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Handbook of Methods in Cultural Anthropology

H. Russell Bernard
Sage Publications: London
1998
0761991514 (hb)
55.00 (hb)
816

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This book was written to update the 1970 Handbook of Methods in Cultural Anthropology, edited by Raoull Naroll and Ronald Cohen. Since the publication of Naroll and Cohen's book, the discipline of anthropology, like the other social sciences, has undergone many changes, embracing new approaches and resurrecting or discarding old ones. The arena in which anthropologists work has also altered immeasurably. The isolated communities of the past have all-but disappeared and the language of globalisation has crept in to even the seemingly most localised studies.

The book is designed to be useful to "academic anthropologists and practising anthropologists; to interpretivists and positivists; to idealists and materialists." (pp. 8) and the strength of this book lies in its extensive coverage of the methods available to cultural anthropologists, as well as to others in the social sciences and humanities.

The Handbook contains 19 chapters by 27 authors, divided into four sections. The first section covers epistemology, ranging from positivism to postmodernism and radical constructivism, but also incorporating developing areas of interest including 'Feminist Methods' by Christine Ward Gailey and Ulf Hannerz on 'Transnational Research'. The only possible criticism of this section is that, in covering so many perspectives, some are reduced to no more than a couple of sentences, and in doing so their complexity is lost.

The second section contains seven chapters on the practicalities of acquiring information. The first four chapters cover person-centred methods, including participant observation and interviewing. The remaining chapters focus on document-based methods, including discourse analysis, and visual and historical anthropology.

The third section deals with interpretation. Here the statistical roots of anthropology are evident, with two of the three chapters focussing on quantitative methods. H. Russell Bernard and Gery W. Ryan's chapter on 'Text Analysis: Qualitative and Quantitative Methods' provides a welcome synthesis of qualitative and quantitative approaches at a time of increasing polarisation between the two camps.

Finally, the fourth section is concerned with the engagement of anthropologists with diverse audiences. This is unusual in such a book and represents a break from the image of anthropology as purely an academic discipline. In this section, Robert T. Trotter II and Jean J. Schensul examine the use of anthropological techniques in policy orientated research, while Conrad Phillip Kottak provides an overview of the dissemination process in relation to a variety of audiences.

As well as giving details of the perspective or method, each chapter provides a history of its evolution and most of the authors are refreshingly honest about the pitfalls of their approach as well as its benefits. Each chapter ends with an extensive bibliography, in some cases nearing 10 pages, offsetting possible criticisms that depth has been sacrificed for breadth.

There are many books that deal with methodology in cultural anthropology, and more generally in the social sciences and humanities. The selling point of this book seems to be its sheer comprehensiveness and it cannot be faulted in this. However, it is much easier to imagine libraries having a single, well- thumbed copy of this book, than it is to envisage a stampede at the bookshops.

There are few criticisms to be made of this excellent book. While people may disagree about the merits of the different approaches, there is no denying that the chapters are concisely and impartially written. It is unfortunate that this impartiality, despite Russell Bernard's hopes, does not extend to the discussion of anthropology itself. From the title itself, 'Cultural Anthropology' rather than, for example, 'Social Sciences' or even 'Humanities', to Conrad Phillip Kottak's final paragraph exhorting us to "Be True to Your Anthropology" (pp. 760) the book has a rather defensive tone. This is lamentable not only because it will deter potential readers from other backgrounds but also because, just as discrete communities are disappearing in anthropology, academic subjects are no longer the bounded territories they once were. If there is a subject suited to accommodating this change, it should be anthropology. The range of methods in this book illustrates the diversity that cultural anthropology has to offer and the use of these methods in other subjects provides an area of potential collaboration. If anthropology is not to become an anachronism, the outlook of the subject itself, not just its fieldwork, must move with the times.

Gaby Atfield
University of Newcastle

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