Cultural data assume the form of directly observable material items (tools, cultivated fields, houses, statues, clothing), individual behaviours and performances (ceremonies, fights, games, meals) as well as ideas and arrangements that exist only in people's heads. From the perspective of the culture concept, anthropologists must first treat all these elements as symbols within a coherent system and, accordingly, must record observations with due attention to the cultural context and the meanings assigned by the culture's practitioners. These demands are met through two major research techniques: participant observation and key informant interviewing.
Participant observation is based on living among the people under study for a lenghty period, usually a year, and gathering data through continuous involvement in their lives and activities. The ethnographer begins systematic observation and keeps daily field notes, in which the significant events of each day are recorded along with informants' interpretations. Initial observations focus on general, open ended data gathering derived from learning the most basic cultural rules and usually the local language as well. This initial orientation process is important not only for providing a background for more narrowly focused investigation but also helps the anthropologist to gain rapport with his/her informants, avoid breaches of etiquette, and test out whether the original research objectives are meaningful and practical in the local situation.