Social anthropology, like any social science, tries to learn about social phenomena. This is a scientific endeavour. The objective of science as is now propounded by post-modern social theory is not to know the reality of society, but the so-called truth about the affairs of society. It seeks to develop skills so that human beings can live a better life.
To develop skills one has to employ scientific methods so that social and natural phenomena can be properly exploited and harnessed. If there is a science, there is certainly a method. Theory, method and data go together.
Social anthropology has a well-developed methodology for learning about society. This methodology has not developed overnight, but has been evolved through several decades.
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What distinguishes social anthropology in the realm of social sciences is its fieldwork methodology which is the guiding idiom of this discipline. It is amazing to find that despite methodology being an important ingredient of social anthropology; it does not find any suitable treatment in the textbooks. What is worse, it does not even find a place in the index.
As a result, under the theme of methodology, all sources of procedures and techniques are discussed. Method is logic. When an anthropologist is confronted with a problem, his first devices a logic, that is, he argues: how can the problem be approached logically so that the desired objective is fulfilled.
It is this logic which leads to the attainment of the objectives of social research that decides the method. There are several methods of logic to tackle the research problem.
The researcher analyzes the merit of the logic and identifies one or more methods. In short, method is the logic of enquiry; it is the rule of accomplishing an end; it is an orderly procedure.
If we make a survey of the tradition of social anthropological research, we find that fieldwork and empirical tradition have been constant characteristics of social anthropology.
It cannot survive even for a moment without fieldwork method. Thomas Hylland Eriksen has stressed the importance of fieldwork in social anthropology as a reliable method, that is, logic for generating field data. He observes:
Anthropology distinguishes itself from the other social sciences through the great emphasis put on fieldwork as the most important source of new knowledge about society and culture.
A field study may last between a few months to two years, or longer. And it aims at developing as intimate an understanding as possible of the phenomena investigated.
Although there are differences in field methods between different anthropological schools, it is generally agreed that the anthropologist ought to stay in the field long enough for his or her presence to be considered more or less ‘natural’ by the permanent residents, although he or she will have to some extent remain a stranger.
At a later stage we shall have the opportunity to discuss the field- work tradition continued by social anthropologists of the European continent, the US and India. The point we want to stress here is that the meaning of ‘field’ is taken to be “an area of knowledge”. This knowledge area is observed by the researcher.
As for natural sciences there is a laboratory, so for social anthropology there is fieldwork. Yet another meaning of fieldwork is the scientific survey work done in the field. By conducting survey work the social anthropologist tries to find the patterned or organized whole of the society.
He does not look at the primitive tradition, belief system or a ritual as a separate and isolated occurrence. Rather, he looks at the whole society, finding out the pattern of working, living, marrying, worshipping and organizing.
The methodology of social anthropology is mainly fieldwork. In other words, fieldwork is empirical and empirical work is experience. This experience is gained through the sensory system. No fieldwork can be done without empiricism. But empiricism or fieldwork is not the end in itself.
It generates data and gives new knowledge about society, but it remains incomplete without interpretation, and the real rub lies in interpretation. This requires other methods like comparative method, historical method and functional method. Case study, observation and administration of schedule are some of the techniques which we employ to make a better interpretation.