Anthropology is the study, analysis, and description of humanity’s past and present. Questions about the past include prehistoric origins and human evolution. Study of contemporary humanity focuses on biological and cultural diversity, including language. Compared to other disciplines that address humanity such as history, sociology, or psychology, anthropology is broader in two ways. In terms of humanity’s past, anthropology considers a greater depth of time. In terms of contemporary humans, anthropology covers a wider diversity of topics than other disciplines, from molecular DNA to cognitive development and religious beliefs.
- Four-Field Anthropology in North America
- Biological Anthropology
- Linguistic Anthropology
- Cultural Anthropology
- The “Father” of Four-Field Anthropology
- The Expansion of Cultural Anthropology
- Late Twentieth and Turn of Century Growth
- The Concept of Culture
- Characteristics of Culture
- Cultures Interact and Change
- Ethnography and Ethnology
- Cultural Relativism
- Applied Cultural Anthropology
This depth and breadth correspond to the wide variety of sites and contexts in which anthropologists conduct research. Some anthropologists spend years in harsh physical conditions searching for fossils of early human ancestors. Others live among and study firsthand how people in Silicon Valley, California, for example, work, organize family life, and adapt to a situation permeated by modern technology. Anthropologists may conduct analyses in a laboratory studying how tooth enamel reveals an individual’s diet, or they may work in a museum, examining designs on prehistoric pottery. Yet other anthropologists observe chimpanzees in the wild.
Research methods in anthropology range from scientific to humanistic. In the scientific mode, anthropologists proceed deductively. They formulate a hypothesis, or research question, and then make observations to see if the hypothesis is correct. This approach generates both quantitative (numeric) data and qualitative (descriptive) data. In the humanistic approach, anthropologists proceed inductively, pursuing a subjective method of understanding humanity through the study of people’s art, music, poetry, language, and other forms of symbolic expression. Anthropologists working in the humanistic mode avoid forming a hypothesis, and they rely on qualitative information.
No matter whether it is conducted in a rainforest settlement or a university laboratory, or pursued from a scientific or a humanistic perspective, research in anthropology seeks to produce new knowledge about humanity. Beyond generating knowledge for its own sake, anthropology produces findings of relevance to significant contemporary issues. Knowledge in anthropology is of value to government policy makers, businesses, technology developers, health care providers, teachers, and the general public.
Four-Field Anthropology in North America
In North America anthropology is defined as a discipline comprising four fields that focus on separate but interrelated subjects. The subjects are archaeology, biological anthropology (or physical anthropology), linguistic anthropology, and cultural anthropology (or social anthropology). Some North American anthropologists argue that a fifth field, applied anthropology, should be added. Applied anthropology, also called practicing or practical anthropology, is the use of anthropological knowledge to prevent or solve problems, or to shape and achieve policy goals. The author of this essay takes the position that the application of knowledge is best conceived of as an integral part of all four fields, just as theory is, rather than placed in a separate field.
The depth and breadth of anthropology have both positive and negative implications. The advantages of the depth and breadth of the four-field approach are the same as those that accrue to any kind of multidisciplinary work that requires thorough dialogue across domains about theories, methods, findings, and insights. Such dialogue tends to advance thinking in original and fruitful ways. Those who do not support anthropology as a four-field discipline point to the disadvantages of combining so much depth and breadth in one discipline. The main issue here is the differences between the scientific and humanistic approaches to understanding humanity.
In North America, the four-field approach is maintained to a large extent in the departmental organization and degree requirements at larger colleges and universities, and in professional associations such as the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the Canadian Sociology and Anthropology Association (CSAA). Some notable splits in departments occurred in the late twentieth century. In 1998, the former single Department of Anthropology at Stanford University divided into the Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology and the Department of Anthropological Sciences, with the former focusing on humanistic anthropology and the latter on scientific anthropology. Duke University has a Department of Cultural Anthropology and a Department of Biological Anthropology and Anatomy. Archaeology is housed within the Department of Classics. In some North American universities archaeology is a separate department, but archaeology is generally housed in anthropology departments.
Outside North America the four fields exist in separate academic units. The word “anthropology” in such contexts often refers only to biological anthropology. The English term “ethnology” or its equivalent in other languages corresponds to North American cultural anthropology. “Folklore” studies continue to be important in many European countries and in Japan. Linguistic anthropology is less prominent outside North America.
Archaeology means, literally, the “study of the old,” with a focus on human culture. Archaeology, which began in Europe in the nineteenth century, centers on the excavation and analysis of artifacts, or human-made remains. Depending on one’s perspective about valid evidence for the first humans, the time-depth of archaeology goes back to the beginnings of early humans with the earliest evidence of human-made tools approximately two million years ago.
Archaeology encompasses two major subfields: prehistoric archaeology and historical archaeology. Prehistoric archaeology covers the human past before written records. Prehistoric archaeologists identify themselves according to major geographic regions: Old World archaeology (Africa, Europe, and Asia) or New World archaeology (North, Central, and South America). Historical archaeology deals with the human past in societies that have written documents.
Another set of specialties within archaeology is based on the context in which the research takes place. One such specialty is underwater archaeology, which is the study and preservation of submerged archaeological sites. Underwater archaeological sites may be from either prehistoric or historic times. Industrial archaeology focuses on changes in material culture and society during and since the Industrial Revolution. Industrial archaeology is especially active in Great Britain, home of the industrial revolution. In Great Britain industrial archaeologists study such topics as the design and construction of iron bridges, the growth and regional distribution of potteries and cloth mills, and workers’ housing.
Worldwide, archaeologists seek to preserve the invaluable remains of humanity’s cultural heritage of the past, and therefore archaeology has a strong applied component. Applied archaeologists work in a variety of domains. Many archaeologists are employed in cultural resource management, assessing possible archaeological remains before such construction projects as roads and buildings can proceed. Industrial archaeologists contribute to the conservation of endangered sites that are more likely to be neglected or destroyed than sites that have natural beauty or cultural glamour attached to them. Archaeologists are becoming increasingly involved in making findings relevant to local people and to improving their welfare. Collaborative archaeology projects that involve community members in excavation, analysis, stewardship, and financial benefits are a growing trend.
Biological anthropology, or physical anthropology, is the study of humans as biological organisms, including their evolution and contemporary variation. The history of biological anthropology was strongly influenced by the work of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), especially his theories of evolution and species survival through competition. The three subfields of biological anthropology are primatology, paleoanthropology, and contemporary human biology. The three sub-fields share an interest in the relationship between morphology (physical form) and behavior.
Primatology is the study of the order of mammals called primates, including human and nonhuman primates. The category of nonhuman primates includes a wide range of animals from small, nocturnal creatures to gorillas, the largest members. Primatologists record and analyze how animals spend their time; collect and share food; form social groups; rear offspring; deal with conflict; and how all of these are affected by captivity.
Paleoanthropology is the study of human evolution on the basis of the fossil record. Paleoanthropologists search for fossils to increase the amount and quality of evidence related to how human evolution occurred. Genetic evidence suggests that human ancestors diverged from the ancestors of chimpanzees between five and eight million years ago in Africa. Fossil evidence for the earliest human ancestors is scarce for this period and researchers are searching for fossils to fill the gap. An equally important activity of paleoanthropologists is labwork focused on dating, reconstructing, and classifying fossils.
Anthropologists who study contemporary human biology define, measure, and seek to explain similarities and variation in the biological makeup and behavior of modern humans. Topics include diet and nutrition, fertility and reproduction, physical growth and health over the life cycle, and urban stress and pollution. Genetic and molecular analyses are of growing interest and importance for tracing similarities and differences in human biology including susceptibility to certain health conditions such as sickle cell anemia, Down syndrome, and diabetes.
Biological anthropology has many applied aspects. Applied primatologists provide data for designing nonhuman primate conservation projects. Paleoanthropologists serve as advocates for programs to protect fossil sites from looting and to ensure that important fossils and knowledge about them are part of public education. Biological anthropologists with specialized knowledge of human anatomy work in forensics, identifying crime victims and providing expert testimony in courts. Many forensic anthropologists are involved in investigations of human rights abuses around the world. Biological anthropologists in the subfield of contemporary human biology provide knowledge relevant to development projects seeking to improve people’s nutrition and health.
Linguistic anthropology is the study of communication, mainly among humans but also among other animals. Linguistic anthropology emerged in Europe and North America in the latter half of the nineteenth century. At that time its major topics of interest were the origins of language, the historical relationships of languages of different regions and continents, and the languages of “primitive” peoples.
Two factors shaped linguistic anthropology in its early days: the discovery that many non-European languages were unwritten and the realization that the languages of many non-European peoples were dying out as a consequence of contact with Europeans. Linguistic anthropologists responded to the discovery of unwritten languages by developing methods for recording unwritten and dying languages. They learned that non-European languages have a wide range of phonetic systems (pronunciation of various sounds) that do not correspond to those of Western languages. Linguistic anthropologists invented the International Phonetic Alphabet, which contains symbols to represent all known human sounds. In response to the discovery of dying languages, many early linguistic anthropologists devoted efforts to recording dying languages in work that is called “salvage anthropology.”
Linguistic anthropology has three subfields. The first, historical linguistics, is the study of language change over time, how languages are related, and the relationship of linguistic change to cultural change. The second is descriptive or structural linguistics. This subfield is the study of how contemporary languages differ in terms of their structure, such as in grammar and sound systems. The third subfield is sociolinguistics, the study of the relationships among social variation, social context, and linguistic variation, including nonverbal communication. Sociolinguistics is closely related to cultural anthropology and some North American anthropologists rightfully claim expertise in both fields.
Beginning in the 1980s, four new directions emerged in sociolinguistic anthropology. First is a trend to study language in everyday use, or discourse, in relation to power structures at local, regional, and international levels. For example, in some contexts, powerful people speak more than less powerful people, while in other contexts more powerful people speak less. Second, globalization has prompted new areas of inquiry include the study of “world languages” such as English, Spanish, and the emerging role of Chinese. Third, study of the media is a major growth area with attention to the relationship between language and nationalism, the role of mass media in shaping culture, mass communication and violence, and the effects of the Internet and cell phones on identity and social relationships. Fourth, linguistic anthropologists are increasingly focusing on language rights as human rights.
Applied roles for linguistic anthropologists are expanding. One professional area is education policy and school curriculum. Applied linguistic anthropologists consult with educational institutions about how to meet the needs of multicultural school populations and improve standardized tests for bilingual populations. They conduct research on classroom dynamics, such as student participation and teachers’ speech patterns, in order to assess possible biases related to ethnicity, gender, and class. Applied linguistic anthropologists contribute to the recovery of “dead” and declining languages as invaluable cultural heritage of descendant populations. Linguistic anthropologists work with governments, advocating for particular policies about the official status of languages in multicultural settings.
Cultural anthropology is the study of the culture, or the learned and shared behavior and beliefs of groups of living humans. Prominent sub-fields within cultural anthropology are economic anthropology, medical anthropology, psychological anthropology, kinship and family studies, social organization and social stratification, political anthropology, legal anthropology, religion, communication, expressive culture, and development anthropology.
The earliest historical roots of cultural anthropology are in the writings of Herodotus (fifth century BCE), Marco Polo (c. 1254-c. 1324), and Ibn Khaldun (1332—1406), people who traveled extensively and wrote reports about the cultures they encountered. More recent contributions come from writers of the French Enlightenment, such as eighteenth century French philosopher Charles Montesquieu (1689-1755). His book, Spirit of the Laws, published in 1748, discussed the temperament, appearance, and government of non-European people around the world. It explained differences in terms of the varying climates in which people lived.
The mid- and late nineteenth century was an important time for science in general. Influenced by Darwin’s writings about species’ evolution, three founding figures of cultural anthropology were Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881) in the United States, and Edward Tylor (1832-1917) and James Frazer (1854-1941) in England. The three men supported a concept of cultural evolution, or cumulative change in culture over time leading to improvement, as the explanation for cultural differences around the world. A primary distinction in cultures was between Euro-American culture (“civilization”) and non-Western peoples (“primitive”). This distinction is maintained today in how many North American museums place European art and artifacts in mainstream art museums, while the art and artifacts of non-Western peoples are placed in museums of natural history.
The cultural evolutionists generated models of progressive stages for various aspects of culture. Morgan’s model of kinship evolution proposed that early forms of kinship centered on women with inheritance passing through the female line, while more evolved forms centered on men with inheritance passing through the male line. Frazer’s model of the evolution of belief systems posited that magic, the most primitive stage, is replaced by religion in early civilizations which in turn is replaced by science in advanced civilizations. These models of cultural evolution were unilinear (following one path), simplistic, often based on little evidence, and ethnocentric in that they always placed European culture at the apex. Influenced by Darwinian thinking, the three men believed that later forms of culture are inevitably superior and that early forms either evolve into later forms or else disappear.
Most nineteenth century thinkers were “armchair anthropologists,” a nickname for scholars who learned about other cultures by reading reports of travelers, missionaries, and explorers. On the basis of readings, the armchair anthropologist wrote books that compiled findings on particular topics, such as religion. Thus, they wrote about faraway cultures without the benefit of personal experience with the people living in those cultures. Morgan stands out, in his era, for diverging from the armchair approach. Morgan spent substantial amounts of time with the Iroquois people of central New York. One of his major contributions to anthropology is the finding that “other” cultures make sense if they are understood through interaction with and direct observation of people rather than reading reports about them. This insight of Morgan’s is now a permanent part of anthropology, being firmly established by Bronislaw Malinowski (18841942).
Malinowski is generally considered the “father” of the cornerstone research method in cultural anthropology: participant observation during fieldwork. He established a theoretical approach called functionalism, the view that a culture is similar to a biological organism wherein various parts work to support the operation and maintenance of the whole. In this view a kinship system or religious system contributes to the functioning of the whole culture of which it is a part. Functionalism is linked to the concept of holism, the perspective that one must study all aspects of a culture in order to understand the whole culture.
The “Father” of Four-Field Anthropology
Another major figure of the early twentieth century is Franz Boas (1858-1942), the “father” of North American four-field anthropology. Born in Germany and educated in physics and geography, Boas came to the United States in 1887. He brought with him a skepticism toward Western science gained from a year’s study among the Innu, indigenous people of Baffin Island, Canada. He learned from that experience the important lesson that a physical substance such as “water” is perceived in different ways by people of different cultures. Boas, in contrast to the cultural evolutionists, recognized the equal value of different cultures and said that no culture is superior to any other. He introduced the concept of cultural relativism: the view that each culture must be understood in terms of the values and ideas of that culture and must not be judged by the standards of another. Boas promoted the detailed study of individual cultures within their own historical contexts, an approach called historical particularism. In Boas’s view, broad generalizations and universal statements about culture are inaccurate and invalid because they ignore the realities of individual cultures.
Boas contributed to the growth and professionalization of anthropology in North America. As a professor at Columbia University, he hired faculty and built the department. Boas trained many students who became prominent anthropologists, including Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. He founded several professional associations in cultural anthropology and archaeology. He supported the development of anthropology museums.
Boas was involved in public advocacy and his socially progressive philosophy embroiled him in controversy. He published articles in newspapers and popular magazines opposing the U.S. entry into World War I (1914-1918), a position for which the American Anthropological Association formally censured him as “un-American.” Boas also publicly denounced the role of anthropologists who served as spies in Mexico and Central America for the U.S. government during World War I. One of his most renowned studies, commissioned by President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), was to examine the effects of the environment (in the sense of one’s location) on immigrants and their children. He and his research team measured height, weight, head size and other features of over 17,000 people and their children who had migrated to the United States. Results showed substantial differences in measurements between the older and younger generations. Boas concluded that body size and shape can change quickly in response to a new environmental context; in other words, some of people’s physical characteristics are culturally shaped rather than biologically (“racially”) determined.
Boas’ legacy to anthropology includes his development of the discipline as a four-field endeavor, his theoretical concepts of cultural relativism and historical particularism, his critique of the view that biology is destiny, his anti-racist and other advocacy writings, and his ethical stand that anthropologists should not do undercover research.
Several students of Boas, including Mead and Benedict, developed what is called the “Culture and Personality School.” Anthropologists who were part of this intellectual trend documented cultural variation in modal personality and the role of child-rearing in shaping adult personality. Both Mead and Benedict, along with several other U.S. anthropologists, made their knowledge available to the government during and following World War II (1939-1945). Benedict’s classic 1946 book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword was influential in shaping U.S. military policies in post-war Japan and in behavior toward the Japanese people during the occupation. Mead likewise, offered advice about the cultures of the South Pacific to the U.S. military occupying the region.
The Expansion of Cultural Anthropology
In the second half of the twentieth century cultural anthropology in the United States expanded substantially in the number of trained anthropologists, departments of anthropology in colleges and universities, and students taking anthropology courses and seeking anthropology degrees at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral level. Along with these increases came more theoretical and topical diversity.
Cultural ecology emerged during the 1960s and 1970s. Anthropologists working in this area developed theories to explain cultural similarity and variation based on environmental factors. These anthopologists said that similar environments (e.g., deserts, tropical rainforests, or mountains) would predictably lead to the emergence of similar cultures. Because this approach sought to formulate cross-cultural predictions and generalizations, it stood in clear contrast to Boasian historical particularism.
At the same time, French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (b. 1908) developed a different theoretical perspective influenced by linguistics and called structuralism. Structuralism is an analytical method based on the belief that the best way to learn about a culture is by analyzing its myths and stories to discover the themes, or basic units of meaning, embedded in them. The themes typically are binary opposites such as life and death, dark and light, male and female. In the view of French structuralism these oppositions constitute an unconsciously understood, underlying structure of the culture itself. Levi-Strauss collected hundreds of myths from native peoples of South America as sources for learning about their cultures. He also used structural analysis in the interpretation of kinship systems and art forms such as the masks of Northwest Coast Indians. In the 1960s and 1970s French structuralism began to attract attention of anthropologists in the United States and has had a lasting influence on anthropologists of a more humanistic bent.
Descended loosely from these two contrasting theoretical perspectives—cultural ecology and French structuralism—are two important approaches in contemporary cultural anthropology. One approach, descended from cultural ecology, is cultural materialism. Cultural materialism, as defined by its leading theorist Marvin Harris (1927-2001), takes a Marxist-inspired position that understanding a culture should be pursued first by examining the material conditions in which people live: the natural environment and how people make a living within particular environments. Having established understanding of the “material” base (or infrastructure), attention may then be turned to other aspects of culture, including social organization (how people live together in groups, or structure) and ideology (people’s way of thinking and their symbols, or superstructure). One of Harris’ most famous examples of a cultural materialist approach is his analysis of the material importance of the sacred cows of Hindu India. Harris demonstrates the many material benefits of cows, from their plowing roles to the use of their dried dung as cooking fuel and their utility as street-cleaning scavengers, underlay and are ideologically supported by the religious ban on cow slaughter and protection of even old and disabled cows.
The second approach in cultural anthropology, descended from French structuralism and symbolic anthropology, is interpretive anthropology or intepretivism. This perspective, championed by Clifford Geertz (1926-2006), says that understanding culture is first and foremost about learning what people think about, their ideas, and the symbols and meanings important to them. In contrast to cultural materialism’s emphasis on economic and political factors and behavior, interpretivists focus on webs of meaning. They treat culture as a text that can only be understood from the inside of the culture, in its own terms, an approach interpretivists refer to as “experience near” anthropology, in other words, learning about a culture through the perspectives of the study population as possible. Geertz contributed the concept of “thick description” as the best way for anthropologists to present their findings; in this mode, the anthropologist serves as a medium for transferring the richness of a culture through detailed notes and other recordings with minimal analysis.
Late Twentieth and Turn of Century Growth
Starting in the 1980s, several additional theoretical perspectives and research domains emerged in cultural anthropology. Feminist anthropology arose in reaction to the lack of anthropological research on female roles. In its formative stage, feminist anthropology focused on culturally embedded discrimination against women and girls. As feminist anthropology evolved, it looked at how attention to human agency and resistance within contexts of hierarchy and discrimination sheds light on complexity and change. In a similar fashion, gay and lesbian anthropology, or “queer anthropology,” has exposed the marginalization of gay and lesbian sexuality and culture in previous anthropology research and seeks to correct that situation.
Members of other minority groups voice parallel concerns. African American anthropologists have critiqued mainstream cultural anthropology as suffering from embedded racism in the topics it studies, how it is taught to students, and its exclusion of minorities from positions of power and influence. This critique has produced recommendations about how to build a non-racist anthropology. Progress is occurring, with one notable positive change being the increase in trained anthropologists from minority groups and other excluded groups, and their rising visibility and impact on the research agenda, textbook contents, and future direction of the field.
Another important trend is increased communication among cultural anthropologists worldwide and growing awareness of the diversity of cultural anthropology in different settings. Non-Western anthropologists are contesting the dominance of Euro-American anthropology and offering new perspectives. In many cases, these anthropologists conduct native anthropology, or the study of one’s own cultural group. Their work provides useful critiques of the historically Western, white, male discipline of anthropology.
At the turn of the twenty-first century, two theoretical approaches became prominent and link together many other diverse perspectives, such as feminist anthropology, economic anthropology, and medical anthropology. The two approaches have grown from the earlier perspectives of cultural materialism and French structuralism, respectively. Both are influenced by postmodernism, an intellectual pursuit that asks whether modernity is truly progress and questions such aspects of modernism as the scientific method, urbanization, technological change, and mass communication.
The first approach is termed structurism, which is an expanded political economy framework. Structurism examines how powerful structures such as economics, politics, and media shape culture and create and maintain entrenched systems of inequality and oppression. James Scott, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Arthur Kleinman, Veena Das, and Paul Farmer are pursuing this direction of work. Many anthropologists use terms such as social suffering or structural violence to refer to the forms and effects of historically and structural embedded inequalities that cause excess illness, death, violence, and pain.
The second theoretical and research emphasis, derived to some extent from interpretivism, is on human agency, or free will, and the power of individuals to create and change culture by acting against structures. Many anthropologists avoid the apparent dichotomy in these two approaches and seek to combine a structurist framework with attention to human agency.
The Concept of Culture
Culture is the core concept in cultural anthropology, and thus it might seem likely that cultural anthropologists would agree about what it is. Consensus may have been the case in the early days of the discipline when there were far fewer anthropologists. Edward B. Tylor (1832-1917), a British anthropologist, proposed the first anthropological definition of culture in 1871. He said that “Culture, or civilization … is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (Kroeber and Kluckhohn 1952, p. 81). By the 1950s, however, an effort to collect definitions of culture produced 164 different definitions. Since that time no one has tried to count the number of definitions of culture used by anthropologists.
In contemporary cultural anthropology, the theoretical positions of the cultural materialists and the interpretive anthropologists correspond to two different definitions of culture. Cultural materialist Marvin Harris defines culture as the total socially acquired life-way or life-style of a group of people, a definition that maintains the emphasis on the holism established by Tylor. In contrast, Clifford Geertz, speaking for the interpretivists, defines culture as consisting of symbols, motivations, moods, and thoughts. The interpretivist definition excludes behavior as part of culture. Again, avoiding a somewhat extreme dichotomy, it is reasonable and comprehensive to adopt a broad definition of culture as all learned and shared behavior and ideas.
Culture exists, in a general way, as something that all humans have. Some anthropologists refer to this universal concept of culture as “Culture” with a capital “C.” Culture also exists in a specific way, in referring to particular groups as distinguised by their behaviors and beliefs. Culture in the specific sense refers to “a culture” such as the Maasai, the Maya, or middle-class white Americans. In the specific sense culture is variable and changing. Sometimes the terms “microculture” or local culture are used to refer to specific cultures. Microcultures may include ethnic groups, indigenous peoples, genders, age categories, and more. At a larger scale exist regional or even global cultures such as Western-style consumer culture that now exists in many parts of the world.
Characteristics of Culture
Since it is difficult to settle on a neat and tidy definition of culture, some anthropologists find it more useful to discuss the characteristics of culture and what makes it a special adaptation on which humans rely so heavily.
Culture is based on symbols. A symbol is something that stands for something else. Most symbols are arbitrary, that is, they bear no necessary relationship to that which is symbolized. Therefore, they are cross-culturally variable and unpredictable. For example, although one might guess that all cultures might have an expression for hunger that involves the stomach, no one could predict that in Hindi, the language of northern India, a colloquial expression for being hungry says that “rats are jumping in my stomach.” Our lives are shaped by, immersed in, and made possible through symbols. It is through symbols, especially language, that culture is shared, changed, stored, and transmitted over time.
Culture is learned. Cultural learning begins from the moment of birth, if not before (some people think that an unborn baby takes in and stores information through sounds heard from the outside world). A large but unknown amount of people’s cultural learning is unconscious, occurring as a normal part of life through observation. Schools, in contrast, are a formal way to learn culture. Not all cultures throughout history have had formal schooling. Instead, children learned culture through guidance from others and by observation and practice. Longstanding ways of enculturation, or learning one’s culture, include stories, pictorial art, and performances of rituals and dramas.
Cultures are integrated. To state that cultures are internally integrated is to assert the principle of holism. Thus, studying only one or two aspects of culture provides understanding so limited that it is more likely to be misleading or wrong than more comprehensively grounded approaches. Cultural integration and holism are relevant to applied anthropologists interested in proposing ways to promote positive change. Years of experience in applied anthropology show that introducing programs for change in one aspect of culture without considering the effects in other areas may be detrimental to the welfare and survival of a culture. For example, Western missionaries and colonialists in parts of Southeast Asia banned the practice of head-hunting. This practice was embedded in many other aspects of culture, including politics, religion, and psychology (i.e., a man’s sense of identity as a man sometimes depended on the taking of a head). Although stopping head-hunting might seem like a good thing, it had disastrous consequences for the cultures that had practiced it.
Cultures Interact and Change
Several forms of contact bring about a variety of changes in the cultures involved. Trade networks, international development projects, telecommunications, education, migration, and tourism are just a few of the factors that affect cultural change through contact. Globalization, the process of intensified global interconnectedness and movement of goods, information and people, is a major force of contemporary cultural change. It has gained momentum through recent technological change, especially the boom in information and communications technologies, which is closely related to the global movement of capital and finance.
Globalization does not spread evenly, and its interactions with and effects on local cultures vary substantially, from positive change for all groups involved to cultural destruction and extinction for those whose land, livelihood and culture are lost. Current terms that attempt to capture varieties of cultural change related to globalization include hybridization (cultural mixing into a new form) and localization (appropriation and adaptation of a global form into a new, locally meaningful form).
Ethnography and Ethnology
Cultural anthropology embraces two major pursuits in its study and understanding of culture. The first is ethnography or “culture-writing.” An ethnography is an in-depth description of one culture. This approach provides detailed information based on personal observation of a living culture for an extended period of time. An ethnography is usually a full-length book.
Ethnographies have changed over time. In the first half of the twentieth century, ethnographers wrote about “exotic” cultures located far from their homes in Europe and North America. These ethnographers treated a particular local group or village as a unit unto itself with clear boundaries. Later, the era of so-called “village studies” in ethnography held sway from the 1950s through the 1960s. Anthropologists typically studied in one village and then wrote an ethnography describing that village, again as a clearly bounded unit. Since the 1980s, the subject matter of ethnographies has changed in three major ways. First, ethnographies treat local cultures as connected to larger regional and global structures and forces; second, they focus on a topic of interest and avoid a more holistic (comprehensive) approach; and third, many are situated within industrialized/post-industrialized cultures.
As topics and sites have changed, so have research methods. One innovation of the late twentieth century is the adoption of multi-sited research, or research conducted in more than one context such as two or more field sites. Another is the use of supplementary non-sited data collected in archives, from Internet cultural groups, or newspaper coverage. Cultural anthropologists are turning to multi-sited and non-sited research in order to address the complexities and linkages of today’s globalized cultural world. Another methodological innovation is collaborative ethnography, carried out as a team project between academic researchers and members of the study population. Collaborative research changes ethnography from study of people for the sake of anthropological knowledge to study with people for the sake of knowledge and for the people who are the focus of the research.
The second research goal of cultural anthropology is ethnology, or cross-cultural analysis. Ethnology is the comparative analysis of a particular topic in more than one cultural context using ethnographic material. Ethnologists compare such topics as marriage forms, economic practices, religious beliefs, and childrearing practices, for example, in order to discover patterns of similarity and variation and possible causes for them. One might compare the length of time that parents sleep with their babies in different cultures in relation to personality. Researchers ask, for example, if a long co-sleeping period leads to less individualistic, more socially connected personalities and if a short period of co-sleeping produces more individualistic personalities. Other ethnological analyses have considered the type of economy in relation to frequency of warfare, and the type of kinship organization in relation to women’s status.
Ethnography and ethnology are mutually supportive. Ethnography provides rich, culturally specific insights. Ethnology, by looking beyond individual cases to wider patterns, provides comparative insights and raises new questions that prompt future ethnographic research.
Most people grow up thinking that their culture is the only and best way of life and that other cultures are strange or inferior. Cultural anthropologists label this attitude ethnocentrism: judging other cultures by the standards of one’s own culture. The opposite of ethnocentrism is cultural relativism, the idea that each culture must be understood in terms of its own values and beliefs and not by the standards of another culture.
Cultural relativism may easily be misinterpreted as absolute cultural relativism, which says that whatever goes on in a particular culture must not be questioned or changed because no one has the right to question any behavior or idea anywhere. This position can lead in dangerous directions. Consider the example of the Holocaust during World War II in which millions of Jews and other minorities in much of Eastern and Western Europe were killed as part of the German Nazis’ Aryan supremacy campaign. The absolute cultural relativist position becomes boxed in, logically, to saying that since the Holocaust was undertaken according to the values of the culture, outsiders have no business questioning it.
Critical cultural relativism offers an alternative view that poses questions about cultural practices and ideas in terms of who accepts them and why, and who they might be harming or helping. In terms of the Nazi Holocaust, a critical cultural relativist would ask, “Whose culture supported the values that killed millions of people on the grounds of racial purity?” Not the cultures of the Jewish people, the Roma, and other victims. It was the culture of Aryan supremacists, who were one subgroup among many. The situation was far more complex than a simple absolute cultural relativist statement takes into account, because there was not “one” culture and its values involved. Rather, it was a case of cultural imperialism, in which one dominant group claimed supremacy over minority cultures and proceeded to change the situation in its own interests and at the expense of other cultures. Critical cultural relativism avoids the trap of adopting a homogenized view of complexity. It recognizes internal cultural differences and winners/losers, oppressors/victims. It pays attention to different interests of various power groups.
Applied Cultural Anthropology
In cultural anthropology, applied anthropology involves the use or application of anthropological knowledge to help prevent or solve problems of living peoples, including poverty, drug abuse, and HIV/AIDS. In the United States, applied anthropology emerged during World War II when many anthropologists offered their expertise to promote U.S. war efforts and post-war occupation. Following the end of the war, the United States assumed a larger global presence, especially through its bilateral aid organization, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). USAID hired many cultural anthropologists who worked in a variety of roles, mainly evaluating development projects at the end of the project cycle and serving as in-country anthropologists overseas.
In the 1970s cultural anthropologists worked with other social scientists in USAID to develop and promote the use of “social soundness analysis” in all government-supported development projects. As defined by Glynn Cochrane, social soundness analysis required that all development projects be preceded by a thorough baseline study of the cultural context and then potential redesign of the project based on those findings. A major goal was to prevent the funding of projects with little or no cultural fit. The World Bank hired its first anthropologist, Michael Cernea, in 1974. For three decades, Cernea influenced its policy-makers to pay more attention to project-affected people and their culture in designing and implementing projects. He promoted the term “development induced displacement” to bring attention to how large infrastructure projects negatively affect millions of people worldwide and he devised recommendations for mitigating such harm.
Many cultural anthropologists are applying cultural analysis to large-scale institutions (e.g., capitalism and the media) particularly their negative social consequences, such as the increasing wealth gap between powerful and less powerful countries and between the rich and the poor within countries. These anthropologists are moving in a new and challenging direction. Their work involves the study of global—local interactions and change over time, neither of which were part of cultural anthropology’s original focus. Moreover, these cultural anthropologists take on the role of advocacy and often work collaboratively with victimized peoples.
Anthropologists are committed to documenting, understanding, and maintaining cultural diversity throughout the world as part of humanity’s rich heritage. Through the four-field approach, they contribute to the recovery and analysis of the emergence and evolution of humanity. They provide detailed descriptions of cultures as they have existed in the past, as they now exist, and as they are changing in contemporary times. Anthropologists regret the decline and extinction of different cultures and actively contribute to the preservation of cultural diversity and cultural survival.
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