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