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Essay 1!


Majida Rukab

Professor Kate Crehan

Cultural Anthropology

February 28, 2011

Direct Observation: The Right Tool for the Right Job

! Performing qualitative analysis in cultural anthropology is necessary because

studying human culture(s) and societies involves data that cannot always be measured

or quantified. There are a number of ways in which an anthropologist can perform

qualitative research, and choosing a particular method should take the nature of the

data and the context of the work into consideration. Claire Sterk, an anthropologist in-

terested in uncovering aspects of the life of prostitutes, implemented an informal re-

search strategy to collect her data. Sterkʼs choice of method was flexible, informal and

allowed her to gain exceptional access to information that another more formal and

structured strategy might not have done.

! In her research on prostitutes, Sterk set out to describe the life of prostitutes from

the womenʼs own point of view. She was interested in exposing their true stories in an

up-close and real way. Some key points Sterk was interested in learning about included

how the women got started in the life of prostitution, the “various processes involved in

their continued prostitution careers, the link between prostitution and drug use, the

womenʼs interaction with their pimps and customers, and the impact of the AIDS epi-

demic and increasing violence on their experiences.”1

1 Claire E. Sterk 2001 ʻTricking and Tripping: Fieldwork on Prostitution in the Era of AIDSʼ in Applying Cul-
tural Anthropology: an Introductory Reader (Fifth Edition) edited by Aaron Podelefsky and Peter J. Brown,
Mountain View Californaia: Mayfield Publishing Company, 14.
Essay 1! Rukab

! In order to expose the prostitutesʼ true stories in a real way, Sterk needed a flexi-

ble approach that would allow her to move from one setting to another at various times

for observation because the nature of the prostitutesʼ work demanded this kind of

movement. Her approach also needed to bring her both physically and emotionally

close to her subjects. Sterk would need to follow the women and be around them long

enough to understand from their experiences. Gaining the prostitutesʼ trust would also

be a fundamental part of her research so that the prostitutes could fully disclose aspects

of their lives that were significant to Sterkʼs work. Sterk was able to accomplish this by

implementing direct observation, a research method commonly used by cultural anthro-

pologist as a means to gain an “intimate familiarity” with the group of people to be

studied.2 Sterk made a conscious effort to be supportive and provide “practical assis-

tance” to the prostitutes in order to gain their trust because as she states, “the process

involved in developing relationships in research situations amplify those involved in de-

veloping relationships in general”.3

! Sterk also needed a method that did not require a hypothesis because she did

not specifically have one. Sterk did not state any expectations about what she would

observe with the prostitutes. She was interested in simply making note of her observa-

tions and coming to conclusions based on these examinations. Direct observation sat-

isfies this need since it allows for gathering a “depth of information about a particular

behavior”.4 This type of data collection is also considered “strong in validity” because

2"Participant Observation." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 24 Feb. 2011

3 Sterk, 16.
4"Collecting Data Through Observation." Social Research Methods. Web. 25 Feb. 2011.
Essay 1! Rukab

direct observation is the “best available approximation to the truth”, and this was of par-

ticular importance for Sterk because as mentioned above, she wanted to reveal the

prostitutesʼ lives in an up close and real way.5

! Sterkʼs research strategy also needed to be informal so that there were no limita-

tions to gathering her data. A formal method such as a structured questionnaire or in-

terview with a number of predesigned questions could be limiting because it can prevent

the researcher from capturing answers not covered in the questionnaire or interview.

For this reason, Sterkʼs involvement in dialogue with the women along with her use of

open-ended questions during her interviews enabled her to “gain and insiderʼs

perspective”.6 For example, Sterk explains that by “being a careful listener and probing

for additional information” she was “able to uncover the complexities of their lives”.7

! Steve Striffler, an American anthropologist interested in studying the effects of

class on culture, became an active participant alongside the people he was studying.

He essentially became one of them, so much so that he was referred to as a “Mexican”

by an individual within the group observed because the workers inside the plant he was

studying were mostly Mexicans.8 While Sterk always made clear that she was a re-

searcher, Striffler penetrated his observed group, not revealing his identity or intentions.

Both strategies enabled the researchers to get very close to the individuals they were

observing, which allowed them both to gather in depth information and to get accurate

5"Collecting Data Through Observation." Social Research Methods. Web. 25 Feb. 2011.
6 Sterk 18.
7 Sterk 18.
8Steve Striffler 2002 ʻInside a Poultry Processing Plant: an Ethnographic portraitʼLabor History, Vol. 43,
No. 3, p. 312.
Essay 1! Rukab

representations of what was going on. With Sterk, however, she was able to further col-

lect data via interviews because the prostitutes knew she was studying them and there-

fore Sterk was able to point-blank question and survey the women. Striffler may have

been limited because he had to remain inconspicuous but Sterk was free from this

boundary and was able to unambiguously gather her information.

! Sterk applied an appropriate method of research for studying the lives of prosti-

tutes. She considered the nature of her work and understood the need for a flexible and

informal approach for data collection. In choosing the right strategy, Sterk was success-

ful in gaining extraordinary access and gathering intimate and in depth information.
Essay 1! Rukab