Hypotheses and Research Questions


I recently conducted a short mini-project titled ‘A Man & Food’1. I will use this mini-project to analyse and reflect on my current understanding of two related approaches to anthropological research that are dominant in my understanding and informed the mentioned mini-project.

An interesting juxtaposition of anthropological approaches that has become salient to me during the period of my mini-project is between what I will call Approach One (A1) and Approach Two (A2). I am using ‘approach’ to mean a set of research practices that shape the structure by which a researcher employs standard anthropological methodologies (e.g. interviews) to collect data.

Two anthropologists’ critical comments on anthropology seem to reflect a sense of these two approaches. Although they are used by the authors in the context of negative criticism of aspects of anthropology itself, this essay explores the possibility that what the authors devalue, are actually two very valuable anthropological approaches.

First is Keith Hart who believes that anthropologists focus too heavily on ethnography at the ‘local’ scale and simply collect anecdotes as their evidence, however in doing so they “draw on social immersion to make intuitive generalisations, which are more often right than other practitioners whose methods are more strictly positivist” (2013, pp.4).

Second is Sherry Ortner who critiques Political Economic approaches to anthropology for ‘turning up on the shores of other cultures with their own pre-ordained theories to which they try and fit the data they collect and thus subsume other cultures to their own macro-economic understandings of the world, rather than understanding them on their own terms’ (1984, pp.143).

In some sense the two approaches to doing anthropology I am comparing, respectively resonate with these two commentaries on anthropology – however this brief comparison of the two approaches highlights the strengths of each if not used in isolation from each other.

Approach One (A1)

Approach One (A1) requires that before the researcher collects field data, they cover as much of the relevant literature as possible, contact experts who have already worked at that field-site, and gain any possible knowledge about the location of their research. In doing this the researcher then outlines a model of how they believe different aspects of their research area are functioning, and hypotheses how different elements causally relate.

In my mini-project I surveyed the academic literature pertaining to Weston Price’s work on dietary variations and their effects on health around the world (1939). I then conducted the mini-project as a form of pilot study to get some sense of what I was researching. According to A1 I would have previously – or having now conducting a pilot study – plotted a causal diagram embedded within a chosen body of anthropological theory2, and generated sets of hypotheses about what was happening at the research field-site.

Having selected a paradigmatic angle I can know generate hypotheses about what is happening at my field-site. For example, before I conducted the mini-project I had used the concept of ‘self-medication’, ‘sociotechnical experimentation’, and direct knowledge transmission to hypothesise a causal chain that (i) Sam Parsons (my subject of study) had become ill, (ii) he had read/heard about the effect of diet on human health, (iv) he was unsatisfied with his formal medical treatment, (v) he researched further which diets might assist his condition, (vi) so he started experimenting with them, (vii) and through trial and error he came across a raw meat diet that assisted his low rate of blood cell production, (viii) and as it benefitted him (ix) so he maintained it.

Typically I could identify global and historic casual mechanisms that have led to the this set of circumstances e.g. a situation where (i) the formal medical system has for historical reasons no in-depth appreciation of diet as a medical tool, (ii) due to an reductionist conception of the human (iii) which originated in historical processes of materialist ideology in ‘the West’ and (iv) alienation of people from the ‘natural’ environment, which is (v) part and parcel of industrialised capitalism etc…

Before collecting data ‘on the ground’ via fieldwork the researcher using A1 would break down the hypotheses into the possible variables that influence each causal relationship being hypothesised and identify what data needs to be collected to test each hypothesised relationship. Having done this the researcher would then decide the most appropriate methodology for collecting the required data.

For example if I wanted to test my hypothesis that Sam Parson’s change in diet had causally resulted in a benefit to his health condition, then his personal medical data – particularly blood test results that contain indicators for his medical condition – and interviews on how he felt during the dietary change, would be relevant data3. Using these I might test whether one of my hypothesis was correct.

A1 benefits from a research design that seeks to build directly out of a common body of knowledge, by testing what we already know and adding to it. Additionally it benefits from being a model for research that can stand up to scrutiny outside of the anthropological context as it demonstrates a coherent and structured approach to knowledge production that actively draws on an eclectic mixture of methods. Applied on its own, its limitations are obvious in the fact that it (i) is ethnocentric –ontocentric?– in its application of theories developed in one context to other ontological contexts where they may not be relevant, (ii) its prioritises a theoretical conception of macro-level processes – usually historical or economic – as the reason for ‘why things are as they are’, but in doing so tends to overlook the creative agency of persons at a local level, and (iii) it retrospectively uses the simple model of causality to explain ‘how stuff works’ which (a) provides a mechanistic view of a world, whose (b) entropy actually exceeds the threshold that classical mechanic causality can master, whilst (c) implying that every event must have a prior related reason for its happening the way it did4.

Approach Two (A2)

In comparison to A1, A2 smacks of uncertainty, subtlety , and generally all the attributes of any research approach that is actually trying to learn a postmodernist lesson of not assuming constructions of reality as truth. A2 is thus harder to explain in some sense as its amorphous nature makes it hard to pin down. This reveals one of its temporally dependent weaknesses – its difficulty to stand up easily to scrutiny outside of the anthropological context, as among other things it is difficult to demonstrate its’ coherency in relation to colloquially dominant opinions on knowledge production that are mechanically deterministic. For similar reasons its efficacy and durability are subtle and mobile which complicates matters in the shadow of materialistic sciences which deal primarily with solid matter or play to our ideological assumptions about it.

Even though I recognise A2, as an anthropological novice I do not understand it fully due to its ever changing and idiosyncratic tendencies, however I will explain two key characteristics that make it stand out. First is its’ vision of the researcher – in their ontological totality – as the instrument of research, and second is a characteristic that sociologists would call ‘groundedness’ (Bryant, 2007).

Thinking of ‘human as the instrument of data collection’ underpins both the anthropological method of Participant Observation, and anthropology’s complex approach to being grounded. The particular characteristic of Participant Observation that sets it aside from methodologies that cross-over or constitute it – such as interviewing, informal conversations etc… – is touched on in Hart’s aforementioned quote about ‘the social immersion of the researcher leading to intuitive generalisations about the subject of study’ (ref). It is this leveraging by the researcher of the complex ability of their human ‘being’ to combine (i) synchronous multi-perceptional data collection with (ii) a brain that can comprehend complex information as knowledge.

We might not fully understand this capability5, nonetheless we can generate insights as valuable outcomes, and as the researcher is the instrument themselves they can try through self-evaluation to understand the process that led to the collection of that outcome. The researcher is working with complex humans, thus to use the complexity of the researcher being a ‘human’ to understand seems appropriate6.

The second aspect of A2 – the ‘groundedness’ – is about not trying to pre-predict how the subject of study works, because if the researcher does so they are not finding out how that subject works on its’ terms, but are collecting data that confirms or does not confirm their theory of how people work on their terms. This can be useful – which I will come to – but rather than illuminate other ways of life it reinforces the researches current theories about how life works, thus denying them a deeper insight.

A2 works by using key questions that cut across relationships in the field, relationships that are pertinent to the question being asked. These relationships are collected through different means of recording (note-taking, video etc..) and by using the sensitivity of immersion the researcher can also pick up on relationships that impinge on the immediate relationship being studied. These relationships are those that do not necessarily interact in a directly causal fashion or in a fashion that might fit a pre-decided theoretical framework, because they are using both their instrumental capacity as a human to pick up on human complexity and – as mentioned – the sensitivity that participant observation can bring.


Reflexivity is crucial to A2, but is also applicable to A1. In both the researcher will recognise that their research questions and hypotheses7, will require continual adaptation to reflect both the logistical possibilities and relevance to the subject. The major difference is in terms of relevance. In A1 the hypotheses change when collected data starts to inform the researcher that one or more of their hypotheses’ are incorrect8, but if it shows that their causal model of relationships do not continue to link up, so as to keep their objectives and overall model together, then the researcher will have to either construct a new set of causal relationships to circumvent the old ones, or ditch the entire model itself. In contrast, in A2 the relevance is more to do with how salient the questions remain during a researcher’s fieldwork, and are slowly adapted over time in relation to how immersed in the subject the researcher becomes, and therefore where the salience for questioning is recognised.

Reflexivity also has a much bigger role post-fieldwork for A2, although it is not absent from A1. In A2 reflexivity is used to tease out the researchers assumptions about how things should be in comparison to how their data reflect how they were. A2 treats the researcher as a compilation of theories and concepts that concatenate to generate that researcher’s personhood. In this approach the researcher – whether having previously studied anthropological theory or not – is recognised as already having pre-existing concepts and hypotheses embedded within theoretical frameworks, which through reflection the researcher can come to recognise, and identify how these influenced (i) what data they collected and (ii) the actual subject of study itself. This is different from A1 where reflexivity of this sort can be applied, but as the overall theoretical framework was assumed and directed all data collected, it contrasts with A2 where contextually specific frameworks are derived from the data. In A1 there is space for theoretical change but over longer periods, where big theoretical frameworks are ditched to be replaced by the next juggernaut of theory in a more recognisably ‘hard science’ like process. As Ortner’s aforementioned quote points too, A1 twins nicely with the Political Economy juggernaut and thus a Marxist analysis of any given scenario.


Although juxtaposed, the two different approaches – each with their own strengths and weaknesses – should not be seen as competing but as useful depending on what you are trying to achieve9. Ideally both should be used but A2 should precede A1 so as (i) to establish a contextually meaningful model out of which comparisons to other contexts can be made, (ii) to identify interactions between, and themes across, ways of life, and (iii) to allow for the possibility of understanding humans as they are, with the agency they enact. A1 then allows for further analysis that can bring these insights to bear in a causally conceived world of public policy objectives, whilst having an appreciation for global, historic etc… processes. Processes that are seen not as determining, but retrospectively recognised as having ‘set a stage’ upon which currents events are unfolding. In short one approach may provide different depth than the other, but they are still both adaptable facets of the lens of research and so both have potential to illuminate the subject10.

In conclusion it should can be noted that A1 is more uniformly systematic in its design, bringing with it the benefits of fitting in with the rest of the society it extends from and the consequent leverage it can thus have, while A2 –which is comparatively still in its infancy- remains empirical when systematic and allows for non-uniform differential understanding. However they should be applied together to extend their ambition and be systematically adaptive to push for an understanding of the emergent nature of peoples worlds.11


  • Aspirin.com (2013) ‘A History of Aspirin’ [online] Available at: <http://aspirin.com/scripts/pages/en/aspirin_history/index.php&gt; [Accessed 01/12/2012].
  • Bohr, N. (1949) ‘Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist; Neils Bohr’s report of conversations with Einstein and Einstein’s reply’ Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

  • Bryant, A. et al. (2007) ‘Grounded theory in historical perspective: An epistemological account’ In A. Bryant, 2007, ‘The SAGE Handbook of Grounded Theory’ Sage: Los Angeles.

  • Fischer, M. (2004) ‘Integrating Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Culture: The Hard and the Soft’ Cybernetics and Systems: An International Journal 35:2-3, pp.147-162.
  • Hart, K. (2013) ‘Why is anthropology not a public science?’ [online] Available at: <http://www.academia.edu/5116140/Why_is_anthropology_not_a_public_science&gt; [Accessed 01/12/2012].
  • Ortner, S. (1984) ‘Theory in Anthropology since the Sixties’ Comparative Studies in Society and History, 26:1, pp. 126-166.
  • Price, W. A. (1939) ‘Nutrition and Physical Degeneration: A Comparison of Primitive and Modern Diets and Their Effects ‘ Medical Book Department of Harper & Brothers: USA.
  • Searle, J. (1992) ‘The Rediscovery of the Mind’ M.I.T. Press: Massachusetts.

2 Examples of theoretical paradigms in which concepts are couched include; ‘self-medication’ in Medical Anthropology, or the ‘Ethical Imagination’ from Henrietta Moore in psychoanalysis, or ‘sociotechnical experimentation’ from Bruno Latour in STS, or a Marxist analysis of food consumption, production, and commodification (ref). These all had traction from the perspective of my pilot project.

3 I did actually collect this data during my pilot-study, which brought up another methodological aspect; ethics. Due to the sensitive nature of personal medical results, I had to request both Sam Parson’s full agreement for their public use, and assess whether there might be any significant negative impacts on him by bringing them into the public domain. On reflection I have decide to remove them from the public domain as there is a small chance in that in the age of possible employers scouring the worldwide web before recruiting, that Sam may be discriminated against due to his ill health.

4 As I argue in the conclusion these limitations are not as damning if such a research approach is not applied in isolation, but tentatively and reflexively used in adjunct to A2. I would also suggest that without understanding A1 it is highly likely that a researcher cannot properly appreciate A2 due to their intertwined foundations.

5 Medical Scientists did not understand how Aspirin worked for a long time but patients understood an outcome (Aspirin.com, 2013).

6 John Searle’s Chinese room argument reinforces (1992), and is itself supported by the sense that Participant Observation is the utilisation of the human capacity as an instrument for understanding and participating in social contexts that exceeds – in socio-cultural contexts – sterilised and reductive approaches to appreciating the complexity and uncertainty of the human condition.

7 Research questions and Hypotheses are not exclusive to A2 or A1 but are key drivers respectively.

8 This is not in itself useless as it demonstrates the null hypothesis.

9 A quick note should be mentioned before concluding that both approaches also reflect and are not unaffected by the constraints and dynamics of the academic institutions and socio-cultural context of academe that they are a part of. The pressures of available money for certain studies, length of time available to study subjects that might require longer more dedicated research, reductive measures of impact that pander to may not cover depth, ideological and otherwise separation of disciplines, and of course the necessity to divvy up all the above into the production line of article writing and all the politics involved in that.

10 To a degree a metaphorical similarity can be drawn between Niels Bohr’s conception of complementarity and reflexivity (1949). They share an understanding that the observer defines and influences what data is collected by the very limitations of what they are, but by using complex instrumentation and models that engage complexity, more meaningful models of what is at play can be generated. Models that surpass skin deep modelling that we as limited beings tend to impose on the world through our observation. However to communicate and lever this understanding does not mean dismissing Newtonian causality or A1, but means enacting them in ‘complementarity’ with A2, as this synthesis can provide (i) a temporally communicable format for informing societies framed by a Newtonian discourse of causality, and (ii) more importantly the benefits of ‘complementarity’. Complementarity as a rephrasing of Bohr’s comment that – “[data] obtained under different [approaches to a subject] cannot be comprehended within a single picture, but must be regarded as complementary in the sense that only the totality of the phenomena exhausts the possible information about the [subject]” (ibid. 1949).

11 Perhaps Mike Fischer’s suggestion of grasping emergent phenomenon through deontic reasoning and intensional modal logic is a start (2004).

 This is a copy of an essay submitted for Research Methods module SE802 at University of Kent.