Participant Observation and Grand Theory
Participant Observation and Grand Theory
Bronislaw Malinowski, with his ground-breaking field work of the Trobriand Islander community in the beginning of the 20th century still today counts as a pioneer, if not the founder of the British Social Anthropology. In his famous book Argonauts of the Western Pacific. An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagos of Melanesian New Guinea that was first published in 1922 he develops an elaborate methodological framework for ethnographical research, also known as ‘participant observation’.
This method will highly influence the anthropological way of approaching its field of study and hence its theoretical landscape from then on. Looking at Malinowski’s description of the clan system of the Trobriand community, his descriptive and specifying style of formulation becomes apparent: “Each of the four clans has its own name: Malasi, Lukuba, Lukwasisiga, Lukulabuta. (…) There are special combinations of the clan names with formative roots, to descrive men and women and the mixed plurality belonging to the same clan: Tomalasi – a Malasi man; Immalasi – a Malasi women; Memalasi – the Malasi people (…).
Near the village of Laba’I, on the northern shore of the main island, there is a spot called Obukula, which is marked by a coral outcrop. Obukula is, in fact, a ‘hole’ (dubwadebula), or ‘house’ (bwala); that is to say, one of the points from which the first ancestors of the linage emerged. ” (Malinowski 1929: 496 f. , italics in original) This very nuanced and case specific example of the material gained from his methodological approach gives rise to the question if Malinowski’s heritage of participant observation has forever distanced Anthropology from bringing forward grand theories?
To be able to consider and discuss this question, it is important to first define what Malinowski circumscribed when he laid out his dogma for ethnographical research by the term participant observation. Secondly, a closer inspection of the dictum ‘grand theory’ is indispensable for our purpose and will be clarified in the second section of this essay. Subsequently, we will look at these two concepts and their relationship to one another in section three in order to approach the question whether Anthropology can be viewed as a science able to produce
grand theories. I. Participant observation In the foreword to Argonauts of the Western Pacific Malinowski states that he has “lived in that [Trobriand Island] archipelago for about two years (…), during which time [he] naturally acquired a thorough knowledge of the language. [He] did [his] work entirely alone, living for the greater part of the time right in the village. ” (1966: xvi). This statement already contains the essence of participant observation in fieldwork.
The hallmark of this methodological way of collecting data is the immersion of the researcher into her or his field of study over a long period of time and the personal part taking in the interactions of the people in the community studied. When Malinowski defined this new approach of ‘first-hand’ observation he broke with the, at that time prevailing tradition of ‘armchair’ ethnography. In this prior approach, ethnographers compiled data gained from historical sources to deduce theories about certain aspects of a usually ‘native’ community (Osterhoudt 2010).
One of the main contributions of Malinowski’s new method to anthropological theory was that by participating and observing behaviour in the sample community he found out that a discrepancy between actual behaviour and narrative statements exists. “The smoothness and uniformity, which the mere verbal statement suggest as the only shape of human conduct, disappears with a better knowledge of cultural reality.
” (Malinowski 1979: 83). This discovery in itself already composes a point of criticism towards the preceding ethnographical ‘arm-chair’ approach to data collection and evaluation. Even though participant observation is based on a seemingly broad and intuitive research design, it would, however, be incorrect to assume that this approach would be free of any directive principles on how to collect relevant data.
Therefore, Malinowski describes how first, the researcher must “possess real scientific aims” (Malinowski 1966: 6) and be familiar with the theoretical background of anthropology. Further, the researcher should live in the field among the natives all by herself/ himself, and lastly the researcher has to stick to special and strict scientific methods, such as drawing “tables of kinship terms, genealogies, maps, plans and diagrams” (idib. 1966: 10) to collect, prepare and record her/his data.
The previous example of the clan system provides a sense of the detailed and case specific information that is obtained by the application of participant observation. Besides the kind of the data collected, it should also be looked at the area of research and Malinowski’s suggestion of the subject to be studied. He proposes that the “field worker observes human beings acting within an environmental setting, natural and artificial; influenced by it, and in turn transforming it in co-operation with each other.
” (Malinowski 1939: 940). Thus, he focuses on the individual as a starting point and its relation to, and mutual dependence on a social group. The inquiries of a researcher will hence have to include a “specific study of the individual, as well as the group within which he has to live and work. ” (idib. 1939: 950). The collective life within that group or society is widely to be seen in certain types of activities, ‘institutions’ such as the “economy, education, or social control and political system in place” (idib.
1939: 954). These institutions, as he points out, can be seen as a fruitful base to investigate the individual’s motives and values and they will provide “insight into the process by which the individual is conditioned or culturally formed and of the group mechanisms of this process. ” (idib. 1939: 954). II. Grand Theory In the following, the dictum ‘grand theory’ will be specified and by doing so distinguished into two different tendencies of understanding the concept.
Wiarda (2010) defines a grand theory in his book Grand Theories and Ideologies in the Social Sciences as “those large, overarching explanations of social and political behavior—liberalism, Marxism, socialism, positivism, corporatism, political culture, institutionalism, psychoanalysis, rational choice theory, environmentalism (Jared Diamond), sociobiology, and now chemistry and genetics—that give coherence to the social sciences, help us to organize and think about change and modernization, and give us models to understand complex behavior. ” (Wiarda 2010: x)
This definition of grand theory as an ‘overarching explanation’ is in line with Anthony Good’s (1996) understanding of a ‘generalizing science’ that produces “universal, descriptive and predictive laws” (idib. 1996: 34). Here a grand theory is understood as a theorem providing a universal and structural framework that gives meaning to particular and individual phenomena ‘on the ground’. In this process the “importance of the local and the contingent, (…) the extent to which our own concepts and attitudes have been shaped” (Skinner 1985: 8) builds also a part of the universal framework.
The second tendency to conceive the idea of grand theory goes a step further and is mainly characterized by C. Wright Mills application of it. He vigorously criticised the concept in his book The Sociological Imagination (1959): “The basic cause of grand theory is the initial choice of a level of thinking so general that its practitioners cannot logically get down to observation. They never, as grand theorists, get down from the higher generalities to problems in their historical and structural contexts.
This absence of a firm sense of genuine problems, in turn, makes for the unreality so noticeable in their pages. ” (idib. 1959: 33) As this quote shows, Mills’ understanding of a grand theory goes beyond our first definition. In this second understanding Mills implies that scientists generating grand theories are engrossed in their endeavour to build abstract, normative and all-embracing frameworks and thus neglect the study of the ‘meaning’ behind their constructs.
The individual with its particular values and interpretations, as well as variety on the scale of the actual area of research fall behind. III. Participant Observation and its relation to Grand Theory Taken the just outlined conception of grand theory influenced by Mills and putting it in relationship with Malinowski’s methodology of participant observation, the answer to our question whether or not Malinowski’s heritage barred the way of Anthropology to ever produce grand theories appears unambiguously to be ‘yes’.
Participant observation in its very nature is close to the individual and aims to explore, over a long period of time, which social and cultural forces influence the human being in a specific setting. Therefore, with regards to Mills conception of grand theory, Anthropology has a birth defect called participant observation that will always prevent it from producing highly abstract grand theories, which stand in no relation to the circumstances from where they were deduced from.
A closer look reveals that Malinowski’s understanding of the anthropological formation of theory aligns with Mills criticism towards highly abstract grand theories: “It would be easy to quote works of high repute, and with a scientific hall-mark on them, in which wholesale generalisations are laid down before us, and we are not informed at all by what actual experiences the writers have reached their conclusions.
(…) I consider that only such ethnographic sources are of unquestionable scientific value, in which we can clearly draw the line between, on the one hand, the result of direct observation and of native statements and interpretations and on the other, the inferences of the author, based on his common sense of psychological insight. ” (Malinowski 1966: 3) Here Malinowski differences between two approaches of data processing.
One approach leads to mere ‘wholesale generalisations’ and the other approach also includes the ‘actual experiences’ the researcher faced on the local level that explain on what assumptions and observations her or his generalizations are based on. He hence supports the notion of Anthropology as a science of producing generalisations, as long as they are comprehensible and in direct relation to the reality on the ground. Malinowski’s ethnographies exist to a vast amount of descriptive details that are very specific to certain social groups or individual preferences and he has hence often been criticized as an ‘empiricist’ (see Firth 1957).
Also, one could argue that his attempt to put his findings in a neat structured box with columns, as he has done in his article Group and Individual in Functional Analysis (1966) seem rather compelled. Nevertheless, he was able to provide social science with universal and generalizing frameworks on, inter alia, on how social institutions function in relation to society. He states that “social institutions have a definite organisation, (…) they are governed by authority, law and order in their public and personal relations, while the latter are, besides, under the control of extremely complex ties of kinship and clanship.
” (Malinowski 1966: 10). Malinowski’s suggestion to use institution as a starting point for social and cultural analysis has “produced integrated descriptions instead of loosely classified catalogues of traits, and has stimulated the fuller recording of case material from actual behavior as a supplement to the listing of ideal patterns. ” (Murdock 1943: 443). Following Malinowski’s ethnographic method and theory construction therefore aims to create a firm framework of the “social constitution” that “disentangle[s] the laws and regularities of all cultural phenomena from the irrelevances.
” (Malinowski 1966: 10f. ). His approach is thus far more that only an accumulation of meaningless observations of an individuals life in a very specific society. Considering these arguments, Malinowski approach can, indeed, be seen as congruent with our first tendency to understand grand theory. The answer to our initial question should hence be that Anthropology is a science that can certainly produce grand theories in the sense of generalized frameworks and universalistic theories, without neglecting the importance of the “local and the contingent” (Skinner 1985: 12).
Furthermore, Anthropology can be viewed as an established science with its own field of study being the human being and its social group as well as their mutual dependencies and influences. “Anthropology stands in a clear relationship to the other basic science, because it is concerned with studying phenomena at one clearly discriminate level vis-a-vis those other sciences. ” (Good 1996: 32)