Anthropology and Uncertainty Principle

According to Wikipedia, anthropology “is the comprehensive study of human beings and of their interactions with each other and the environment.” We went to relatively remote areas of China in our summer 2009 study tour partly because the people there are very different than those we are familiar with. They are different in their ethnicity, their culture, their language, and their life style. And for anthropological study, the emphasis is the culture and life.


Uncertainty Principle is a principle in quantum physics. It states that certain pairs of quantity, such as velocity and location of an object, cannot both be measured precisely. Uncertainty Principle is usually only observable in tiny particles that we cannot see with the naked eye, such as electrons and photons.


Now these two concepts seem to live in different worlds. How could they relate to each other?


One interpretation of uncertainly principle, attributable to Heisenberg, is that the equipment one employs to measure an object unavoidably disturbs it. For example, if we want to measure the position of an electron, we need to shine some light on it. But light is made of particles called photons. Consequently, a photon that revealed the location of the electron would necessarily knock the electron off its course, making it impossible to know its velocity precisely.


Here we were, a group of more than a dozen people, following the lead of a real-world anthropologist, trying to be amateur anthropologists for a few days. The difficulty comes about in that we the observers are a large group, and our intrusion into the world of our objects of study was as the cannonball brought to that of the fly for which it was intended. In other words, we could not simply quietly observe the world as it evolved, but instead we brought unintended changes to the world we meant to observe, simply because we had such a formidable presence. People in turn observed us, and their state of being was changed, even though we intended to observe unobtrusively.


Take the example of this picture, which you might have seen in an earlier post. A De’ang boy was pushing about an automobile tire in the mud, wearing a pair of slippers. He was full of energy and enthusiasm, with the tire bringing him as much enjoyment as a new video game brings to a similar aged boy in New York.


The picture changes considerably if we zoom out in our minds’ eye, both in time and in place. Then we would see a much different picture. With much noise and enthusiasm, the boy was first heard, then seen, coming down the muddy slope. Kalliopi, another member of our group, and I were fortuitously there to observe this marvelous moment. But unfortunately, our cameras were not ready. We nevertheless aimed our cameras at the boy, hoping that he would keep on playing the trick, at least for one more time. We did not verbally transmit our wish, of course (beside our intent to only observe, we also don’t speak the language). Now a women nearby, possibly the boy’s mother, observed us and asked the boy to do it again. The boy obviously was tired, but obliged the women (and indirectly, us). Hence our picture at the beginning.


Now I understand why anthropology is usually done by a single researcher. That is the only way that the target group is not overwhelmed by external disturbance. To further remove the curiosity factor, the research is better served when the researcher lives with the target group for a while, so that s/he becomes a part of the natural landscape. While the number of cameras at the ready is reduced, the human interaction observed is less disturbed, and the overall quality of research is much improved.


So in the end, we were not very successful in learning about the natural state of the Chinese minority ethnicities. Prof. Ruf was quite disheartened. But I am not too distraught. In my analysis, we couldn’t have apprenticed anthropology like that. On the other hand, we did learn a lot more about Chinese minority ethnicities than if we joined a plain tourist group. And if I really wanted to do anthropology, now I know the price I need to pay.

2 thoughts on “Anthropology and Uncertainty Principle”

  1. There is a term used in social sciences to describe the relation between the researcher and the research subject. It\’s called "the observer\’s paradox", a term coined by William Labov, a giant in sociolinguistics. It says that the moment the researcher starts making (primarily socio-cultural) observations, the nature of what is being observed becomes distorted by (1) the researcher\’s intentions, perspectives, and methodologies, (2) the research subject\’s reactions and responses to being observed, and (3) the interaction between (1) and (2). So I guess the end goal of social sciences (anthropology included) is not some absolute objectivity, but rather, as my teacher Schegloff always says, varying degrees of intersubjectivity.

  2. Thanks. It\’s nice to know that the observer effect has been noted.Here I was emphasizing on the impossibility of reducing such an effect, if we the observers have an overwhelming presence.

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