2006 Wikipedia CD Selection

Anthropology (from the Greek word άνθρωπος, "human" or "person") consists of the study of humanity (see genus Homo). It is holistic in two senses: it is concerned with all humans at all times and with all dimensions of humanity. A primary trait that traditionally distinguished anthropology from other humanistic disciplines is an emphasis on cross-cultural comparisons. This distinction has, however, become increasingly the subject of controversy and debate, with anthropological methods now being commonly applied in single society/group studies.

In North America, "anthropology" is traditionally divided into four sub-disciplines:

  • physical anthropology or biological anthropology, which studies primate behaviour, human evolution, osteology, forensics and population genetics;
  • cultural anthropology, (called social anthropology in the United Kingdom and now often known as socio-cultural anthropology). Areas studied by cultural anthropologists include social networks, diffusion, social behaviour, kinship patterns, law, politics, ideology, religion, beliefs, patterns in production and consumption, exchange, socialization, gender, and other expressions of culture, with strong emphasis on the importance of fieldwork or participant-observation (i.e living among the social group being studied for an extended period of time);
  • linguistic anthropology, which studies variation in language across time and space, the social uses of language, and the relationship between language and culture; and
  • archaeology, that studies the material remains of human societies. Archaeology itself is normally treated as a separate (but related) field in the rest of the world, although closely related to the anthropological field of material culture, which deals with physical objects created or used within a living or past group as mediums of understanding its cultural values.

More recently, some anthropology programs began dividing the field into two, one emphasizing the humanities and critical theory, the other emphasizing the natural sciences and empirical observation.

Historical and institutional context

The anthropologist Eric Wolf once characterized anthropology as the most scientific of the humanities, and the most humanistic of the sciences. Understanding how anthropology developed contributes to understanding how it fits into other academic disciplines.

Contemporary anthropologists claim a number of earlier thinkers as their forebearers and the discipline has several sources. However, anthropology can best be understood as an outgrowth of the Age of Enlightenment. It was during this period that Europeans attempted systematically to study human behaviour. Traditions of jurisprudence, history, philology and sociology developed during this time and informed the development of the social sciences of which anthropology was a part. At the same time, the romantic reaction to the Enlightenment produced thinkers such as Herder and later Wilhelm Dilthey whose work formed the basis for the culture concept which is central to the discipline.

Institutionally anthropology emerged from natural history (expounded by authors such as Buffon). This was the study of human beings - typically people living in European colonies. Thus studying the language, culture, physiology, and artifacts of European colonies was more or less equivalent to studying the flora and fauna of those places. It was for this reason, for instance, that Lewis Henry Morgan could write monographs on both The League of the Iroquois and The American Beaver and His Works. This is also why the material culture of 'civilized' nations such as China have historically been displayed in fine arts museums alongside European art while artifacts from Africa or Native North American cultures were displayed in Natural History Museums with dinosaur bones and nature dioramas. This being said, curatorial practice has changed dramatically in recent years, and it would be wrong to see anthropology as merely an extension of colonial rule and European chauvinism, since its relationship to imperialism was and is complex.

Anthropology grew increasingly distinct from natural history and by the end of the nineteenth century the discipline began to crystallize into its modern form - by 1935, for example, it was possible for T.K. Penniman to write a history of the discipline entitled A Hundred Years of Anthropology. Early anthropology was dominated by 'the comparative method'. It was assumed that all societies passed through a single evolutionary process from the most primitive to most advanced. Non-European societies were thus seen as evolutionary 'living fossils' that could be studied in order to understand the European past. Scholars wrote histories of prehistoric migrations which were sometimes valuable but often also fanciful. It was during this time that Europeans first accurately traced Polynesian migrations across the Pacific Ocean for instance - although some of them believed it originated in Egypt. Finally, the concept of race was actively discussed as a way to classify - and rank - human beings based on inherent biological difference.

In the twentieth century academic disciplines began to organize around three main domains. The " sciences" seeks to derive natural laws through reproducible and falsifiable experiments. The " humanities" reflected an attempt to study different national traditions, in the form of history and the arts, as an attempt to provide people in emerging nation-states with a sense of coherence. The "social sciences" emerged at this time as an attempt to develop scientific methods to address social phenomena, in an attempt to provide a universal basis for social knowledge. Anthropology does not easily fit into one of these categories, and different branches of anthropology draw on one or more of these domains.

Drawing on the methods of the natural sciences as well as developing new techniques involving not only structured interviews but unstructured "participant-observation" – and drawing on the new theory of evolution through natural selection, they proposed the scientific study of a new object: "humankind," conceived of as a whole. Crucial to this study is the concept "culture," which anthropologists defined both as a universal capacity and propensity for social learning, thinking, and acting (which they see as a product of human evolution and something that distinguishes Homo sapiens – and perhaps all species of genus Homo – from other species), and as a particular adaptation to local conditions that takes the form of highly variable beliefs and practices. Thus, "culture" not only transcends the opposition between nature and nurture; it transcends and absorbs the peculiarly European distinction between politics, religion, kinship, and the economy as autonomous domains. Anthropology thus transcends the divisions between the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities to explore the biological, linguistic, material, and symbolic dimensions of humankind in all forms.

Anthropology in the U.S.

Anthropology in the United States was pioneered by staff of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American Ethnology, such as John Wesley Powell and Frank Hamilton Cushing. Academic Anthropology was established by Franz Boas, who used his positions at Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History to train and develop multiple generations of students. Boasian anthropology was politically active and suspicious of research dictated by the U.S. government or wealthy patrons. It was also rigorously empirical and skeptical of over-generalizations and attempts to establish universal laws. Boas studied immigrant children in order to demonstrate that biological race was not immutable and that human conduct and behaviour was the result of nurture rather than nature.

Drawing on his German roots, he argued that the world was full of distinct 'cultures' rather than societies whose evolution could be measured by how much or how little 'civilization' they had. Boas felt that each culture has to be studied in its particularity, and argued that cross-cultural generalizations like those made in the natural sciences were not possible. In doing so Boas fought discrimination against immigrants, African Americans, and Native North Americans. Many American anthropologists adopted Boas' agenda for social reform, and theories of race continue to be popular targets for anthropologists today.

Boas's first generation of students included Alfred Kroeber, Robert Lowie, and Edward Sapir. All of these scholars produced richly detailed studies which were first to describe Native North America. In doing so they provided a wealth of details used to attack the theory of a single evolutionary process. Their focus on Native American languages also helped establish linguistics as a truly general science and free it from its historical focus on Indo-European languages.

The publication of Alfred Kroeber's textbook Anthropology marked a turning point in American anthropology. After three decades of amassing material the urge to generalize grew. This was most obvious in the 'Culture and Personality' studies carried out by younger Boasians such as Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. Influenced by psychoanalytic psychologists such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, these authors sought to understand the way that individual personalities were shaped by the wider cultural and social forces in which they grew up. While such works as Coming of Age in Samoa and The Chrysanthemum and the Sword remain popular with the American public, Mead and Benedict never had the impact on the discipline of anthropology that some expected. Boas had planned for Ruth Benedict to succeed him as chair of Columbia's anthropology department, but she was sidelined by Ralph Linton and Mead was limited to her offices at the AMNH.

Anthropology in Britain

Whereas Boas picked his opponents to pieces through attention to detail, in Britain modern anthropology was formed by rejecting historical reconstruction in the name of a science of society that focused on analyzing how societies held together in the present.

The two most important names in this tradition were Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown and Bronislaw Malinowski, both of whom released seminal works in 1922. Radcliffe-Brown's initial fieldwork in the Andaman Islands was carried out in the old style, but after reading Émile Durkheim he published an account of his research (entitled simply The Andaman Islanders) which drew heavily on the French sociologist. Over time he developed an approach known as structural-functionalism, which focused on how institutions in societies worked to balance out or create an equilibrium in the social system to keep it functioning harmoniously. Malinowski, on the other hand, advocated an unhyphenated 'functionalism' which examined how society functioned to meet individual needs. Malinowski is best known not for his theory, however, but for his detailed ethnography and advances in methodology. His classic Argonauts of the Western Pacific advocated getting 'the native's point of view' and an approach to field work that became standard in the field.

Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown's success stem from the fact that they, like Boas, actively trained students and aggressively built up institutions which furthered their programmatic ambitions. This was particularly the case with Radcliffe-Brown, who spread his agenda for 'Social Anthropology' by teaching at universities across the Commonwealth. From the late 1930s until the post-war period a string of monographs and edited volumes appeared which cemented the paradigm of British Social Anthropology. Famous ethnographies include The Nuer by Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard and The Dynamics of Clanship Among the Tallensi by Meyer Fortes, while well known edited volumes include African Systems of Kinship and Marriage and African Political Systems.

Anthropology in France

Anthropology in France has a less clear genealogy than the British and American traditions. Most commentators consider Marcel Mauss to be the founder of the French anthropological tradition. Mauss was a member of Durkheim's Annee Sociologique group, and while Durkheim and others examined the state of modern societies, Mauss and his collaborators (such as Henri Hubert and Robert Hertz) drew on ethnography and philology to analyze societies which were not as 'differentiated' as European nation states. In particular, Mauss's Essay on the Gift was to prove of enduring relevance in anthropological studies of exchange and reciprocity.

Throughout the interwar years, French interest in anthropology often dovetailed with wider cultural movements such as surrealism and primitivism which drew on ethnography for inspiration. Marcel Griaule and Michel Leiris are examples of people who combined anthropology with the French avant-garde. During this time most of what is known as ethnologie was restricted to museums, and anthropology had a close relationship with studies of folklore.

Above all, however, it was Claude Lévi-Strauss who helped institutionalize anthropology in France. In addition to the enormous influence his structuralism exerted across multiple disciplines, Lévi-Strauss established ties with American and British anthropologists. At the same time he established centers and laboratories within France to provide an institutional context within anthropology while training influential students such as Maurice Godelier and Francoise Heritier who would prove influential in the world of French anthropology. Much of the distinct character of France's anthropology today is a result of the fact that most anthropology is carried out in nationally-funded research laboratories rather than academic departments in universities.

Anthropology after World War Two

Before WWII British 'social anthropology' and American 'cultural anthropology' were still distinct traditions. It was after the war that the two would blend to create a 'sociocultural' anthropology.

In the 1950s and mid-1960s anthropology tended increasingly to model itself after the natural sciences. Some, such as Lloyd Fallers and Clifford Geertz, focused on processes of modernization by which newly independent states could develop. Others, such as Julian Steward and Leslie White focused on how societies evolve and fit their ecological niche - an approach popularized by Marvin Harris. Economic anthropology as influenced by Karl Polanyi and practiced by Marshall Sahlins and George Dalton focused on how traditional economics ignored cultural and social factors. In England, British Social Anthropology's paradigm began to fragment as Max Gluckman and Peter Worsley experimented with Marxism and authors such as Rodney Needham and Edmund Leach incorporated Lévi-Strauss's structuralism into their work.

Structuralism also influenced a number of development in 1960s and 1970s, including cognitive anthropology and componential analysis. Authors such as David Schneider, Clifford Geertz, and Marshall Sahlins developed a more fleshed-out concept of culture as a web of meaning or signification, which proved very popular within and beyond the discipline. In keeping with the times, much of anthropology became politicized through the Algerian War of Independence and opposition to the Vietnam War; Marxism became a more and more popular theoretical approach in the discipline. By the 1970s the authors of volumes such as Reinventing Anthropology worried about anthropology's relevance.

In the 1980s issues of power, such as those examined in Eric Wolf's Europe and the People Without History - were central to the discipline. Books like Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter pondered anthropology's ties to colonial inequality, while the immense popularity of theorists such as Antonio Gramsci and Michel Foucault moved issues of power and hegemony into the spotlight. Gender and sexuality became a popular topic, as did the relationship between history and anthropology, influenced by Marshall Sahlins (again) who drew on Lévi-Strauss and Fernand Braudel to examine the relationship between social structure and individual agency.

In the late 1980s and 1990s authors such as George Marcus and James Clifford pondered ethnographic authority, particularly how and why anthropological knowledge was possible and authoritative. Ethnographies became more reflexive, explicitly addressing the author's methodology and cultural positioning, and its influence on their ethnographic analysis. This was part of a more general trend of postmodernism that was popular contemporaneously. Currently anthropologists have begun to pay attention to globalization, medicine and biotechnology, indigenous rights, and the anthropology of Europe.

Politics of anthropology

Anthropology's traditional involvement with nonwestern cultures has involved it in politics in many different ways.

Some political problems arise simply because anthropologists usually have more power than the people they study. Some have argued that the discipline is a form of colonialist theft in which the anthropologist gains power at the expense of subjects. The anthropologist, they argue, can gain yet more power by exploiting knowledge and artifacts of the people he studies while the people he studies gain nothing, or even lose, in the exchange. An example of this exploitative relationship can been seen in the collaboration in Africa prior to World War II of British anthropologists (such as Fortes) and colonial forces. More recently, there have been newfound concerns about bioprospecting, along with struggles for self-representation for native peoples and the repatriation of indigenous remains and material culture.

Other political controversies come from American anthropology's emphasis on cultural relativism and its long-standing antipathy to the concept of race. The development of sociobiology in the late 1960s was opposed by cultural anthropologists such as Marshall Sahlins, who argued that these positions were reductive. While authors such John Randal Baker continued to develop the biological concept of race into the 1970s, the rise of genetics has proven to be central to developments on this front. Recently, Kevin B. MacDonald criticized Boasian anthropology as part of a "Jewish strategy to facilitate mass immigration and to weaken the West" ( The Culture of Critique,2002). As genetics continues to advance as a science some anthropologists such as Luca Cavalli-Sforza have continued to transform and advance notions of race through the use of recent developments in genetics, such as tracing past migrations of peoples through their mitcochondial and Y-chromosomal DNA, and ancestry-informative markers.

Finally, anthropology has a history of entanglement with government intelligence agencies and anti-war politics. Boas publicly objected to US participation in World War I and the collaboration of some anthropologists with US intelligence. In contrast, many of Boas' anthropologist contemporaries were active in the war effort in some form, including dozens who served in the Office of Strategic Services and the Office of War Information. In the 1950s, the American Anthropological Association provided the CIA information on the area specialities of its members, and a number of anthropologists participated in the U.S. government's Operation Camelot during the war in Vietnam. At the same time, many other anthropologists were active in the antiwar movement and passed resolutions in the American Anthropological Association (AAA) condemning anthropological involvement in covert operations. Anthropologists were also vocal in their opposition to the war in Iraq, although there was no consensus amongst practitioners of the discipline.

Professional anthropological bodies often object to the use of anthropology for the benefit of the state. Their codes of ethics or statements may proscribe anthropologists from giving secret briefings. The British Association for Social Anthropology has called certain scholarships ethically dangerous. For example, the British Association for Social Anthropology has condemned the CIA's Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program [1], which funds anthropology students at US universities in preparation for them to spy for the United States government. The AAA's current 'Statement of Professional Responsibility' clearly states that "in relation with their own government and with host governments... no secret research, no secret reports or debriefings of any kind should be agreed to or given."

Anthropology is the study of human diversity--diversity of body and behaviour, in the past and present. Anthropology consists of four subfields or subdisciplines:

Physical anthropology--studies the diversity of the human body in the past and present. It includes how we acquired the structure of our body over time, that is human evolution, as well as differences and relationships between human populations today and their adaptations to their local environments. It also sometimes includes the evolution and diversity of our nearest relatives, the primates (apes and monkeys).

Cultural anthropology--studies the diversity of human behaviour in the present. This is what most anthropologists do and what most of the public sees when they look at "National Geographic" magazine or the "Discovery" channel on TV. Cultural anthropologists travel to foreign societies (although it is possible to do anthropology on your own society!), live among the people there, and try as much as they can to understand how those people live.

Archaeology--studies the diversity of human behaviour in the past. Since it studies how people lived in the past, these people are not available for us to visit and talk to...or at least, not people who are currently living in the same way that their ancestors did in the past. Therefore, archaeologists must depend on the artifacts and features that the people produced in the past and attempt to reconstruct their vanished way of life from the remnants of their culture.

Linguistic anthropology--studies the diversity of human language in the past and present. While language is naturally a part of culture, it is such a huge topic that anthropologists have separated it into its own area of study. Linguistic anthropologists are concerned about the development of languages, perhaps even back to the first forms of language, and how language changes over time. They are also interested in how different contemporary languages differ today, how they are related, and how we can learn about things like migration and diffusion from that data. They also ask how language is related to and reflects on other aspects of culture.

Other sciences study humans too, of course. History, economics, psychology, sociology, even biology and chemistry can study humans. How is anthropology different?

The answer is the anthropological perspective, that is, the way that anthropology approaches the subject and thinks about or studies humans and their behaviour. The anthropological perspective has three components:

(1) Cross-cultural or comparative--anthropology investigates humans in every form that they take. We are interested to see the entire spectrum of human bodies and behaviors, trying to learn the range of humanity--all the ways that we can be human. By seeing humans in their every manifestation, and comparing those manifestations to each other, we can ask what is possible for humans and what is necessary for humans.

(2) Holistic--anthropology tries to relate every part of culture to every other part. It understands that the various parts of culture are connected to each other and that certain combinations tend to occur or not to occur (for example, there are no hunting and gathering cultures that traditionally lived in cities...that's just impossible!). We are also interested in how a people's cultures is connected to their environment; again, without high technology, you are not going to see farming or cities in the middle of the desert or the arctic.

(3) Relativistic--this is the most profound yet controversial part of the anthropological perspective. Relativism means that the rules or norms or values of a culture are relative to that specific culture. In other words, say, monogamy may be normal or preferred in one culture, but polygamy may be normal or preferred in another. The point is that different cultures believe different things or value different things or even mean different things with perhaps identical-looking behaviors or objects.

When you go to another culture, or even just interact with another culture (for example, when you are doing international business), you cannot assume that other people understand things the same way you do. In fact, you should assume that they don't! Anthropology counsels against hasty judgement of a new culture: aspects that a Western visitor may find strange or distasteful can be understood when situated within that culture's history and cosmology (understanding of the world). There will be a rationality for the phenomenon; it may be 'rational', however, according to a cultural logic that conflicts with Western understandings. Malinowski's primacy of seeking to understand "the native point of view" remains fundamental to socio-cultural anthropology today.

The point is that, if we want to understand other people properly, we must see what their behaviors or words or concepts mean to them, not what they would mean to us. Meaning is relative to the culture that creates that meaning. This is not to say that all things are true or even that all things are good - cultural relativism does not necessarily entail moral relativism. Indeed, the American Anthropological Association's qualified support (1948; 1997) for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as work by Sally Engle Merry, shows the latter is not a common anthropological point of view.

How does anthropology study culture?

One other way that anthropology is unique among the sciences that study humans is by its emphasis on 'fieldwork' You cannot get to know another culture just by reading about it or watching movies about it. At best, you could learn what other people have already discovered, but you could not learn anything new. So anthropology requires actually going to that society and living within their culture as much as possible. This is called participant observation. This depends crucially on finding (preferrably friendly) informants within the society, who will teach you their culture's rules of social behaviour, and include you in their activities. Then, as much as possible, you will try to eat their food, speak their language, and live their lives, often actually residing with a family in that society. It is not easy work, and it is not always fun, but there is no better way to learn.

Anthropological fields and subfields

  • Biological anthropology (also Physical anthropology)
    • Forensic anthropology
    • Paleoethnobotany
  • Cultural anthropology (also Social anthropology)
    • Anthropology of art
    • Applied anthropology
    • Cross-Cultural Studies
    • Cyber anthropology
    • Development anthropology
    • Dual inheritance theory
    • Environmental anthropology
    • Economic anthropology
    • Ecological anthropology
    • Ethnography
    • Ethnomusicology
    • Gender
    • Human behavioral ecology
    • Medical anthropology
    • Psychological anthropology
    • Political anthropology
    • Anthropology of religion
    • Public anthropology
    • Urban anthropology
    • Visual anthropology
  • Linguistic anthropology
    • Synchronic linguistics (or Descriptive linguistics)
    • Diachronic linguistics (or Historical linguistics)
    • Ethnolinguistics
    • Sociolinguistics

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