Applied Anthropology or a Sociological Experiment?

Not long ago I joined the OAC and asked for some guidance about how I could apply anthropology to my current profession as a corrections officer. I was given some very sound advice (Thanks to Keith Hart and John McCreery). I had before attempted to aid in and develop a restorative justice program, that to cut to the point was not very well accepted. So with guidance from two professionals mentioned I decided to focus on why it was not well accepted. Particularly, is the stereotype of the corrections officer as an unsympathetic guard true? Is the corrections officer’s view of the inmates an ethnocentric one in which inmates are worthless and live worthless lives? Can this perception of the corrections officer and his/her view of inmates be changed?

These may sound like simple questions to some, but for me they are painstaking. First, I belong to the community I have chosen to study. So I have to work hard on separating my own myths from what is really present. Second, I have my own view of what a corrections officer should be. And while I may view some officers as over zealous or lazy, some I may find as excellent examples of a true corrections professional. Then there is the reason why I want to study corrections officers. I want to develop a new respect for the men and women in the profession. It is my opinion that it is not given the respect it deserves and therefore greatly underutilized. And then, there is perhaps the biggest danger to my study, I am a trainer. For the next six months I have been assigned to train new and experienced corrections officers on the procedures for a new facility and applying a more progressive style of inmate management that I must say I prefer compared to the current methods used around the country. I believe this could have an “observer expectancy effect” or some other form of reactivity because the officer may only be performing to certain standards because of me being his/her trainer. It is this last thought that has caused me to rethink my purpose of study.

The “observer effect” – when an individual may change his/her actions and/or behaviors to adhere to an expected standard or merely for the fact they are being observed. Is it possible that corrections officers can have a similar effect on the incarcerated and to what degree? Example, could officers have a greater influence over inmates than counselors do? Can this influence be a positive one that encourages productive citizenship? Many counselors attempt this goal with cognitive therapy and rehabilitation programs. If it is possible for officers to have such an effect, then why not utilize it? Such an effect good or bad, I have with the help of a colleague labeled the “officer effect.”

Now you see my dilemma. I run the danger of being bias, and creating the “observer expectancy effect.” And of course, the purpose for my study, to bring into respectable light the corrections officer profession. I have increased my reading in psychology and sociological theory and comparing principles to the behavior and actions of both officers and inmates. Now this leads to another question. Would my study be considered applied anthropology or a sociological experiment?

Either way I feel as though I am beginning to shape the structure of my study and learning how to focus. I’ve developed an even greater respect for anthropology and anthropologist who are able to channel out their individual beliefs and feelings to report what is real. As early as it is, I hope to produce something that is knowledgeable and worth reading.


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Comment by Keith Hart on January 5, 2010 at 10:34am
Welcome back, Steven. It sounds as if you are making a lot of progress. Tomek is right. Although anthropology and sociology seem to overlap substantially, their intellectual cultures differ profoundly. Sociologists care most about being methodologically precise and having sharp shared conceptual definitions. It would be easy for anthropologists to emphasize in contrast the open-ended character of fieldwork-based ethnography and many still do. As I think I said before, the political role of the ethnographer is often under-recognized and you have made it clear that your study will be political in quite a big way. Applied anthropology or the anthropology of development has long been engaged with studying situations that the ethnographer helps to contrive. You just have to be upfront about it, while retaining the ethnographer's freedom to shift focus depending on experience in the field. But there is more to anthropology than method and this has been submerged in recent decades by an emphasis on specialist subdisciplines and fieldwork technique. Acquiring an anthropological vision depends on reading. Tomek's recommendation of Erving Goffman's work is imprtant here. He was one of the founders of modern social psychology (carrying on G H Mead's project of symbolic interactionsim), but his PhD, 'The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life', a study of a hotel in the Shetland Islands, was in social anthropology at Edinburgh.
Comment by Tomek Turek on January 3, 2010 at 11:07pm
Very interesting idea, I’ve been studying criminal rehabilitation (I don't know if it is a proper translation, we call it Resocjalizacja, you can work as a corrections officer, parole officer, counselor, etc. ) for 5 years, two years ago I have started cultural anthropology. I am very interested in the topic of penal populism, penal policy, poverty, working with juvenile offenders etc..
I have been thinking about similar research among parole/probation officers (in Poland their work looks a bit different than in US)
Your problem in naming your work (applied anthropology or a sociological experiment) for me seems to be very easy, sociological experiment has a different structure, (if I understand it properly) experimental group, control group, etc... you have the surrounding that you change by adding new factor, and then you search for the difference between the groups. The rules there are very strict, ethnography is ethnography, also try reading about action research :)
I may be wrong, maybe some one else will start the discussion!
I hope that you'll understand my wooden English! :)

Ps. Try reading Erving Goffman "Characteristics of Total Institutions", there are also books about anthropology in total institutions.



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