Qualitative and Quantitative Research Methods in Anthropology


Anthropology is a social science that studies the evolution and culture of human beings. It relies on diverse research methods to collect and analyze information. Anthropologists gain understanding of other cultures by immersing themselves in those cultures and participating in the lives of their subjects. They also conduct interviews and review written materials. This research generates detailed qualitative data, but anthropologists use quantitative methods as well, including statistical techniques that summarize the information they collect in their field research.


  • Ethnography is one of the most popular qualitative research methods associated with anthropology. Anthropologists become a part of the cultures they study through ethnographic research. Researchers live among their subjects and conduct participant observations, in which they take part in their subjects' activities. During this research, anthropologists take detailed field notes, providing extensive information for review and analysis later, as they uncover patterns in the information. Anthropologists have used ethnographic techniques in various settings, from primitive villages in other countries to modern school classrooms.

Interviews and Surveys

  • Interviews often form another source of qualitative data in ethnographic research. In addition to participant observation, anthropological researchers may conduct individual or group interviews, asking open-ended questions and recording answers. Interviews yield additional material to supplement field notes taken in participant observations. As an alternative to interviews, some anthropologists may administer surveys. Because most surveys use closed-ended questions in which subjects select a response from a category of choices, such as degrees of agreement or disagreement, they lack the detail of interviews. However, survey responses are easier to code numerically, which makes them easier to analyze.

Document Analysis

  • Many anthropologists rely on multiple data collection techniques in their research. In some studies, researchers will review written documents, as well as interviews and observations to collect data about other cultures, organizations or groups of people. Written communications, such as newspapers, journals and letters, can provide detailed qualitative information. In addition, anthropologists can employ content analysis techniques, which reduce detailed textual material to more manageable data through a meticulous numerical coding process. Content analysis makes text material, including interview transcripts, easier to analyze with descriptive statistical techniques.

Statistical Methods

  • Although less common in anthropology than in other social sciences, such as economics, statistical techniques represent important parts of an anthropologist's research toolkit. Using descriptive statistics, such as frequencies, means and standard deviations, researchers can report survey results in terms of the percentage of subjects who believe certain things. They can also report the number of times a particular event occurred. Statistical methods enable anthropologists to describe a large population of study subjects but lack the detail offered by qualitative techniques.

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