation to class status and school performance, but it does so with an intention to inform educational policy and effect change within schooling