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Cultural anthropology is the study of human patterns of thought and behavior, and how and why these patterns differ, in contemporary societies. Cultural anthropology is sometimes called social anthropology, sociocultural anthropology, or ethnology. Cultural anthropology also includes pursuits such as ethnography, ethnohistory, and cross-cultural research.

Cultural anthropology is one of the four subdisciplines of anthropology. The other subdisciplines include biological anthropology, archaeology, and linguistic anthropology. Some anthropologists include a fifth subdiscipline, applied anthropology, although other anthropologists see applied anthropology as an approach that crosscuts traditional subdisciplinary boundaries rather than as a subdiscipline itself. In the United States, the subfields tend to be unified: Departments of anthropology include all of the subfields within their academic structures. In Europe, however, subdisciplines often reside in different academic departments. These differences between American and European anthropology are due more to historical than philosophical differences in how the discipline developed.

The central organizing concept of cultural anthropology is culture, which is ironic given that culture is largely an abstraction that is difficult to measure and even more difficult to define, given the high number of different definitions of the concept that populate anthropology textbooks. Despite over a century of anthropology, the most commonly used definition of anthropology is Edward Burnett Tylor’s, who in 1871 defined culture as “that complex whole that includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by [humans] as members of a society.”

Tylor’s definition is resonant with contemporary anthropologists because it points to some important, universally agreed-upon aspects of culture, even though it does not satisfactorily define what culture is. Teachers of cultural anthropology often cite culture as a constellation of features that work together to guide the thoughts and behaviors of individuals and groups of humans. Aspects of culture often seen in introductory classes include: (1) Culture is commonly shared by a population or group of individuals; (2) cultural patterns of behavior are learned, acquired, and internalized during childhood; (3) culture is generally adaptive, enhancing survival and promoting successful reproduction; and (4) culture is integrated, meaning that the traits that make up a particular cultural are internally consistent with one another.

Nevertheless, anthropologists differ greatly in how they might refine their own definition of the culture concept. Anthropologists also differ in how they approach the study of culture. Some anthropologists begin with the observation that since culture is an abstraction that exists only in the minds of people in a particular society, which we cannot directly observe, culture must be studied through human behavior, which we can observe. Such an approach is often termed an objective, empiricist, or scientific approach and sometimes called an etic perspective. By etic, anthropologists mean that our understanding of culture is based upon the perspective of the observer, not those who are actually being studied.

Other anthropologists, while recognizing that culture is an abstraction and is difficult to measure, nevertheless hold that a worthy goal of anthropologists is to understand the structure of ideas and meanings as they exist in the minds of members of a particular culture. Such an approach is often labeled subjective, rationalist, or humanistic, and sometimes called an emic approach. By emic, anthropologists mean that the central goal of the anthropologist is to understand how culture is lived and experienced by its members.

Although these two approaches have quite different emphases, cultural anthropologists have traditionally recognized the importance of both styles of investigation as critical to the study of culture, although most anthropologists work only within one style.

How Cultural Anthropology Differs From Sociology

In many colleges and universities in the United States, sociology and anthropology are included under the same umbrella and exist as joint departments. This union is not without justification, as cultural anthropology and sociology share a similar theoretical and philosophical ancestry. In what ways is cultural anthropology different?

Cultural Anthropology EssayCultural anthropology is unique because its history as a discipline lies in a focus on exploration of the “Other.” That is, the anthropologists of the 19th century took a keen interest in the lives and customs of people not descended from Europeans. The first anthropologists, E. B. Tylor and Sir James Frazer among them, relied mostly on the reports of explorers, missionaries, traders, and colonial officials and are commonly known as “armchair anthropologists.” It was not long, however, before travel around the globe to directly engage in the investigation of other human societies became the norm. The development of cultural anthropology is directly tied to the colonial era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The late 19th century was an era in which evolutionary theory dominated the nascent social sciences. The armchair anthropologists of the period were not immune from the dominant paradigm, and even scholars like Lewis Henry Morgan, who worked extensively and directly with American Indians, developed complicated typologies of cultural evolution, grading known cultures according to their technological accomplishments and the sophistication of their material culture. As is to be expected, Europeans were invariably civilized, with others categorized as being somewhat or extremely primitive in comparison. It was only as anthropologists began to investigate the presumably primitive societies that were known only through hearsay or incomplete reports that it was realized that such typologies were wildly inaccurate.

In the United States, the development of anthropology as a field-based discipline was driven largely by westward expansion. An important part of westward expansion was the pacification and extermination of the indigenous Native American cultures that once dominated the continent. By the late 1870s, the Bureau of American Ethnology was sponsoring trips by trained scholars, charged with recording the lifeways of American Indian tribes that were believed to be on the verge of extinction. This “salvage ethnology” formed the basis of American anthropology and led to important works such as James Mooney’s Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, published in 1896, and Edward Nelson’s The Eskimo about Bering Strait, published in 1899.

In Britain, some of the earliest investigations of aboriginal peoples were conducted by W. H. R. Rivers, C. G. Seligmann, Alfred Haddon, and John Meyers, members of the 1898 expedition to the Torres Straits. The expedition was a voyage of exploration on behalf of the British government, and for the anthropologists it was an opportunity to document the lives of the indigenous peoples of the region. This work later inspired Rivers to return to the Torres Straits in 1901 to 1902 to conduct more extensive fieldwork with the Toda. By the 1920s, scientific expeditions to remote corners of the world to document the cultures of the inhabitants, geology, and ecology of the region were commonplace. Many of these expeditions, such as the Steffansson-Anderson Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913 to 1918, have since proven invaluable, as they recorded the cultures of people only recently in contact with the European societies that would forever alter them.

Cultural anthropology, therefore, has its roots as a colonial enterprise, one of specializing in the study of small-scale, simple, “primitive” societies. This is, however, not an accurate description of contemporary cultural anthropology. Many anthropologists today work within complex societies. But the anthropology of complex societies is still much different than sociology. The history of working within small-scale, isolated cultural settings also led to the development of a particular methodology that is unique to cultural anthropology.

The fieldwork experiences of anthropologists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were critical for the development of anthropology as a rigorous, scientific discipline. How does an outsider accurately describe cultural practices and an understanding of the significance of those practices for members of the culture studied? Achieving these goals meant living with and participating in the lives of the people in the study culture. It is this balance between careful observation and participation in the lives of a group of people that has become the cornerstone of modern cultural anthropology.

Called participant observation, the method is the means by which most of an anthropologist’s information about a society is obtained. Anthropologists often use other methods of data collection, but participant observation is the sole means by which anthropologists can generate both emic and etic understandings of a culture.

There are, however, no straightforward guidelines about how one actually goes about doing participant observation. Cultural settings, personal idiosyncrasies, and personality characteristics all ensure that fieldwork and participant observation are unique experiences. All anthropologists agree that fieldwork is an intellectually and emotionally demanding exercise, especially considering that fieldwork traditionally lasts for a year, and often longer. Participant observation is also fraught with problems. Finding the balance between detached observation and engaged participation can be extremely difficult. How does one balance the two at the funeral of a person who is both key informant and friend, for example? For these reasons, the fieldwork experience is an intense rite of passage for anthropologists starting out in the discipline. Not surprisingly, the intense nature of the fieldwork experience has generated a large literature about the nature of fieldwork itself.

Part of the reason for lengthy fieldwork stays was due to a number of factors, including the difficulty of reaching a field site and the need to acquire competence in the local language. However, as it has become possible to travel to the remotest corners of the globe with relative ease, and as anthropologists pursue opportunities to study obscure languages increasingly taught in large universities, and as it is more difficult to secure research funding, field experiences have generally become shorter. Some anthropologists have abandoned traditional participant observation in favor of highly focused research problems and archival research, made possible especially in areas where significant “traditional” ethnographic fieldwork has been done.

A second research strategy that separates cultural anthropology from other disciplines is holism. Holism is the search for systematic relationships between two or more phenomena. One of the advantages of lengthy periods of fieldwork and participant observation is that the anthropologist can begin to see interrelationships between different aspects of culture. One example might be the discovery of a relationship between ecological conditions, subsistence patterns, and social organization. The holistic approach allows for the documentation of systematic relationships between these variables, thus allowing for the eventual unraveling of the importance of various relationships within the system, and, ultimately, toward an understanding of general principles and the construction of theory.

In practical terms, holism also refers to a kind of multifaceted approach to the study of culture. Anthropologists working in a specific cultural setting typically acquire information about topics not necessarily of immediate importance, or even interest, for the research project at hand. Nevertheless, anthropologists, when describing the culture they are working with, will often include discussions of culture history, linguistics, political and economic systems, settlement patterns, and religious ideology. Just as anthropologists become proficient at balancing emic and etic approaches in their work, they also become experts about a particular theoretical problem, for which the culture provides a good testing ground, and they become experts about the cultural area, having been immersed in the politics, history, and social science of the region itself.

Research Traditions in Cultural Anthropology

Early Evolutionism

As noted above, anthropology as a discipline emerged in conjunction with the European and American colonial enterprise. Anthropology also emerged during a century in which ideas about biological and human evolution emerged and eventually dominated intellectual discourse.

Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace are perhaps the best known of the evolutionists of the period, but it was the British academic Herbert Spencer who introduced evolutionary thinking to the study of human society. Spencer, in fact, was publishing on some of these ideas even before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published. Spencer, like other evolutionists, advocated the application of evolutionary principles to the study of humans—and went so far as to use the biological understanding of organisms as a metaphor for the study of human society. And Spencer clearly saw the advantage of a synthetic approach in understanding humanity’s past as a means of understanding what humanity’s future might be.

To modern anthropologists, Spencer is most closely equated with the terms “survival of the fittest,” which he coined, and “social Darwinism.” Over the course of years, these terms have become associated with the justification of classist and racist social policy, and it is for these associations that he is often regarded with either amusement or alarm: amusement, because (albeit with hindsight) of the obviously simplistic understanding of both evolutionary theory and human culture, and alarm, because of the chilling implications of pursuing policies based on such understandings.

Perhaps ironically, Spencer’s influence on anthropology has been more profound in arenas other than evolutionism. Spencer’s writings, in fact, are more similar to the writings of the structural functionalists of the early and mid-20th century than they are to other evolutionists. It was Spencer who first coined terms like “superorganic” as a reference to culture (the culture concept had not yet been formulated), and it was Spencer who first used terms like structure, function, and system in reference to the “superorganic.” The metaphor of culture as organism is certainly common to both functionalism and Spencer.

Spencer’s thinking about evolution and human society was, however, armchair anthropology. His primary treatment of anthropological material, Principles of Sociology, published between 1877 and 1896, was compiled through the efforts of a research staff that worked from documentary sources, not firsthand experience.

In this sense, the other famed evolutionist of the late 19th century, Lewis Henry Morgan, was the complete opposite, as Morgan’s contribution to anthropology was based on direct experience. Morgan is most commonly associated with work with the Seneca Nation: his legal efforts to defend the Seneca from predatory government policy, his subsequent adoption by the tribe in 1847, and, in 1851, the publication of League of the Iroquois. Beyond his association with Seneca, though, Morgan made visits to over 60 different Indian tribes in the United States and Canada.

Morgan’s most important contribution to anthropology, however, is Ancient Society, his treatise on cultural evolution, published in 1877. In this work, Morgan presented an evolutionary sequence through which all human societies either had or, presumably, could progress, beginning with several different forms of “Savagery” and proceeding through all of the steps of the sequence to “Civilization,” the apex of cultural evolution.

What is important about Morgan’s scheme, now referred to as “unilineal evolution,” is not that it was an accurate representation of reality, for it wasn’t. Rather, the lasting influence of Ancient Society is that Morgan identified stages as corresponding to specific technological capabilities and material possessions, which, in turn, were accompanied by particular social forms, like subsistence strategies or forms of social organization. In addition, Morgan recognized that the discovery of new technologies and changes to material culture would necessitate the development of new social traits to accommodate those material changes.

Like Spencer, the misuse of Morgan’s ideas, and the wildly inaccurate or nonexistent nature of anthropological data available for testing those ideas, meant that the reaction against unilineal evolution was swift and complete. By 1900, evolutionary perspectives had vanished from the discipline. It wasn’t until the 1930s that anthropologists like Leslie White and Julian Steward began thinking about evolutionary issues, and it wasn’t until the 1950s that the discipline again embraced the idea.

Also like Spencer, Morgan was an important figure for other reasons, not the least of which was his influence on dialectical materialism. Morgan’s materialist approach, the desire to understand society through technology and subsistence, likewise inspired important figures of 20th century anthropology, among them Leslie White,V. Gordon Childe, and Marvin Harris.

Historical Particularism

The anthropology of Lewis Henry Morgan and others of the mid- to late 18th century was largely regarded as a hobby. That is, anthropology was viewed as an appropriate pastime for men of means and gentlemen of leisure. This gentlemanly pursuit certainly characterized the armchair approach of anthropologists like E. B. Tylor and others. And because anthropology was a hobby, it existed largely outside the bounds of the academy.

Franz Boas was responsible for moving anthropology away from a leisure pursuit to a full-time academic endeavor. A German immigrant to the United States, Boas was trained as a geographer, having written his dissertation about the color of seawater. In 1883, he traveled to Baffin Island, in the Eastern Canadian Arctic, to further these studies. Fortunately for anthropology, Boas found the local Eskimos much more interesting, and he subsequently shifted his studies to that of the customs of the Central Eskimo. His experience impressed upon him the importance of lengthy, highly detailed data collection in the field as critical to undertaking good ethnology, and he quickly realized how a limited understanding of another culture is begging the observer to misinterpret that data based on the observer’s inherent biases.

In 1888, Boas founded the Department of Anthropology at Clark University, but he quickly moved to Columbia University, the institution with which he is most closely associated and from which he trained numerous students and established an American anthropology.

Boas’s main contributions to the discipline stemmed from his rejection of unilineal evolution and the comparative method with which it was associated. Boas and his students argued that the comparative method was problematic on two fronts. The biggest problem was that comparisons between cultures were based on too little data. Boas recognized that all primitive cultures have their own unique and particular histories, and he accused the evolutionists of equating contemporary primitives with our prehistoric ancestors, pointing out that contemporary primitives have been evolving too, which makes them very different from any prehistoric human. Further compounding the problem is that because there are so little extant data, how is it possible to compare two cultures if we do not know the circumstances under which those features arrived and developed in each society?

Second, Boas also felt that the value judgments associated with the various evolutionary schemes laid out by Morgan and others hindered our ability to understand cultural evolution at all. Boas argued that evolutionary schemes were full of implicit assumptions that certain stages, like “Civilization,” were inherently better than stages like “Barbarism,” but there was no objective means of making that assessment. For Boas, cultures must be understood on their own terms, not in relation to others.

This last point is a close approximation of cultural relativism, the notion that no culture is inherently superior to any other culture. All cultures are equal and comparable, and value judgments about cultural traits must be made only after understanding the context in which those traits occur.

Beyond the first formulation of cultural relativism, though, Boas is known for the development of his unique, holistic approach to cultural anthropology. As a means of combating loose speculation about culture, he advocated the meticulous collection of data through extensive fieldwork, arguing that theorizing and generalizing could be done only after the accumulation of detailed knowledge about a culture’s history, its inventory of cultural traits, and its relationships with neighboring societies. This inductive approach has since been called “historical particularism,” and it was the dominant approach in American anthropology until 1950.


Beginning in about 1910, British anthropology began to reject the evolutionary approach. The new paradigm, called “functionalism,” eschewed the examination of cultures through the investigation of how cultural traits evolved (for evolutionists) or developed (for particularists). Instead, functionalists were concerned not with discrete traits but rather with social “institutions” and how these operated within bounded societies.

The functionalists relied on a concept of culture that was based on Spencer’s concept of the superorganism. For functionalists, culture was believed to operate in much the same way that the human body functioned. Individual institutions, like social organization, religion, or economy, were like the organs of the body, working together to create something greater than the sum of their parts. This metaphor is so appealing that it has come to dominate the way that many anthropologists teach cultural anthropology. Almost all introductory textbooks in cultural anthropology, for example, begin with an explanation of the culture concept and the unique methodology and approach of cultural anthropology, followed by chapters that examine specific cultural institutions: environment, subsistence, and economic anthropology; kinship, marriage, and social organization; religion, the arts, and expressive culture; and applied anthropology and cultural survival.

British functionalism is known mostly through two actors, Bronislaw Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe- Brown, both of whom are credited as the founders of functionalism in anthropology. Malinowski was born in Poland but enrolled in the graduate program in anthropology at the London School of Economics in 1910. In 1914, he began fieldwork in New Guinea, finally settling on working in the Trobriand Islands in 1915. While in the field, World War I broke out, and because he was a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he faced the possibility of incarceration. Luckily for him, British officials bent the rules and allowed him to continue his fieldwork.

His lengthy stay in the Torbriand Islands allowed him to formulate the method of participant observation, the method that is now the standard method of all anthropological fieldwork. He learned the language, recorded reams of data, and participated in the lives of the Trobrianders with whom he was living.

For Malinowski, work with the Trobriands was largely focused on how particular cultural institutions functioned to maintain individual psychology and provide coping strategies for dealing with stressful events. So, for example, the primary function of magic, ritual, and religious belief was to promote individual well-being in uncertain situations. Malinowski’s discussion of the differences between magic use by lagoon fisherman (who hardly resorted to magic at all) and open-ocean fisherman and long-distance voyagers (who relied heavily on magic to ensure success) is a classic example. Differences in magic use were clearly based on the differences between locales. Inshore, lagoon fishing was viewed as a safe and productive activity, whereas voyaging-fishing in unprotected waters was extremely risky and unpredictable. Magic, then, provided a sense of control in uncertain situations.

  1. Radcliffe-Brown was trained at roughly the same time as Malinowski, conducting his field research in the Andaman Islands from 1906 to 1908, and then in Australia from 1910 to 1912. It was during his rewrite of his Andaman Islands fieldwork that he began to read the French sociologists Marcel Mauss and Émile Durkheim, and from these influences was born his own version of functionalism, called “structural functionalism.” For Radcliffe-Brown, the individual was of almost no account. Social institutions were of primary interest: What is the relationship between social structure and social activity? In this sense, the concerns of Radcliffe-Brown and other structural functionalists centered around the ways in which social institutions functioned to maintain society as a whole.

Structural and Symbolic Anthropology

Radcliffe-Brown’s version of functionalism was quite at odds with Malinowski’s. Whereas Malinowski was more concerned with how social institutions served individual psychological and even biological needs, Radcliffe-Brown was more interested in understanding how cultural institutions worked together to satisfy the mechanical needs of society. For Radcliffe-Brown, society was best characterized as a system of institutions that exists independently of the individuals who comprise the system.

As noted above, structural functionalism, then, takes its intellectual cues more directly from the writings of Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, French sociologists whose primary interests were, to paraphrase Edmund Leach, in the realm of “things said,” the world of ideas, rather than with “things done,” as Malinowski’s were, and indeed most American anthropology. The British functionalists, however, still employed the concept of the biological organism as the metaphor for culture. It was Claude Lévi-Strauss who altered the meaning of “structure,” as employed by Radcliffe-Brown, by replacing the metaphor. For Lévi-Strauss, language was the best metaphor for understanding culture.

Lévi-Strauss’s entrée into professional anthropology began in 1934, when he took a position in the sociology department at the University of Sao Paolo, Brazil. The position provided an opportunity to travel into the Brazilian interior, where he conducted fieldwork for the first time. The experience had a lasting effect on him, for, having been trained in law, he was expecting to find individual social facts and instead discovered genuine human beings who lived quite sophisticated mental lives.

Lévi-Strauss remained in Sao Paolo until 1938, returned to Europe to serve a year in military service, and after the occupation, took a position at the New School in New York. It was there that he first met the linguist Roman Jakobsen, who introduced Lévi-Strauss to structural linguistics. It was from this intellectual crossbreeding that Lévi-Strauss developed his version of structuralism, sometimes called “structural anthropology” but more commonly known as “French structuralism.”

In using a linguistic metaphor for understanding culture, Lévi-Strauss was arguing that culture is a kind of language. Like language, culture is a series of rules that govern behavior and transmit messages to others. A commonly used example is that of breakfast. When we wake in the morning and are hungry, we reference deeply embedded cultural rules about what kinds of foods are appropriate for breakfast, how they may be prepared and consumed, and what meanings those foods carry, what they “say” about the meal itself, and what meanings they transmit to others observing the meal.

Human culture is therefore like language in the sense that all human cultures satisfy the same basic needs, like eating or reproducing, but they do so in different ways. For the structuralists, what is actually consumed at breakfast is, by itself, not very interesting, unless what is done at breakfast is contrasted with what is done at lunchtime and dinnertime. It is through the patterns as revealed through the contrasts that we begin to understand the grammatical rules of eating. Of even more interest is the attempt to tease out how the grammar of eating is similar to, say, the grammar of reproducing. “What is done,” for the structuralist, is akin to the surface structure of a language, the actual utterances; the real interest is in the patterns and rules that lie under the surface structure, the “deep structure” of culture.

Lévi-Strauss and his followers often used the metaphor of the orchestra to explain how the structuralist sets about the task of decoding cultural meanings. In a musical score, separate instruments have distinct musical parts. The “message” of the symphony makes sense only when the parts are acting in unison. In addition, just as the symphony carries meaning in a left-to-right, melodic sequence, as the instruments play their parts from beginning to end, so does the musical score carry meaning at any given moment within the symphony, as the instruments operate in harmonic unison.

The metaphor of the orchestra sets up an opposition between syntagmatic and paradigmatic chains of meaning. For Lévi-Strauss, the nature of the differences between the two, the former as association by contiguity and sequence, the latter as association by metaphoric analogy, underscores an underlying binary nature of the human brain.

For most anthropologists, the application of binary oppositions to the study of myth is Lévi-Strauss’s primary contribution to cultural anthropology. But his real contribution was the development of a new approach to anthropology that began to focus more extensively on uncovering meaning, an important attempt to approach culture emically rather than etically.

Despite this shift away from an objective approach to the study of culture, structuralism was criticized for focusing on meaning as generated through the examination of contrasts between aspects of culture and not through meaning as derived from the forms of the symbols themselves. Structuralists were also accused of placing undue emphasis upon actions rather than on the people performing those actions.

This different take on the examination of ideas in cultural anthropology has been labeled as symbolic or interpretive anthropology, and it has two main proponents, Clifford Geertz and Victor Turner.

Geertz is most often associated with interpretive anthropology. He believed that the key to understanding cultural meaning was through the examination of symbols, which he thought were the direct expression of worldview and ethos. For Geertz, culture wasn’t necessarily simply locked away inside people’s heads, but was most clearly expressed in the symbolic life of a group of people.

Victor Turner, most closely associated with symbolic anthropology, was more interested in process and the ways in which symbolism worked as an operator in that process. For Turner, like Geertz, symbols express shared meanings, but, unlike Geertz, they do so in ways that additionally serve to promote group solidarity. Turner’s key concept was that of the social drama, a spontaneous unit of social process that occurs regularly in social life. Composed of four stages, the social drama is a sequence: The social fabric is ruptured, subsequently creates a crisis, and is resolved through the use of ritual to either reestablish or reformulate social relations. For Turner, the emphasis was on understanding how symbolism worked as a vehicle for expressing shared meanings, resolving conflict, promoting group solidarity, and recognizing changing social statuses.

Some cultural anthropologists would object to having interpretive and symbolic anthropology lumped together so, but the approaches of Geertz and Turner are important for understanding cultural anthropology because they both managed to turn cultural anthropology away from the “grand theory” traditions of functionalism, materialism, and structuralism and toward a focus on cultures and how anthropologists can best interpret them. Furthermore, these anthropologists, Geertz especially, were influenced by scholars traditionally seen as existing outside of the bounds of anthropological scholarship. Cultural anthropology owes many of its intellectual roots to “nonanthropologists” like Spencer, Marx, Durkheim, and Freud, of course, but the interpretive and symbolic approaches were influenced by philosophers like Heidegger, Ricouer, and Wittgenstein.

The symbolic and interpretive approaches have been criticized by other anthropologists for being more literary criticism than anthropology, which underscores a growing debate in the subdiscipline: Is cultural anthropology a science or a humanity? The issue is critical: Geertz and other interpretive anthropologists were criticized because their research was impossible to replicate, making it difficult to verify whether a subjective symbolic interpretation of cultural behavior is an accurate representation of reality as it exists on the ground.

For the symbolic anthropologists, of course, that was precisely their point. A scientific approach in cultural anthropology, such as cultural ecology, misses the entire basis of a focus on emics. Since culture dominates all modes of human behavior, the symbolic approach is critical for our understanding of what culture is. The symbolic anthropologists also argued that just as Boas had hinted nearly a century before, the fieldwork experience is highly subjective, and the individual fieldworker must be careful that their own inherent cultural biases do not overwhelm the recording and interpretation of anthropological data.

This last point was seized upon by cultural anthropologists working under the influence of postmodernism, an eclectic movement that has its origins in philosophy but has become established in contemporary cultural anthropology. The postmodern perspective adopted by many cultural anthropologists questions whether we can accurately capture a cultural reality. For one thing, ethnographers engaging in fieldwork, by their mere presence, alter the cultural setting in which they are working. Second, the ethnographer’s own conception of reality inherently colors the reconstruction of the culture when it is presented as ethnography.

The solution to this problem and the future of cultural anthropology are unclear. Some cultural anthropologists now see themselves not so much as anthropologists, but as practitioners of cultural studies. Others see themselves as a kind of literary critic, with the “text” being a particular society. Still others have rejected this criticism outright, observing that postmodernist perspectives, taken to their extreme, are both paralytic and detached from a reality that is positively observable, even if there remain some serious methodological concerns that cultural anthropologists must consider when engaging in fieldwork.


  1. Boas, F. (1940). Race, language, and culture. New York: Free Press.
  2. Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books.
  3. Leach, E. (1973). Structuralism is social anthropology. In D. Robey (Ed.), Structuralism: An introduction (pp. 37–57). London: William Clowes.
  4. Lévi-Strauss, C. (1974). Structural anthropology, Vol. I. (C. Jacobsen & B. G. Schoepf, Trans.). New York: Basic Books.
  5. Malinowksi, B. (1994). Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
  6. Marcus, G. E., & Fischer, M. J. (1986). Anthropology as cultural critique: an Experimental moment in the human sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  7. Morgan, L. H. (1994). Ancient society. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
  8. Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. (1952). Structure and function in primitive societies. New York: Free Press.
  9. Turner,V. (1974). Dramas, fields, and metaphors: Symbolic action in human society. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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