Posted by: Mike Plett | May 8, 2014

Ethnography and the role of cultural bias

Shortly before I entered the Master’s in Strategic Communications program, I had completed reading 1491: New Revelations of the America’s Before Columbus (Mann, 2005), which argues that much of what was previously believed about Native American culture is incorrect. I was reminded of this book as I read Lindlof and Taylor’s chapter on fieldwork, ethnography and participant observation. I was especially reminded about Mann’s cautionary tale of ethnographer Allan R. Holmberg, who lived among the Sirionó Indians of Bolivia during the 1940s. He published an influential account of their lives that described the Sirionó as remnants of the Paleolithic Age living in an essentially ahistorical, culturally backwards state.

Although Holmberg was apparently a careful and compassionate researcher, he nevertheless was blinded by his own cultural biases. He was unable to realize that, far from remaining unchanged since the Stone Age, the Sirionó were relative newcomers to the region who became victims of an epidemic that wiped out 95 percent of the population about 20 years before Holmberg arrived.

Ethnographers need to practice self-awareness to identify possible biases in order to avoid making Holmberg-type mistakes. Lindlof and Taylor suggest fieldworkers should inventory their physical characteristics, social attributes and cultural capital, and then “consider how they correspond to cultural categories that are relevant for the group members (they) are studying” (2011, p. 142). Such careful considerations may not eliminate but can definitely help mitigate cultural bias.


  1. Malinowsky, who has some claims to being the father of ethnography, is apparently guilty of this but to his credit, he was more discreet about it. His personal feelings were written in a private journal which is separate from the official field notes. Check out the BBC video I posted in Blackboard. I guess it’s all too human to have biases but you’re right, we just need to have enough self-awareness to know what’s going on.

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