Cultural Anthropology

views updated May 23 2018


Cultural anthropology emerged as an area of study following the era of European exploration, when the full diversity of human experience became globally apparent. Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (18321917) one of the founders of anthropology, defined culture as "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society" (Tylor 1871, p. 1, emphasis added). It is the holistic emphasis of cultural anthropology that distinguishes it most clearly from other related disciplines. For example, an anthropologist may focus his or her research on a particular dimension of culture, such as religion or political organization, but that dimension will also be described in terms of its relationship to the "complex whole" of the local culture.

Anthropologists generally describe culture in terms of a set of interacting systems that perpetuate cultural practices through generations. For example, kinship systems are one of the basic building blocks of culture, encompassing mate choice, marriage customs, family relationships and obligations, and household composition. Social systems encompass stable non-kin relationships such as voluntary associations. Religions or belief systems provide guidance for relationships between people and the natural world, as well as the unseen or unknown forces that affect people's lives; they exist in all cultures and show an astounding diversity in terms of content and practices. Economic systems and political systems extend relationships beyond the family and household. Though some of these systems and relationships may ultimately encompass global dimensions, cultural anthropologists are primarily concerned with the impact of each of these systems at the local level, in the day-to-day experiences of communities.

The emphasis on understanding local experience has led to the development of an array of field observation methods collectively called "ethnographic" methods. Cultural anthropology is a field-based science that emphasizes direct observation of and participation in a culture as the primary source of knowledge about that culture. Controlled experimentation is rarely an option, for obvious ethical reasons. Instead, emphasis is placed on the collection of detailed, repetitive observations using diverse methods, under diverse conditions, and with diverse community members. Methods include both qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis techniques. A single study may include a quantitative household census or survey, structured and unstructured open-ended interviews, time-series observations of specific types of behaviors, and detailed observational notes on events such as marriages and funerals. Anthropologists use a process called triangulation to compare the results from the various data collection strategies. This is often done during the field research process, such that hypotheses generated from one strategy are investigated using another. This iterative process serves to reduce over-all bias and increase the robustness of conclusions.

Within cultural anthropology, a number of subfields overlap. Ethnography is the broadest and encompasses the systematic study of cultures. Medical anthropology focuses specifically on the study of disease and health in the context of cultural systems. Applied anthropology centers on the systematic use of anthropological knowledge to address contemporary problems. Urban, national, and global anthropology are three closely related subfields that focus on interrelationships at these different levels and how they affect and are affected by the everyday social and cultural lives of people living, acting, and struggling in particular places. Psychological anthropology encompasses the study of cultural, psychological, and social interrelations at all levels. Linguistic anthropology explores language in its social and cultural context.

Cultural anthropologists also work within a variety of theoretical perspectives that range from the strongly scientific and objective to the strongly literary and subjective. Hahn (1999) described anthropological theory as encompassing three major areas:

  1. Ecological/evolutionary theory, which claims that the physical environment and human adaptations to it are the principal determinants of sickness and healing
  2. Cultural theory, which posits that cultural systems of beliefs, values, and customs are the basic determinants
  3. Political/economic theory, which proposes that economic organization and contending relationships of power are the principal forces controlling human sickness and health

The choice of theoretical perspective is driven by the overall goal of the research, with some problems requiring an integration of theories from different perspectives. For example, the intersecting epidemics of substance abuse, violence, and AIDS in impoverished urban settings in the United States led Merrill Singer (1996) to develop the theoretical construct of syndemics, comprising synergistic, mutually enhancing health and social problems. The syndemic concept integrates aspects of both ecological and political/economic theories in medical anthropology. It also typifies the anthropological approach by striving to model the relationships among multiple subsystems at the community level.

Kathleen M. MacQueen

(see also: Acculturation; Anthropology in Public Health; Assimilation; Biculturalism; Community Health ; Cross-cultural Communication; Cultural Norms; Customs; Ethnicity and Health; Folk Medicine; Lifestyle; Theories of Health and Illness )


Ember, C. R., and Ember, M. (1990). Cultural Anthropology, 6th edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Hahn, R. A., ed. (1999). Anthropology in Public Health. Bridging Differences in Culture and Society. New York: Oxford University Press.

Harris, M. (1991). Cultural Anthropology, 3rd edition. New York: Harper-Collins.

Singer, M. (1996). "A Dose of Drugs, a Touch of Violence, a Case of AIDS: Conceptualizing the SAVA Syndemic." Free Inquiry 24:9910.

Tylor, E. B. (1871). Primitive Culture. London: J. Murray.

cultural anthropology

views updated May 18 2018

cultural anthropology See SOCIAL ANTHROPOLOGY.