The distinction between sociology and cultural anthropology can occasionally be quite vague. They use similar forms of research, and have similar goals. However, where cultural anthropology seeks to understand specific cultures, sociology seeks to understand human beings as social creatures within and without their culture.
Archival Research or Secondary Analysis
Archival research or secondary analysis is a type of research where the sociologist uses information gathered previously by another person or group. This information may be in the form of government records, anthropological ethnographies, old photographs, journals, or books. This information is an ideal means of collecting data for a historical or longitudinal study.
The disadvantages for this method of study are that the data may be flawed or unsuited for the study being performed. If the information is inaccurate or unsuitable, the results of the study will be inherently flawed.
Sociologists use surveys to gather large amounts of information in a short period of time. Sociologists will question a population or a sample of a population to gain insight and information about the group that the people belong to. Surveys can be conducted in person, through the mail or over the phone. The researcher will generally select specific questions that will be asked to ensure that the information obtained is pertinent to the study being performed.
The disadvantages to survey research are that the information may not always be reliable or consistent and a productive survey may be time consuming to formulate and decipher results. If a questionnaire is sent in the mail, everyone may not respond, making the sample of subjects no longer represent the entire population being studied. If the surveyors or subjects are uncomfortable with any of the questions being asked, questions may not be answered, leaving the researcher without answers to important questions. All of these will lead to incomplete or inaccurate results.
The philosophical justification for using surveys in sociological research is that it is one of the best methods for gathering large amounts of information quickly. It can also allow for the subjects being surveyed to remain anonymous and help to eliminate bias in the interpretation of results. As long as the researcher is careful, this is a very good research method for statistical studies or studies that require a large pool of subjects.
Historical Analysis or Secondary Analysis
Like sociologists, cultural anthropologists may use secondary analysis as a method of research. This method of research involves analyzing historical records or previously gathered information in an effort to understand a culture. Records used may include government records, photographs, video footage, or voice recordings.
Anthropologists will combine the information gathered from this research into a comprehensive picture of a culture.
Cultural anthropologists use ethnology to create ethnographies. Ethnology is an immersion method of research in which the researcher immerses themselves into the culture they are studying. While performing their research, anthropologists employ the use of observation, photographic records, video records, interviews and voice recording to record information while they are learning about a culture.
When an anthropologist uses ethnology to study a culture, he/she will live within the society they are studying for the duration of the study. They will learn about the culture of the society through first-hand experience, by witnessing or participating in the everyday life of the people they are studying. They may watch or participate in various ceremonies and rituals, listen to legends and stories, or eat the local cuisine. They may videotape the local people, make recordings of the local language, or photograph the costumes worn by the local people. They may employ the use of any or all of these techniques, and more.
While some may see this method of research as an invasion of privacy, the local culture generally does not. The anthropologist is ethically bound to get permission from cultural leaders before studying the culture, and is required to respect the wishes of the local people.
The philosophical justification for the use of ethnology is that, by immersing oneself into a culture for an extended period of time, the researcher will learn more, and the people of the culture will come to trust the researcher, making the information more accurate and allowing the anthropologist to create a more comprehensive ethnography. The ethnographies are important because they allow people to learn about a culture and interact with that culture appropriately. Ethnographies also serve as a historical record of cultures that may be endangered or extinct.
Both sociology and anthropology use secondary analysis as a research method. They can utilize the same types of material and the same information. They can even use the same methods of gathering the information. The difference is in how the information is utilized and reported.
While both groups may use the same information, sociologists and anthropologists may use different pieces of information or look at the information from different angles. For example, sociologists may use census reports to gather information on the changes of social classes in the US over a period of time in order to discern a trend and predict what may happen in the future, while anthropologists may use the same information to determine how those social classes work together within a culture. Likewise, sociologists may look at how incomes within a certain social class have changed, while anthropologists may look at how incomes have changed among Hispanic Americans.
Therefore, it is easy to see how the lines between sociology and cultural anthropology may be confused. However, the easiest way to discern the difference is to determine whether the focus of a study was a cultural point of view or a societal point of view. You must ask yourself if the study encompassed one group of people, or many different groups working together.
William Haviland, H. P. (2008). Anthropology the Human Challenge. Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth.