Laurie Occhipinti
Mount Wachusett Community College

Fieldwork is the essential core of anthropology – asking questions, examining cultural understandings, entering into dialogues with people in the communities we study. It is our rite of passage and our standard for ethnographic research. At the same time, engaging in research is an essential tool for student learning, a way for students to both use and develop important skills and concepts, to learn and to apply what they are learning to new problems and questions. Knowing all of this, it can still seem daunting to have students – real students, undergraduates with various levels of preparation, the non-majors who populate many of our courses – participate in anthropological fieldwork. For me, working at a small public university in a rural, ethnically homogenous region, the solution was to develop micro-research projects. Based on simple techniques for data collection and analysis, these projects require students to reach beyond the classroom by treating the communities they inhabit as “the field.” I use cultural domain analysis as one of these micro-projects in my course on the anthropology of religion to have students gain a better picture of how people in their community understand religious belief and religious diversity.

Student engagement in research is well established at this point as a best practice – it is good for teaching and good for learning. It helps students to gain a greater engagement with the subject; it promotes critical thinking; it develops substantive skills; and, it reaches some students for whom more traditional classroom approaches may fall flat. So, with great enthusiasm, I tried to incorporate research into more of my classes – and ran into some non-negligible difficulties. I tried having students do participant observation – that was clearly too high a bar. It worked to some extent in an upper level course, for majors, focused on research skills, but required too much time, intensity, and background knowledge to be effective in entry-level classes. I tried interviewing – that was better, but too many students took the path of least resistance. I read lots of interviews of grandparents and roommates. Students saw the assignment as a checkbox, not actual research.

After I while, I hit on a solution that worked for me – micro-research. This was real research, but in a very low-stakes framework. I did not intend for it ever to produce “publishable” results, but it did serve to involve students in collecting and analyzing real data. I tried a number of different data collection strategies that worked, including structured and unstructured observations and mental maps, but the favorite, for both me and my students, involved cultural domain analysis (CDA).

CDA is a well-established set of data collection and analysis strategies – much more powerful than what I use it for here. It originated in cognitive anthropology, and is really a way to think about how people in a group think about things that somehow go together – a cognitive domain. We often teach about examples of cognitive domains, such as color words, kinship systems, or ecological knowledge, so it is familiar to most cultural and linguistic anthropologists, even if it is not a research technique that we have used ourselves. For students, I found that it was useful not only in getting at a particular research question, but in getting them to recognize the ways in which they themselves use cultural categories or folk taxonomies — the often unconscious frameworks that are part of culture. CDA is great for classroom use because the data collection techniques are simple – free lists, pile sorts, triad tests. The analysis is a little more complicated, but students can make some meaning from their data without complex analytical tools.

In my religion course, I created a micro-research project using cultural domain analysis. I introduced the project by asking students to figure out what were the local frames of reference for thinking about religion. The assignment was for each student to collect three to five free lists. I began the project by asking to students to think through what they expected to find. This afforded me the chance to talk about creating hypotheses and understanding research bias. As we developed our research strategy, I encouraged the class to decide what other data they needed to collect in order to understand demographic or other variables that could affect the results, which allowed me to talk about diversity within a culture and defining cultural groups. Finally, they developed a research protocol, collectively defining the specific wording of the question for the free list, whether they wanted to use follow-up prompts, and so on. They developed a testable hypotheses, and then they were off to collect their data.

When students brought back their lists, they first needed to clean up the data. This included going through all of the lists to decide whether terms are the same or different (i.e., Mormons and LDS). For me, this became a chance to discuss data and how researchers make decisions. I asked them to analyze the kinds of criteria people used for the terms they included, why some lists were longer than others, and how their respondents were differentiating between categories (for example, what is the difference between Methodists and Presbyterians? Between “Christians” and “Catholics”?). This gave the entire class the chance to apply their own cultural knowledge, and opened a door for me to talk about developing cultural knowledge in a really different context.

In order to analyze the data on a more complex level, I completed a quick statistical analysis using Anthropac, starting with calculations of both frequency and rank order of responses to produce a consolidated list of items within a category, as well as the proximity of any two items. Again, more complex analysis is possible, but these results are intelligible to students and allowed them to think about what they could do, at least hypothetically, with their results – who could use this information, and how? What does it tell us about local conceptions about religion (Presbyterians and Methodists but not Sunni and Shi’a)? What is missing and why? How could it inform public policy?

Free lists and CDA offer some real advantages for this kind of micro-research. First, student researchers found this fun and relatively non-intimidating. It was easy for them to find people to answer them – and, for this data, it doesn’t matter who they ask, as long as the person met the basic parameters that the class itself set for its sample. Respondents also tend to find this to be an interesting exercise (especially compared to the ubiquitous surveys that are an increasingly common part of our modern lives). Another advantage is that a sample size of about fifty produces statistically reliable results. Finally, although very sophisticated analysis can be done on this kind of data, it is also possible for students to make some intuitive sense of the data themselves. I have used CDA in other classes, including having students in an introductory class look at racial categories, and have found that it works equally well.

In addition to the benefits of conducting research as a learning tool, through CDA students gain a better sense of how culture shapes our thinking and expectations. Micro-research gets a wide range of students excited about the approaches used by anthropologists, by asking them to conduct real research in a way that is manageable, for them and for their professor, within the confines of a single course.


Anthropac: Cultural Domain Analysis Software. (free download)


Laurie Occhipinti (PhD. McGill University) is Dean of Liberal Arts, Education, Humanities, and Communications at Mount Wachusett Community College in central Massachusetts. She has been teaching anthropology for over fifteen years. Her research focuses on faith-based organizations, economic development, and indigenous communities. Her most recent research examined the experiences of short-term mission groups engaged in medical volunteer projects in the Dominican Republic. She can be reached at