Understand the Research (2)
Anthropology is the study of humanity. In some places (like the U.S.) anthropology is divided into four subfields: cultural anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and biological or physical anthropology. This website is part of a larger cultural anthropological study taking place in the U.S. about foster care.
Cultural anthropologists believe that there is a great range in human experience, and all of those experiences have value—not just the ones of famous, rich, or powerful people. Sometimes anthropologists study elites, but usually anthropologists are concerned with the ‘average’ person in society. And some anthropologists are especially concerned with the people who are most taken advantage of in a society. We believe that the best way to understand how a society or system works is to talk directly to those people. This is different than other academic disciplines, like historians, for example, who use texts mostly and are confined by what people—usually powerful people who get to write the history—have described, or like quantitative demographers and sociologists who use surveys (alone) to create statistics and make theories based on responses. Typically people who do quantitative studies are curious about what the largest number of people believe and are doing. Anthropologists are also curious about what rebels, outcasts, and marginalized people in society have to say. Another way of thinking about it is that quantitative research (surveys that use scales and demographics) can tell us interesting and generalizable things about a group of people, but it can’t usually tell us much about why they are doing it. Often qualitative researchers will follow up on what quantitative researchers have discovered and try to discover the why.
Guiding Theories & Theorists
This research is being conducted as grounded theory research, from the ground up. It can be very difficult to make hypotheses about entire social systems or societies. Therefore, instead of going in with a theory about what we think is happening, we collect the data, run it through analysis and let the data tell us which theory best explains what we’ve observed. This might seem backward from the science you learned in school. The general idea is to prevent preconceived ideas from limiting how we understand what we learn.
This research is phenomenological—it is concerned with the experiences people have and how their shapes their lives and the society they live in. Phenomenologists want to understand how another person experiences the world from that person’s point of view. Anthropologists often refer to this as an ‘emic,’ or insider’s point of view.
Although this website is not precisely ‘ethnographic,’ the larger study is. Ethnographic studies can be characterized by long-term data collection, by spending a long time with the people (and the situation) that one is trying to understand, and a desire to understand the many aspects of one’s life that contribute to how they understand their place in the world, and also how the researcher characterizes it. This means having a basic concept of a society’s economy, family life, spiritual beliefs, moral beliefs, politics, environment, class and social structure (among other things—the list goes on and on) influence how the person fits into the world. The larger study consists of spending time with foster care alumni, professionals working in foster care-related jobs, and foster families through “participant observation” and semi-structured interviews, to understand how these things influence how foster care works.
This study is structural-functionalist. That is, I am assuming that institutions and relationships between institutions create and influence social relationships. People develop societies so that they can attempt to maintain order and organize work. Unlike early theorists of this kind, I do not believe however that societies are largely stable over time—I believe they constantly change and are influenced by outside forces. An important lesson learned from structural-functionalists is that all societies are complex and functional, regardless of how many people are in a culture or how their lifestyle appears to outsiders.
This study is concerned with practice theory. That is, I want to know the ways in which people who are not considered powerful in a society exert their own kinds of power. Practice theory is concerned with agency, the power of a person to act in the world. I believe that people act on society and that society acts on people—neither is a driving force and both are important. People live in societies and work against social constraints simultaneously.
This study is post-structuralist and mildly post-modernist. It is concerned with the way a deviant group—not in the sense of bad, but in the sense of different than most—experiences things. I acknowledge that no matter how hard I try and how long I study, I can never understand what it means to be a child in foster care, a foster parent, a parent who had their child placed in foster care, or a professional working with fostered youth because I have never lived those roles myself. I acknowledge that I am not after a singular truth or explanation for how things work. Rather I am after possible explanations and understandings. I do not expect there to be a one-size-fits-all solution to any social problem.