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Key informants

Most anthropologists rely on a few “key informants,” especially in the beginning of fieldwork.

Some people become key informants because of what they know, especially if they possess a lot of factual information about specific areas of life, like medicine or hunting.

But anthropologists are often drawn to people who have thought a lot about their own community and its culture. People like this are similarly drawn to fieldworkers because they are a good audience for hearing these ideas.

Many people who become key informants are themselves marginal figures in their own communities, and may straddle multiple cultural worlds much like the fieldworker does.

  • Muchona, “The Hornet,” was a traditional healer who worked with Victor Turner on his study of Ndembu ritual. Muchona's mother was a slave in a neighboring chiefdom, and he had to buy his own freedom. He lived outside of the nearest village and was treated with suspicion by most people. His interpretations of the symbolic meaning of healing and other ritual were highly original (Turner 1970, 133–136).
  • Mari, John Layard's confidant, was an ex-laborer returned from a plantation, and needed to organize a feast only held once in a generation so that he could claim a respected grade through a sacrifice of pigs (see Layard 1936).

Key informants are more often than not multilingual and adept at moving between cultures. They may be recognized for their knowledge or savvy but this also alienates them from their own community. Anthropologists are professional strangers, and they are estranged from their own culture. So these two kinds of people find they have a lot in common.

Perhaps more importantly, key informants are themselves proof of the interconnectedness of diverse communities. In a colonial era and today in a globalized sociopolitical and economic order, more and more people must live in multiple social and cultural systems simultaneously. In the past, ethnographers would recognize this but only as an individual talent. Muchona and Mari are clever people, but the ethnographers who knew them could not see that these key informants were also products of the changes brought by colonialism (see Bourdieu and Sayad 2004, 463).


Bourdieu, Pierre, and Abdelmalek Sayad. 2004. “Colonial Rule and Cultural Sabir.” Ethnography 5 (4): 445–86. https://doi.org/10.1177/1466138104050692.

Layard, John W. 1936. “Atchin Twenty Years Ago.” The Geographical Journal 88 (4): 342–51. https://doi.org/10.2307/1786338.

Turner, Victor. 1970. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

key_informants.txt · Last modified: 2021/06/29 02:31 (external edit)