Anthropological Methodology

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Anthropologists wrestle with the ‘Prime Directive’

every time they enter the field. As the Enterprise,

landing on a Strange New World;

how much interference in the local culture does

one engage?

Sometimes one can deter a group from a harmful or

unnecessary practice, but most times, one touch is

enough to cause mayhem.

In the old story of throwing the virgin into the

volcano to prevent eruption;

how does the anthropologist react?

Doing nothing?

Speaking against it?

Rescuing the damsel in distress?

Suggesting the eruption is going to be too powerful

for a virgin and needs the most powerful man in the 


There is no answer.

If the virgin goes into the volcano and it still erupts…

if the virgin is spared, and there is an eruption…or

if the anthropologist winds up being the sacrifice….?

Further, an anthropologist is not a social engineer. He or

she has not been sent to organise society, to dispense

western mores, but to observe and recommend.

The ‘fresh pair of eyes’ has often been useful to governments

and non-governmental agencies, in understanding why something

does not work.

In Jamaica, for example, there were prison riots for three

days when condoms were introduced.  Jamaica is, and is proud

to be, the most homophobic nation on Earth.  The insinuation

that condoms would be necessary in an all male prison with

no conjugal visits, was totally unacceptable.

The better method was to give a lecture to inmates who

would be released within in the year by a young and

nervous female heath care worker along with an enormous

visual aid, to show the population how to properly use a


The reaction to this was amusement, and by simply leaving

condoms behind for appropriation, skirted the issue of

whether or not homosexuality was being practiced in the


To attempt to alter the opinions of Jamaicans in re

homosexuality leads to an uproar and has caused

greater antagonism than previously.

In Nigeria, the idea that polio vaccines caused sterility,

arising however it did, resulted in a public rejection, and

subsequently, an outbreak of what had been a cured disease.

The after the fact acceptance of the vaccine is no comfort to

those who are now crippled by polio, and proves the failure

of ignoring a culture or subculture’s view of an event.

A fresh pair of eyes ought have been dispatched the moment

the first opinion that the vaccine causes sterility was


The anthropologist, seeing the culture as a whole and as

‘other’ would have been able to gauge the power of the

sentiment, and the government would have been able to

implement less costly methods of compliance.

Unfortunately, this was not done.

Currently, attempts are being made in East Africa to end the

practice of female circumcision by using Islamic clerics to

condemn it.  By working within the culture, change might be

more acceptable than passing a law to forbid it.

Other methods, perhaps giving a cow to uncircumcised females

as long as they remain uncircumcised, would be of some value,

especially by linking it with a girl remaining unmarried

until she is sixteen, when the cow would be gifted.

Building the practice of uncircumcised virgins receiving

a cow on their sixteenth birthday could be built into the

culture, but it must be done with the compliance of the

leadership of each village, so as not to threaten power


Threatening power bases has always caused the defeat of a

programme’s application.  Just as stopping the virgin from

being thrown into the volcano is an affront to the leadership

which believes it would stop the eruption.

One must be careful to uphold the Prime Directive and seek

methods of having change, when necessary, come from within.

But it must grow from within the culture, not be enforced

from without.


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