Foundational Approaches of Anthropological Practice

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the Best Practices section

These foundational approaches and standards are the ideal for how we should apply anthropology in our work, no matter the sector(s). Some of these are rather unique to anthropology, while others could be applied in other disciplines just as easily.  They will overlap at times, and not all will be relevant in all contexts. But generally, these are approaches that set our work apart.

At the heart of anthropological work is the concept of culture. This can be the culture of a workplace, of a project, or a particular setting. In any case, overtly or covertly, we take nothing for granted, look beyond “face value,” and try to get below the surface to the underlying components and dynamics of why people behave the way they do, and how to most effectively navigate in that context.

Cross cultural
We recognize that different groups have different ways of behavior that make sense to them. When there is a conflict, we should be ready to serve as culture brokers to try to mediate misunderstandings.

Ideally, these perspectives ultimately complement each other. Emic is understanding the way a group thinks and how they behave under a given set of accepted rules; we take into consideration and negotiate the views, experiences and perspectives of stakeholders. Etic is the outsider’s analysis and interpretation of the group’s behavior. It is the anthropologist’s role to combine these two perspectives accurately toward the most effective ends.

It is very anthropological to look at all sides of an issue, and to consider all sources of information from all available sources, before rendering an analysis or interpretation. Individuals and issues are at the center of a web of connections, relationships, and influences, and we need to sort out all strands of the web.

Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary
Given our frequent work across a broad arc of professional orientations, these two standards are understandable. In general, being interdisciplinary means integrating data, information, knowledge and/or methods from different disciplines, creating a synthesis of analysis. Multidisciplinary is learning about and working collaboratively with other approaches and professions, understanding their points and taking into consideration different ways of achieving goals.

Historical, contextual, comparative
Take into account all available information, past and present, and use it in its proper context to compare options and insights. The end goal is to derive the best results based on all available information. This is systems thinking: viewing a situation, behavior, or action in context and history, rather than in isolation.

Scientific approaches and methods
Even in purely creative endeavors, there is a foundation of science to guide our decisions and actions. Knowable facts, observations, and logic guide our actions rather that gut feelings and hopeful interpretations.

To be most accurate and effective, we need to know ourselves and our internal biases, and be transparent in our work. We must also keep in mind our effect on others, as well as relevant power dynamics, cultural blind spots, and other situational factors.

We should always match our programs or activities with the interests and needs of the funders or client/community. Similarly, we need to match the budgets with the programs or activities.

Our orientation is to try to create situations in which all stakeholders benefit, without resulting advantages and disadvantages across individuals or groups. It does not always work, but that’s the approach.

Findings and results
In many situations we work with stakeholders to rapidly synthesize and co-construct analysis, information, knowledge, and direction, and to understand the translation of information and knowledge into decisions leading to action. It is vital to pay attention to the policy implications of our work. We rarely work in a vacuum.