Anthropology – The Challenges that Face Researchers

The following essay is an examination of the difficulties that an anthropologist might hypothetically face in the field, when studying a tent city in a park in Osaka, and ideas as to how those difficulties might be overcome.  

Numerous challenges face an anthropologist when performing research, ranging from practical to ethical. When “in the field”, some of the key areas to consider are: how to choose an anthropological site, which people to study, selection of methodologies used to record data, the effect of the anthropologist’s presence.

When choosing Osaka “tent city” as an anthropological site, multiple factors such as accessibility and safety (both of the anthropologist and the participants) must be considered. Often more insular communities can be accessed by approaching and engaging with the community leader first, however, even benign agendas of leaders can affect the behaviour of a community and the data collected. Participants of anthropological studies can also be self-selecting, with data subsequently collected from those most willing to talk. This can skew the overall impression and conclusions made from a study.

There are various different methods that can be used to record data including notes, films, surveys, interviews and photographs. Each data-collection method has their own strengths and limitations but consistency is vital to the collection of valid data (especially if statistical analysis is being performed). Therefore it is important to allow time to simply observe and then devise the most appropriate approach to data collection for that particular “field site”. It is also necessary to build flexibility into the approach in order that new and interesting, unforeseen, strands can be incorporated into the methodology.

The anthropologist must be aware that their presence alone is an interaction, a variable which will inevitably effect the behaviour of those around them and thus the material collected. An ethical question every anthropologist faces is when to tell people they want to study that they are an anthropologist because this can inevitably alter behaviour. There will also be problems that arise which are specific to the particular anthropologist and the situation they are in. For example, in Osaka “tent city” a foreign anthropologist might have difficulties of acceptance, conversely not being Japanese might be positive as people might be more willing to speak to an outsider.

Finally, the anthropologist must take into consideration their own beliefs, background and politics, and be wary of these effecting their analysis of a situation. Introducing BBC Radio 4’s Homeless in Japan (1), the presenter quoted Tom Gill as having said that “Japan still has something of the exotic about it”, this is an example of a mindset that one must be wary of. The term “exotic” is problematic because it immediately frames Japan as something strange, along with connotations of imperialism and fetishisation. However, at the end of the interview Gill says “In real life, a satisfying denouement is very seldom the true end of the story”, which demonstrates his awareness of the difficult task of observing reality, rather than merely providing what fits with the research aims. Despite the problems which can arise with an anthropological approach, it nevertheless can be a valuable tool with which to gain cultural insights and research data.

This photograph and the one above illustrate the complexity of anthropological information which can be captured in a single image.


(1) Gill, Tom. Homeless in Japan. BBC Radio 4 Four Thought Podcast. 2011.

Reference Material:

Gill, Tom. Homeless in Japan. BBC Radio 4 Four Thought Podcast. 2011.

Matsue, Jennifer Milioto. Making music in Japan’s underground: the Tokyo hardcore scene. Vol. 3. Routledge, 2008.

Novak, David. “Listening to Kamagasaki.” Anthropology News 51, no. 9 (2011): 5-5.

6 Replies to “Anthropology – The Challenges that Face Researchers

  1. Dear Zoe, Thank you for your well-composed blog regarding anthropological research methodology. In addition to use the word ‘exotic, did you think the tone of the speaker on the radio acceptable? I am asking you as I didn’t. Best wishes, Natsue

    1. Dear Natsue,

      Thank you for your kind comments. You raise an important question regarding the “tone” of the speech during the radio interview, which I didn’t find appropriate when he was discussing how the man died from cancer.

  2. Hi Zoe- Interesting post. If, instead of “Japan still has something of the exotic about it,” Tom Gill had instead said “Japan still has something about it to some people, who were brought up in the UK within an environment that had little contact with or experience of Japan, which can come across to said people as different from their own experience of the world and as a result may occasionally pique their curiosity,” would you also view this as illustrative of a mindset that merits wariness? And were their other parts of the podcast that were problematic as well as the use of the word ‘exotic’? The world has changed a lot in the last five years in terms of attitudes towards words like ‘exotic’ and ‘foreign’, and this is very notable in the case of Western academia- I noticed a big shift around the middle of my time as an undergraduate, especially after returning to the UK from my year abroad in late 2015. In 2011, when this podcast was recorded, I don’t think as many students would have honed in on the word ‘exotic’ as would today, which I think is testament to our current hyper-awareness of language that others people and/or carries Western-centric or imperialist connotations, as you mention.

  3. Hi Zoe, great post, you raised a lot of great points about the problems of studying a group of peoples. Do you think that skewed results, such as in the case of certain people being more willing to talk, is necessarily a bad thing? I think that this kind of information is in itself usefu/indicative of an anthropological study.

    1. Thank you Tom, you raise a point which I find very interesting. On reflection, I think that it is key than an anthropologist is aware that their information may be skewed for any number of reasons, including the one you suggest. It is also important that when writing up the research for publication that these limitations are made clear.

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