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I. The FieldJoseph H. Greenberg


II. Cultural AnthropologyDavid G. Mandelbaum


III. Social AnthropologyRaymond Firth


IV. Applied AnthropologyLucy Mair


V. The Anthropological Study of Modern SocietyWalter Goldschmidt


VI. The Comparative Method in AnthropologyEdmund R. Leach


The six articles under this heading describe the fields of cultural, social, and applied anthropology. Other sub disciplines can be found under Archeology; Linguistics; and Physical anthropology. Related entries are Economic anthropology; Ethnography; Ethnology; Folklore; Linguistics; and Political anthropology. The history of the major concepts of anthropology may be found under Culture; Ecology; Evolution; Kinship; Race; and Social structure.


Anthropology, in consonance with the etymology of its name, “study of man,” is the most compre hensive of the academic disciplines dealing with mankind. This comprehensiveness is displayed in its concern with the full geographical and chronological sweep of human societies, the breadth of its topical interest, which embraces such diverse areas as language, social structure, aesthetic expression, and belief systems, and in the fact that it alone among the sciences of man treats him both in his physical and sociocultural aspects. In addition to these fundamental biological and social scientific components, anthropology has a significant humanistic aspect, as shown, for example, in its empathetic search for the bases of aesthetic valuation in the arts of alien people.

Although anthropology is thus in principle allinclusive, it is in fact but one of a number of disciplines that study man. Indeed, the very richness and variety of its interests lead inevitably to fragmentation into a number of semiautonomous subdisciplines, practically all of which, moreover, must share their subject matter with some other well-established and independent field of study. Thus anthropology may easily appear to be a study whose definitional and programmatic claims of vast scope mask a factually disjunctive accumulation of relicts.

This apparent contradiction can be at least partially resolved; in terms of problems and methodology there are certain basic themes that provide a focus of distinctive interests and mark off anthropology from other disciplines. Even where it overlaps some other field of study in subject matter, it tends to approach the specific data somewhat differently and in terms of problems posed within the general frame of anthropological theory. One particular set of interconnected problems may be singled out as historically the core of anthropological interest—namely, the description and explanation of similarities and differences among human ethnic groups. This has been a central problem only in anthropology and thus serves to distinguish it from the other social sciences. Moreover, in the history of the subject it has not so much been superseded by other problems as subject to successive restatement in ever broader terms.

Since ethnic groups differ both in physical type and in sociocultural characteristics, anthropology has been concerned with both in its physical and sociocultural branches respectively. To explore the full range of human diversity it becomes of great importance to take into consideration precisely those societies whose isolation from the well-documented historical traditions guarantees the maximum divergence from those institutions with which we are most familiar. Further, their presumed isolation from each other ensures that these societies provide the maximum number of historically independent examples of the many types of human societal organization. Although in principle anthropology has always had an equal interest in societies of all types, in practice it has involved a concentration on primitive, or preliterate, peoples, most frequently defined as those that did not have writing at the time of first contact with the West. Many of the characteristics of cultural anthropological methodology and theory have resulted from this preoccupation. The basic descriptive technique is field study by observation and participation and verbal interview of relatively small groups typically organized on a tribal basis. The emphasis tends to become qualitative rather than quantitative. The ethnographer seeks to construct a coherent over-all picture of the institutions of the people being studied by a complex and not explicitly verbalized procedure of inference from the raw data of observation.

In analogous fashion, in order to recover the basic facts concerning past societies in regions and for periods in which the written records that constitute the basic materials of conventional historians are lacking, the skills of archeology are combined with other inferential methods, such as the use of oral traditions, ethnological trait distributions, and comparative linguistics.

The distinction between physical anthropology and allied biological sciences can also be understood in terms of this interest in human ethnic diversity. What is common physically to all human beings has been the concern of human biology as a specialized branch of general biology, while the traditional task of physical anthropology has been the description and explanation of human physical variation. In its historical dimension this connotes an interest in the reconstruction of past human forms from fossil evidence (human paleontology), just as archeology seeks to discover the facts regarding the cultures of the past.

Not only subject matter and methodology but the broader characteristics of anthropological theorizing can be largely understood in terms of this central problem. Thus the basic method of anthropology has been the comparative method, and such basic approaches as cultural evolutionism and environmentalism were attempts to account for cultural similarities and differences by some single variable.

An important shift in anthropological interests may be detected in the more recent period, the beginnings of which may be roughly dated to the third decade of the twentieth century. Attention turned to the internal organization of each culture, and while this interest was to a great extent a particularistic attempt to discover the peculiar “genius” of each culture, the comparative framework was not completely abandoned. It eventually became integrated in a broader framework, which tended to be taken for granted by anthropologists: features common to all cultures were investigated in order to throw into relief the basic over-all characteristics that may be presumed to make up common human nature. Problems of this order can be exemplified by a theoretical assumption that in all societies individuals become socialized in conformity with prevailing norms and that public order is maintained. The investigation of such assumptions regarding the internal functioning of societies was instrumental in the development of an interest in the relation between personality and culture, a field which previously was virtually unexplored.

To the extent that such questions had long been a focus of theoretical interest in sociology and psychology, this broadening of traditional anthropological interests involved the utilization of theoretical concepts developed in these other disciplines and interdisciplinary collaboration on a far wider scale than heretofore.

Even more recently, a contributing factor to this interdisciplinary emphasis has been the extension of anthropological interests, largely in connection with applied problems, to urban situations and literate societies. As a result, anthropology both in certain areas of object matter (e.g., community studies) and theory (e.g., functional theory) has become virtually indistinguishable from sociology. The persistence, however, of such traditional interests as prehistoric archeology, the study of unwritten languages, and the ethnographic description of tribal societies has ensured the continued existence and uniqueness of anthropology.

Subdivisions and interrelation of disciplines

In traditional American practice anthropology is often divided into four basic subdivisions—physical anthropology, cultural anthropology, archeology, and linguistics. Social anthropology is commonly added to these as a distinct branch under the influence of the social functionalism of Radcliffe-Brown and his followers, who draw a sharp line between a science of social structure and function (social anthropology) and a descriptive, historically oriented study of culture (ethnology, or cultural anthropology). In either form this division has, in certain respects, more of a practical than a theoretical basis and is oriented toward the problems of training students in graduate doctoral programs. Thus, language is part of the culture of a people, and therefore its study is logically a subdivision of cultural anthropology. Archeology seeks to recreate as far as possible the culture of former peoples from the evidence of their material remains and to reconstruct the historical interrelationship of such cultures, so that it also may be considered an aspect of cultural anthropology. However, both linguistics and archeology require considerable training in highly specialized techniques; this is the fundamental reason in practice for their separation from other aspects of cultural and social anthropology. The separation of cultural and social anthropology is rather that of two different approaches to what is basically the same objective phenomenon of group behavior. Indeed, the distinction falls away for those who would not accept as theoretical doctrine the separation of social structure and culture as distinct fields of study.

From these considerations it follows that the truly fundamental division within anthropology as practiced in the United States is between the physical study of man (physical anthropology) and the sociocultural study of man (the remaining branches). The basic nature of this division is reflected in the fact that outside of the United States the term “anthropology” or its translational equivalents (e.g., German Anthropologie) corresponds to American “physical anthropology,” while “ethnology” designates the sociocultural study of mankind. The significance of this division, along with a recognition of a special relationship between the two is reflected in the organization of the periodic international congress called the International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences.

The fact that man is the only species that has developed culture introduces new factors of great significance from the purely biological point of view. In most general terms, the key adaptive mechanism of man as a species is culture itself. This has many practical consequences for the physical anthropologist. For example, mating in a human population takes place within a socially determined matrix. Such considerations render fruitful the integral association of the physical and sociocultural branches of anthropology.

More circumscribed bases of specialization either crosscut or subdivide the fundamental divisions just enumerated and bring into relief the complexity of the relationships between anthropology and a variety of other disciplines or fields of specialization. These are of two main types, areal and topical. For example, the average anthropologist, while almost always a specialist in one of the major branches, tends to be restricted in his actual work to a specific world area. Thus an archeologist will normally have a predominant interest in some particular major geographical area, e.g., North America, and often within this area will have a regional specialty, such as the American southwest. Such specialization segments anthropology in the geographical dimension but tends to bring together the basic fields in terms of a common areal interest. Thus our hypothetical southwestern archeologist will feel the need to have at least an elementary control of the basic facts regarding the ethnographic and linguistic distributions of his area in order to interpret his own results. In certain cases this will lead to consultative discussion with his colleagues in these other branches or even to fullfledged collaborative research.

Anthropology is in principle concerned with all world areas, just as it is concerned with all types of society—primitive, literate, or industrialized. But here again in practice anthropology in all its branches has tended to concentrate its interest in areas such as Oceania or aboriginal America, where the societies have been exclusively or at least predominantly preliterate. However, anthropologists have come to realize more and more that societies of all types must be considered within the scope of the discipline’s possible generalizations and that it is as dangerous to omit industrialized societies and the literate civilizations of the Near or Far East as it is to disregard preliterates. In extending its interest to geographical areas that include literate civilizations with extensively documented histories, anthropology necessarily treads on ground already occupied by traditional area-oriented specializations, e.g., Indology, Sinology, and Near Eastern studies. The approach of the expert in these latter fields is likely to differ from that of the anthropologist by its philological, humanistic, historical, and particularizing emphases. The cultural or social anthropologist is typically synchronic in his interest, thinks in terms of general social—theoretical problems, and is likely to study communities at the local level, since such objects of study as villages are the most closely adapted to the methods developed in the study of tribal society. There is thus room for both types of specialists. Moreover, increasingly each has incorporated interests and techniques from the other so that the differences have tended to become minimized.

The same basic criterion of writing forms the main line of demarcation between the anthropological archeologist, who concentrates on prehistory, and the classical and Near Eastern archeologist, who is concerned with literate cultures. Likewise, the anthropological linguist specializes in the study of hitherto unwritten languages. This carries with it an interest in linguistic field method and synchronic description and a lack of involvement with traditional philological techniques of textual analysis.

The other major basis for specialization within social and cultural anthropology is topical. Most anthropologists tend to confine their interests very largely to such specific aspects of culture as economic life, politics, religion, or music. Here once again anthropology encounters well-established disciplines, such as economics, political science, and musicology. All of these in practice, however, pay most attention to their object of study in the Western tradition and treat the relatively neglected branches of their subject which have to do with non-Western cultures under such rubrics as comparative politics or comparative economics. Anthropology, in turn, in spite of claims to universal interests, tends to focus its attention on non-Western, particularly preliterate, societies.

Anthropology also differs from the standard disciplines in another respect. It studies not only the comparable phenomenon in non-Western cultural settings but also the corresponding cognitive and valuational aspects of the culture with regard to the subject matter. This latter class of studies may well involve topics outside of the social sciences. For example, the anthropological specialty known as ethnobotany investigates the botanical knowledge of indigenous peoples. Applied interests supply a strong point of articulation for these two aspects. Thus, the medical anthropologist involved in medical action programs considers the varying incidence of diseases in specific ethnic groups as the result of biological and social factors but also studies native theories of diagnosis and treatment, since they constitute the cultural setting into which the new methods are to be introduced.

Another type of division particularly prominent in social and cultural anthropology is that between ethnography, the gathering and organization of observational data from the field, and ethnology, the theoretical subdiscipline that utilizes such information as its basic data. Analogous divisions exist in the other major branches of the subject, e.g., descriptive as against theoretical linguistics. Such divisions are not comparable to those described earlier, since virtually every individual scientist has both descriptive and theoretical interests that interact. However, there are individual predilections for one or the other aspect.

Finally, anthropology may be divided into theoretical and applied branches. Anthropologists have always maintained that a basic motive for the scientific study of man is the greater understanding and control it gives us of ourselves and of our society. On the other hand, unlike its sister science sociology, it has not been involved on the theoretical level in problems of societal reform. Yet an interest in the welfare of the people it studies has also been a part of the anthropological tradition. Further, in Western nations with colonial possessions, a form of applied anthropology was developed but was practiced for the most part by administrators with anthropological training rather than by professional anthropologists as such.

After World War II there developed a far deeper involvement in the form of schemes of local and national development, particularly in newly independent countries and often involving the collaboration of Western powers or international agencies. Such activities to a certain extent modified the exclusively observational method of anthropology in the direction of experimental methodology, though under the necessarily limiting conditions of policies not usually formulated by anthropologists.


Anthropology in its modern form is a product of the nineteenth century. Such organizational landmarks as the founding of the first anthropological society and the first academic chair in the subject date from this period, but its historical roots are, of course, much deeper. In its specifically nineteenth-century form it is dominated by the idea of the regular and progressive development of human society from a precultural state in which man did not differ essentially from other animals. This doctrine of cultural evolution received a great impetus from the scientific success of Darwinism, dating from the appearance of the Origin of Species, but it is clear that the basic components of nineteenth-century anthropology developed at a substantially earlier date and in essential independence of biological theory. Among these fundamental ideas are the notion of the possibility of applying the scientific method to the study of man; the abstract conception of culture—or the totality of socially acquired habits distinct from physical inheritance—as itself a possible object of scientific inquiry; and the notion of culture as undergoing cumulative and progressive change over a long time span.

As in other fields of endeavor, the first substantial contributions were made by the Greeks, but the classical heritage in anthropology is not to be compared to that in such fields as history and political science. The ancients developed a model of ethnographic description as the local setting for historical narrative. Geographical works also included facts and observations concerning physical anthropology and local customs. These figured in a general but rather vaguely developed theory concerning the influence of climate on culture and biological types, which foreshadowed the geographical determinism of the modern period. The ethnographic observation of cultural differences raised the question of the naturalness versus the conventionality of human custom and the existence of universally valid legal and moral regulations, a peculiarly anthropological philosophical problem. Finally, various theories regarding the over-all development of human culture were discussed, such as the traditional religious doctrine of a former golden age, the cyclical theories of the Stoics, and the progressive development of man’s heritage by his own efforts as a corollary to the Democritean atomic theory, particularly as set forth in the famous poem of Lucretius, On the Nature of Things. This latter doctrine may be considered a distant precursor of cultural evolution, and it is of interest to discern here the same fundamental opposition between a theological theory of degeneration and a scientifically oriented belief in progressive development, which reasserted itself in the nineteenth century.

The next significant developments date from the period of Renaissance humanism and the geographical explorations of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. These contributed in new and important ways to the intellectual climate in which modern anthropology was ultimately to develop. The Renaissance struck a modern note of secularism with the notion that man’s earthly career was of interest for its own sake and not merely as a preparation for an eternal hereafter. The attempt of humanists to recreate the world of Greece and Rome through the study of original documents rather than through inherited medieval spectacles gave them a kind of anthropological overview of cultural differences. The voyages of exploration broadened spatial perspectives even as humanism widened the chronological one. Whole continents of peoples unknown to the ancient world were revealed. This not only produced an accumulation of facts on a new scale but also raised theoretical questions of great import. Were the novel populations revealed by exploration of the same species as Western man and therefore the possessors of souls worth saving? That they were was the orthodox answer but one difficult to justify from the genealogical tables of Genesis. The theory explaining the existence of the American Indians as remnants of the ten lost tribes provided a welcome refuge, but other bolder spirits speculated on the possibility of other populations not descended from Adam (the pre-Adamites). So arose the rival theories of monogenetic and polygenetic human origins, theories in continued conflict for several centuries thereafter. Further, were the non-Western peoples who were at a simple stage of technological development representative of the state of nature posited by various theorists as prior to the contractual origin of political and legal institutions? Did they represent, perhaps, something like what our own ancestors were like before the rise of literate civilization? This latter view was eventually to gain considerable currency and provide an essential component in a theory of progressive development.

But before the idea of progressive development could gain ground the prevailing notion of the superiority of the classical world over the modern had to be overcome. This was accomplished in the course of the seventeenth century. In the great achievements of the physical sciences, which culminated in the Newtonian synthesis, the modern world clearly exhibited, at least in one respect, a superiority over the ancients. Under the apparent triviality of the “battle of the ancients and the moderns,” satirized by Swift in his Battle of the Books, lies a serious point. Bernard Fontenelle, in his Digression sur les anciens et les modernes, distinguishes between noncumulative aspects of culture, such as literature, and cumulative aspects, such as science. In the latter, modern man is superior. Indeed mankind, in a favorite figure, is compared to an individual developing through the ages and now in his prime. But, according to Fontenelle, this man will have no old age, and infinite perfectibility is possible.

Newtonianism makes yet another contribution. In a universe ruled by law in its physical aspect, man cannot be an exception. It remains then to follow the path blazed by Newton; and indeed, literal application of such concepts as gravitational attraction were not lacking in the eighteenth century and after.

To depict a complete course of progressive development, all that was needful was to consider contemporary savages as representative of a stage preceding that of the ancient East and the classical world. This step was taken by Turgot in his “Plan de deux discours sur l’histoire universelle” (1844), a work that states for the first time the concept of three successive economic stages—hunting, pastoral, and agricultural—as well as the basic form of Comte’s later law of the three stages of conceptual development—the theological, the metaphysical, and the scientific.

Another noteworthy work of the eighteenth century is Christoph Meiners’ Grundriss der Geschichte der Menschheit, in which, quite in the spirit of modern cultural anthropology, he proposes a new science, which will take as its subject matter the customs of all peoples and will pay particular attention to the study of nonliterate peoples.

But certain methodological and intellectual advances that occurred only in the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries were indispensable for the founding of a science embodying the already developed philosophical views and general programs. From this period date the first systematic racial classifications, those of Linnaeus and Johann Blumenbach, and the initiation of techniques of anthropometric measurements by Pieter Camper. It was also during this period that modern linguistics came into existence. The basic notion that dominated linguistics in the nineteenth century was that languages could be classified into families and that languages in the same family were divergent developments over time from an earlier single language. This idea had already been expressed quite clearly by a number of writers in the late eighteenth century, but by the efforts of Franz Bopp, Rasmus C. Rask, Jakob Grimm, and others in the first half of the nineteenth century it developed systematic methods of comparison to reconstruct the ancestral language. The important recognition of the regularity of sound correspondences in related languages was first pointed out by Rask; it was popularized by Grimm in 1822 and helped to establish the general idea of regularities in human cultural change.

During this period there were also notable discoveries that radically extended the time perspective regarding human development and thus added an essential note of plausibility to the concept of gradual cultural advance. The decipherment of Egyptian writing by Jean-François Champollion in 1821 and, even more dramatically, the description of the basic archeological ages of stone and metal (e.g., by V. Thomsen in 1819) drastically altered traditional ideas regarding the age of man. But it was not until 1859 that the eminent geologist Charles Lyell recognized the validity of Boucher de Perthes’ discovery of human implements of the Old Stone Age contemporaneous with extinct mammals. Thus archeology and Darwinism combined to present a picture of man firmly anchored among other animal species of the past, developing from a cultureless anthropoid over more than a million years of the Pleistocene.

It was during the first half of the nineteenth century that anthropology began to emerge as a distinct discipline. In England, France, and Germany anthropological or ethnological societies were founded. In Germany Kultur became a technical term with practically its modern connotation, and it was taken over into English by E. B. Tylor in his classic work Primitive Culture, published in 1871. In its detailed overview of human cultural evolution in one major aspect (religion) and its clear statement of the theoretical perspectives of a science of culture, Tylor’s book is a true landmark. [SeeTylor.]

Tylor’s work is representative of the anthropological approach that was dominant in the English-speaking world in the latter part of the nineteenth century, that of cultural evolutionism. The basic procedure, nowhere explicitly described, was known as the comparative method. Cultural evolution took place, in any domain, in a series of stages, the earlier ones being documented through ethnographic data, the later through historical data leading up to European institutions of the nineteenth century. The earliest stage was often hypothetically deduced, as in the case of those who proposed that primitive promiscuity was the earliest form of marital institution. A prominent role was played by the methodological device of survivals, that is, the persistence of institutions in a later stage which gave some evidence of their origin at an earlier stage. Thus L. H. Morgan deduced that because in Hawaii the kinship term glossed as “father” was used for father’s brother and mother’s brother as well as for father, at a former stage all of these men were potential fathers of an individual [seeMORGAN, LEWIS HENRY]. Another basic assumption was that of the psychic unity of mankind. The basic similarity of human nature explained the fact that even peoples geographically distant might agree in details of custom that were symptomatic of a particular stage of development. The tendency, therefore, particularly in later members of the school, was to interpret cultural similarities in terms of independent parallel development rather than through the historical process of diffusion.

In Germany during this period the leading anthropological figure was Adolf Bastian. In his doctrine there was little notice of “stages” as actual chronological periods and no systematic employment of the comparative method. The key concept of Elementargedanke played a role similar to that of psychic unity. The work of Bastian’s leading disciple, Richard Andree, consisted in the documenting of such cultural parallels. [SeeBastian.]

Beginning in the 1880s powerful reactions against these ruling tendencies began to appear, and by 1910 they were largely dominant. Both in the German and English-speaking worlds the comparative method was called into question as deductive, question-begging, and leading to conflicting results. In place of the schematism of stages illustrated by customs from diverse parts of the world, the emphasis was on the reconstruction of a presumably more realistic culture history in which different areas had undergone different developments and in which the historical processes of diffusion and migration were called upon to explain cultural similarities. In Germany and Austria a systematic methodology was developed, that of the culture-historical school (Kulturkreislehre) under the leadership of Fritz Graebner and later of Wilhelm Schmidt [seegraebner; schmidt]. By application of criteria of similarity in culture traits it was believed that there could be constructed a number of distinct original cultures that succeeded one another in time of origin and that spread by migration all over the world. During this period of the first two or three decades of the twentieth century even more extreme theories of single cultural origins arose and had a certain vogue, as for example, pan-Egyptianism and pan-Babylonianism.

In the United States as well, under the influence of Franz Boas, the virtual founder of American academic anthropology, a critical reaction to cultural evolutionism was the dominant theme [seeBOAS]. The emphasis was also on the reconstruction of cultural history but on a much more limited scale. Originally intended as a means of classifying cultures for descriptive purposes, the culture area was soon used as a device for historical reconstruction. Cultural similarities involving restricted and continuous distribution were interpreted in terms of diffusion. In this way histories of certain specific cultural complexes in circumscribed areas were reconstructed, often tending to show that, contrary to evolutionary doctrine, institutions had developed in different chronological orders in different areas. Methodologically, Boas’ own approach was still more drastic, in that he raised fundamental questions regarding the validity of assumptions concerning the equatability of traits in different cultures. Thus under his stimulus, Alexander Goldenweiser sought to show that the label “totemism” had been applied to diverse phenomena, among which it was unlikely that there was either a real psychological or historical connection [seeGoldenweiser].

Such investigations as Goldenweiser’s involved an analysis of the particular phenomena in each culture and as a part of that culture. In diffusion studies the questions that began to be asked were not so much where and when a particular culture trait had spread, but why it was accepted by one people and rejected by another and how it was reinterpreted and integrated into the borrowing culture. Such studies inevitably raised questions of the internal organizing principles of each culture. One type of answer receives its classic exposition in Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture, in which the integrative factor is described in psychological terminology [seeBenedict]. This line of interest led to the development of the interrelation between personality and culture as a field of study.

These general tendencies were reinforced during this same period of the 1920s and 1930s by the rise of functionalism. The leading exponents of this point of view, Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown, agreed in emphasizing the importance of functional interrelationship among cultural traits and in disparaging the historical types of explanation of cultural phenomena that had characterized all previous schools. The functionalism of Malinowski views culture as consisting of organized institutions related functionally to the biological and derived needs of human beings. That of Radcliffe-Brown and his followers, which derives ultimately from the writings of the great French sociologist Éimile Durkheim, has been called structural functionalism. It interprets function as contributing to the survival of the existing social structure and eschews psychological explanation of social facts. Also in contrast to Malinowskian functionalism, it has an important place for the application of the comparative method, because it contends that laws can be discovered by comparisons of structure. [SeeDurkheim; Malinowski; Radcliffe-brown.]

Current trends

The years following World War II have witnessed, along with an almost explosive material expansion of anthropology, a diversity of new interests, though for the most part these no longer express themselves in over-all systems of the kind that characterized the “schools” of the past. In fact, most anthropologists are eclectic in terms of the traditional doctrines. Moreover, partly through the influence of sociology, there is a much more sophisticated interest in the philosophy of science. This is evident in an emphasis on the methodology of theory construction that has replaced the earlier characteristically informal and semiintuitive approach of anthropologists.

A number of developments may be noted in the period following World War II. Most basic has been the extension of anthropological interests into areas with nontribal societies and to newly urban or otherwise Westernacculturated groups in non-Western societies. One characteristic form this has taken is in the expansion of community studies. This extension has been strongly interdisciplinary and in close connection with applied interests. In moving outside the confines of tribal societies, anthropologists have not avoided consideration of larger units such as national states. Thus the notion of basic personality, which was a central concept in earlier culture and personality studies, was taken over in the form of national character in the studies of Margaret Mead and her associates. [Seeculture and personality; national character.]

Another trend has been the revival of interest in cultural evolution, chiefly under the stimulus of Leslie White. Emphasis was placed on those aspects of culture that were in fact cumulative, e.g., technological control of environment, and on the compatibility of historically known facts of the diffusion of custom with such over-all technological advance. [SeeEvolution, article oncultural evolution.]

Another interest has been social or cultural ecology. Older oversimplified forms of environmental determinism had generally been superseded by more realistic doctrines of possibilism. The aim was now, following the lead of the plant and animal ecologists, to examine in detail the interrelations of man and his physical environment and the mutual adjustments of sociocultural institutions within an over-all environmental situation. [SeeEcology, article oncultural ecology.]

In the work of Julian Steward cultural ecological analysis leads to a typology of societies in terms of levels of sociocultural integration, ultimately based on levels of ecological adjustment to environment. This involves an interest in parallel, or so-called multilinear, evolution in the form of historically independent cases of like sequences of development from lower to higher levels of integration.

The method of making cross-cultural comparisons in order to discover lawlike associations of cultural phenomena, frequently of a statistical sort, was initiated by Tylor in his classic paper of 1889, “On a Method of Investigating the Development of Institutions, Applied to Laws of Marriage and Descent.” This method has been greatly extended and systematized in the postwar period through the Human Relations Area Files at Yale University. G. P. Murdock uses such data in his Social Structure (1949) to enunciate a series of statistical generalizations among variables in kinship and other aspects of social organization. Murdock’s approach also involves a dynamic aspect, in that only certain transitions among types of kinship systems are postulated as being at all frequent and causal mechanisms are posited for such changes. Hypotheses of this order are employed in reconstructing the history of social institutions. Another example of a significant application of this methodology is the study by J. W. M. Whiting and I. L. Child, Child Training and Personality: A Cross-cultural Study (Whiting & Child 1953), in which various hypotheses in the field of culture and personality studies are tested cross-culturally. Among these hypotheses are some concerning connections between child-rearing practices, personality, and certain cultural institutions, derived from the Freudian-oriented theories of Ralph Linton and Abram Kardiner. [SeeAnthropology; article onthe comparative method in anthropology; Ethnology; Socialization.]

These cross-cultural and other systematic comparative approaches highlight an interest in universal aspects of culture rather than cultural diversity. Given the complexity of human institutions, it is not surprising that little of a specific nature can be stated as true for all cultures. More typically, then, statements of a generalizing sort about human societies involve absolute or statistically based invariance among certain variables. An interest in such relationships in linguistics was pioneered by R. Jakobson. The volume of papers edited by J. H. Greenberg, Universals of Language (Conference on Language Universals 1963), gives evidence of the growing interest in the investigation of such cross-linguistic constancies.

Along with the continued flourishing of variant forms of functionalism, there is a strong trend toward structuralism proper, largely owing to the growing influence of Claude Lévi-Strauss. At least partly inspired by structural linguistics, the basic notion is to analyze social institutions in terms of highly abstract structural relationships. This is analogous to structural analysis of sound systems, which are accounted for in terms of opposition and contrast. Also of linguistic inspiration are the semantic analysis of kinship systems initiated in its modern form by Floyd Lounsbury and Ward Goodenough and the analysis of the semantics of folk taxonomy by Harold C. Conklin, Charles Frake, and others. These approaches presumably bring to light underlying factors that figure in the semantic structure and give deeper structural insights into the systems being investigated. [SeeComponential analysis.]

In linguistics itself it is evident that a new development of revolutionary proportions occurred in the form of transformational theory, initiated by Chomsky in his book Syntactic Structures (1957). The basic idea is the generation of the grammatical sentences of a language by the successive applications of a set of underlying rules. The test of a grammar is not merely the conformity of the sentences generated with the intuition of the native speaker regarding the grammatically acceptable set of sentences but also, through the subset of transformational rules, the explicit relations between whole sets of sentences whose relations are intuitively recognized by native users of the language (e.g., active with corresponding passive). Previous descriptive linguistics is criticized as “taxonomic,” in that it operates with an empirically given body (corpus) of linguistic behavior, which it seeks to describe (it is claimed, unsuccessfully) in terms of only operationally defined procedures. The influence of transformational linguistics is already evident in psychology and is likely to have a considerable impact on anthropology also. [SeeCognitive theory.]

Trends in archeology and even more in physical anthropology also involve shifts in interest and methodology of very considerable proportions. Although archeology is, and by its very nature must remain, historical, it has not escaped the newer functional and ecological influences. Definition of the chronological succession of cultures characterized only by implement types is radically altered as archeological materials are being used as a source of inference regarding demographic patterns, for the relation of culture to environment, and for the reconstruction of the nonmaterial aspects of culture, as far as this is possible. An attempt is being made to arrive at broader interpretive historical syntheses and even at lawlike regularities of historical process [see, for example, Urban revolution].

In physical anthropology, the older anthropology sought chiefly to unravel the racial history of mankind in terms of migration and mixture of relatively static types defined by anthropometric traits, ideally supposed to be fixed, nonadaptive, and not subject to major environmental modification, even though the genetic basis of such metrical traits was admittedly unknown. The reconstruction of racial history has become less important than the study of the dynamic processes of change in the genetic composition of populations. Human physical evolution has likewise been reinterpreted through the same mechanisms of genetic change and through a study of anatomical form in relation to physiological functioning in the context of developing human cultural and social organization. A significant broadening of the basis for such investigations is being provided by the burgeoning interest in comparative primatology, with specific attention to the nonhuman analogues of human social organization and communication. [SeeEthology; Evolution; Genetics; Social behavior, animal.]

Thus the initial period of system building in anthropology in the nineteenth century was succeeded by a critical epoch in which emphasis lay in the natural history type of observation and in the uniqueness of individual cultures and local historical sequences. The present period, by contrast, is characterized by a richness and diversity of constructive theoretical endeavors and is distinguished by a revival of interest in generalization, both on a synchronic foundation and in reference to diachronic processes of change. The time would seem to be approaching in which some new synthetic type of theory will be required to integrate and unify these diverse theoretical strands.

Joseph H. Greenberg


Boas, Franz (1887–1936) 1955 Race, Language and Culture. New York: Macmillan.

Chomsky, Noam 1957 Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton.

Conference on Language Universals, Dobbs Ferry, New York, 1961 1963 Universals of Language: Report of a Conference. Edited by Joseph H. Greenberg. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press.

International symposium on anthropology, New York, 1952 1953 Anthropology Today: An Encyclopedic Inventory. Prepared under the chairmanship of A. L. Kroeber. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Keesing, Felix M. 1958 Cultural Anthropology: The Science of Custom. New York: Holt.

Lowie, Robert H. 1937 The History of Ethnological Theory. New York: Farrar & Rinehart.

Murdock, George P. 1949 Social Structure. New York: Macmillan. → A paperback edition was published in 1965 by Free Press.

Spencer, Robert F. (editor) 1954 Method and Perspective in Anthropology. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

Turgot, Anne Robert Jacques 1844 Plan de deux discours sur l’histoire universelle. Volume 2, pages 626–671 in Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Oeuvres de Turgot. Paris: Guillaumin.

Whiting, John W. M.; and Child, Irvin L. 1953 Child Training and Personality: A Cross-cultural Study. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1962.

Yearbook of Anthropology (1955) 1956 Current Anthropology: A Supplement to Anthropology Today. Edited by William L. Thomas, Jr. Univ. of Chicago Press.


Cultural anthropology is that main part of anthropology in which human culture is studied. It thus takes in all branches of anthropology except those that are more directly concerned with human biology and with the interplay of biological and cultural factors. Its key concept is that of culture, and in the definition of culture are implied the scope and the principal methods of cultural anthropology.

Culture is all that a man learns to do as a member of his society. It includes all the knowledge, common understandings, and expectations that the people of a group share and that their children learn.

Seen in broadest perspective, culture refers to the main behavioral characteristics of the human species. Culture distinguishes mankind from the rest of the animal world. Only man has language, uses a variety of other symbols, and makes consistent use of tools. Thus, man alone can transmit to his fellows vast quantities of information and accumulated experience. Moreover, all men, of whatever kind and circumstances, have the capacity for using and developing culture. The continuities in biological evolution between mankind and other species have long been recognized, and more recently anthropologists have come to see that culture has been a factor in human biological evolution. There is no doubt that only mankind uses and transmits the capacities we summarize under the concept of culture.

Human culture is actually manifested in a great variety of particular cultures; that is, in the special ways of life of main groups of people. A culture, as contrasted with culture in general, comprises the selective modes of acting, thinking, feeling, and communicating which are used by people of one group and which distinguish their behavior from that of other groups. The participants in each culture not only use characteristic tools, values, ideas, words, but also maintain a distinctive arrangement of the component parts of their culture.

The central task of cultural anthropology, then, is to study the similarities and differences in behavior among human groups, to depict the character of the various cultures and the processes of stability, change, and development that are characteristic to them. Each main group of people has produced a different set of answers to the same questions which all groups must face; these questions are raised not only by the biological structure of men but also by the requirements of being the bearers and users of culture.

Scope and methods

The scope and the methods of cultural anthropology are implied in the definition of generic culture and distinctive cultures. It takes in all of human social behavior from the beginnings of man’s career to the great movements of the present time. Cultural anthropologists study all cultures, whether carried on in tribal societies or in complex civilized nations. Every type of behavior is examined, whether rational, nonrational, or irrational. All aspects of a culture are considered, including the technical and economic means of dealing with the natural environment, the ways of relating to other people, the special experiences of religion and art. Not only are the activities within the several aspects studied but the interplay among them is of special interest, as the relation between family structure and economic forces or between religious practices and social groupings. Daily life no less than high achievement, the ordinary villager as well as the elite leaders, are taken within the cultural anthropologist’s purview.

Given this scope, the basic methods of cultural anthropology follow. These entail a holistic view, field study, comparative analysis, and a particular kind of molecular–molar theorizing.

The holistic view

This view assumes that one is free to study any kind of human behavior relevant to the problem being examined. Thus, an anthropologist studying economic development in an African locale may find that he must look into the ceremonial cycle and into family relations if he is to depict fully the processes of economic change there. Or, in tracing the development of ancient civilizations, pottery styles as well as settlement patterns, trade routes, and subsistence techniques have to be taken into account. Any one book cannot show all of the culture of even a small and simple society, but through the combined efforts of cultural anthropologists, many cultures have been explored, many parts of particular cultures have been closely examined, and the characteristics of human culture have been outlined.

Field work

Cultural anthropologists typically gather their scientific evidence at first hand by direct observation. If it is evidence on an ancient culture, the data come mainly from excavations carried on by those anthropologists who specialize in the archeological side of the subject. The cultural anthropologists who study the ways of living peoples go to stay among them and learn about their society and culture by participating, interviewing, observing. It is in the first instance an observational rather than experimental method; the data are taken from the context of reality rather than from the more controllable confines of a laboratory. One consequence of such field work is that the cultural anthropologist becomes aware of the inside view of a culture, of how it looks to those who use it, what rewards and problems they see, as well as how that way of life appears to an outside observer. His analysis thus is able to take into account the inner forces as well as external forces and influences. Another consequence of intensive field work is that the anthropologist focuses on patterns of behavior that are meaningful in the culture, rather than on bits of behavior that may be convenient units for measurement. He looks for regular sequences of action and notes how they are changed in various contexts. He observes how patterns are distinguished from one another by the participants as well as in the eyes of the observer. Although a cultural anthropologist may use questionnaires and other techniques to elicit statistical data, his primary interest usually is to ascertain the regularities of behavior and the principal discontinuities among them. After he grasps these configurations he is better able to judge which numerical measurements are likely to be significant and how best to get them.

Comparative method

The comparative perspective is brought into play at every level of analysis. When, for example, a cultural anthropologist studies social organization in a village in India, he finds out how the villagers organize themselves and then compares the various groups of the village in order to ascertain the similarities and differences among them. Since the villagers rank themselves in a hierarchy of caste groups, one comparative task is to see which patterns of conduct are similar in all caste ranks and which differ among them. Armed with an understanding of the similarities as well as of the differences, the fieldworker can compare the organization of the village as a whole with that of other villages of the vicinity. Such comparison again enables him to delineate similarities and differences among villages or types of villages and so to explain some of the past behavior of the villagers and to say something about their probable responses to some future circumstances. Further, a comparison of village organization in the various regions in India may lead to some formulation of general features shared widely in Indian civilization. This, in turn, may permit a cross-cultural comparison of caste stratification in village India with types of social stratification in, say, parts of Japan or the United States. At the widest horizon of analysis these comparisons raise the question of social stratification as a general attribute of human culture and society.

This comparative approach is utilized at all levels of analysis. Thus, if the problem being considered is whether the earliest civilizations rose out of similar conditions of ecology and technology, the several early civilizations are compared to see if any similar conditions prevailed. If so, we may add to our understanding of the grand processes of human development. If no similarities appear, the process of comparison may still suggest useful ideas to be tested in the same comparative manner. To take another example, to understand the transition from more isolated or dependent economies to a modern, industrialized nation-state, we examine the record of national development—including societal and religious as well as economic changes —in a number of developing countries.

Development of concepts

There is, finally, a way of developing generalizations that is characteristic of the work of cultural anthropologists. They tend to begin theorizing from the empirical evidence, to build their concepts from what they see people doing or hear them saying or from the material remains of past cultures which they uncover from the earth. In selecting certain parts of reality for observation, in asking certain kinds of questions of the people and the data, cultural anthropologists, like other scientists, are informed and guided by accumulated theory. But the cultural anthropologist is less likely than are other social scientists to begin with a model or a set of abstract propositions and direct his field work to the testing of the model or the propositions. He is apt to shape his concepts more from the ground up than from the abstract formula down.

Similarly, the theoretical problems selected for analysis are likely to be suggested by the circumstances and problems of the people being studied. The cultural anthropologist does not typically observe people in order to shed light on a concept, but rather he marshals whatever concepts he can in order to understand a people—and people. Hence, when he finds previous concepts inadequate to explain important processes of behavior which he has observed, he tries to generate and test a new concept. In so doing he has the advantage of sharing common human qualities with the subjects of his study. Robert Redfield once wrote, “To be able to find out what it is that a Zuñi Indian is ashamed of, one must first know what it is to be ashamed” (1962–1963, vol. 1, p. 54).

There is a fundamentally humanistic component in much of cultural anthropology. It is not only that the arts of a people are studied, and these at the humblest levels as well as at the pinnacles of aesthetic achievement. It is also, as we have noted, that an anthropologist tries to see a culture from the inside as well as from the outside. As a participant observer, he experiences some part of the life he observes, and his personal experience finds expression in his studies, so that they entail humanistic insight as well as scientific objectivity. Having lived among the people whose culture he analyzes, the anthropologist is likely to depict the strains and conflicts they feel and to discuss the rewards and pleasures for which they strive. In working with his informants, he should ideally have a balanced attitude of both compassion and reserve, of attachment and detachment, of involvement and objectivity. Too great involvement will bias his account; too rigid objectivity may blind him to the realities of the society. Moreover, attachment and insight into other cultures does not mean that the anthropologist totally sheds the values of his own culture. He generally is able to view them in larger and wider perspective and so may be emancipated from the more parochial and intolerant pressures of the moment, but he does not necessarily reject wholesale the values of his own group or even remain indifferent to them. Anthropologists, for example, are as passionately attached to the values of science as they understand them as are any other toilers in the vineyard of science.

In appreciating the inside view of a culture, an anthropologist comes to appreciate the importance of the position of the observer in the analysis of culture and society. He gets different views from persons of different status, and their appraisal of his status may influence their responses; he finds that the same person may alter his view in the passage of time and through change of circumstance. This holds true in some measure for the observers as well as the observed. Yet there is also the constant of objective reality to be discerned within the shifting perspectives. Hence, he grasps that he must be able to change the angle of his vision—now seeing the village as the main unit, now as only one part of a larger social entity. He must describe village life as a stable ongoing system at this moment of time and then analyze the same behavior as continually in process of change, as part of the stream of history. Most important, he must try to reconcile the differing perspectives, so that he may draw from the study of continuous change in time some generalizations that may hold true across time, so that in his analysis of a larger system he may illumine the meaning of its component groups as smaller systems.

Such tasks require generalization at different levels of analysis. At the more immediate level, an anthropologist studying a particular society abstracts the general form and functions of its activities, for example, in marriage ceremonies, using his observations and participants’ accounts. He is aided by the fact that the subjects of his inquiry also generalize—though not necessarily with reliable accuracy—and can give him an already abstracted account by which they guide their behavior. At another level of analysis, he compares the patterns of marriage rites within a civilization to see whether the various versions together reflect some leading ideas and behavior patterns shared widely by the people of that civilization. At still more abstract levels he formulates concepts about the place of such rituals in society and tests these concepts against the widest available range of comparative evidence.

Problems of method

There are disadvantages as well as benefits in following the principles of method. The free-ranging holistic approach avoids arbitrary barriers to inquiry, but it also requires continual resetting of the framework of inquiry. Being unfettered brings on its own trammels. The emphasis on pattern, on the contours of thought and behavior, has made for less precision in measurement and in detailed specification than is now needed to advance anthropological concepts. As Clyde Kluckhohn pointed out, cultural anthropologists have frequently been cavalier about numbers (1959, pp. 259–261). They have not regularly given adequate information about the number and kinds of observations on which their generalizations are based. They have tended to assume more homogeneity in nonliterate cultures than may exist, emphasizing the dominant modalities of behavior and glossing over the variant as well as the deviant expressions.

The gains from field work have entailed certain losses as well. The natural history procedure, in which the observer maps what is there and follows the flow of events as he finds them, may lead more to description than to analysis, more to imparting disparate blocks of information than to constructing coherent and comparable accounts. In using this procedure, one may overlook significant underlying forces because they do not appear as such in a descriptive mapping of the culture. The very attempt to cover many facets of a culture during a stay of a year or so among a people necessarily makes an anthropologist’s account of their farming or their music less detailed and perhaps less penetrating than a year’s study by an agricultural specialist or a musicologist would yield. Some improvement in this has been brought about by repeated field trips to the same people by the same anthropologist, through restudies by other observers, and through team research; yet a cultural anthropologist remains more of a jack-of-all-trades and less of a specialist-master of one field of research than are most other social scientists.

In the making of cultural comparisons, there are similar defects that are inherent in the methodological virtues. When the frame of inquiry and of reference differs somewhat from study to study, when profile rather than precise measurement defines pattern, it is not always easy to judge whether two accounts of presumably comparable behavior are really comparable. The inclination to build theoretical concepts from the observed data through successive levels of abstraction entails other difficulties. There is a temptation to leap too quickly from the immediate to the highest level of abstraction. It has been said that anthropologists are the astronomers of the social sciences. This role is complicated by the fact that insofar as they themselves go to far-off places to collect data on the universe of man, they take it upon themselves to be the astronauts as well.

Aware of these difficulties, anthropologists have worked steadily at improving their methods, yet are mindful that any method has cost as well as yield. Thus, the loss of rigor which comes from studying behavior in the context of real experience rather than in the controlled situation of the laboratory is more than made up for, they believe, by the relevance of field observation toward the explanation of significant problems. The results of laboratory research are essential for an understanding of some aspects of human behavior, but laboratory methods, too, have their limitations. Similarly, statistical data are imperative for some types of analysis but are not directly relevant for others. A sample poll of buying preferences can be used to forecast certain limited economic trends with considerable accuracy, but a poll of the same sample on theological matters would hardly be very enlightening about the structure of religious belief and practice in the culture. On such questions it is the pattern of religious allegiance and behavior that is significant; it is the relation of a part of religious practice to other parts and to other institutions that requires examination before one attempts precise measurement of a particular point of belief.

Just as each discipline of the social sciences is both the master and the captive of its prevailing methodology, so the work of cultural anthropologists is in some ways limited as well as advanced by their chief methods. The use of these methods does contribute fruitful results not characteristically provided by the other behavioral sciences, and in that contribution to the common enterprise of understanding human behavior the cultural anthropologist finds the basic justification for his methods.

Results of cultural anthropology

From the several fields of cultural anthropology have come a number of significant results. One simple outcome is that the outlines of most of the principal cultures of the world have been charted. For many of these, it is only a preliminary kind of mapping; there are large societies for which we have only quite meager data and little of that is from the observations of social scientists. Yet the main dimensions of human culture can be discerned. Universal components as different from one another as incest prohibitions and art forms have been noted and the range of variation within each general component has been recognized. Thus, incest taboos in one culture may be applied to only a few relationships, in another they may involve scores of social positions. Art forms may be expressed in a huge variety of media, but what is selected by the people of one culture as a proper vehicle for aesthetic enjoyment, say elaborate skin tattooing, is disdained by or unknown to others.

Even such preliminary mapping of culture, in itself, can have an impact on students. Once it is recognized that each culture is worthy of serious study and that there are many potential variations, then differences from one’s own patterns need not be seen, as they often naively are, as threatening one’s own values. Even this first step in the use of the concept of culture can convey important meanings. These, in turn, foster further explorations, which then carry a student into realms of knowledge and research opened up by the broad concept of culture and for which the broad concept must be developed in much more specific ways.

That development of anthropological ideas has yielded two main kinds of results: those dealing with cultures seen as systems, that is, as organized, interrelated patterns of activities and of people; and those dealing with the growth of cultures, the regular ways by which culture systems are changed, are adapted, and evolve. Social anthropologists whose main efforts are in the systemic, synchronic mode of analysis have produced studies of such matters as the processes of kinship and marriage, the relation of conflict to solidarity, the interchange between religious and societal activities. Much of this kind of analysis has been based on observations of smallscale, tribal societies of Africa, Oceania, the Americas. The testing of these findings in complex cultures carried on by millions of people and the consequent refinement of the concepts are promising but difficult challenges for synchronic studies.

One approach to the broadening of analysis is that of cultural ecology, in which the system of a particular culture and society is seen as being in constant interchange with larger systems, both of man and of nature (Steward 1955; Sahlins & Service 1960). Another approach follows the model of linguistic analysis to study the categories of thought used within a culture as expressed, for example, in kin terms, myth, rituals. Comparative studies of a selected aspect in different cultures, as in cross-cultural studies of religion or technology, have long been undertaken to ascertain the constant core of behavior and the potential variations; added to these research pursuits more recently has been the comparative study of values, that is, the effort to state the basic outlook and choices taken by the people of a culture and to compare the syndromes of values among cultures (Kluckhohn 1959).

Studies in psychological anthropology (also called culture–personality studies) are relevant to the analysis of a culture both as a maintained system and as a changing, evolving life-tool. Culture institutions are maintained by people; that maintenance is shaped by the cognitive perceptions and the personality dimensions common to those people. Hence, two societies may maintain the same cultural form, say, of parliamentary democracy yet carry it on with quite different results if each group has differing attitudes toward authority or differing values about egalitarianism. The institutions, in turn, notably those of education, mold the developing personalities of the children. Both kinds of influences operate; both should be taken into account in a full analysis of a culture. Further, culture change comes about through changes in the day-to-day behavior of individuals and groups of individuals. The reasons why people select certain changes and not others are not unconnected with their personality characteristics. And when a major change in one part of a culture is made, as when a people shift to a new level of technology, the reverberations of that change not only touch other aspects of the culture, often giving a new context to kinship or a new emphasis in religion, but are also likely to affect the manner in which personalities typically take shape in that society.

To turn to studies of culture growth, all time spans in the human range are included, from small, limited shifts to a view of all of the human career considered as one course of biological and cultural evolution. When cultural anthropologists began to examine how a particular culture came to be, they were impressed by how little of it had originated within the one society. There has been a constant borrowing of culture elements by one group from another, even among peoples who were bitter enemies and across formidable geographical barriers. This process, called “diffusion,” occurred in the earliest eras of culture history and has vastly accelerated in recent times. Yet there are limits and resistances to diffusion. The analysis of the conditions that favor culture transfer and those that impede it is a central problem in the study of culture change. Coupled with this study are questions about the conditions for innovation and creativity within a culture, how inventions arise and how they become accepted.

The rates of culture change are another facet of this inquiry. The findings of archeological anthropology demonstrate that there has been an accelerating pace of change, at least in certain phases of culture. Although the accelerating development of human command of energy can be demonstrated, not all parts of a culture change at the same rate, nor is there clear evidence for cumulative development in such matters as forms of marriage, kinship, or ritual.

In the perspective of human evolution, culture growth began while biological evolution was still going on, before the human organism had evolved to its present state. When the biological precursors of man began to acquire the rudiments of culture, according to recent findings, this capacity advanced their physical evolution in the human direction. Hence, man is the product of culture as well as the producer of it. Culture patterns are best seen not as constraints imposed for the common good but as integral elements of human life and as the means of developing and realizing man’s potential.

In certain respects, man’s potential has risen successively as new thresholds of culture have been reached, as with the development of the Neolithic inventions, of civilization, of science. Once a society attains such a threshold, many new cultural opportunities become open to its people. Not all societies necessarily cross that threshold at the same period, nor do all exploit the potentialities in the same way, but the attainment of a cultural divide by one people makes it possible for all mankind eventually to share in its consequences. Thus the current press for economic development in new nations can be seen as an episode of contemporary cultural evolution.

The idea of cultural evolution was salient in the nineteenth-century beginnings of cultural anthropology, but it was chiefly propounded as a series of a few stages through which each people had to pass. The validity of these stages was challenged, especially by those who became aware of the importance of diffusion. They demonstrated that not every society had to go through the same developmental stages and, moreover, that the critical features postulated for the respective stages did not hold true when tested against the ethnological evidence. The diffusionists took as their main task the reconstruction of particular culture histories, especially of primitive peoples. Their efforts, in turn, were criticized by those who saw the primary task for anthropology not as that of formulating conjectural history but as depicting the functional interrelations and social rationale within a culture. The pioneering functionalists, in their turn, are now criticized as overdogmatic in their restriction of the focus of inquiry and in their assumption of a close, organic interrelation among all parts of a culture. Each of these trends of thought has made positive contributions, although the proponents of each, in their critiques of their predecessors, now appear to have provided oversimplified refutations of too simple concepts.


Since World War II there has been a great spurt of activity in almost every part of cultural anthropology. Peoples not much noted by anthropologists before, especially those of complex societies, have been described in intensive studies of particular villages and neighborhoods. Topics little examined anthropologically, such as law or leadership, have been better explored, and our knowledge of such standard anthropological topics as kinship has been deepened.

There has also been development of the basic precepts underlying all parts of cultural anthropology. Eric Wolf (1964) has noted that there is a greater emphasis on constructing systems of general propositions and that there has been a lessening of the fluidity and ambiguity of the more romantic approach. There is also growing interest in the peoples of civilization and the characteristic features of civilization, an interest that was never absent from cultural anthropology but one that had been second to the concentration on small, primitive (i.e., nonliterate) societies. There is a re-emphasis on the constant features of human psyche and society, on the limitations to change at any one time, and on the inevitable requirements of social life. Human potentiality is seen as flexible but not quite as open and unbounded as some cultural anthropologists used to hold. Cultural relativism remains a necessary condition for gathering data; one cannot observe objectively if one’s own ethical judgments about the way of life being observed intrude into and color the observations. But the suspension of value judgment is not indefinite; complete moral relativism is not defended. Each person and society has to take some moral stand in order to function.

There is also a freshening challenge to cultural anthropology as a valid, unified field of study. It is a challenge raised previously by the founders of the functionalist approach and not abandoned by some of the social anthropologists who have ably carried forward this approach. The challenge is simply that no one discipline can usefully cover so vast a scope as cultural anthropology claims, that so ambitious a reach inevitably impairs one’s grasp of any worthy topic and defeats the kind of intensive investigation essential for scientifically useful results. These challengers do not question the scientific validity of linguistic or archeological or evolutionary studies, but they find no special advantage and considerable disadvantage in trying to maintain closer nexus with these fields than with others in the social sciences. Those who express this doubt find the study of contemporary, small-scale societies, with concentration on social relations, to be ample enough field for research efforts.

Yet, although it is true that the immense scope of cultural anthropology does sometimes impede more intensive studies, cultural anthropologists do not feel at all precluded from doing intensive studies or from utilizing the results of social anthropological work. They believe that there are times and occasions when the narrower range is needed and others when the broad strategy is suitable. They do not want to abandon the broad policy which enables them to shift from one level of analysis to another and from one field of investigation to another. This may prejudice their mastery of a particular subject, but it keeps open their intellectual mobility. It is this mobility—feeling free to ask such questions as whether a cultural process discerned in one era or civilization holds true in another, how the findings from the microscopic examination of a culture fit into macroscopic understanding of culture—that has yielded useful results for cultural anthropology.

David G. Mandelbaum

[Directly related are the entriesArcheology; Ethnography; Ethnology; Linguistics. Other relevant material may be found inCulture, article onCulturology; Diffusion, article onCultural; Diffusion; Ecology; Evolution, article onCultural evolution; Fleld work; Observation.]


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Hymes, Dell H. (editor) 1964 Language in Culture and Society: A Reader in Linguistics and Anthropology. New York: Harper.

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Murdock, George P. 1949 Social Structure. New York: Macmillan.

Redfield, Robert 1955 The Little Community: Viewpoints for the Study of a Human Whole. Univ. of Chicago Press. → A paperback edition, bound together with Peasant Society and Culture, was published in 1961 by Cambridge Univ. Press.

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Social anthropology aims at understanding and explaining the diversity of human behavior by a comparative study of social relationships and processes over as wide a range of societies as possible. The social relationships studied are primarily those that are standardized or institutionalized, that is, in which people are regularly concerned as members of particular social groups or categories. Typically, these institutions are the family, marriage, and kinship; complexes of economic and political organization; social control (including law); morality, ritual, and religion. No “explanation” of social relationships can be final in any social discipline; the findings of social anthropology must be supplemented by other data, for example, demographic and psychological data. But a social anthropologist provides understanding of social relationships in his field by precisely defining and describing behavioral connections. An exotic custom such as a “joking relationship,” whereby certain named categories of kin not only may engage in horseplay and other privileged familiarities but also are expected so to behave, is “explained” to a degree, i.e., made more intelligible, when contrasted with customs of “avoidance” that show other categories of kin treated with the greatest respect, even to the point of shunning all contact. These parallel but opposite ways of behaving “make sense” (especially when compared over a range of societies) as methods of symbolic treatment of categories of kin who may stand in different but equally important structural and operational relationships. Polarization of behavior patterns gives a strong delineation to the kinship structure and provides a relatively simple framework for canalization of conflicting interests, thus allowing for more effective performance of social tasks.

The general conceptual apparatus of the social anthropologist and his theoretical approach are broadly similar to those used by his colleagues in other social sciences, especially sociology. (Conventionally, the anthropologist has been concerned with the “primitive,” or non-Western, societies.) His method is differentiated to some extent, however, by a more holistic approach. Social anthropology explicitly recognizes that behavior is intrinsic to a relatively systematized pattern of interrelated institutions. This notion of functional interrelatedness, while shared by other social sciences, has been more forcibly presented to the working social anthropologist by his field experience in relatively small-scale societies—in some of which every member has been personally known to the observer.


The comparative study of institutionalized social relations can be traced far back in the history of intellectual exploration. The theoretical content of Herodotus may be overestimated, but Montesquieu, Jens Kraft, Izaak Iselin, and Adam Ferguson are examples of early forceful thinkers about society to whom social anthropologists still turn. An early descriptive ethnographic tradition—exemplified in the work of J. F. Lafitau (1724) on the Huron, Garcilaso de la Vega (b.l539–d.1616) on the Inca, and James Cook (1768–1775) on the peoples of the central and western Pacific—has also contributed to the making of social anthropology. Many of the ideas of social anthropology derived from the theoretical work of H. Maine, J. J. Bachofen, and especially L. H. Morgan. Later, the work of J. F. McLennan and C. N. Starcke on family and kinship, and of E. B. Tylor, W. Robertson Smith, and J. G. Frazer on religion, conceptually and analytically influenced the emerging discipline, and a fundamental contribution came from E. Durkheim and his “school” of followers who write for the journal L’année sociologique. Much of the interest lay in the search for evolutionary and historical sequences in human custom, but the converging ethnographic and theoretical influences gave rise to more realistic studies. F. Boas in the United States and A. C. Haddon in Britain initiated systematically planned field expeditions. In the early twentieth century ethnographic studies contributed to our understanding of age-grades and men’s associations, kinship and marriage, and primitive law. Missionaries and government officials also added materially to the ethnographic record and drew upon and stimulated the comparative theorists. The book that for the first time drew together much of the material on social anthropology in a systematic, theoretical way was R. H. Lowie’s Primitive Society (1920). Meanwhile, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1922) and B. Malinowski (1922), who had combined extensive field work with a high degree of theoretical training and insight, were beginning to set the conceptual framework for the intensive study of contemporary institutions which, largely under their influence, has come to be known as social anthropology.

Modern social anthropology has passed through several phases, beginning with a major emphasis on functionalism. A noticeable contrast here was between Malinowski’s insistence upon the ultimate biological basis of human behavior, radically transmuted though it is by culture, and Radcliffe-Brown’s emphasis upon the comprehension of function as it related to the requirements of society rather than to those of individual members (Radcliffe-Brown 1952). Linked with his emphasis upon social structure was his stress on the concepts of social integration and social equilibrium. The latter assumption has been criticized inasmuch as it tends to negate the social potential for change (Leach 1961). Moreover, Radcliffe-Brown’s insistence upon the primacy of institutional factors in controlling individual behavior has seemed like a too rigid structural determinism. Even apart from frontal attacks launched upon such functional and structural assumptions, recent studies in social anthropology have shown more awareness of the methodological problems involved.

Modern interest in models

Modern interest in structure has taken the form of the explicit construction of models. Interest in this development was probably influenced by mathematical practice, for example, in mechanics, and perhaps by contemporary usage among economists. It was demonstrated for kinship studies by E. R. Leach (1954) in a study of Jinghpaw kinship terminology, in which he constructed a hypothetical society organized in accordance with seven structural principles, and then demonstrated that the highly complex Jinghpaw empirical system could be seen as a modification of the formal simplicity of this theoretical scheme. He called this essay an experiment in ethnographic algebra, possibly with the memory of a gibe that Malinowski leveled at Radcliffe-Brown’s Australian kinship diagrams. Social anthropologists were especially stimulated, however, by the massive analysis of C. Lévi-Strauss (1949), in particular by his models of restricted and generalized exchange applied to the field of kinship and marriage. Model-building in the developed manner involves a high degree of abstraction and the articulation of a set of abstract propositions for heuristic purposes. The logical inferences proceeding from such a method have been very illuminating, especially in the field of kinship, which lends itself particularly to such treatment. A variation of model treatment, the “theory of games,’ has been applied with more limited effect by F. Barth (1959) to the political organization of Pathan society. Barth points out that the crucial step in a transformation from real life to a theory-of-games model depends upon the formulation of the rules by which the members of the society govern their actions. This involves highly significant levels of abstraction. In the selection and formulation of elements for manipulation in the model, the specific choices made by the analyst himself are of prime importance for the final interpretation. This method was invented in terms of economic problems that depend upon the operations of only a few “players.” When one applies it to social problems, extreme reductionism is required.

Use of the model concept by social anthropologists has covered a wide range (Association of Social Anthropologists 1965a); it has even been applied, with rather dubious accuracy and significance, to the recognition of personal bias in the analyst’s choice of material for examination. A feature of modern social anthropology is its self-consciousness. Obviously, personal elements in the situation of the observer are recognized as affecting the collection of his data, including the possibility that he may influence to some degree the behavior of the people whom he is studying. The idiosyncratic role of the analyst in handling this material and his personal involvement with the people may condition the form that he attributes to the society he studies.

Analyses of social process

Side by side with the more precise conceptualization of structural studies there has developed a more definite interest in the analysis of social process. Argument still proceeds as to the degree to which the behavior of members of a society is to be understood in terms of the jural rules of the society or in terms of their individual choice and decision. There is also difference of view as to whether the concept of social structure should be applied primarily to a summation of rules or to a summation of behavior, whether it should refer to ideal or statistical norms. But whichever is the emphasis in definition, in practice both are studied. Studies of social process in kinship and marriage have focused on such problems as the developmental cycle in domestic groups, the operation of prescriptive marriage rules, the stability of marriage, the relations between residence and descent. Variant and changing relations between kin in matrilineal systems have been given much comparative study (Eggan 1950; Schneider & Gough 1961), and the structure of unilineal descent groups has been elaborately examined (Fortes 1953). There has been much concern with the definition of descent groups that recognize membership by optative rather than by definitive criteria (Firth 1957). Whether such units are patrilineal descent groups admitting of many exceptions to the unilineal membership rule or whether they are nonunilineal groups with a patrilineal descent emphasis is still a matter of argument. But until the concept of descent itself is further clarified this issue is unlikely to be solved by field research.

In the field of political organization, many analyses have demonstrated the dynamic social, economic, and ritual relationships involved in the struggle for power and its exercise. There has been an interest in the theory of conflict, which questions the degree to which conflict of a sectional order strengthens the over-all structure (Gluckman 1956). Such conflict theory may owe something to Marxist emphases and perhaps also to psychological views about the cathartic effects of aggression. In sociojuridical analysis, issues of a legal character—including problems connected with suicide and homicide—have been refined, while clarity has emerged from the study of such economic institutions as market processes and allied operations. Other functional analyses of this order have been done in the field of ritual and myth. Interest in relating millenarian movements to economic and political conditions has been helped and stimulated by historians and social scientists in other disciplines.

Undoubtedly, much of the orientation in recent studies of social process has been due to the largescale, irreversible changes that have occurred in the African, Asian, Oceanic, and American societies, which have been the concern of social anthropologists. But whereas earlier “social change” tended to be isolated as a separate field of study, it is now realized that changing conditions are an integral part of the data field of the anthropologist. There has been a renewal, in more sophisticated form, of claims for the study of history as a legitimate and indeed necessary aspect of the work of the social anthropologist.

The philosophical problems involved in explanations of causality have not been ignored (Nadel 1951). Some social anthropologists, especially in the United States, have not been content with the indication of correlates or concomitant variations in institutional patterns. The search for antecedent conditions to existing phenomena and the posing of questions in the form of why as well as how institutions exist and work have resulted in increasingly precise formulations. Apart from the indication of historical antecedents from documentary materials and oral tradition, attempts have been made to indicate the significance of ecological factors as conditions for institutional development. Generalizations have usually been cautious, for instance, of the order of suggesting broad correlation between the political system and mode of subsistence (Schapera 1956, p. 219). However, in terms of cultural evolution more dynamic relationships have also been suggested. An example of this is the proposition that the patrilineage of Nuer type is a unit of predatory expansion (Sahlins 1961). Problems of how to handle the historical dimension in the absence of written records have still, however, to be adequately solved, and various assumptions about plausibility of tribal traditions must be tested more fully before being completely acceptable in interpretation.

Studies of symbolic forms

A very important part of the work of social anthropologists in recent years has been in the study of symbolic forms. Particular attention to the need for the study of symbolic behavior was drawn by S. F. Nadel (1951, pp. 261–264). Description and analysis have proceeded particularly within the area of several related major topics. For example, analyses of witchcraft accusations have indicated symbolic correspondences with structural tensions in a given society. This is clearly seen when it appears among affinal kin. Studies of totemism have indicated some of the formal qualities of thought beneath apparently bizarre and inconsequent selection of objects as emblems. The symbolism of myth has been explored, especially by Lévi-Strauss, who by a comparative analysis of the constituent elements in all available versions of a myth, and of their interrelatedness, has gone far to demonstrate significant modes of human thinking (1955). E. R. Leach (1954) has argued that ritual is a form of symbolic, nonverbal behavior equivalent to verbal statements about the structure and values of the society concerned. A. I. Richards (1956) has demonstrated the complexity of the symbolism that may be expressed in girls’ initiation rites.

Anthropological studies of “primitive” religious systems are now numerous, and analyses of such actions as sacrifice and of such concepts as god and spirit have contributed much to our understanding of their complexity and sophistication (for example, Evans-Pritchard 1956). The study of religious systems has revealed more clearly than in most other fields the differences of basic philosophical assumptions in the work of social anthropologists. Some have adopted a rationalist or humanist standpoint, regarding the religious concepts and behavior of the people studied as being essentially human constructs, responsive to both general and specific issues of their social and economic existence (Firth 1951). Other anthropologists have proceeded from the standpoint of believers in the separate, absolute character of religious phenomena and have regarded the institutions of the people they have studied as special instances of general truth (Evans-Pritchard 1956).

Method of social anthropology

The hallmark of a social anthropologist tends to be the pursuit of field investigations of an intensive character. Commonly using the vernacular of the people studied, he combines some participation in affairs of members of the society with the collection of data by inquiry and observation. By none of these criteria can a social anthropologist be separated absolutely from his colleagues in other social sciences, but the combination of them has given him a characteristic “grass roots” approach and a closely personal experience of societies different from his own.

The intensive field methods of the social anthropologist carry with them certain difficulties. The relative shortness of the period of observation has sometimes resulted in a lack of historical sensitivity. Institutions have been described as permanent when they may have been only contingent upon the operation of demographic or ecological factors of relatively brief duration. Perception of trends of change in social forms has been difficult and subject to considerable error. Partly to meet such problems and partly from a wish to repeat experiences of considerable scientific and aesthetic interest, some social anthropologists have returned after a considerable period of years to the societies they formerly studied. A variant procedure has been for a different social anthropologist to make a restudy of a community investigated earlier. This “replication analysis” presents such theoretical issues as the length of time that should be allowed to elapse before the restudy, the criteria that should be used to establish identity and difference over the period, and the relation of these “dual synchronic” studies to a full diachronic analysis. Replication studies have yielded valuable data on the pace of social change and the most sensitive areas of influence.

The necessity of securing rapport has meant an emphasis on personal, intimate contact with members of the society under study. This has made it difficult to ensure the representativeness of the sample of people selected for close inquiry. In societies of tiny population such lack of adequate sampling has probably resulted in minimal distortion. But in societies with a membership of several hundred thousand, such as some African tribes, anthropological study has had to assume homogeneity rather than to prove representativeness, although some efforts at crude sampling have been made. Available evidence does not suggest any great bias, nor would simple methods of random sampling necessarily have yielded more accurate data, given the intricate and sensitive character of much of the material required. Linked with this problem is that of the use of quantitative data. Ever since W. H. R. Rivers (1910), social anthropologists have freely used a genealogical method of inquiry to obtain data about kinship structure and terminology, marriage patterns, and so on. This has yielded much numerical information. Until recently, social anthropologists were content to express roles and behavior patterns of members of the society in general terms, on the basis of very few instances or indeed without specifying the range of instances at all. Now, in such fields as patterns of household composition and residence, exchange, landholding, and political allegiance, generalizations are commonly supported by figures of distribution. One widely used technique for such a purpose is a sociological census.

Areas of needed research

To specify areas of most needed research in social anthropology is difficult because of the relative novelty of the study among the social sciences and the need for development in every field. But certain areas seem to need special attention. The rapid cultural—in some cases physical—disappearance of “primitive” peoples demands that energetic efforts be applied to map the social systems of those as yet relatively unexamined. (The UNESCO Committee for Urgent Anthropological Research has been engaged in drawing up regional programs for such study.)

Sophisticated comparative analyses of kinship institutions, patterns of domestic grouping, residence, and landholding are still needed. This field is pre-eminently that of the social anthropologist; no other social scientist has his skills in the study of comparative kinship. In religion a vast body of ethnographic data still awaits more rigorous theoretical analysis. Not only is more intensive study of the religious systems of particular primitive societies required, but also closer contact with philosophers, psychologists, and modern theologians, so that the very difficult and delicate problems of interpretation that arise may be handled more effectively.

In political anthropology, with which is linked the anthropological study of law and social control, solid advance has taken place over the last decades (Association of Social Anthropologists 1965b), especially in studies of the less highly centralized systems. More extensive studies must be made of political and administrative processes as distinct from governmental structures. Collaboration with political scientists is advisable, particularly in the study of the structure and activities of political parties and of relations between central and local government. The rapidity with which traditional political systems are being superseded in favor of or combined with those of more complex societies makes this all the more urgent.

Collaboration is also necessary in economic anthropology. Here the body of general theory, derived largely from the parent discipline of economics, must be applied and interpreted by people trained in empirical field work as well as in the theoretical discipline of social anthropology. The significance of the study of incentives to production, of exchange as a social as well as an economic process, and of the uses of capital and credit in peasant conditions is beginning to be appreciated in the work of economic anthropologists. The results have a practical as well as theoretical relevance in connection with the demands of economists for provision of acceptable generalizations about economic growth.

The modern social sciences, although not necessarily called upon to justify themselves simply by their practical application, have increasingly shown their utility in such directions. Cooperation of anthropologists with public health administrators is particularly promising. Social anthropology has contributed to a broader understanding of many types of social relationships, the nature of family structure and roles, and the significance of kinship in industrial as well as in nonindustrial societies. Its general diagnostic and productive value may be fairly limited, but when applied to the analysis of small communities in any type of society, it has been able to demonstrate and illustrate the need for a more sensitive, more holistic approach to the study of social relations. This does raise a basic problem as to how the microanalysis of the social anthropologist can be translated into macroanalytical terms. In this respect a movement of social anthropology in the direction of the adoption of more adequate statistical procedures as now used by sociologists may be necessary.

Raymond Firth


Association of Social Anthropologists 1965a The Use of Models in Social Anthropology. Monograph No. 1. London: Tavistock.

Association of Social Anthropologists 1965b Political Systems and the Distribution of Power. Monograph No. 2. London: Tavistock.

Barth, Fredrik 1959 Segmentary Opposition and the Theory of Games: A Study of Pathan Organization. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 89:5–21.

Cook, James (1768–1775) 1955–1961 The Journals of Captain James Cook on His Voyages of Discovery. 2 vols. Edited by J. C. Beaglehole from the original manuscripts. Hukluyt Society Extra Series, nos. 34 and 35. Cambridge Univ. Press. → Volume 1: The Voyage of the Endeavor, 1768–1771, 1955. Volume 2: The Voyage of the Resolution and Adventure, 1772–1775, 1961.

Eggan, Frederick R. 1950 Social Organization of the Western Pueblos. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1951 Social Anthropology. London: Cohen & West; Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1956 Nuer Religion. Oxford: Clarendon.

Firth, Raymond W. 1951 Elements of Social Organization. London: Watts. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Beacon.

Firth, Raymond W. 1957 A Note on Descent Groups in Polynesia. Man 57:4–8.

Fortes, Meyer 1953 The Structure of Unilineal Descent Groups. American Anthropologist New Series 55:17–41.

Gluckman, Max 1956 Custom and Conflict in Africa. Oxford: Blackwell; Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Lafitau, Joseph FranÇois 1724 Mœurs des sauvages amériquains, comparées aux mœurs des premiers temps. 2 vols. Paris: Saugrain l’aîné.

Leach, Edmund R. 1954 Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure. A publication of the London School of Economics and Political Science. London: Bell; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Leach, Edmund R. 1961 Rethinking Anthropology. London School of Economics and Political Science Monographs on Social Anthropology, No. 22. London: Athlone.

LÉvi-Strauss, Claude 1949 Les structures élémentaires de la parenté. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

LÉvi-Strauss, Claude 1955 The Structural Study of

Myth. Journal of American Folklore 68:428–444. → Also published in French in 1958, with modification and addition, in Claude Lévi-Strauss’ Anthropologie structurale.

Lowie, Robert H. (1920) 1947 Primitive Society. Rev. ed. New York: Liveright. → Also published in a paperback edition.

Malinowski, Bronislaw (1922) 1960 Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London School Studies in Economics and Political Science, No. 65. London: Routledge; New York: Dutton.

Murdock, George P. 1949 Social Structure. New York: Macmillan.

Nadel, Siegfried F. 1951 The Foundations of Social Anthropology. London: Cohen & West; Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. (1922) 1948 The Andaman Islanders. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1952 Structure and Function in Primitive Society. London: Cohen & West; Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Richards, Audrey I. 1956 Chisungu: A Girls’ Initiation Ceremony Among the Bemba of Northern Rhodesia. London: Faber.

Rivers, W. H. R. 1910 The Genealogical Method of Anthropological Inquiry. Sociological Review 3:1–12.

Sahlins, Marshall D. 1961 The Segmentary Lineage: An Organization of Predatory Expansion. American Anthropologist New Series 63:322–345.

Schapera, Isaac 1956 Government and Politics in Tribal Societies. London: Watts.

Schneider, David M.; and GOUGH, E. Kathleen (editors) 1961 Matrilineal Kinship. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.


The studies that are given the name of applied sciences are concerned with techniques based on the recognition of scientific principles. The bestknown examples are engineering, which applies the principles of physics, and medicine, which applies the principles of physiology. The student of engineering learns to apply scientific principles so as to construct works that will stand up against the strains to which they are likely to be exposed; the student of medicine learns to apply scientific principles to the relief of disease in the human body. Each is concerned with the attainment of limited, agreed objectives; and each has his objective chosen for him. The engineer is employed to build a dam or a bridge that somebody else has decided is needed in a particular place; he does not have to ask whether it is desirable, on some scale of values, to create an artificial lake or to link the two sides of a river. The doctor is consulted by a patient who thinks he is ill. The doctor does not— indeed, must not—debate whether it is right or wrong to cure the patient; he must just consider what is the best way.

Social anthropology is concerned with the whole field of social relationships. The analogy between it and engineering would suggest that it should prescribe techniques for constructing societies that would be in some sense desirable; the analogy between it and medicine would suggest that it should provide prescriptions for the cure of pathological states of society. But there is no such consensus in social anthropology as there is in engineering and medicine about what is to be considered desirable or pathological.

Definitions of the field

Some social anthropologists have sought to establish indexes of community health. It has been suggested that a scientifically relevant concept of the healthy community may be stated in terms of an optimum balance of interrelated factors. In this context whole evolving human beings will be considered as they relate to one another and to an organized community. The community may be viewed as an entity that responds to an effective changing environmental setting (Thompson 1960, p. 773). This is a formula for asking questions, not for answering them.

Moreover, a different point of view, which has as much support, considers any study of change in social institutions as a study in applied anthropology. According to Eliot D. Chappie, “Applied anthropology is regarded as that aspect of anthropology which deals with the description of changes in human relations and in the isolation of the principles that control them” and includes “an examination of those factors which restrict the possibility of change in human organization” (Chappie 1953, p. 819).

The field of applied anthropology has, in practice, been taken to be any context in which it may be useful for people taking community decisions to know something about the population for which they are responsible. In this sense it has been applied to any kind of inquiry into the customs of non-European peoples subject to the rule of Europeans.

The first attempt of British anthropologists to turn their knowledge to practical use came at the close of the South African War of 1899–1902. The Royal Anthropological Institute addressed to the secretary of state for the colonies a proposal that the laws and institutions of the different south African tribes be recorded in order to provide the basis for an enlightened policy of administration. It was believed that this might mitigate the disintegration commonly caused by primitive institutions coming into contact with more advanced civilizations. (Mr. Joseph Chamberlain replied that the officials of the new south African colonies were too busy with “numerous questions of pressing practical importance.”)

Anthropology in colonial administration

During the period between the two world wars the appropriate field for the application of anthropology was thought to be the administration of colonial peoples. Although the different colonial governments held different views about the speed with which the subject populations could be westernized and the degree of westernization that was desirable, they all found it necessary to have some regard for traditional customs regulating social status and interpersonal relations.

After 1926 some study of anthropology was included in the training of administrative officials for the British colonies in tropical Africa. Nigeria and the Gold Coast seconded officials from this service to posts as government anthropologists. Similar posts were created in Papua, the Australian territory in southeastern New Guinea, and in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. In Tanganyika a deliberate experiment in applied anthropology was made in which an anthropologist directed his inquiries to answering specific questions formulated by an administrative official; the results were published in Anthropology in Action (Brown & Hutt 1935).

Research interests. In the Northern Territories of the Gold Coast, Meyer Fortes, at the request of the government, produced an account of Tallensi marriage law (1937). We owe to R. S. Rattray, the government anthropologist of the Gold Coast, some valuable volumes on the ethnography of Ashanti and the territories to the north of it (1923; 1932) and to C. K. Meek, who held the corresponding post in Nigeria, studies of the Jukun (1931a), the Ibo, and some of the smaller tribes of northern Nigeria (1925; 1931b). F. E. Williams published some studies of Papuan peoples, including an account of a “nativistic” movement (1928; 1940). This study did not simply describe native institutions but also sought to explain a disturbance that had caused concern to the authorities and to suggest remedial measures. In this manner it came near to the concept of applied anthropology held today.

With the above exception, the work of these men was confined to describing indigenous institutions, particularly political institutions. It can be called applied anthropology because the researchers were employed by governments whose policy was to preserve native institutions as far as possible. The British governments of Nigeria and the Gold Coast at that time believed that persons holding authority by virtue of their traditional status were the best local agents of government policy and were anxious to know who would be the right person, or persons, to recognize as “native authority.”

A Belgian writer on applied anthropology has described the policy of relying on traditional authorities as being inspired by motives “predominantly of a sociological order.” He wrote that indirect rule attempts to avoid the disintegration of native society by influencing it through the medium of its own institutions and its own leaders (Nicaise 1960, p. 112).

In the training given to entrants into the colonial services of Belgium and Holland more time was devoted to the study of ethnography and customary law than in Britain. On the whole, however, it was concerned more with traditional institutions than with contemporary processes of change.

The International Institute of African Languages and Cultures (now the International African Institute) was founded in 1926 in order to promote anthropological and linguistic research. Its founders were impressed by the rapidity of social change in Africa and considered that this should be made the subject of scientific study by trained observers.

When the institute received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1932 for the expansion of its research program, the object of this program was defined as “bringing about a better understanding of the factors of social cohesion in original African society, the ways in which these are being affected by the new influences, tendencies towards new groupings and the formation of new social bonds, and forms of cooperation between African societies and western civilization” (International … 1932, p. 1).

“These questions,” the institute stated, “are of the first importance to the African peoples themselves, to the administrator, to the educator, to the missionary, and to the settler and trader” (1932, p. 1). The understanding gained would enable the administrator “to foster the growth of a healthy, progressive, organic society” (1932, p. 2), and all the other persons mentioned would find in such a society the environment most favorable to the pursuit of their aims. At this time, then, applied anthropology did mean the use of anthropological knowledge to produce a healthy condition of society. The institute offered to put at the disposal of all persons with specific aims in Africa, including “the native leaders of African society,” knowledge that would “assist them in determining the right relations between the institutions of African society and alien systems of government, education, and religion, in preserving what is vital in the former and in eliminating unnecessary conflict between the latter and African tradition, custom, and mentality” (1932, p. 3). In other words, it hoped to offer recipes for what Malinowski a few years later was to call “successful cultural change” (1945, p. 56). Topics to be studied would include the social consequences of the demand for wage labor, the effect on political institutions of subjection to a foreign overlord, and the relation of school education to traditional values.

Although the International African Institute as a body did not advocate specific policies, the general line taken in its publications was that the understanding of traditional institutions should make it possible to introduce necessary changes without causing unnecessary disintegration.

One of the recommendations with which Lord Hailey concluded his monumental survey of Africa was that the British government provide funds for research into all the sciences, natural and social, that were relevant to African problems. Shortly after the publication of his African Survey (1938), the report of the West India Royal Commission (Great Britain … 1940) urged that funds be made available from the United Kingdom Treasury for the stimulation of economic development and the provision of social services that were beyond the resources of the colonial territories. The Colonial Development and Welfare Acts, of 1940 and later years, earmarked funds for the two purposes just mentioned. Committees of experts, including social scientists, were set up to advise on the allocation of grants from the research fund. Applicants for grants were expected to be able to argue that their research would be of value to the government of the territory where they proposed to work; some, however, argued successfully that any addition to knowledge of the social structure of the people subject to its authority is of value to a government.

At the same time surveys were made of the major geographical areas with the aim of evaluating the existing state of knowledge and the areas in which further information was most urgently needed. These surveys encouraged a certain concentration of research in directions that could be expected to throw light on administrative problems.

Government sociologists. At this period some appointments of anthropologists to government service were made in Kenya and Tanganyika. These men were frequently given the title “government sociologist,” which did not imply that their training or theoretical interests differed from those of social anthropologists but simply recognized the unpopularity in African circles of the word “anthropology,” a term thought of as meaning the study of “primitive peoples.” This generation of government anthropologists was expected to be able to turn its attention to limited questions on which answers were thought to be urgently needed. Thus Philip Mayer in Kenya made an exhaustive study of Gusii marriage law and a shorter examination of the difficulty of limiting the amount of bridewealth payment and discussed the neighborhood cooperative farming groups from the point of view of their suitability to undertake new economic activities (1950; 1951). Philip Gulliver examined the effects of migratory labor and other social changes among a people (the Nyakyusa) who had been largely unaffected by commercial influences up to the period of World War II (1955; 1958). In Australia Ian Hogbin was commissioned to estimate the damage suffered by the New Guinea peoples during the Japanese occupation and Camilla Wedgwood to estimate their educational needs.

Research institutes. Research with a practical bearing was also undertaken by the research institutes sponsored or assisted by the Colonial Office. Such institutes exist in east, west, and central Africa, in the West Indies, and in Malaya. The East African Institute studied the social consequences of the immigration of labor, the reasons for the ineffectiveness of African village headmen as agents of government policy, and the changing position of African chiefs. Later it embarked on a largescale five-year study of urbanization. The Rhodes-Livingstone Institute has carried out intensive studies of urbanization in the copper belt of central Africa. The West African Institute sponsored a study of the mixed population employed on the agricultural estates of the Cameroons Development Corporation and the relations between immigrants and people of local origin. Studies of family structure have been conspicuous in the work of the West Indian Institute.

Belgian Congo. Increased attention was paid to anthropological research by Belgium in the period between World War II and the independence of the Congo. A center for the study of social problems (CEPSI), founded at Elisabethville in 1948, has concentrated on problems associated with urbanization. The Solvay Sociological Institute in Brussels created a Congo section, which paid special attention to social problems of the labor force—absenteeism, instability in employment, and unemployment. Studies were made of crime and juvenile delinquency, of new leadership in urban areas, and of the new elective institutions that had been created in preparation for independence. The Institute of Research in Economics and Sociology of the Lovanium University in Leopoldville, founded in 1956, has an ethnosociological division. It has organized a detailed analysis of the population of Leopoldville, taking different sections—primary school teachers, laborers, unemployed—and examining in each the characteristics of marriage and family life, religion, and recreational activities.

Applied anthropology in America

In the United States the employment of government anthropologists may be said to date from 1934, when at the request of John Collier, commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Unit of Applied Anthropology was created. The anthropologists’ first task closely resembled that of the government anthropologist who had been appointed a few years earlier in Nigeria: to investigate Indian political institutions with a view toward utilizing them as agencies of local government. Other anthropologists were attached as advisers to a technical co-operative unit in which the Department of Agriculture cooperated with the Bureau of Indian Affairs on schemes for the improvement of landuse methods.

Private enterprise also employed anthropologists as consultants. The first such venture was the study carried out at the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Works in Chicago from 1927 to 1932 (Roethlisberger & Dickson 1939). Anthropologists recognized that a pattern of social relationships develops among any body of people who regularly work together and that unexpected resistance to disturbances of this structure may affect attempts to increase their efficiency or welfare. In Britain, after 1960, similar studies were sponsored by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.

The Society for Applied Anthropology was founded in the United States in 1941; it published a journal, Applied Anthropology, the name of which was changed in 1949 to Human Organization. The society described as its primary object “the promotion of scientific investigation of the principles controlling the relations of human beings to one another, and the encouragement of the wide application of these principles to practical problems.” It had three main fields of interest: mental health, the study of industrial organizations, and the relation of economic development to cultural change. Economic Development and Cultural Change, a specialist journal for the last-named subject, was founded in 1951.

During World War II a number of anthropologists were employed in America by the United States government in connection with the relocation of Japanese populations. They also attempted to explain the culture of occupied areas to those members of the armed forces who required that natives cooperate as laborers, messengers, etc. In America, as in Australia (but not Britain), training courses for officers to be engaged in military government in occupied territories included instruction in anthropology. In its administration of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, the United States from 1951 employed seven anthropologists, one at headquarters and one in each administrative district. They were to advise on the means of implementing government projects, interpret them to the native populations and evaluate their progress. These projects included health improvement, labor policies, education, legislative measures, and judicial procedures. The anthropologists were also expected to carry on the fundamental research on which their advice must ultimately be based.

Applied anthropology since World War II

Since the end of World War II the new political balance of power that has resulted in the almost complete liquidation of colonial rule has brought about a change in the emphasis of applied anthropology in the economically underdeveloped countries. The colonial powers, and many anthropologists who were not their nationals, were concerned primarily with stability, with gradual change, and therefore with the preservation of indigenous institutions. Their successors are determined on rapid change and have the support of world powers who, whatever may be their ideologies, value technical progress more than social stability. Politically uncommitted anthropologists have been forced to recognize the pressing problems that are created by increasing populations in territories where resources are limited and productivity is low. Technical specialists of all kinds are seeking to devise ways of improving standards of living. When the collaboration of anthropologists is invited, it is for them to show where traditional values and institutions are hindering the adoption of improvements.

Anthropologists have been employed as consultants in a number of technical-assistance projects undertaken by the United States and also by the specialized agencies of the United Nations, notably the World Health Organization. They have most to offer to public health projects, agricultural extension, and community development.

In the United States and the United Kingdom, since World War ii, there has been increasing cooperation between anthropologists and medical specialists. For example in the United States, the Harvard School of Public Health has carried out a study of social reactions to proposals for the fluoridation of water supplies. In Britain an anthropologist has been included in a team studying the epidemiology of mental disease in South Wales.

Goals of applied anthropology

The change in the directions in which the application of anthropology is sought has had some influence on the anthropologists’ interpretation of their role. Those who hesitated to make themselves responsible for deciding what an ideal society would be like have less hesitation in suggesting what approach would give the best chances of success for public health programs. Those who held that any help they might give to a colonial government must be a kind of treachery to its subjects need have no such inhibitions about independent territories.

Nevertheless, there has been much discussion of the question whether anthropologists should join in development projects or should simply present their facts and let administrative authorities do with them as they wish. This extreme view would stultify all attempts at applying anthropological knowledge, since the theoretical work of anthropologists is not focused on administrative problems, and its implications for action would be recognized only by other professionals. The opposite viewpoint is that anthropologists must themselves make policy recommendations. This is expressed in the code of ethics of the American Society for Applied Anthropology, which says, inter alia:

To his fellow men he [the anthropologist] owes respect for his dignity and general well-being. He may not recommend any course of action on behalf of his client’s interests, when the lives, well-being, dignity, and self-respect of others are likely to be adversely affected, without adequate provisions being made to insure that there will be a minimum of such effect and that the net effect will in the long run be more beneficial than if no action were taken at all. He must take the greatest care to protect his informants, especially in the aspects of confidence which his informants may not be able to stipulate for themselves.

To his clients he must make no promises nor may he encourage any expectations that he cannot reasonably hope to fulfill. He must give them the best of his scientific knowledge and skill. He must consider their specific goals in the light of their general interests and welfare. He must establish a clear understanding with each client as to the nature of his responsibilities to his client, to science, and to his fellow men. (Statement on Ethics … 1963–1964, p. 237)

Nadel (1953) urged that if anthropologists did not claim the right to contribute directly to the framing of policy, the data provided by them could be used, in ways that he did not specify, to damage the societies that they described. The same attitude is implied in Barnett’s statement that anthropology “exposes people who are powerless to state their own case” (1956, p. 80). Beals has urged that applied anthropology be concerned with finding out what inarticulate people want and then helping them to get it (1953, p. 188), an argument also put forward by Tax (1958, pp. 17–19).

All these interpretations of the anthropologist’s role reject the idea that his advice is technically oriented and thus value-free. Of course, there is a sense in which no application of theoretical knowledge is value-free; if people seek to use knowledge, it is to attain ends that they value. But the question of values in applied anthropology had a special significance during the colonial era because of the type of situation in which the advice of anthropologists was sometimes sought and sometimes offered. Colonial governments interpreted their “civilizing mission” to mean, among other things, a process of moral improvement; anthropologists did not always see as moral improvement the kind of change that governments sought to bring about. On their side anthropologists were concerned that the processes of social change to which the governments were committed be beneficial rather than harmful to the subject societies, an aim that entailed the introduction of value judgments at every turn. Those who believed that the changes being imposed on the simpler societies would of necessity be harmful could not expect the governments to share their view but nevertheless claimed a hearing. Obviously the difference between their values and those of the governments made it very difficult for them to offer advice of a kind that would facilitate the execution of government policies.

It is no accident that the focus of interest of applied anthropology has shifted with the withdrawal of colonial rule. The new independent governments see their functions as the older independent nations do: not to make over alien societies but to raise standards of living and to spread welfare. They are quite certain about the kind of society they want to create, and they are not asking anybody’s advice about this. When they do seek advice, it is in fields where there is a consensus on values; all are agreed that health is good and that the pursuit of physical comfort and material wealth is at any rate permissible for those people who like it. Anthropologists are still not invited to pass judgment on the merits of the projects in which their cooperation is sought, but these are in practice congenial to most of them in a way that moral-improvement policies often were not. They are not asked, nor do they now seek, to advise on the total process of social change; their role is now to indicate where existing social structures and idea systems may present obstacles to specific projects.

Lucy Mair

[Directly related are the entriesAcculturation; Field work; Observation.]


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The anthropological study of modern society has two forms: one, the utilization of anthropological techniques in the study of the current scene; the other, the application of anthropological understandings to the behavioral sciences in general. Although these two are inevitably intertwined, it is useful to treat them separately.

Historical background. Research in anthropology had been so overwhelmingly concerned with primitive and preliterate societies that it was viewed as a radical departure when in the 1930s students began to make ethnological investigations of modern European and American communities. Yet, early anthropological discussion did not confine itself to primitive peoples but regularly used relevant data from classical antiquity, Asiatic civilizations, European peasant communities, and even urban social phenomena. E. B. Tylor, for example, cited animistic concepts of his contemporary world ([1871] 1958, especially vol. 2, chapter 11), chided Blackstone for miscontruing in his Commentaries the nature of kinship regulations and thereby reformulating them in legal practice. In his discussion of survivals he used children’s games and idioms as data (ibid., vol. 1). Similarly, Sir Henry Maine, whose interest was comparative law, very naturally demonstrated his theses with current local usages as well as data on those more exotic peoples who are the usual subjects of anthropological discourse. In that era, although those concerned with anthropology rarely had personal contact with the native peoples that were the chief subject of their theoretical treatises, Frédéric Le Play (1855) initiated field studies of the economic and social life of European peasants, craftsmen, and laborers; this work is an unusual example of an early effort to illuminate current social life at least partially within the anthropological frame of reference.

It is also worthwhile to note that anthropological generalizations were applied to current problems. Tylor, in a Victorian idiom and outmoded theoretical framework, concludes his Primitive Culture thus:

To the promoters of what is sound and reformers of what is faulty in modern culture, ethnography has double help to give. To impress men’s minds with a doctrine of development, will lead them in all honour to their ancestors to continue the progressive work of past ages, to continue it the more vigorously because light has increased in the world, and where barbaric hordes groped blindly, cultured men can often move onward with clear view. It is a harsher, and at times even painful, office of ethnography to expose the remains of crude old culture which have passed into harmful superstition, and to mark these out for destruction. Yet this work, if less genial, is not less urgently needful for the good of mankind. Thus, active at once in aiding progress and in removing hindrance, the science of culture is essentially a reformer’s science. ([1871] 1958, vol. 2, p. 539)

Tylor was justified in calling anthropology a “reformer’s science,” for anthropologists have repeatedly concerned themselves with the moral and practical implications of their special knowledge. Franz Boas, the empiricist who was so insistent on work among preliterate peoples, wrote as early as 1911 of the implications of anthropological study for an understanding of our own cultural milieu; in this latter summary he refuted the assumptions of moral progress implicit in nineteenthcentury evolutionism. Robert H. Lowie (1929) endeavored not so much to show that primitive man had the same virtues and capacities as modern man as to demonstrate that modern man engages in follies and vices similar to those found among primitive peoples. Lowie later tried to construct an ethnography of the Germans (1945), based upon his personal experience and his wide reading in German literature. Anthropologists in England and on the Continent have not, in recent years, shown as much interest in modern culture, although a major exception prior to World War ii is represented by the program called Mass Observation, which endeavored to elicit popular attitudes and behavior patterns in England by means of informal interviews and observation of large-scale but nonrandom population samples. Some interest in modern peasantry has recently developed, and the anthropological study of modern society in England is reported in Klein (1965).

By the early 1940s a professional association (the Society for Applied Anthropology), with its own journal (Human Organization, originally called Applied Anthropology), was created in response to growing interest in such subjects as factory organization, community life, and problems of native peoples in the modern world. In 1954 the American Anthropological Association held a symposium on the United States, which was subsequently published as a special issue of the American Anthropologist (Lantis 1955).

The empirical study of modern society

Although in the study of primitive customs and tribal life anthropologists had until recently a virtually de facto monopoly, in the study of modern society they came into competition (and frequent collaboration) with representatives of other fields and were constrained to justify their methods and approaches in the face of those already being employed. Anthropological studies of modern society have taken many forms but may be grouped into the following classes: (1) the study of the modern American community, (2) the study of peasant communities throughout the world, (3) the study of specific institutions of modern society, (4) the study of “national character,” and (5) the study of modern adaptations of tribal cultures.

Studies of American communities

The study of American community life was initiated under Franklin H. Giddings as an investigation into the evolution of rural communities (for example, Williams 1906). Such studies came to be the special province of rural sociology; they were generally unsophisticated surveys but some, for example, Nelson’s study of Mormon communities (1952), do have anthropological insights. Urban studies developed by the Chicago school, such as Zorbaugh’s Gold Coast and Slum (1929), are also forerunners of an anthropology of modern life. It is, however, the Lynds’ investigation of “Middletown” (Lynd & Lynd 1929; 1937)—the very name conjures up the notion of the normative for American culture—that has an explicit anthropological approach, and, significantly, the Foreword to Middletown was written by Clark Wissler, an anthropologist. This investigation of Muncie, Indiana, had a wide impact (both public and academic), in part because it revitalized the muckraker tradition but more because it succeeded in presenting a cultural view of ordinary modern life—a picture of middle-class tribalism in America. It proved to be the first and most successful of a long line of anthropological studies of the American community.

The most elaborate and extended of these were initiated by W. Lloyd Warner, who turned from field work among the Australian aborigines to field work in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and, subsequently, with the aid of numerous students, to other towns throughout the United States. The Newburyport study involved not only detailed interviews with a sample of the city’s population but also analyses of its institutions. Several volumes have been published under the general title “The Yankee City Series.” The first (Warner & Lunt 1941) presented the general social framework, namely, a sixfold class structure based upon identification, social interaction, and social attributes. Other volumes concerned themselves with particular aspects of social life, for example, the factory (Warner & Low 1947) and ethnic relations (Warner & Srole 1945). Among works on American community life for which Warner was directly responsible are the analysis of a southern city (Davis et al. 1941), of an urban Negro community (Drake & Cayton 1945), and of a midwestern town (Warner et al. 1949). Warner has summarized and generalized his class approach in Social Class in America (Warner, Meeker, and Eells 1949), in which he defines social classes and the measures he has developed for their determination. To Warner, social class is not economic class but refers, rather, to recognizable levels in a social hierarchy, based upon self-identification, divergent life-styles, and, particularly, differential prestige. Warner (1952) has also examined the status system and institutional behavior in terms of the symbol system and ritual (collective representations) of American life. Whatever the epistemological reality of the Warnerian social classes may be, the schema has offered a context for interpreting observed differences in child-rearing practices (Davis & Dollard 1940; Ericson 1947), in sexual attitudes and behavior (Kinsey et al. 1948), and in the classroom performances of children (Warner et al. 1944; Hollingshead 1949).

Meanwhile, many other anthropologists turned to an examination of the American community: Carl Withers (1945) focused on the life-cycle patterns as they varied according to social status groups in an Ozark rural community he called Plainville, U.S.A.; Hortense Powdermaker (1939) directed her attention chiefly to the mode of life of different status groups in a southern Negro community and the distinction between the reality of that society and the image the white people had of it; Walter Goldschmidt (1946; 1947) demonstrated the social cleavage between farm labor and the “nuclear group” in a California town and analyzed the effect of industrialized agriculture on community life. Studies investigating rural life were initiated at the University of North Carolina, and from this program emerged an analysis of plantation life by Morton Rubin (1951) and of Negro society by Hylan Lewis (1955). Arthur J. Vidich and Joseph Bensman (1958) analyzed the values and attitudes of persons in an upper New York State town and the discontinuity between the public image and reality in community life; William F. Whyte (1943) studied a community of slum youths. Governmental studies of rural community life were made by the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (Culture of a Contemporary Community series), and the Japanese Relocation Authority studied World War II internment camps.

Although anthropologists have regularly found a “class system” in the American community, characterized by differentials in economic roles, financial status, life-style, material conditions, power, and prestige, the specific class systems are not comparable. Thus, while Warner found six social classes in Newburyport, other students found diverse numbers ranging from two to seven, and Withers (1945) showed that persons of different standing see the “class structure” of Plainville quite differently. One might conclude that each community defines its own class system; however, Goldschmidt (1955) has pointed out that although there are great differentials in social status related to income, occupation, and life-style and that persons at different levels in the social hierarchy have different attitudes, values, and orientations to society, the important dynamic in American society is status mobility and anxiety, rather than fixity and class identification.

The description of social class (or the dynamics of status) is common to American community studies, but the more significant contribution of these studies has been to provide a rich ethnography of modern social life not only in its formal aspects but in an informal, intensely personal, intimate manner. They err in reflecting both the mood of the time and the predilections of the ethnographers, yet they are a remarkable reportage on the customs of modern America. They err, too, in their frequent tacit assumptions that the community represents the nation in microcosm, for modern America is a network of social communication in which the towns are merely at the termini. But they give the necessary matrix in which American life—as analyzed by other social scientists— can be understood [seeField work; Observation].

Study of peasant communities

Anthropologists more or less concurrently began to study modern peasant communities in diverse parts of the world. Few had examined village life among farmers of literate, politically oriented societies until Redfield studied Tepozttlán, Mexico, in 1928 (Redfield 1930). Redfield’s close association with the Chicago sociologists and the then important dichotomy between rural and urban in sociological theory must have influenced this choice. However, Redfield never abandoned his essentially anthropological perspective and until quite late in his career continued to discuss peasant and primitive societies under the single term “folk.” Village studies claimed increasing attention of anthropologists (and sociologists)—for example, Ireland (Arensberg 1937; Arensberg & Kimball 1940), Japan (Embree 1939), China (Fei 1939; Yang 1945), and, under the sponsorship of the Smithsonian Institution’s Institute of Social Anthropology, many Latin American communities (Beals 1946; Brand 1951; Foster 1948; Gillin 1947; Pierson 1948; Tax 1953)—so that representative studies are now available for most countries where peasant farming is found. These studies usually concentrate on single local communities, carrying into the study of peasant life the methods and assumptions of tribal ethnography: reliance on informants rather than questionnaires or other instruments, the implicit assumption of cultural homogeneity, the focus on customary usages rather than on behavioral diversity. They also tend to treat communities as isolates, focusing upon the internal structure of community life rather than interrelationships with the broader society and assuming that the village is a microcosm of the whole. Redfield (1956, especially chapter 3) conceptualized the distinction between the little (peasant or local community) tradition and the great (national or intellectualized) tradition and discussed the interdependence between them. There have been no consistent efforts either to define the general characteristics of peasantry or to show the essential uniformities and diversities of peasant communities as they exist within a single country or culture area.

Like the study of the American community, the ethnography of peasant life has given us an understanding of the everyday life of the peoples it describes. We are much better able now to understand behavior of the people of India, for instance, than when we had merely the formal accounts and histories of the caste system and the teachings of Indian scholars. Furthermore, the inclusion of these different examples of customary social systems has enriched the literature of anthropology for purposes of comparative studies [seeRedfield; Peasantry; Village].

Institutional studies

A third line of inquiry in the study of modern society may be called the ethnography of modern institutions. The classic studies made at the Hawthorne plant of Western Electric under the aegis of Elton Mayo (Roethlisberger & Dickson 1939) are an early example. The essence of this work was to demonstrate that the status system and the structuring of social relationships were essential ingredients in work satisfactions and factory output. There has flowed from this initial source a body of literature analyzing various work situations—increasingly for the practical aims of employers in the maintenance of orderly production—and institutions, for instance, the motion picture industry (Powdermaker 1950) and the restaurant industry (Whyte 1948). Harding (1955) has summarized the anthropological study of industrial enterprises, pointing out that the factory—or an entire industry—is a social system, that it operates on the assumption of communication among its component elements, that this involves not only the formal system but also the informal, and that the latter is a major consideration in the daily operations of the work routine.

Another example of institutional ethnology is Caudill’s study (1958) of a psychiatric hospital, in which he analyzes the day-to-day personal relations of doctors, ward personnel, and patients, treating the hospital as a small society whose functions affect the behavior of its personnel in many subtle ways outside the awareness of the participants themselves. Among the elements that Caudill discovered were (1) that there is a hierarchical structure in the hospital, (2) that direct communication between levels is faulty, (3) that actions by persons are symbolic (communicative) expressions, (4) that these actions or events are disregarded or misunderstood, and (5) that an anthropological investigation can interpret these events and lead to a restructuring of action beneficial to the institution and hence to the patients. Although the hospital may be viewed as a community, it is not sealed off from the society around it; events in the homes of patients affect those in the hospital and vice versa; furthermore, the patterning of events in the hospital setting reflects generic American culture patterns, as a comparison with behavior in Japanese hospitals confirms.

American schools have been subjected to anthropological investigation. Early studies emphasized the role of social class, pointing out that the teachers have largely been of upwardly mobile lower-middle-class origin, strongly attached to the values of thrift, industry, cleanliness, competitiveness, and the virtues of success. This setting gives advantage to middle-class children and reinforces these values in the society at large. They not only appear in the formal structuring of class work and grades but also in the informal extracurricular activities and the interpersonal relations among the pupils. Jules Henry (1963) has shown the transmission of values and attitudes in the latent content of classroom discourse and their relationship to the domestic problems of the children: the reinforcement of materialistic over intellectual and moralistic values, the inculcation of attitudes of hostility and competitiveness in classroom recitation, and the continuity between the classroom events and problems in out-of-school relationships.

National character studies

Historians and men of letters have often depicted the character of a people or an epoch—a culture—as, for example, Burckhardt on the Italian Renaissance, Hamilton on classical Greece, and Tocqueville on America. Anthropology has contributed substantively to this literature and has endeavored to formulate both method and rationale for this enterprise. The anthropological investigation of national cultures was initiated during World War ii to contribute to military decisions through better understanding of enemy cultures and has continued into the cold war period.

The study of national character is concerned with generalizations regarding the psychological attitudes and orientation of a population sharing a culture: a nation, a region, an ethnic group, such as east European Jews. It is therefore concerned with psychodynamics and has been much influenced by neo-Freudian thought. National character studies have attempted to substitute cultural explanations of manifest differences in personality attributes for racial or environmental explanations. The idea of national character is that these psychological attributes are formed early in an infant’s life by the experiences it undergoes as a result of culturally established child-training practices. The theoretical basis has been set forth by Gorer (in Mead & Métraux 1953) and by Mead (1953).

National character studies attempt to trace the way in which the identified cultural behavior is represented in the intrapsychic structure of the individual members of the culture, combining cultural theory and psychological theory (principally learning theory, Gestalt psychology, Freudian psychology, and child development studies) into a new psychocultural theory to explain how human beings embody the culture, learn it, and live it. (Mead 1953, p. 651)

The first full-length anthropological national character study was Mead’s book (1942) on the United States; the most widely referenced, Benedict’s on Japan (1946). Others include Gorer on America (1948), Gorer and Rickman on Russia (1949), and Metraux and Mead on France (1954). The Columbia University research project in contemporary cultures gathered scholars from different disciplines to “study culture at a distance,” that is, to investigate societies to which scholars did not have direct access. This involved not only the interviewing of immigrants, refugees, and prisoners of war but also the detailed analysis of current literature, humor, motion pictures, and other expressions of the current popular culture (Mead & Métraux 1953).

These studies have been much criticized for their lack of methodological rigor and for their involvement with psychodynamic theory. The study of national character cannot explain the origin of diverse forms of behavior, but it can describe them in an ethnographic sense and discuss the internal dynamics of how generic cultural practices engender in infants those attributes of character which, although not within the awareness of the people, are nevertheless an essential part of their culture. The culturally established common modes of handling children, the nature of cultural rewards and punishments, and the affect patterns between parents and children are seen as the mediating—not the causative—forces in transmitting and preserving the national character. Mead (1953, p. 652) is quite clear on this point, although such clarity is not displayed by all other students of national character [seeNationalCharacter].

Acculturation of tribal cultures

The unlettered peoples and tribal societies have in ever-increasing degree felt the impact of the modern world and the universalization of technology. Indeed, the opportunity to examine primitive society in its pristine state rapidly waned during the first half of the twentieth century, and even the pockets of tribal cultures still to be found are not entirely innocent of elements from more advanced economic systems. Furthermore, research has disclosed that many of the tribal cultures appearing in the ethnographic literature had been in varying degrees influenced by Europeanization, either through direct acquisitions, such as the horse on the American plains, or indirectly, such as by opportunities to engage in the fur trade or involvements with the slave trade. Malinowski (1945) despaired of finding a pristine condition—a point of departure —for the study of the acculturative process. But as native peoples became increasingly involved in modern society, and particularly as their adjustment to new conditions presented both theoretical and practical problems, anthropologists came to study the processes and products of acculturation. Acculturation studies constitute a large corpus of literature, but little systematic generalization on these data has been made; the fact is that very little generalization can be sustained. The most important of the recognized regularities in acculturation situations are the quick assimilation of certain kinds of material goods, the undermining of native systems of authority and social values, the recurrent tendency to develop millenarian or nativistic religious cults, and the greater resistance to change of religious beliefs and psychological sets or attitudes. But the most apparent conclusion regarding the entry of tribal peoples into modern society is that no generalization is universally applicable. Some peoples, notably the Masai in Africa and most Pueblos in the American southwest, show a high retention of native culture despite long and continuous contact with the West, whereas other peoples, for example, the Maori of New Zealand, readily adopt Western patterns of behavior [seeAcculturation; Culture, article onCulture change].

General theory and practice

Until recently, ethnographic fieldwork meant that an investigator, armed with such minimal tools as notebook and camera, went alone (later with his spouse) to study an as yet professionally unstudied tribe and to describe to the degree he saw fit all those departments of tribal life—economy, daily round, domestic life, social organization, theology, language—he found of interest and relevance. His studies were at first more concerned with rules and expectancies than with frequencies and contradictions, and for this purpose he sought out elderly informants who could verbalize these matters, while observing as much of the traditional events as were retained in the community. By internal checks and ever-increasing detail he established what was “true” for the culture under scrutiny. He neither bothered about nor expected statistical validation or replication and rarely had any documents to worry about. But as each fieldworker returned with new insights resulting from deeper investigation of particular aspects of culture, anthropology became increasingly aware of the intricacies, the subtleties, and the underlying unities of cultural behavior, so that his successors were able to penetrate still more deeply into tribal life.

Such practices do not make for sophistication in research design, statistical manipulation, validity control, or replication. In the present era of increased identification of research methods with the statistical handling of data, the anthropological study of modern society is often disparaged. However, it emphasizes features increasingly neglected by other social disciplines. First, the holistic approach, which examines each phenomenon in the context of the totality, avoids (or at least minimizes) the error of treating each cultural department, for example, economics, politics, religion, as if it had a separate and at best only internally consistent meaning. Closely related is the capacity for finding patterns or integrative elements in cultural systems. Third, recognition that cultural features have deep psychological involvements for the individual participants makes it possible to see the interplay between individual sentiments and cultural institutions. Fourth, the anthropologist’s very naïveté makes him willing to examine aspects of life not amenable to counting and statistical manipulation and thus to utilize evidence other scholars avoid as “methodologically unsound”. On the whole, what the anthropological approach brings to the study of modern society is the use of insight, introspection, close attention to detail, validation through internal consistency, and the capacity to deal at the same time with all levels of behavior—from material artifacts to psychic life. If the results sometimes seem impressionistic, if there is a novelistic quality, nevertheless there is a closer sense of human reality than is generally provided by those social sciences traditionally concerned with modern society. Writing with particular reference to the community study, but more generally applicable to the anthropological approach, Vidich, Bensman, and Stein say:

The survival of the community study perhaps can be explained precisely because it has not absorbed too completely the major techniques of the more “advanced” social sciences…. [Community studies] have always shown, no matter how imperfectly, the interrelationship between the various segments of community life. As a result the “totality” has neither been neglected nor shattered into unrelated segments…. As a consequence of the unwillingness of most community researchers to forsake direct observation and direct reporting of the community life, we still have coherent images of the community and social life which are unattainable by other methodologies….

In spite of the grandiose elaboration of research methodologies and abstract theories, it appears that the ear and the eye are still important instruments for gathering data, and that the brain is not always an inefficient mechanism for analyzing them. Because these ancient instruments are still effective, sociologists of all methodological persuasions as well as laymen have come to rely on the community study as a source for their over-all images of society. They use these studies for building their substantive theories of society, and they use them as reference points in doing other research and for their commentaries on the society at large. (1964, p. xi)

Culture theory and the other social sciences

Anthropology has made a contribution to the study of modern society that goes deeper than the mere building up of a corpus of empirically derived information. The concept of culture has had a pervasive influence on the other disciplines devoted to human behavior. So long as students of society are limited in their considerations to a single culture or closely related cultures, they are not able to see the force of culture at all, and their analysis is deprived of the major dynamic in the events their discipline is designed to illuminate. It is true that history provides some of the cultural diversity with which theoretical models of behavior may be tested, but history lacks the detailed data, especially of intimate and informal events, that is not recorded in historic documents. Furthermore, historical societies tend to be rather similar in their general character and hence provide only a narrow cross-cultural perspective; and, above all, the historians did not develop theories of culture which could serve as a basis for understanding the phenomena in question. A few scholars, notably the sociologist Max Weber, transcended these limitations, but the cultural point of view is fundamentally the contribution of anthropology.

The clearest illustration of the role of anthropology is provided by linguistics. Prior to the twentieth century, linguists had formulated taxonomic and philological relationships among the diverse tongues of the globe, but their grammatical analyses were based upon the model of Indo-European forms, especially Latin. It was the anthropologically oriented linguists, such as Boas, Bloomfield, and Sapir, who forced the linguists to examine each language in terms of its own grammatical structure and to discover that grammar, syntax, and semantic categories varied from one language to another. This enabled them to develop those general concepts by which to understand the phenomenon of speech and, through a “cultural” understanding, to arrive at a true comparison of linguistic phenomena and thereby at valid generalizations about verbal communication as a process. Significantly, these understandings returned to the linguist a better comprehension of the processes inherent in his own language, not only for purposes of understanding the nature of communication in his own society but even for such practical purposes as the teaching of language.

The influence of anthropology on psychoanalytic thought has also been dramatic. Until after World War I the psychology of human behavior was dominated by a fundamentally biological metaphysics—whether Watsonian behaviorism or Freudian psychodynamics. Anthropological study cast serious doubts on the simple biological models that such theories engendered and gave increasing emphasis to the essential element of culture as a formative force in determining the character of human responses. Thus, when Malinowski pointed out that in the Trobriand Islands the conflicts characteristic of the Oedipal relationship in Western society attach not to the father but to the mother’s brother, though he has no sexual liaison with the mother and indeed stands in strict avoidance relation to her, some of the “instinctual” assumptions of Freudian dynamics were undermined. Again, when Mead reported the absence in Samoa of those puberty crises characteristic of middle-class Western girls, or the failure of the sexes in some New Guinea tribes to display the personality characteristics that we associate with sex roles, the physiological basis for such behavioral elements had to be seriously questioned. If men behave differently in different societies, then some situational aspect must be sought as explanatory hypothesis. This all the more so since other sources of data showed that genetic differences between peoples could not account for the manifest differences in their behavior, character, or ability.

The investigation of child training and growth in different cultural environments demonstrated that the psychology of everyday life varies in terms of culture context, with the result that psychoanalytic thought has divested itself of its uniform biological model and has reformulated its understandings in terms of cultural context—the human and symbolic environment in which the child grows up. This is found particularly in the works of Sullivan, Horney, Fromm, and especially Erikson (who has had intensive ethnographic experience with primitive peoples). Although the manner of transmission of attitudes and sentiments from generation to generation is not yet fully comprehended, there is no doubt that the cultural patterning of infantile experience is a crucial element in the formation of adult character. The social psychologists have also come to recognize the cultural dimension and to seek cross-cultural controls within which to test their hypotheses [seeCulture and Personality; Life cycle; see alsoDoob 1960].

Most of the social sciences have in varying degrees been influenced by anthropological understanding. Political scientists working with Western society may remain unconcerned with cultural forces, but political analysis in emerging nations of Africa and Asia requires recognition of the local cultural forces. An example of cultural continuities is documented for the ancient Buganda kingdom and modern Uganda (Apter 1961; Fallers 1964). Least influenced has been economics, which, largely holding to a dichotomy between market and nonmarket societies, finds no need to expand its explanatory system to the world of primitive man and hence remains relatively uninfluenced by the data of anthropology and the role of culture in the operations of the market place.

Policy implications

The infusion of anthropological thought into the scholarly understanding of modern society has had wide-ranging practical applications. The influence upon linguistics was noted in passing, and a comparable influence may be seen in changing attitudes toward child care. In the realm of business, anthropological consultants help management understand the practical problems of coping with informal social relations and culturally induced desires of its personnel. In government the earliest use of anthropological talent was, as might be expected, in the administration of Indian affairs, where John Collier, commissioner of Indian affairs under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, used anthropological understanding of native values and attitudes to help reconstitute internal tribal governments and reformulate school programs. Anthropological knowledge has long (but inconsistently) been applied in colonial administration. Recognition of the cultural dimensions in international relationships is widespread but not universal, and textbooks are available on the practical uses of anthropology for cultural relationships (for example, Foster 1962; Spicer 1952; Erasmus 1961). Many governmental agencies are now seeking anthropologists’ advice in dealing with foreign countries. The awareness that cultural factors are responsible for the differential behavior of ethnic and racial groups has influenced policy in the United States. Not only do we recognize that members of various ethnic groups and social classes are raised in environments which foster different social outlooks and cultural values but we have also endeavored to ameliorate racial and ethnic relations through altering the cultural environment.

Anthropology has forced upon both scholars concerned with modern society and men of practical affairs a new metaphysics concerning the nature of man. This cultural viewpoint has the following features: (1) those behavior patterns which differentiate one community from another are not responses to differing genetically transmitted characteristics; (2) they are, instead, a product of cultural tradition; (3) this cultural tradition is transmitted in part unwittingly through the human and symbolic environment in which a community nurtures its children; and (4) modern society is not, in such matters, different from primitive societies, even though it has its peculiar complexities. By and large, the intellectual community and the policy-formulating elite in most technologically advanced societies accept and act on these basic anthropological tenets. Tylor’s assertion that anthropology is a policy science and should be used for the improvement of the human condition is thus sustained, although the nature of the changes wrought by the anthropological understanding of modern society is not what Tylor anticipated.

Walter Goldschmidt


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Social and cultural anthropologists concern themselves with three main types of problems: (1) the description of ethnographic facts, (2) inductive reconstruction of long-term cultural history, and (3) the development of general propositions about culturally regulated human behavior. Cross-cultural comparison is an essential element in any form of either the second or third problem. Since anthropological theory building begins with inductive inferences from loosely associated ethnographic facts, the argument can always be illustrated by crosscultural comparison. Some believe that, properly manipulated, this combination of induction plus exemplification can lead to the discovery of true sociological “laws,” analogous to the “law” of gravitation or the “principle” of the conservation of energy. They claim that these regularities can be demonstrated, either as universal truths or as statistical probabilities. In this article some of the common variations of this doctrine will be examined.

Scientific explanation

The natural science analogy

In the natural sciences it is taken for granted that the behavior of all materials under observation is governed by laws of nature. Every experiment is repeatable, and inconsistencies in results imply either faulty technique or faulty understanding. Inconsistency can never lie in the behavior of the subject matter because the material of the experiment does not have a will of its own.

With this basic assumption underlying all theoretical formulations, exact descriptions and rigidly controlled experiment will always lead to an understanding of the mechanisms of natural process. This understanding should enable the scientist to predict with confidence the statistical probability of future events. An essential part of this scientific procedure is the development of precisely defined concepts (such as species, elements, molecules, atoms, elementary particles, mass, energy, pressure, spatial dimension, temperature), which together provide an internationally agreed upon frame of reference in terms of which the particular phenomena observed by different investigators may be described. Scientific progress is possible only because all the specialists in a given discipline use units of description that are commonly understood and have precisely defined meaning. The philosophy underlying all such science is atomistic, and the “model of reality” is that of a system of relationships between unit entities which are deemed, for the arbitrary purposes of the discussion, to be isolate and impermeable.

These characteristics of natural science have been consciously imitated by leading theorists of the social sciences, but they have been reluctant to admit that the two fields are analogous rather than homologous. Unfortunately there are several characteristics inherent in the data of social science that cast serious doubts as to how far a natural science methodology is really justifiable.

Human subject matter cannot be presumed to have a neutral attitude. At certain levels of organization human material does have a will of its own, and consequently all prediction based on the analysis of past experience must be subject to qualification. The question whether social phenomena consist of events which are governed by individual wills or of processes unaffected by individual intentions is the basic issue which distinguishes the method of history from the method of sociology. The sociologist searches for social facts which correspond to natural phenomena, in that they are predictable and resistant to manipulation by individual human wills. Durkheim believed that there were three main classes of social fact, namely: (1) language and other codes of communication by which the members of a society communicate with one another; (2) statistical facts of a demographic or economic kind, which are measures of the condition of society rather than of the will of individuals—e.g., the suicide rate or the unemployment rate, which have respectively been used as measures of the psychological health and the economic health of society as a whole; (3) “customs” and “jural rules.” It is with this last category that there are the greatest difficulties. How far does it really refer to phenomena which are external to the individual? What is a custom? Is it a description of how people behave or of how they are supposed to behave? Consider the following examples. We can learn from the pages of a standard work of ethnography that it is customary among the Kurds for a man to marry his father’s brother’s daughter. We can also learn that in one particular Kurdish community in 1951, 45 per cent of all marriages conformed to this customary pattern (Barth 1954). On the other hand, whereas the standard ethnographic account of the Trobriand Islands says that it is customary for a man to marry his father’s sister’s daughter, a very detailed demographic survey carried out in 1951 recorded only one such marriage among several hundred (Powell 1957). What are we to make of such discrepancies? If customs are to be compared cross-culturally, what is it that we should compare? In the natural sciences this kind of difficulty does not arise. The sequence of research procedure is quite standardized: in any one experiment the individual observations are interpreted as exemplifying a regularity of nature, a normal event. From a series of such inferred normalities the observer deduces a principle of regularity or “law.” But in anthropology, customs and jural rules are normative, not normal; although their natures can often be discovered directly by question and answer they cannot be discovered at all by averaging out the details of actual behavior. The raw material of ethnography can be assembled either as a set of individually observed events or as a set of normal events (average actual occurrences), or as a set of normative ideal patterns (verbalized customs). But the last class is not a derivative of the other two. It is not at all obvious why customs—i.e., normative ideal patterns of behavior—should have any characteristics comparable to those regularities we encounter in natural law. Natural law regularities are summaries of events which actually occur; customs are mere mental configurations.

Most social scientists, but especially anthropologists, feel that their concern is with people living in “ordinary” rather than “artificial” social conditions. Social anthropologists are precluded from laboratory experiment. However, it has sometimes been suggested that if an anthropologist compares “ordinary” phenomena in two or more different cultural contexts the procedure is equivalent to that of making repeated observations in a controlled laboratory experiment (see, for example, Ackerknecht 1954, p. 125). This is held to justify the statistical comparison of data derived from quite distinct cultural situations. For example, in many societies a rule of matrilineal descent is found to be associated with a kinship terminology in which the father’s sister and the father’s sister’s daughter are placed in a single category. Some writers treat this association as a kind of natural law such that if the correlation were checked for all known matrilineal systems the statistical probability of it occurring in any newly discovered case could be specified. Thus, when in a sample of fifty societies with “exclusive matrilineal descent with exogamy” only 42 per cent conformed to the expected pattern, Murdock nevertheless claims that this correlation “tends to occur” and the theorem is thereby “conclusively validated” (Murdock 1949, pp. 166–167). A statistic of this kind seems to be devoid of any meaning. It does not tell us whether the correlation will or will not hold for any particular future case. Moreover, the resemblance between such a finding and a genuine scientific discovery is quite specious. The link between matrilineal descent and this particular kin-term usage is a matter of logic. The correlation can be directly inferred from the operations necessary to produce a satisfactory definition of the expression “matrilineal descent group.” What is surprising is not the empirical association of facts but the lack of it. The circumstance that Murdock’s statistic does not work out at 100 per cent provides us with the useful but scientifically disconcerting information that cultural data are not always consistent, and this in itself invalidates the whole methodology. Similar destructive criticism can be leveled against all attempts to show that correlations of custom conform cross-culturally to statistical probabilities (Köbben 1952).

Cultural facts are not readily discriminated into ultimate units which can be given precise taxonomic description. A generation ago it was quite common for anthropologists to write as if “a culture” was a simple assemblage of elementary particles or traits, the nature of which could be exactly specified. Social reality could then be described as a system of relationships between unit traits which recur in different cultural contexts, just as unit atoms of particular elements recur in different chemical contexts. This orientation to cultural data is untenable. The units of ordinary anthropological description—expressions like “patrilineal descent,” “uxorilocal residence,” “matrilateral cross-cousin marriage,” “ancestor worship,” “bride price,” “shifting cultivation,” etc.—which are still used as the discriminating traits in even the most sophisticated forms of cross-cultural analysis—are not in any way comparable to the precisely defined diagnostic elements which form the units of discourse in natural science. This is the heart of the whole matter. Those who claim to formulate “scientific” generalizations on the basis of cross-cultural comparison are asserting that they can recognize by inspection that a characteristic x found in culture A belongs or does not belong to the same subclass of social facts as a characteristic y found in culture B. The following is a case in point. The inhabitants of the tiny Polynesian island of Tikopia recognize that their social system is composed of social groups called patio; the Nuer of the Sudan recognize groups called thok dwiel; the Kachin of northern Burma recognize groups called amyu; the Chinese recognize groups called tsung-tsu; and so on. In the jargon of contemporary social anthropology all these entities are to be classed as patrilineal descent groups; they are examples of “the same thing.” Such propositions clearly leave plenty of room for skepticism. To assert of even one particular that the Tikopia and the Chinese have “the same kind of social structure” must invite caution. What could such a proposition really mean? It is rather like pointing to the undoubted resemblance between a clock face and the stars of the zodiac. It is obvious yet utterly irrelevant. However, such comparisons are orthodox in anthropology.

The communication system analogy

Malinowski sought to evade the difficulties raised by simple trait comparisons by blandly affirming that every social event is uniquely defined by its total social context (Malinowski 1944; see also Goldschmidt 1966). If this were the case, all cross-cultural comparison would be futile. The thesis advanced by Malinowski has yielded little fruit. One trouble is the anthropologists’ insistence that their generalizations are scientific. But if we frame our objectives with greater modesty, if we simply try to understand how human beings behave, the outlook need not be so depressing. In practice, despite the theoretical difficulties, all anthropologists, Malinowski included, have resorted to cross-cultural comparison to generate ideas. Such comparison may not prove anything, but it gives insight. We may need to get away from the natural science analogy and place stress on the fact that all customs and rules of behavior are human inventions. It is true that we do not ordinarily observe an individual inventing a custom, but customs can be described by individuals, and in this form they represent mental configurations of which all human minds are capable. Human beings do not all think alike, but they need not all think differently. Patterns of social behavior can and do recur in widely different contexts. That being so, our problem can be turned inside out. The issue should not be: How can we discover the social laws which govern cultural behavior? For in fact we have no valid ground for supposing that there are any such social laws. Instead, we can start with the observable fact that at different levels of abstraction similar configurations of cultural phenomena recur in different contexts. What significance should be attached to such recurrence?

This line of argument leads back to a position close to that adopted by the social evolutionists of the late nineteenth century. At that time it was assumed that cultural traits from different primitive contexts were comparable because they were products of human minds “at the same stage of development.” Today the comparative structuralism of Lévi-Strauss implies a rather similar attitude. Cultures are not to be thought of as assemblages of social facts which exist sui generis but rather as systems of communication. We can compare cultures just as we can compare spoken languages, but if we do so, the similarities which emerge result from the fact that all human brains operate in the same way. We are not discovering truths of nature which are independent of human actors but rather the possibilities of human action as such. Such an orientation leads to a shift in view about the purpose for which cross-cultural comparison may be conducted. Instead of demonstrating that a particular correlation of cultural traits p, q, r, . . . is repeated in different cultural contexts A, B, C, . . ., which is the ultimate objective in all indexing procedures such as the Human Relations Area Files, we are led to other considerations. First, what is the structural-functional logic which brings features p, q,r, . . . into association in context A? Second, what variations of this concatenation p, q, r, … are conceptually possible? Third, which of these variations actually occur and in what circumstances? The outcome of such a procedure is a comparison of contrasts rather than a comparison of similarities, and the objective of the exercise is to discover what is humanly feasible rather than to demonstrate what is statistically probable. Crosscultural comparison here becomes a means of understanding the humanity of human beings. It is not a question of demonstrating that culture is like nature, but of showing how culture differs from nature.

Cross-cultural analysis

The following are some of the more distinctive types of cross-cultural comparison which have been adopted by anthropologists.

The British social evolutionists

The phrase “the comparative method” in English-language anthropological writings usually refers to a specific style of demonstration employed by a wide variety of authors from about 1860 onward, Outstanding exponents of the method during the period before 1914 were H. Spencer, E. B. Tylor, J. G. Frazer, E. S. Hartland, E. Westermarck, E. Crawley, and L. T. Hobhouse. More recent scholars who have employed similar procedures include R. Briffault, M. Eliade, and E. O. James. The technique rests on the notion that the development of human society has been analogous to the development of a human individual: primitive societies correspond to human infants, sophisticated societies to human adults. Whether a particular society is to be rated primitive or sophisticated can be judged by inspection. Just as human adults retain in their psychological make-up features which derive from childish experience, so also sophisticated societies retain “survivals” of primitive features. It is assumed that the objective of anthropology is to reconstruct a convincing picture of the early state of human society. Evidence for this primeval condition of mankind can be drawn either directly, from the observation of existing primitive societies, or indirectly, from the study of survivals persisting in contemporary sophisticated society. Since the anthropologist himself is the judge of what is primitive or sophisticated and since no clear distinction is drawn between myth and legend, on the one hand, and customary practice, on the other, almost any kind of ethnographic evidence can serve as illustrative evidence of hypothetical past social conditions.

Certain features are characteristic of all exponents of the comparative method among the earlier evolutionists. The practitioners displayed a prodigious range of erudition in that they were familiar with an extraordinary variety of ethnographic facts. This knowledge was derived exclusively from books. Very few of the writers concerned had first-hand knowledge of any particular primitive society. (Edward Westermarck, who had detailed knowledge of Morocco, is here the exception.) Each item of illustrative evidence was detached from its context and treated as directly comparable to any other. All varieties of evidence were considered uncritically: a detail mentioned by a classical author of the third century B.C. was given the same credibility as an item attributed to a sixteenth-century traveler, an eighteenth-century missionary, or a late nineteenth-century ethnographer. Evidence from myth was treated as the equivalent of fact.

The comparative method took no cognizance of quantitative factors or variations of scale. As Hartland put it, the objective was to “illustrate a great body of traditional philosophy, confined not to one race or country but common to mankind.” Also, the ethnographic evidence was always used to exemplify general propositions with the implication that such propositions are validated by an accumulation of positive evidence. Neutral or negative evidence was never considered. This procedure is logically fallacious. The exponents of the “comparative method” did not in fact prove anything by their comparisons, and if some of the works in question—such as Frazer’s Golden Bough—retain a certain residual attractiveness it is because of the exotic quality of the data rather than because of any intrinsic merit in the argument.

Culture history

From about 1890 onward the doctrines of the social evolutionists were gradually superseded by various forms of diffusionism. Evolutionists supposed that all human societies follow the same course of development: the occurrence of similar cultural features in different contexts of time and space was evidence for the standardization of human minds and a uniform capacity for invention. Diffusionists were disinclined to recognize invention at all; the geographical distribution of cultural traits was evidence for historical contact and dispersal by borrowing from a single original source. Historical reconstructions were elaborated from skilled exploitation of the theory of “survivals,” which had originated among the evolutionists. Work of this kind ranges from the grandiose world histories of the Kulturkreislehre (see e.g., Montandon 1934, p. 97) to the reconstructions of Californian Indian history developed by Kroeber and Driver (Culture … 1937–1950) on the basis of meticulous statistical analysis of trait distributions. The works of the Kulturkreislehre suffer from the same defects as those of the social evolutionists. A formidable apparatus of comparative ethnographic evidence was marshaled so as to illustrate a thesis developed a priori. Negative evidence was not usually considered, and there was little discrimination concerning the quality or context of evidential sources. As was to be expected, trait distribution studies have become increasingly sophisticated with the passage of time, and distinction now needs to be drawn between arguments about the diffusion of artifacts and those in which the traits under discussion are such ephemeral things as customs, rules, and items of belief. The relative plausibility of some of the diffusionist historical reconstructions advanced by prehistoric archeologists depends on the fact that since material objects are part of nature as well as part of culture we can reasonably expect them to conform to “natural” regularities. By contrast, if we treat the abstract aspects of culture as natural we shall merely deceive ourselves.

Statistical analysis of nonmaterial cultural data

Tylor (1889) was among the first to attempt a statistical correlation of social institutions based on cross-cultural data—in this case between motherin-law avoidance and certain other social conventions. A much more ambitious enterprise was that of Hobhouse, Wheeler, and Ginsberg (1915), which endeavored to establish an empirical correlation between basic modes of subsistence and the forms of social organization. These scholars classified 552 societies into lower hunters, higher hunters, dependent hunters, agricultural or pastoral on the first level, agricultural or pastoral on the second level, and agricultural on level three. They then developed a cross-cultural index that recorded for each “people” the presence or absence of such characteristics as types of legal sanction, mode of descent, patterns of residence, sexual conventions, treatment of women, modes of warfare, degree of social stratification. The Yale cross-cultural survey initiated by Murdock in 1937, which later developed into the Human Relations Area Files (Yale University … 1938; Moore 1961) and the Ethnographic Atlas of Ethnology, has greatly refined the procedures adopted by Hobhouse, Wheeler, and Ginsberg, but it remains a work of essentially the same kind and suffers from the same intrinsic defects, some of which have been pointed out in earlier sections of this article. The basic units of comparison, which are variously described as tribes, peoples, cultures, or societies, are treated as if they were naturally bounded and self-discriminating. They are investigated as if they were zoological pseudo species. The purpose of the analysis is to establish a taxonomy of culture species on Linnaean principles. Just as the classification of plants and animals throws light upon the sequences of evolution, so also a classification of societies according to their morphological characteristics will demonstrate laws of social evolutionary change. To accept this thesis it is necessary to believe not only that “societies” (“cultures” etc.) exist in nature just as “species,” but that the distinctive features of anthropological description (e.g., the contrast between the presence or absence of unilineal descent groups) are comparable to the distinctive features of biological description (e.g., the contrast between vertebrates and invertebrates). Those who reject this homology are likely to view the development of the Ethnographic Atlas with some dismay. The information recorded in this index is being coded to a numerical taxonomy, which will eventually make the whole apparatus directly accessible to computer analysis. This may seem splendidly up to date, but if the information which is being stored is defective in the first place the later application of statistical analysis, computerized or otherwise, will compound the confusion (e.g., Coult & Habenstein 1965).

Structural comparison (Radcliffe-Brown)

The classical comparative method, the diffusionist reconstructions of the cultural historians, and the various styles in cross-cultural statistical analysis all rested on the proposition that “a culture” (“a society,” etc.) is to be conceived of as an assemblage of traits which can be separately compared. Functionalist social anthropology rejects this view. Societies are systems which can be compared only as wholes. In Malinowski’s version of functionalism this wholeness was so comprehensive that all cross-cultural comparison became meaningless, but Radcliffe-Brown sought to discover universal sociological laws and was prepared to recognize that, for comparative purposes, the notion of functional totality could be raised to a somewhat abstract level. In this he followed Durkheim. A society must be analyzed as a system, not as a set of component parts, but the analyst may reduce his problem to manageable proportions by considering only one frame of reference at a time. It then becomes legitimate to compare the political system of society A with the political system of society B, or the kinship system of society A with the kinship system of society B, and so on. From this there might emerge certain general principles which can be applied to the analysis of politics or kinship everywhere. Although early work of this genre showed exaggerated optimism, it has achieved some notable successes. The procedure has not yielded general sociological laws, but close attention to details and patient step-by-step testing of limited hypotheses have led to genuinely increased insight into some particular aspects of human behavior. This style of comparison is most fruitful when all the societies under consideration share a common geographical environment and are broadly similar in scale and general culture (e.g., Radcliffe-Brown 1931; Eggan 1950; Schapera 1953).

Despite Radcliffe-Brown’s emphasis on the notion of system and occasions when he invoked comparison as a means to solving problems of philosophy and psychology (e.g., 1951), he remained firmly attached to the natural science analogy. He thought of social structure as part of the social system in much the same sense as the bony skeleton is part of the living mammal, and he supposed that anthropologists might compare whole societies just as zoologists can compare mammalian species. But a skeleton is a tangible reality; a social structure is not.

Structural comparison (Lévi-Strauss)

If we think of society as a communication system rather than as a natural phenomenon we are led to think of the products of culture as structured, just as the sentences of the language, if they are to be comprehensible, must conform to certain transformational rules but are not predetermined as to content. Two expressions which exemplify the same principles of grammar and syntax may not resemble each other at all in their overt form. If this analogy is exact, it should be possible and rewarding to compare the structure of cultural systems at a more abstract level. Lévi-Strauss insists that cultural systems are in fact used like languages; it is through culture that men are able to recognize the world of nature and the world of society as an ordered place with which they can come to terms. Kinship systems, political systems, and mythological systems are systems of classification invented by men. The structures they embody are logical structures which correspond to ordinary human faculties. The regularities which we may expect to find in them are not a part of nature outside man but a part of nature inside man. Linguistics and psychology rather than biology are the proper models for the inquiring anthropologist. Although an appreciation of existentialist philosophy may be necessary to understand Lévi-Strauss’s position, the idea which has been recurrent in all his work—that cultural systems may be comparable not merely because they are palpably similar but because they represent logical transformations of a common structural theme—is one which has added an important new dimension to contemporary anthropological thinking.

When anthropologists generalize they do so on the basis of cross-cultural comparison, but the rationale of their use of comparative data seldom bears close examination. Two main styles of argument may be distinguished. On the one hand, there are theories which presuppose a psychological unity among all mankind. Similarities of culture accordingly illustrate the fact that human beings faced with similar situations will react in the same way. On the other hand, there .are theories which presume the existence of social facts lying outside human control, even though they are governed by natural regularities as are the ordinary facts of physical experience. Here the point of cross-cultural comparison is to reach the autonomous world of social truth by eliminating the human variable. The present writer is inclined to share the skepticism voiced by Evans-Pritchard (1963). Cross-cultural comparison is an essential device for the exposition of anthropological argument, but it is not, and cannot be, a disguised form of scientific experiment leading to explanation. As Montesquieu once put it, “Man, as a physical being, is like other bodies, governed by invariable laws. As an intelligent being, he incessantly transgresses the laws established by God, and changes those which he himself has established” (Montesquieu [1750] 1949, p. 3).

Edmund R. Leach

[For different viewpoints, seeEthnology; Evolution, introductionand article oncultural evolution; history, article onculture history. Directly related are the entriesCulture; Diffusion; Functional analysis; Systems analysis.]


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Coult, Allan D.; and Habenstein, Robert W. 1965 Cross-tabulations of Murdock’s World Ethnographic Sample. Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press.

Culture Element Distributions. 1937–1950 California, University of, Anthropological Records 1, no. 1–9, no. 3.

Eggan, Fred 1950 Social Organization of the Western Pueblos. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Ethnology. → Published since 1962 under the editorship of George P. Murdock.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1963) 1965 The Comparative Method in Social Anthropology. L. T. Hobhouse Memorial Trust Lecture, 1963. Pages 13–36 in E. E. Evans-Pritchard, The Position of Women in Primitive Societies and Other Essays in Social Anthropology. London: Faber.

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Malinowski, Bronislaw 1944 A Scientific Theory of Culture and Other Essays. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

Montandon, George 1934 L’ologénèse culturelle: Traité d’ethnologie cycloculturelle et d’ergologie systématique. Paris: Payot.

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Powell, Henry A. 1957 An Analysis of Present Day Social Structure in the Trobriand Islands. Ph.D. dissertation, Univ. of London.

Radcliffe-brown, A. R. (1931) 1948 The Social Organization of Australian Tribes. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.

Radcliffe-brown, A. R. 1951 The Comparative Method in Social Anthropology. Huxley Memorial Lecture for 1951. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 81:15–22.

Schapera, I. 1953 Some Comments on Comparative Method in Social Anthropology. American Anthropologist New Series 55:353–362.

Tylor, Edward B. (1889) 1961 On a Method of Investigating the Development of Institutions: Applied to Laws of Marriage and Descent. Pages 1–28 in Frank W. Moore (editor), Readings in Cross-cultural Methodology. New Haven: Human Relations Area Files Press.

Yale University, Institute of Human Relations (1938) 1961 Outline of Cultural Materials. 4th ed., rev. New Haven: Human Relations Area Files.


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Anthropology is the study, analysis, and description of humanitys 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 humanitys 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.

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 individuals 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 peoples 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.


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 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 humanmade remains. Depending on ones 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 humanitys 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 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 subfields 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 peoples nutrition and health.

Linguistic Anthropology 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 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.

History. The earliest historical roots of cultural anthropology are in the writings of Herodotus (fifth century BCE), Marco Polo (c. 1254c. 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 Darwins 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. Morgans 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. Frazers 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 Morgans is now a permanent part of anthropology, being firmly established by Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942).

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 years 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 Boass 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 ones 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 peoples 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). Benedicts 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 bachelors, masters, 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 Lévi-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. Lévi-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 perspectiviescultural ecology and French structuralismare 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 (peoples 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, underly 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 materialisms 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 ones 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 peoples 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 ones 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 mans 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).


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 todays 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 womens 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 ones 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.


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 globallocal interactions and change over time, neither of which were part of cultural anthropologys 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 humanitys 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.

SEE ALSO AIDS; American Anthropological Association; Anthropology, Biological; Anthropology, British; Anthropology, Linguistic; Anthropology, Medical; Anthropology, Public; Anthropology, U.S.; Anthropology, Urban; Archaeology; Boas, Franz; Cold War; Colonialism; Cultural Relativism; Culture; Developing Countries; Ethnography; Ethnology and Folklore; Feminism; Geertz, Clifford; Globalization, Anthropological Aspects of; Observation, Participant; Poverty; Primates; Race and Anthropology; Social Science


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Barbara D. Miller


views updated May 14 2018


As an academic discipline, anthropology is somewhat less than two centuries old, but speculations, if not rigorous scientific theories, about where we human beings came from and how to account for the physical and cultural differences that distinguish our communities and nations from one another probably began during prehistory.

In the United States (but not in most other academic settings, for example, in Europe or Asia), the discipline is conventionally divided into four main subfields: biological (or physical) anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and sociocultural anthropology. The history and current state of each subfield will be discussed in this entry, as well as how they have influenced one another during the last two-hundred-odd years. Although they will be described separately, the four subfields form the logos of anthropos, the broad science that studies the human species.

The concept that unites these four subfields is culture. The earliest systematic formulation of the anthropological concept of culture was articulated by Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (18321917) in the first sentence of his pioneering book, Primitive Culture (1871): "Culture, or Civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is 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." This entry will use an updated version of Tylor's definition put forth by Daniel G. Bates and Elliot M. Fratkin: "Culture, broadly defined, is a system of shared beliefs, values, customs, and material objects that members of a society use to cope with their world and with one another, and that are transmitted from generation to generation through learning" (1999, p. 5). The work of biological anthropologists seeksamong other thingsto discover how, when, and why our remote ancestors evolved the physiological capacity for culture; archaeologists attempt to trace the evolution of culture and seek to reconstruct the nature of prehistoric (as well as historic and contemporary) cultures from the material objects they left behind; linguists describe the principal symbolic systemlanguagethrough which cultural learning occurs; and socio-cultural anthropologists are concerned with the nature of culture per se and the myriad factors that shaped (and continue to shape) its contemporary manifestations.

Biological Anthropology

The advent of geology and the study of fossil sequences in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by pioneer geologists such as James Hutton (17261797) and Sir Charles Lyell (17971875) who laid the groundwork for the study of human evolution. Two major events in the 1850s loom large in the history of this most basic of the subfields: (1) the accidental discovery in 1856 of the first premodern human being, the prototype of the Neanderthals, in a quarry near Düsseldorf, Germany, and (2) Charles Darwin's (18091882) theory of "natural selection," articulated in On the Origin of Species (1859). This theory gave scholars who wanted to study the course of human evolution systematically a theoretical framework for determining how one species evolved over time into another.

The human fossil evidence in Europe, and eventually throughout the Old World, from Africa to China and Indonesia, mounted rapidly, and by the early twentieth century anthropologists had developed several models of human evolution. At first, there appeared to have been two successive species of genus Homo: Homo sapiens, including all modern human beings as well as our immediate precursors, the Neanderthals, and the far older Pithecanthropus erectus, the earliest example of which was found near Solo on the island of Java in 1895. It had become clear that the human species was at least several hundred thousand years old. As the twentieth century unfolded, new and even older hominid fossils were discovered, primarily in Southern and Eastern Africa, and both the dates and descriptions of hominid evolution changed markedly. The 1925 discovery of Australopithecus africanus in South Africa by Raymond Dart (18931988) pushed the origin of the hominids back at least a million years and added a new, pre-Homo genus, Australopithecus, or "Southern Ape-Man."

It is impossible here to outline the sequence of major fossil discoveries in Africa and elsewhere that have been made since 1925. The names of anthropologists responsible for these finds include the late Louis S. B. Leakey (19031972) and Mary Leakey (19131996), who, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, discovered a number of extremely important protohominids at Olduvai Gorge in northeast Tanzania. In 1974 Donald Johanson discovered "Lucy," an extremely early Australopithecine that lived in what is now southeastern Ethiopia around 3.1 million years ago, the prototype of Australopithecus afarensis. In 1994 fossil evidence of an even older genus and species of protohominids, Ardipithecus ramidus, more than a million years older than "Lucy" (c. 4.5 million years old), was found in the same region of Africa, and in the last several years fossil fragments found in East Africa push the origin of hominids even farther back, perhaps as much as 5.5 million years. Moreover, it is now suspected that hominid bipedalism evolved as early as 4.5 to 5 million years ago; by freeing our forelimbs, it affected the evolution of the capacity for culture profoundly by enabling our ancestors to use and make tools.

Of course, this did not happen overnight. The earliest evidence for the presence of crude tools, again in East Africa, dates from around 2.5 million years ago. By this time, the earliest species of our genus, Homo habilis, had evolved, followed by Homo ergaster (c. 1.91.5 million years ago), and then Homo erectus, which dominated the Old World from c. 1.5 million to about 200,000 years ago, when it began to be replaced, at least in EuropeHomo erectus appears to have lingered longer in parts of Asiaby the Neanderthals. They, in turn, were eventually displaced by our own immediate ancestors, anatomically modern hominids (Homo sapiens ), who are now thought to have evolved around 130,000 years ago near the southern tip of Africa. By 27,000 years ago, Homo sapiens had replaced all other hominid species everywhere. Some biological anthropologists still subscribe to the "multiregional hypothesis" that human beings became "modern" simultaneously in several parts of the Old World, from Africa to Europe and East Asia about 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, but consensus in the profession supports the "out of Africa" model, strengthened by the absence of any evidence that Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA exists in modern European populations.

A significant element in this evolutionary journey was the development of our brains to the point that we were able not only to make crude stone tools but to envelope ourselves and the world around us in what cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz has called "webs of significance," the capacity for culture. At the same time, it has become abundantly clear that, since the emergence of anatomically modern hominids, no appreciable differences in the capacity for culture have emerged among the several modern human physical types, what are still sometimes erroneously called "races," and that the behavioral and technological differences that separate contemporary human communities are cultural rather than biological. One of the most important contributions of biological anthropology to general knowledge has been to dispel the pernicious myths of racial superiority and inferiority.

In addition to tracing the course of human evolution, many biological anthropologists specialize in the comparative study of chimpanzees (e.g., Jane Goodall), gorillas (e.g., the late Dian Fossey [19321985]), and other nonhuman primates, hoping to throw additional light on human behavior and the extent to which it is grounded in our primate heritage. Such studies provide a better understanding of the profound biological changes in our ancestors during the last five million years, changes that culminated in Homo sapiens.

While biological anthropology is best known for the study of ancient humans and other primates, other branches of the field also make significant contributions. Forensic anthropologists assist law enforcement agencies in gathering and interpreting evidence in cases of homicide, massacres, and genocides; other biological anthropologists study the interaction of culture and biology as it affects our health, longevity, and well-being. Such researchers work on a range of topics including the spread of AIDS (autoimmune deficiency syndrome) and other communicable diseases; the relationship between health and social problems such as poverty, racism, and inequality; stress and rapid social change; diet and maternal well-being; and the long-term effects of violence and warfare. There is a close relationship between this type of biologically focused anthropology and the work of medical anthropologists, cultural anthropologists who study the social contexts of medical practice.


Archaeology's roots lie in the early eighteenth century, when the landed gentry in Britain and elsewhere in Europe began to acquire stone, bronze, and iron implements for display, but it was not until late in that century that serious excavations began, largely inspired by discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Two major events in the 1830s moved the fledgling discipline of archaeology to a new level. One was Jacques Boucher de Perthes's (17881868) discovery in 1838, near Abbeville, France, of a crude lithic (stone) technology that predated the gentlemen's displayed objects by well over 100,000 years. The second was the Danish scholar Christian Thomsen's (17881865) articulation of the "three-age system"still a fundamental archaeological concept: the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages, which appeared in 1836 in the Catalogue of the Danish National Museum's collection (Thomsen was its first curator). Because stone artifacts typically came from the lowest levels of a trench or pit, while bronze objects came from the middle levels, and iron objects were typically found closest to the surface, Thomsen realized that this reflected a universal temporal sequence.

A generation later, in another important book, Prehistoric Times (1865), Sir John Lubbock (18341913), later Lord Avebury, not only coined the term prehistory, but also divided Thomsen's Stone Age into two successive stages, the Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, and the Neolithic, or New Stone Age. Subsequent archaeologists added the term Mesolithic to refer to the transitional period at the end of the Ice Age between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic, which saw the beginnings of settled life, agriculture, and animal husbandry.

By the early twentieth century, archaeology was an established scholarly discipline. In subsequent decades, archaeologists sought to discover sequences, or stages, in the evolution of culture per se and to reconstruct the trajectory of cultural development in specific regions, such as the ancient Near East, Mexico, the American Southwest, Peru, Africa, India, Oceania, East Asia, and Southeast Asia. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, a split occurred between processual and postprocessual archaeologists. Processual archaeology starts from the assumption that all human communities are themselves systems, and need to be viewed as such. Processual archaeologists are primarily concerned with the processes whereby ancient peoples adapted to their ecosystems, and how these processes changed over time as the ecosystems changed. Postprocessual archaeology, on the other hand, focuses on reconstructing the daily lives of the people who lived in prehistoric communities, how their societies were organized, the nature of their religious beliefs and worldviews, their socioeconomic hierarchies, and other elements of culture that sociocultural anthropologists study in living communities. Postprocessualists, for the most part, see themselves as cultural anthropologists who work with artifacts rather than living informants.

Out of processual and postprocessual archaeology have developed branches of contemporary archaeology: urban archaeology, which looks at the nature of urban life in premodern cities, and industrial archaeology, which attempts to reconstruct what life was like for the majority of people in early industrial towns in the Midlands of England, parts of New England, and elsewhere in the emerging industrial regions of Europe and America in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. A similar approach has been applied to reconstructing the lives of enslaved Africans and African-Americans on antebellum plantations in the Caribbean and the American South, as well as of African-Americans in the urban northeast.

Other trends in contemporary archaeology include a focus on the lives of women, ordinary people, and the poor, rather than the "great men" of history. Scientific developments that make it possible to recover detailed data about diet, farming systems, and other aspects of everyday life have provided the technical impetus for these new research areas. While the study of the most ancient manifestations of human culture, such as the rise of agriculture or the state, remains important to archaeologists, an increasing number have turned to historical projects in which documents and archives and working with historians complement the material remains retrieved during excavations. Such projects promise new insights into many aspects of human history, including medieval Europe, colonial Latin America, and early settlements in the United States.


Linguists study the primary medium by which culture is transmitted, language. The discipline of linguisticsat first called philologydates from approximately the same period that biological anthropology and archaeology began, the late eighteenth century. Sir William Jones (17461794), a jurist and student of Asian languages assigned to the British East India Company's outpost at modern-day Calcutta, is generally credited with founding the discipline. In 1786, in the course of a speech to the Bengal Asiatic Society, of which he was the founder and president, Jones outlined, for the first time, the family-tree model of linguistic relationships, focusing on what would soon be called the Indo-European language family.

Within a generation, comparative philology (now called historical, or diachronic, linguistics) was an established discipline. Scholars such as Jacob Grimm (17851863), Franz Bopp (17911867), and August Schleicher (18211868) had reconstructed what appeared to be the Proto-Indo-European lexicon. Eventually, other language families, such as Sino-Tibetan (Chinese, Tibetan, Thai, Burmese, etc.) and Hamito-Semtic (Ancient Egyptian, Hebrew, Babylonian, Arabic, and other Near Eastern languages), also began to be studied from this perspective. Franz Boas (18581942), in addition to being a pioneer sociocultural anthropologist, was also among the first to apply the comparative method to the study of Native American languages.

In the early decades of that century, thanks primarily to the efforts of a brilliant Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure (18571913), a new structural approach to the study of language emerged, one that emphasized synchronic studies rather than the historical focus that had dominated during the previous century. De Saussure made a basic distinction between what he called la langue, the basic rules that govern the grammar of a given language, and la parole, the specific speech patterns that occur at any given instant. The linguist's job is to elicit the nature of la langue by recording and analyzing examples of la parole. This approach soon led to two concepts that still dominate anthropological linguistics: the phoneme and morpheme. A phoneme is a minimal sound feature of a language that signals a difference in meaning; a morpheme is an ordered arrangement of such speech sounds that carries an indivisible meaning. Thus, the sounds represented by the English letters d, o, and g are phonemes, while the word dog is a morpheme. Combining the same phonemes in reverse order produces a wholly different morpheme, god. Structural linguists are also concerned with syntax, the arrangement of morphemes into phrases and sentences, and semantics, how meanings are structured by morphemes and their forms and their position and function in sentences. Grammar is the entirety of a language's phonological, morphological, syntactic, and semantic rules that enable humans to communicate and transmit culture.

In the course of the last few decades, linguists have debated the extent to which there are universal, innate features that form the fundamental structure of all human languages. The U.S. linguist Noam Chomsky has argued in favor of this proposition. In Syntactic Structures (1957), Chomsky suggested that all human beings have the innate ability to generate every possible sentence in their language. This approach to the study of language is called transformational-generative grammar (TG). However, not all linguists accept this model. A great many hold that, like culture, language is infinitely variable and that there are no proven universal features.

The relationship between language and culture has also been a major concern among linguists, especially anthropological linguists. Two pioneers in the study of this relationship were Edward Sapir (18841939) and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf (18971941), who suggested that there was an intrinsic connection between the fundamental features of a culture and the structure of its language. For example, as Whorf pointed out, the Hopi Indian language does not mark verb tense, a feature that Whorf said is reflected in the absence of a linear time concept in Hope culture. All events are intrinsically linked to one another, and life simply unfolds. Although by no means universally accepted by contemporary anthropologistssome critics object that his approach is tautological and that there is no evidence to support the priority of language over culturethe Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis continues to influence anthropological thinking.

Early in the twentieth century, after the publication of books such as Sapir's Language (1921) and Leonard Bloomfield's (18871949) book of the same title (1933), linguistics developed into a separate discipline dedicated to the scientific study of language, with connections to the related fields of cognitive science and cognitive psychology, as well as some aspects of computer science (artificial intelligence, machine translation), after the publication of Chomsky's Syntactic Structures. The development of TG grammar produced an explosion of research in both synchronic and diachronic linguistics that continues to extend our understanding of language and mind and how we communicate.

Anthropological linguistics exists as a separate but related discipline that emphasizes the relationship between language and culture, but adopts a more holistic and, often, humanistic approach than, for example, cognitive psychology. Anthropological linguists study a variety of language practices, ranging from the relationship between language and music within specific cultures to children's use of language in play. A major focus that distinguishes linguistic anthropology from other branches of linguistics is its focus on questions of politics, power, and social inequality, as these aspects of culture affect language. The study of language ideologies emphasizes the different statuses of certain language practices, in contexts ranging from a bank officer turning down a loan applicant, to political speeches, to bilingual and bicultural contexts (for example, the study of "Spanglish," forms of language developed by Americans who speak both Spanish and English), to the controversies about varieties of English spoken by African Americans.

Sociocultural Anthropology

Sociocultural anthropology, the subfield concerned with culture per se, especially in its many contemporary ethnographic manifestations, commands the attention of the majority of professional anthropologists. Although there are some excellent examples of ethnographic description in antiquityHerodotus's (484?425 b.c.e.) account of the ancient Scythians in Book 4 of his History (c. 440 b.c.e.) and Cornelius Tacitus's (55? b.c.e.after 117 c.e.) detailed account of ancient Germanic-speaking culture, Germania (c. 98 c.e.)like the other principal subfields of anthropology, sociocultural anthropology began to take shape in the early nineteenth century and is closely linked to colonialism. As Europeans (or people of European heritage) expanded into India, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Oceania, as well as across North America, they found themselves confrontingand eventually dominatingwhat they called "primitive" cultures. These encounters led to two fundamental questions that dominate anthropology: (1) Why do cultures differ? and (2) Why are some cultures technologically "simple" societies, while others developed more complex, technologically sophisticated societies? Accounting for the differences found among cultures is problematic. For example, while, in some regions, humans live in small-scale societies with very basic technologies and low population densitieswhat early anthropologists, influenced by colonialism and scientific racism, called "primitive"in other places, such as the Valley of Mexico, people began millennia ago to develop complex, energy-intensive agricultural technologies that enabled them to congregate in great numbers, build enormous cities and finance the construction of elaborate buildings and works of art, and, in general, to develop what are called "civilizations."

This second question has especially been the province of archaeologists, but it underlies cultural anthropology as well. At its best, cultural anthropology has steadfastly argued for the value of the small-scale and the more environmentally wise "primitive" as culturally significant. At its worst, it has functioned as the "handmaiden of imperialism," either overtly, as when British anthropologists worked for the colonial enterprise in Africa, or indirectly, as purveyors of "exotica" that reinforce the prejudices of urbanites and racial elites regarding the "savagery" of foreigners or of native populations and minorities closer to home.

It is thus no accident that the first great theoretical paradigm in sociocultural anthropology was unilineal evolutionism, the idea that all cultures can be ranked along a grand scale that culminated, of course, with nineteenth-century European and American industrial civilization, the "best of all possible worlds." Darwin's The Origin of Species reinforced this approach to the assessment of cultural differences, in particular the concept of "natural selection." Unilineal evolutionism was predicated on two fundamental axioms: (1) the idea of progress, that the direction of cultural evolution is everywhere from "primitive" to "civilized" and (2) the idea of psychic unity, that all human beings, irrespective of their environment or specific history, will necessarily think the same thoughts and, therefore, progress through the same series of evolutionary stages. Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, who was the first anthropologist to define the concept of culture, was a major contributor to unilineal evolutionism, suggesting a three-stage model for the evolution of religion: animism (a belief that all phenomena are "animated" by unique spirit beings), polytheism, and monotheism, which, he held, is a prime characteristic of advanced civilizations.

The most influential unilineal evolutionist was Lewis Henry Morgan (18181881), a successful American lawyer who practiced anthropology as an avocation. In Ancient Society (1877), Morgan posited a three-stage model for the evolution of culture: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. The first two stages, which he labeled, collectively, societas (society), as opposed to civitas (civilization), were each subdivided into three successive substages: lower, middle, and upper. His prime criterion for assigning cultures to one or another of these stages was the character and complexity of their technology. Because they lacked the bow and arrow, a prime technological criterion, Morgan assigned the ancient Hawaiians to "Middle Savagery," despite the fact that they practiced agriculture and had a highly complex social organization.

Although Morgan's emphasis on material culturetools, weapons, and other artifactshad a significant influence on a later school of sociocultural anthropology, cultural materialism, he also pioneered the study of kinship systems. By the 1890s, however, the unilineal evolutionists' rigid adherence to paradigms based on incomplete and questionable ethnographic data (largely collected by missionaries, traders, colonial administrators, and so forth) was called into question by a new generation of anthropologists who had spent time in the field. (Most of the unilineal evolutionists were "armchair scholars," although both Tylor and Morgan did have some field experience in their youth, the former in Mexico and the latter among the Seneca, an Iroquois tribe that lived near his home in up-state New York.)

In the United States, the chief critic of what was then called the comparative method in anthropology was Franz Boas, the most influential American anthropologist. A rigorous, scientifically trained German-born scholar, he later switched to anthropology and did extensive fieldwork among the Baffin Island (Canada) Eskimo (or Inuit), as well as the Native Americans of British Columbia. He and other critics of the unilineal approach, many of whom were his students, such as Alfred Louis Kroeber (18761960) and Robert Lowie (18831957), also called into question unilinealism's fundamental axioms, seriously questioning whether "progress" was in fact universal or lineal and whether it was possible to rank all human cultures according to a single evolutionary scheme. Finally, the Boasians attacked the concept of "psychic unity," suggesting that all cultures are inherently different from one another and that they should be assessed on their own merits and not comparatively. This approach, which stressed empirical field research over "armchair" theorizing, came to be known as historical particularism, and emphasized cultural relativism and diffusion rather than rigid evolutionary sequences. Anthropologists were enjoined to reconstruct the culture-history of particular tribes and societies, but not the evolution of culture per se. Emphasis was also placed on what has been called "salvage ethnography," gathering ethnographic data before the simpler cultures of the world were overwhelmed by Western culture.

Boas left another important legacy: his work as a public intellectual who used his scholarly knowledge to educate the American public about racial equality. For Boas, who had experienced anti-Semitism in his native Germany, this kind of work on the part of intellectuals was crucial if America was to realize its democratic ideals. He inspired many of his students, including Ruth Benedict (18871948) and Margaret Mead (19011978), to their own forms of public work by his example. He also influenced several important African and Native American intellectuals who left anthropology for other pursuits, most notably the novelist Zora Neale Hurston (18911960), as well as the Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre (19001987), who credits Boas's influence in the preface to his controversial books on race in Brazilian culture.

In Britain, the empirical reaction to Morgan, Tylor, and their colleagues took a different turn. Most early-twentieth-century British anthropologists, such as Bronislaw K. Malinowski (18841942), a Polish scholar who immigrated to England to complete his studies, and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (18811955), were largely ahistorical; that is, they advocated a structuralfunctional, rather than historical, approach to the study of cultures. Their emphasis was primarily, if not in some cases wholly, on the here and now, on the social organization of living human communities and how the elements thereof were functionally interrelated to form integrated wholes. Malinowski, who spent four years (19151918) studying the culture of the Trobriand Islanders (near New Guinea), also focused on how social institutions function to serve basic human needs, such as shelter, reproduction, and nourishment. Radcliffe-Brown, who did field work in the Andaman Islands, South Africa, and Australia, drew liberally on the ideas of the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (18581917) in his attempts to discover what he called the "social laws" and "structural principles" that govern social organization everywhere. Among them, Boas, Malinowski, and Radcliffe-Brown trained or influenced at least two generations of sociocultural anthropologists on both sides of the Atlantic, from the early 1900s to the threshold of World War II, and, in Radcliffe-Brown's case, for a decade afterward as well.

However, beginning in the late 1930s, a reaction to the essentially antitheoretical stance of the Boasians began to take shape, based on the assumption that all cultures are necessarily adapted to the ecological circumstances in which they exist. The leading advocate of "cultural ecology" was Julian H. Steward (19021972), whose book Theory of Culture Change (1955) had a major impact on the discipline. Other scholars, such as Leslie A. White (19001975) and British archaeologist V. Gordon Childe (18921957), drawing on the Marxist assumption that the "means of production" is everywhere crucial in determining the nature of society, emphasized the primacy of material culture. (Indeed, White consistently described himself as a disciple of Lewis Henry Morgan, whose work had, in turn, influenced Marx's collaborator Friedrich Engels [18201895].) These early "neo-evolutionists" of the mid-twentieth century all acknowledged a debt to Marx, but the new materialism in anthropology soon split into two camps: one that emphasized historical materialism, political economy, and the study of imperialism and inequality, and another that repudiated Marx and focused on questions of ecological adaptation and evolution. The former include Eric Wolf, Sidney Mintz, Eleanor Leacock, and John Murra. Mintz's study of the history of sugar and Wolf's timely comparative project on Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century (1999), published in response to U.S. involvement in Vietnam, remain two classic studies from this school. Among the anti-Marxists, the best-known is the late Marvin R. Harris, whose provocative books for the general public argue that apparently "irrational" religious behavior, such as the Hindu refusal to eat meat or Jewish dietary law, can be attributed to biological needs unknown to practitioners.

Neo-evolutionism was not the only post-Boasian development in sociocultural anthropology. Also in the late 1930s, a number of American anthropologists, among them Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Ralph Linton, drew selectively on Freud and other early twentieth-century psychologists and developed the "culture and personality" school, which emphasized the interface among individual personalities and the cultures they share, as well as the "infant disciplines"weaning and toilet trainingand their effects on both the formation of individual personality structures and the nature of particular cultures. Early and harsh toilet training was held to produce "anal" personalities and authoritarian cultures, whereas relaxed attitudes toward sphincter control and related processes produce relaxed social systems. At the start of the twenty-first century this school has few proponents, but psychological anthropology remains a recognized branch of sociocultural anthropology.

In the 1950s, linguistics began to influence an increasing number of anthropologists. If the cultural ecologists and materialists had come to conceive of culture as essentially an adaptive system, their linguistically oriented colleagues were concerned with cognitive systems and shared symbols, with how people attach meaning to the world around them. Initially known as "ethnoscience," this approach has come to be called "cognitive anthropology." Closely related to it are two other approaches also concerned with meaning. One of them, closely identified with the eminent French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, is structuralism. Extremely influential outside of anthropology, especially in France, this school focused on underlying structures of thought based on binary oppositions, like the binary mathematical code used by computers. From simple pairs such as hot / cold or up / down, cultures construct elaborate systems of myth and meaning that shape everything from cooking to kinship, as well as providing answers to questions about life and death. When initially published, his partially autobiographical Tristes tropiques (1955; The sad tropics) in which he recounts his flight from Nazi Germany to find refuge among the tribes of Amazonian Brazil, was perhaps more influential than his dense and difficult works of structural analysis. Later, however, it was criticized for its portrayal of Native Americans as seemingly "outside of history."

In America, a different school of anthropology, "symbolic anthropology," would ultimately prove more influential than structuralism. This approach, which draws on the same linguistic and cognitive models as structuralism, emphasizes emotion and affect in addition to cognition, and looks back to traditional anthropological studies of magico-religious belief systems, especially Durkheim's work. Among the more important contributors to symbolic anthropology have been the British scholars Victor W. Turner and Mary Douglas, and the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Turner's study of the multivalent symbolic meanings of the "milk-tree" in the life of the Ndembu of northwestern Zambiaits milklike sap stands for everything from semen to mothers' milkremains a classic. In it, he borrows from Arnold van Gennep's (18731957) classic work, Les rites de passage (1909; The Rites of Passage), the concept of the "transition" stage in a rite of passage, which Turner rechristened "liminality." Douglas studied the symbolic opposition between what she calls "purity and danger," as exemplified in her brilliant analysis of the food taboos in the Old Testament, which, she argues, reflect a fear of anomalous animals, like the pig, which is neither a browser nor a ruminant. Geertz, who has done extensive fieldwork in Indonesia and Morocco, is famous for his in-depth analysis of the symbolism of cockfighting in Bali, as well as for the concept of "webs of significance," the idea that all human beings are necessarily bound together by intricate symbolic "webs" in terms of which they collectively confront external reality.

In the last two decades, sociocultural anthropology has seen the emergence of the "post-isms": postcolonialism, which examines the impact of neoliberal capitalism on recently decolonized states; poststructuralism, which critiques the work of Lévi-Strauss and other classic structuralists; and, most importantly, postmodernism, a manifestation of a broader intellectual movement in architecture, literature, cinema, and the arts predicated in fair measure on the theories of French scholars Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. Postmodernists question the validity of externally imposed orders, as well as linear analysis and "essentialist" interpretations, and assert that anthropologists should "deconstruct" the cultures they are attempting to understand. Moreover, postmodern ethnographies often focus as much on the ethnographers as they do the communities they have studied, as any cultural account must necessarily include the impact of the investigator on the investigated, and vice versa. This element in postmodernism has been criticized a great deal, especially by materialists such as Sidney Mintz. Among the more prominent postmodernist anthropologists are Stephen A. Tyler, Vincent Crapanzano, and James A. Boon.

In recent years, sociocultural anthropologistsfrom a variety of perspectiveshave been concerned with globalization, transnational communities, such as the African, Indian, and Chinese diasporas, and borderlands, in which the inhabitants freely share culture traits that are otherwise, for the most part, extremely different and seemingly contradictory and integrate them into new, "hybrid" cultures. There has also been increased concern with feminism, especially what has been labeled "third-wave feminism," and with the heretofore often neglected roles women play in shaping cultural norms, as well as the inequality that persists almost everywhere between the sexes. Finally, gay and lesbian, as well as transsexual, studies form a significant element of contemporary sociocultural anthropology, leading to a major reassessment of the concept of "gender" and the extent to which it is socially constructed rather than innate.

This brief overview of the history and current state of the discipline of anthropology, primarily in the United States, has necessarily omitted mention of many specific developments and schools of thought, for example, the Kulturkreis, or "culture-circle" school, centered on Father Wilhelm Schmidt (18681954), that took shape in Vienna in the early years of the last century; the impact of Sir James G. Frazer's (18541941) The Golden Bough (1890), which seduced Malinowski into completing his studies in England; and the single-diffusionist ideas of G. Elliot Smith (18711937). A great many important contributors, to say nothing of specific topical and regional specialties, such as urban anthropology, esthetic anthropology, East Asian anthropology, African anthropology, and so on, have been slighted. Nevertheless, this discussion provides a general description of what anthropology, in its several major dimensions, is about, how it got that way, and the overwhelming importance of the concept of culture to the discipline.

See also Diffusion, Cultural ; Ethnography ; Eurocentrism ; Gender Studies: Anthropology ; Interdisciplinarity ; Kinship ; Language and Linguistics ; Oral Traditions ; Prehistory, Rise of ; Structuralism and Poststructuralism: Anthropology .


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C. Scott Littleton


views updated May 08 2018


ANTHROPOLOGY , literally "an account of man," is the comparative study of human societies and cultures. Anthropology has four major subfields: *archaeology, the study of past cultures through an examination of material remains; biological (physical) anthropology, the study of humankind from a biological and evolutionary perspective; cultural anthropology, the study of contemporary cultures and societies and the study of human behavior that is learned rather than genetically transmitted; and linguistic anthropology, the study of human languages and the relationship between culture and communication. Due to the diversity of its subfields and the various approaches to its study, anthropology is variously considered a science, a social science, or a part of the humanities. Anthropology as a field of study in universities began in the latter part of the 19th century. Jews played a significant role in the founding and development of cultural anthropology. An early Jewish name in anthropology is that of the Frenchman, Marcel *Mauss (1872–1950), who became the leading figure in French sociology after his uncle, Emile *Durkheim, a sociologist by training who was a powerful influence in anthropology. He helped Durkheim in the establishment of the journal L'Année Sociologique and contributed important articles to it. Mauss' main interest was in comparative religion or the sociology of religion. His most influential work is The Gift, written in 1925, which focused on his theory of "gift exchange" and explored the religious, legal, economic, mythological, and other aspects of giving, receiving, and repaying in different cultures. Another French Jew and a colleague of Durkheim's at the Sorbonne was Lucien *Lévy-Bruhl (1857–1939) who wrote a series of ethnological works on various aspects of preliterate culture, the purpose of which was to demonstrate the nature of "primitive" mentality or "how natives think." In his post-humously published notebooks, he retracted his evolutionary interpretation of native thought. He came to realize that so-called prelogical thought was not limited to preliterate societies but was rather characteristic of human thought which did not exclude logical thought to meet the practical demands of the natural environment. Lévy-Bruhl's interpretation of native thought was especially influential in the fields of literary and art criticism.

The most influential Jewish anthropologist was Franz *Boas, who played a key role in the establishment of anthropology as an academic discipline in the United States. Popularly considered to be the "father of American anthropology," Boas trained most of the first generation of American anthropologists including Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. Boas was born in Germany in 1858, moved to the United States in 1886, and became professor of anthropology at Columbia (New York City) in 1899. He did extensive field research in North America rather than "armchair" anthropology and helped to make "fieldwork" a hallmark of anthropology. His theory of Historical Particularism stresses the biological and "psychic unity" of man and explains cultural diversity by appealing to specific culture histories and environments. He rejected the theories of the 19th-century cultural evolutionists and instead introduced the concept of cultural relativism which holds that cultures cannot be evaluated on an evolutionary scale. Cultures are equal and cultural characteristics should be examined in relation to the culture in which they are found. His "Limitations of the Comparative Method of Anthropology" was the first exposition of cultural relativism, a concept that continues to be a powerful concept in anthropology. With the rise of Hitler, Boas spoke out forcefully against racism and intolerance and wrote and lectured widely in opposition to the Nazis. Boas trained many outstanding American teachers and researchers in anthropology. Most of his students specialized in cultural anthropology, though a few became linguists, physical anthropologists, and archaeologists. One of his disciples, Robert H. *Lowie, was one of the best ethnographers and ethnologists of his day and did extensive field work among a great variety of Indian tribes. Another of Boas' pupils, Alexander A. *Goldenweiser, was not interested in field work and made only one trip to the Northern Iroquois of Canada. His major interest was in social theory and in theoretical aspects of ethnology, such as issues related to totemism, evolution, diffusion, and culture history. He was a significant figure in the development of anthropological thought in America during the first quarter of the 20th century. Leslie *Spier was also deeply influenced by Boas' canons of scientific method and the conviction that the understanding of culture depended upon an inquiry into historical antecedents. In his extensive writing he manifested his belief in the essential unity of anthropology as a general science of humankind. Edward *Sapir was perhaps the most creative and brilliant of Boas' students. He did major linguistic and ethnographic work among the Indians of the Canadian Northwest and Vancouver Island. Toward the end of his life he became interested in the ethnological and linguistic study of the Talmud. The research of Paul Radin, who was also a student of Boas, lay predominantly in ethnology, and within this area, in religion and mythology. His principal field work was done among the Winnebago Indians of Wisconsin. Melville J. *Herskovits completed his doctorate under Boas with a dissertation on "The Cattle Complex in East Africa." He was the recognized dean of African studies in the United States and trained most of the Africanists in that country. He made Northwestern University virtually the center of African studies in the United States and stimulated widespread interest in Africa among American anthropologists. Ruth *Bunzel (1898–1990), among the earliest of American Jewish women to receive a doctorate in anthropology (1929), worked as a secretary for Boas. With the encouragement of Boas and Ruth Benedict, Bunzel received her Ph.D. from Columbia, where she later taught. Her many books, including The Pueblo Potter (1929) and Zuni (1935), focused on Zuni ceremonialism. Another student of Boas and Benedict was Ruth *Landes (1903–1991). The daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, Landes did pioneering work on race and gender, issues that define central current concerns in anthropology. Her field research among the Ojibwa resulted in her masterpiece study, The Ojibwa Woman (1938). Her field research in Brazil resulted in her landmark The City of Women (1947).

In Britain, Jews have played a role predominately in social/cultural anthropology. Meyer *Fortes (1906–1983), professor of social anthropology at Cambridge University, immigrated to England from South Africa. He worked among the Tallensi and Ashanti in Africa and his major contributions were in lineage theory, studies of religion, and ancestor worship. His 1940 seminal work (with Evans-Pritchard), African Political Systems, influenced a generation of anthropologists. Max *Gluckman also went to England from South Africa, where he had done a great deal of field work among the Zulu and Barotse of Africa and shorter surveys of Rhodesian tribes. Gluckman was a political activist. Publicly anti-colonial, he wrote and lectured about the abuses of colonialism and racism. A.L. Epstein did research on problems of urbanization and social change in emerging urban communities in Northern Rhodesia, Central Africa, and Melanesia. Maurice Freedman specialized in the social anthropology of Southeast Asia and China. Hortense *Powdermaker (1896–1970), although born and raised in the U.S., studied anthropology at the London School of Economics with the influential Bronislaw Malinowski, receiving her Ph.D. in 1928. Her books include Life in Lesu (1933), After Freedom (1939), Copper Town (1962), and Stranger and Friend: The Way of an Anthropologist (1966).

Claude *Lévi-Strauss, born in 1908 in Brussels, was the most distinguished social anthropologist in 20th-century France. His most original and significant contribution is his theory of structural anthropology which is heavily influenced by linguistics and assumes that the most effective way to understand human societies is to investigate the structures, rather than the content, of its organization. Among his strongest early influences were Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. His The Elementary Structures of Kinship, published in 1949, quickly came to be regarded as one of the most important works on anthropological kinships. Lévi-Strauss was elected to the Académie Française in 1973, France's highest honor for academics and intellectuals. He was a prolific writer and his works include Tristes Tropiques (1955), The Savage Mind (1962), Totemism (1962), Structural Anthropology, (2 vol., 1958–73), The Raw and the Cooked (1964), From Honey to Ashes (1967), The Origin of Table Manners (1968), The Naked Man (1971), The View from Afar (1983), and The Jealous Potter (1985).

Other Jewish anthropologists of France included Paul Levy, who was director of studies at Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (Sorbonne) and specialized in the culture of India and Southeast Asia. David Cohen was attaché, Centre National de la Récherche Scientifique in Paris. He specialized in the social anthropology of North Africa and the Near East. Marcel *Cohen was honorary professor at the École des Langues Orientales in the Sorbonne and was an authority on Ethiopian and Hamito-Semitic linguistics. Simone Dreyfus was also connected with the Centre National de la Récherche Scientifique in Paris and pursued research in ethnomusicology and among the Indians of Brazil.

In East Germany, Heinz Israel was connected with the Museum fuer Voelkerkunde of Dresden. He was a specialist on the ethnology and archaeology of the circumpolar peoples, especially the Eskimo of Canada, Alaska, and the peoples of North Siberia.

Robert Heine-Geldern taught ethnology, prehistory, and art history of Asia at the University of Vienna. His main publications dealt with ethnology, archaeology, and the art of Southeast Asia and Oceania. He was especially concerned with problems of ancient Asiatic influences on America.

In Soviet Russia, M.G. Levin was deputy director of the Institute of Ethnography of the Academy of Sciences and head of its section for physical anthropology. He co-edited with L.P. Potapov the monumental Historical and Ethnographic Atlas of Siberia (Russ., 1961). He authored Principles of Physical Anthropology (Russ., 1955) and Ethnic Origins of the Peoples of Northeastern Asia (Engl., 1963) and was one of the editors and principal authors of Peoples of Siberia (Russ., 1956).

In South Africa, Phillip V. *Tobias specialized in physical anthropology and prehistory and was closely associated with L.S.B. Leakey in connection with the discoveries of fossil man in Tanganyika.

Moshe *Stekelis taught prehistoric archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He carried out extensive and important field research on the prehistoric archaeology of Israel. Henry Rosenfeld, who also taught at the Hebrew University, did research on the Bedouin and on village and urban Arabs.

Among Jewish psychoanalysts in the United States who have taken an active role in promoting the integration of psychology and cultural anthropology, Géza *Róheim, Abram *Kardiner, Theodor *Reik, and Erich *Fromm distinguished themselves. Modern studies of personality and culture owe much to their pioneering research. Róheim's The Eternal Ones of the Dream (1945) was a psychoanalytical interpretation of the origin and meaning of Australian myths and rituals. Abram Kardiner's The Individual and His Society (1939) was a pioneer theoretical analysis of the relation of the individual to his culture from a psychological point of view. Reik wrote works on the psychoanalytical interpretations of myths and rituals. Erich Fromm discussed the relation of psychology to current problems of religion and ethics. Fromm, in particular, was concerned with the problem of freedom and responsibility and the hard facts of individual alienation in contemporary culture. Marvin K. Opler published Culture, Psychiatry and Human Values (1956), which treated personality differences in various cultures. Iago Galdston edited and participated in a series of symposia on the interrelations of medicine and anthropology.

Among contemporary Jewish cultural anthropologists in America, Sol *Tax was president of the American Anthropological Association. David Bidney of Indiana University published Theoretical Anthropology (1953), which was a pioneer work dedicated to basic theory in the history of anthropological thought. Morris Opler of Cornell University was president of the American Anthropological Association and did extensive field work among North American Indians and in rural India.

Harry L. *Shapiro was chairman of the department of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History and professor of anthropology at Columbia University.

Alexander Spoehr of the University of Pittsburgh was another Jew who served as president of the American Anthropological Association.

Oscar *Lewis published studies of life in a Mexican village, in northern India, and of a family in Puerto Rico and New York. Barbara *Myerhoff (1935–1985) was a renowned scholar, popular professor, prolific writer, and filmmaker, whose influences extended beyond the academy. Her works include Peyote Hunt (1974), Number Our Days (1978), and the autobiographical film In Her Own Time (1985). Sherry Ortner (1941– ) of Columbia University has focused her work among the Sherpa people of Nepal and, more recently, in the United States. She helped establish the sub-discipline of feminist anthropology and has made significant contributions to social, cultural, and feminist theory. She is a prolific writer whose works include Sherpas Through Their Rituals (1978), Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture (1996), Life and Death on Mt. Everest: Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering (1999), and New Jersey Dreaming: Capital, Culture and the Class of '58 (2003).

Jules Henry of Washington University in St. Louis published Culture Against Man (1963), a critical analysis of contemporary American culture with special reference to the interconnections among American institutions, values, and personal character among adolescents. Melville Jacobs taught anthropology at the University of Washington in Seattle. He specialized in the folklore of the North American Indians.

In the field of anthropological linguistics there was a distinguished group of Jewish scholars. Joseph Greenberg, of Stanford University, specialized in the linguistics of African peoples and wrote numerous articles on linguistic theory. Zellig S. Harris of the University of Pennsylvania published Methods in Structural Linguistics (1951). Stanley Newman of the University of New Mexico specialized in the languages of North American Indians. George L. Trager of the University of Buffalo was a well-known specialist in American Indian languages. Wolf Leslau, professor of Semitic and Ethiopic linguistics at the University of California at Los Angeles, did field research in Ethiopia. Roman Jakobson of Harvard University was the recognized dean of contemporary linguists in America and was a distinguished authority on Russian language and folk literature.

M.F. Ashley *Montagu was a prolific writer who did much to popularize anthropology in the English-speaking world. While specializing in physical anthropology, he also published a number of popular books on cultural anthropology.

Raphael *Patai published a number of ethnological works on the Near East. James S. Slotkin (d. 1958) was professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago. His study of Peyote religion was the result of active participation in the native Indian church. Rena Lederman of Columbia University does research in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, focusing on the political economy of gift exchange, on inequality and leadership, on gender roles and ideologies. Her books include What Gifts Engender (1986). Karin Brodkin of ucla explores gender, race, work, kinship, and migration in contemporary North American Jews. Her book, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America (1999), examines the relationships among Jewishness, gender, and class in the structuring of social identity. Riv-Ellen Prell's research also focuses on Jews in the U.S., with an emphasis on community, gender relations, and religious life. She is the author of Fighting to Become Americans: Jews, Gender and the Anxiety of Assimilation (1999) and Prayer and Community: The Havura in American Judaism (1989). Ruth Behar of the University of Michigan was born in Havana, Cuba. She has explored her Jewish identity and its relationship with her anthropological research. She is a prolific writer, essayist, poet, and filmmaker. Among her best-known works are Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza's Story (2003) and The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart (1997). Sandra Morgen is professor of anthropology at the University of Oregon. Her books include Into Our Own Hands: The Women's Health Movement in the U.S. 1969–1990 (2002).

[David Bidney /

Diane Baxter (2nd ed.)]


views updated May 14 2018


Anthropology, a social science discipline, explores the multifaceted dimensions of human civilizations and is central to the modern way of understanding sex and gender in contemporary societies. During the nineteenth century, anthropology began to emerge as a separate academic discipline. By the mid-nineteenth century, social evolutionists argued that societies had evolved from the simple to the complex and from the chaotic to the orderly. Progress in society was desired, so simpler societies were seen as inferior. The most well-known evolutionary scheme used by social evolutionists, such as Edward Burnett Tylor (1832–1917), Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), and Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–1881), classified and ranked societies according to whether they existed in a primitive state or whether they had become civilized over time by virtue of the survival of the fittest. The evolutionary explanation was invoked to rationalize women's exclusion from the public realm and their subordinate position to men in Western society. Biological necessities rendered women physically and intellectually inferior to men. Male dominance was seen to have evolutionary origins grounded in the biological differences between the sexes.


By the beginning of the twentieth century, social evolutionary explanations of human social organization were replaced by the functionalist orientation, a leading school of thought in British anthropology. The functionalist orientation, espoused by Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), Bronisław Malinowski (1884–1942), and Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown (1881–1955), viewed a society as a bounded whole with all of its practices and institutions working together harmoniously to fulfill individual needs or to sustain the society, and to ensure its continued existence over time. Although this approach to studying human behavior differed from social evolutionism, arguments about gender roles had not significantly changed. Edward E. Evans-Pritchard (1902–1973), a leading British functionalist, saw the differences between men and women to be based on "deep biological and psychological factors" (1965, p. 55). Anthropologists who used the functionalist point of view assumed that both women's exclusion from the public realm and male dominance were natural and necessary.


American anthropology, when it established itself as a primary field of academic study, heavily emphasized culture instead of society. Therefore the two best known female anthropologists in the early twentieth century, Margaret Mead (1901–1978) and Ruth Benedict (1887–1948), focused on culture and personality. They both wrote about the crosscultural malleability of "natural" sex roles. Theoretical movements from the 1920s through to the 1960s ignored or naturalized sexual difference.

The early twentieth century brought about a rejection of generalizing theories such as social evolutionism and a desire for more critical systematic examination. Mead and Benedict, early pioneers in American anthropology, made significant contributions to the cross-cultural study of gender by using sophisticated ethnography and rigorous methodology. Mead was one of the first to discredit unsophisticated claims about the biological causes of sex differences with ethnographies, such as Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), about adolescent girls. She argued that individuals are born with the potential to develop whatever gender role society dictates. Mead and Benedict wrote about the cross-cultural malleability of "natural" sex roles. It was during this period of anthropological study up to the 1930s when cultural studies assumed that male dominance was natural and ignored sexual differences. Anthropologists such as Mead, Elizabeth Fernea, Susan Carol Rogers, and Annette Weiner claimed that the women being studied often enjoyed a higher status within their culture than was originally recorded, sometimes even higher than that of Western women. Mead's ethnography titled Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935) claimed that women in the Chambri tribe of Papua New Guinea were dominant with no specific effects on their society. This book became a cornerstone for the women's liberation movement. These figure's works, however, were not considered central to anthropology until feminist anthropologists of the 1970s established gender as pivotal to anthropological concerns.

Beginning in the 1950s an increasing part of academic literature and public discourse began using the term gender for the self-identified masculinity or femininity of a person. John Money first used the term in this context in 1955. In the late 1960s, the theory that the division of labor was based on sex/gender was put forward. Sherwood Washburn and Chet Lancaster (1968) advanced the "man-the-hunter" model of human evolution, stating that biology, psychology, and customs were what separated humans from apes. This model was used to explain gender roles, a biased model presuming that behaviors exclusive to men resulted in the evolution of all that is considered uniquely human. Sally Slocum (1975) seriously critiqued this model as problematic in its assumptions that emphasized hunting as the prime motivator in human evolution. The works of feminist archeologists such as Margaret Conkey and Janet Spector (1984) and Joan Gero (1985) have furthered Slocum's pioneering work by calling into question the traditional assumptions about prehistoric gender roles and pointing to the complexities involved in reconstructing gender relations in past societies.

Second-wave feminist Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986), in The Second Sex (1949), argued that woman is the essential "other" to the male "self": "woman is made, not born," which both reinforces and reflects male power. Her social constructionism helped create the sex/gender dichotomy. Betty Friedan (1921–2006), in her best-selling book The Feminine Mystique (1963), was influential in igniting many women's awareness of inequality through the societal definitions of gender roles that restricted women to the home. Over the next few decades, North American society was questioned in terms of its assumptions about the biological differences between men and women that limited women's prospects. The discipline of anthropology, which had traditionally ignored the importance of gender, began to recognize its negligence regarding women in traditional social science investigations.


When insights about gender roles and inequality arose in the 1970s, the discipline of "feminist anthropology" was born. The term gender as a category of analysis was introduced. Feminist research had demonstrated that what were then called sexual roles varied widely across cultures and therefore challenged the essentialist pronouncement that biology is destiny. Behaviors could not be reduced simply to the inevitable natural and universal fact of sex differences. Gender analysis transcends biological reductionism by interpreting the relationships between men and women as cultural constructs that result from imposing social, cultural, and psychological meanings on biological sexual identities. As a consequence it became necessary to distinguish between "gender" as a symbolic creation; "sex," which refers to the biological fact of being male or female; and "sexuality," which concerns sexual preferences and behavior. But the development of gender theory has not led to an agreement on the concept of gender itself. Although gender stands for socially defined relationships between men and women, its political meaning and implications are not always clear.

The early phase of feminist anthropology produced a wide range of studies that concentrated on identifying the position and status of women cross-culturally. By looking at how traditional anthropology viewed women, feminist anthropologists uncovered a wide range of variation in gender roles, in the values placed on activities performed by men and women, and in men's and women's access to important societal resources. As a result, they were able to expose biases in earlier anthropological studies and expose how male-centered perspectives had helped create a distorted depiction. Feminist anthropologists not only corrected ethnographic records but also questioned biological determinist accounts of gender. They argued that variation in the roles and status of men and women uncovered by their studies suggested that gender might not be determined by biology. As a result, assumptions about gender differences that underpinned women's inequality in their own society began to be questioned.

Feminist anthropologists write about the variation in gender roles to symbolize their concerns with both sexes and the culturally and temporally changeable relationships of gender roles between men and women. Gender can be understood as the meanings that a particular society gives to the physical or biological traits that differentiate males from females. These meanings provide the individuals of a society with views about how to act, what to believe, and how to make sense of their experiences. Feminist anthropology has made important contributions to assessing the validity of the notions about the inherent differences between men and women that prevail in the United States and other Western societies. Because gender constructs are cultural understandings of physical differences, they are open to alteration.

Although the focus of gender as a cultural construct had begun, there was little agreement among feminist anthropologists as to the best way to conceptualize and understand gender roles and inequality. By 1974 a new school of thought emerged, put forward by Nancy Chodorow, Sherry B. Ortner, Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo, and Louise Lamphere, which held that gender was constructed by social and cultural factors. Ortner argued that the subordination of women was based on cultural ideologies and symbols. Rosaldo researched the notion that women frequently participate in behavior that limit them, and therefore, one must look at the overall system. Rayna R. Reiter (1975) found that at least some of the time the sexes were treated equally in primitive cultures that were free of Western bias, and that the universal subordination of women was not necessarily a social structure. She concluded that the gender asymmetry that does exist in many societies is caused by differences in power, class, and production. In 1975 Betty Freidl founded another school of thought known as comparative analysis. Freidl argued that women's roles changed to adapt to changes in the technology within society such as agriculture and industry as well as to specializations in the labor force.

Jane Fishburne Collier and Sylvia Junko Yanagisako (1987) expanded Rosaldo's work by analyzing gender forming through hierarchy. Henrietta L. Moore (1988) attempted to compose a theoretical understanding of previous work done in anthropology. Moore outlined three types of male bias that flawed previous anthropological research and theory: the bias inherent in the anthropologist's own beliefs, the bias inherent in the culture being studied, and the bias brought about by the anthropologist's tendency to theorize from Western standards. Anthropologists often take for granted that the asymmetrical relationships of men and women in other cultures are similar to the hierarchical nature of gender relations in Western society. Thus male biases cause the anthropologist to overlook important social structures in which women play a role. Moore asserts that feminist anthropology has made an outstanding contribution to anthropology by developing theories relating to gender identity and the cultural construction of gender.


The early feminist approach to the anthropological study of women, concerned with the revision of Western cultural assumptions, was put aside by certain women who considered it exclusionary because they did not feel that the category of woman represented them. The issue of race is subsumed within the argument of gender difference. The new phase of feminist anthropology focuses on gender and culture, but also places gender in relation to the historical and material circumstances in which gender, race, ethnicity, class, religion, and socioeconomic status interconnect and interact on a daily basis. The anthropological study of gender challenges the earlier arguments of biological essentialism and surpasses it by analyzing the ways cultures construct differences between women and men.

This new anthropological approach includes critiques regarding white middle-class feminism by women of color and lesbians, who began focusing on social inequalities. The anthropological publication This Bridge Called My Back (first published in 1981), has demanded that feminist anthropologists reevaluate the ways in which First World women have unselfconsciously constructed a cultural other in their images of "Third World" or "minority" women. It underscored the importance of creating new alliances among women that would acknowledge differences of race, class, sexual orientation, educational privilege, religion, and nationality. This new approach recognizes the inextricable relationship of culture to politics, economics, and history. Roger N. Lancaster and Micaela di Leonardo (1997) argue that sexuality and gender are intimately connected to the social construction of race and political economy. This reexamination has led feminist anthropologists to uncover the fact that ethnography is itself deeply gendered and situated within relations of power and subordination. It has raised the question of who has the right to write culture (portraying people through the process of cultural representation, which has now become contestable) for whom. It was also during this time that men, within what became known as the "anthropology of men," began to look at the term man in a similar manner as feminists had been evaluating woman.

The anthropological study of gender has become much more sophisticated and diversified since the 1970s with the development of gender studies, expanding to include such theoretical orientations as postmodernism, poststructuralism, and postcolonialism. di Leonardo's edited work Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge (1991) investigates gender and power in terms of how relations of production and reproduction are organized in a society and programmed into cultural categories. She states that some feminist scholars have a tendency to define feminist theory as a totality in literary poststructuralist terms, which in turn ignores all of material, social life and leaves out of the equation any means for justifying a feminist-theoretical stance. Although feminist anthropology has itself been critiqued for mirroring the andocentric bias derived from male ethnographers studying men, the field has attempted to address the issue by focusing more broadly on the issue of gender and moving away from an exclusive "anthropology of women."

Research in the "anthropology of gender" in the United States has put an emphasis on the body. Peggy Reeves Sanday (1990) looked at power relationships through rape and argued that the relationship between the sexes had to be explored in terms of conflict and tension, which are at the heart of daily life in many societies. Emily Martin (1997), in a somewhat separate manner, investigated physical science's stereotypes in both its research and its discourse to illustrate how women's biological processes were considered less worthy than those of men. Contemporary research goes beyond including the female voice—it analyzes current and pressing issues such as gender divisions in the labor force, child care, reproductive rights and technologies, pornography, the politics of family values, identity politics, violence and aggression, female genital modification, and motherhood, to name just a few.

Cultures are no longer bounded entities, and cultural entities cannot be mapped onto geographical territories without problems ensuing. Because of globalization and growing relationships between societies, the anthropology of gender's concerns with diversity and difference will continue to steadily develop in the next few decades. As Lancaster and di Leonardo so eloquently express it, "feminism, gay studies, race research, and historical political economy, working together on global materials, enable us to unfasten the intellectual straitjackets binding us as we rethink carnal knowledge, as we work to embody liberatory meanings for all humanity" (1991, p. 7).


Ardener, Shirley, ed. 1975. Perceiving Women. London: Malaby Press.

Bonvillain, Nancy. 2001. Women and Men: Cultural Constructs of Gender. 3rd edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Collier, Jane Fishburne, and Sylvia Junko Yanagisako, eds. 1987. Gender and Kinship: Essays toward a Unified Analysis. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Conkey, Margaret, and Janet Spector. 1984. "Archaeology and the Study of Gender." Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory 7: 1-38.

di Leonardo, Micaela, ed. 1991. Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge: Feminist Anthropology in the Postmodern Era. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1965. The Position of Women in Primitive Societies, and Other Essays in Social Anthropology. New York: Free Press.

Gero, Joan. 1985. "Socio-politics and the Woman-at-Home Ideology." American Antiquity 50(2): 342-350.

Hirschon, Renée, ed. 1983. Women and Property—Women as Property. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Lamphere, Louise; Helena Ragoné; and Patricia Zavella, eds. 1997. Situated Lives: Gender and Culture in Everyday Life. New York: Routledge.

Lancaster, Roger N., and Micaela di Leonardo, eds. 1997. The Gender/Sexuality Reader: Culture, History, Political Economy. New York: Routledge.

Leacock, Eleanor. 1978. "Women's Status in Egalitarian Society: Implications for Social Evolution." Current Anthropology 19(2): 247-275.

MacCormack, Carol P., and Marilyn Strathern, eds. 1980. Nature, Culture, and Gender. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Martin, Emily. 1997. "The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles." In Situated Lives: Gender and Culture in Everyday Life, ed. Louise Lamphere, Helena Ragoné, and Patricia Zavella. New York: Routledge.

Mascia-Lees, Frances E., and Nancy Johnson Black. 2000. Gender and Anthropology. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, INC.

Mead, Margaret. 1949. Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World. New York: Morrow.

Moore, Henrietta L. 1988. Feminism and Anthropology. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Moraga, Cherríe, and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds. 2001. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. 3rd edition. Berkeley: Third Woman Press.

Ortner, Sherry B., and Harriet Whitehead, eds. 1981. Sexual Meanings: The Cultural Construction of Gender and Sexuality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Reiter, Rayna R., ed. 1975. Toward an Anthropology of Women. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Rosaldo, Michelle Zimbalist, and Louise Lamphere, eds. 1974. Woman, Culture, and Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Sanday, Peggy Reeves. 1990. Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus. New York City: New York University Press.

Sanday, Peggy Reeves, and Ruth Gallagher Goodenough, eds. 1990. Beyond the Second Sex: New Directions in the Anthropology of Gender. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Slocum, Sally. 1975. "Woman the Gatherer: Male Bias in Anthropology." In Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna R. Reiter. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Strathern, Marilyn. 1987. "An Awkward Relationship: The Case of Feminism and Anthropology." Signs 12(2): 276-292.

Tylor, Edward Burnett. 1871. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom. 2 vols. London: J. Murray.

Washburn, Sherwood, and Chet Lancaster. 1968. "The Evolution of Hunting." In Man the Hunter, ed. Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore. Chicago: Aldine Press.

                                            Rubina Ramji


views updated May 21 2018


Anthropology is the study of humanity, in all its aspects, in all times and all places. In this sense, everyone is an anthropologist, for everyone is curious about themselves and their fellow humans, and people often ask anthropological questions. Anthropology is distinctive not so much in subject as in approach. Much of the character of the field, and the heart of its contribution, have come through ethnographic fieldwork, which comprises a large suite of techniques for studying people in qualitative and quantitative depth, typically while living among them for extended periods. The anthropologist's ideal is to learn a people's language, live with them, observe them in their day to day lives and in special events, all the while taking measurements, listing names, and holding extended discussions about their gods, cosmologies, and opinions of each other. Participant observation in which anthropologists do things with the people they are studying to the extent they allow brings such a wealth of knowledge that many anthropologists spend the rest of their lives discovering new insights from even their first trip to the field.

Themes and approaches

This wealth of information is studied in distinctive ways. Anthropologists are divided on whether the discipline can or even should be considered a science, but even the most scientific anthropologists recognize that a qualitative, interpretive study of ethnographic findings must play a major role. Understanding another group of people involves the search for meaning in what they do and say. The difference between the simple empirical observation that someone's eyelid twitched and understanding what someone was really up to when he winked at another person, entering the web of social relations and subtle meanings behind this little conspiracy, is what Clifford Geertz, following philosopher Gilbert Ryle, calls "thin description versus thick description." Ethnography, he concludes, is thick description. This is also what is needed for any broader, more abstract comparative study in anthropology.

Anthropological questioning is also guided by certain basic concepts or themes, such as cultural relativism. Often contrasted with ethnocentrism, cultural relativism is the insistence on evaluating customs and ideas in terms of that culture's own values rather than those of another culture. Such an approach is sometimes confused with the different and not particularly viable idea that all customs are of equal practical and moral value. Anthropology seeks to understand, for example, why female circumcision or ritual cannibalism have been so important to certain peoples, and how such practices function within those cultures. Everyone benefits from this greater understanding, but it does not follow that everyone must find these practices acceptable.

A second theme is holism, the attempt to comprehend the breadth and depth of what is human and how it fits together. Thus, anthropology's concern is not just with, for example, the economy itself, but with questions such as "How does the economy relate to kinship, status, and political considerations?" and "How do all these together affect what it is like being a woman in such a situation rather than a man?" Anthropology also strives to comprehend the breadth of human cultural, social, and physical variation. For example, compared to the specialized field of economics, anthropology explores the full range of what human economies can be like. Similarly, anthropology seeks to understand the nature of political leadership in the broadest terms, not just by comparing, for example, various types of centralized states (democracy with theocracy with monarchy), but by adding Polynesian and African chiefdoms, Micronesian big-man leadership, and the rise of leaders among less centralized or hierarchical hunter-gatherer societies. Without denying that democracies and monarchies differ, these differences are like shades of red compared to the full spectrum of human possibilities. And knowing as much as possible about the full range of human customs can be helpful in answering questions such as "What is economy?" "What is religion?" and "What is art?" as well as corollary questions such as "In what sense is religion a part of what it means to be human?"

Interestingly, an opposing perspective, usually labeled particularist, has occasionally swept the field. During such times the common wisdom is that culture is not an integrated system, and comparison among cultures is inevitably more misleading than helpful. Typologies of culture such as savagery, barbarism, and civilization, or the more recent band, tribe, chiefdom, and state model of neo-evolutionists such as Steward, Service, Fried, and Earle, are scorned as constraining, simplistic, wooden, or even propaganda promoting Western hegemony.

There is also value in balancing holism and high-level comparisons with an emphasis on that which is unique about each known people. Recent anticomparativist trends have been enmeshed in postmodern philosophical concerns, eliciting the same sometimes rancorous arguments found in other fields. But anthropology's expansive ambitions have always been shadowed by occasional epistemological failure of nerve. One does not have to claim that "all human knowledge is impossible" to appreciate the difficulty of demonstrating how deeply human thought is influenced by cultural upbringing, and the difficulty of correctly describing the important depths of another people's culture.

Perspectives toward culture

Probably the field's greatest conceptual contribution to human understanding comes through developing and elaborating the concept of culture. In his Primitive Culture (1871), Edward Burnett Tylor introduced the term culture into his new science of humanity, which he called anthropology. Despite many suggestions for alternative definitions, Tylor's is still popular: "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society" (Tylor, p.1). An increasing number of anthropologists prefer not to include behavior within the category, seeing culture as socially transmitted information, or as Geertz puts it, patterns for behavior, not patterns of behavior. This approach avoids the difficulty of explaining culture in terms of itself and highlights the common disparity between what people say and what they do. This approach also reminds us that not all behavior is cultural (for example, blinks vs. winks).

Anthropologists have traditionally understood culture as radically separate from biology. Alfred Kroeber's influential "superorganic" notion views culture as having almost a life of its own, molding each individual far more than the individual molds culture. Franz Boas and his students, including Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, set out early in the twentieth century to demonstrate a radical cultural relativism. Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) convinced generations of Americans that even something assumed to be biological and inevitable, such as the rocky period of adolescence, was not experienced in Samoa. Thus, if not all people behave the same way, the reasons must be cultural rather than biological. Derek Freeman has argued convincingly that Mead's conclusion was largely in error, partly as a result of mistaken interpretation, but also because Mead's teenage informants enjoyed playing games with the naïve outsider.

The emphasis on culture, particularly as a variable that is both influential and somewhat independent of biology, is nevertheless an important theme in anthropology. This perspective has also ensured that anthropologists became among the most ardent critics of sociobiology. Along with many reductionistic ideas popular in Western academia, sociobiology puts itself in the strange position of imaginatively crafting reasons we should choose to believe even our cultures are controlled by genes and both imagination and human choice are illusory. Anthropologists do not necessarily defend freedom of the will; a more typical argument is that while humans may be deeply constrained, culture, which is highly symbolic and essentially arbitrary, is as strong a determining influence on the individual as biology.

Nevertheless, interest in biological influences has grown among anthropologists who are exploring a range of approaches from gene-culture coevolution and dual inheritance to memetics. While memetics has its reductionistic aspects (Susan Blackmore has said that culture is a meme's way of replicating itself), in very important ways, memetics recognizes culture as relatively autonomous, beyond either the thought or the biology of the individual.

The search for human universals, an intense preoccupation of anthropology in its early days, but periodically out of favor, has also become more acceptable since the publication of Donald Brown's Human Universals in 1991. Brown offers many examples of human traits that are universal, including difficulties during adolescence and the practice of joking. Even examples illustrating how different cultures can be from each other contain elements of universality; for example, people express social respect in an extraordinary variety of ways, but the fundamental idea behind such behaviors is more or less the same. It is, of course, no easy matter to demonstrate that something is truly universal, and attempts to do so have provoked many arguments about whether a certain group of people genuinely constitutes an exception. But the issue itself is of immense importance, for once it is acknowledged that all people have many things in common, the radical individualism and subjectivism of certain philosophies, as well as categorical assertions that, for example, males could never understand females, rich the poor, or one "race" the thinking of someone from another, lose some of their force.

Subdisciplines of anthropology

Despite an emphasis on certain perspectives, methods, and themes, anthropology remains exceptionally broad and has traditionally been divided into subdisciplines. The standard approach in the United States is the "four-field" model:

  1. Physical or biological anthropology involves any study of human physical nature, especially as related to human evolution. Retrospective objections to anthropology's long fascination with race fail to appreciate the contribution of this work to demonstrating the central role of cultural bias in common racial classifications and stereotypes.
  2. Cultural anthropology studies the customs, beliefs, values, social interactions, and physical products (the culture and society) of people known historically or ethnographically. Longstanding goals include studying traditional ways of life before they succumb to modernization, and discovering the fullest possible range of human practice. But it is not simply a matter of collecting exotic customs, nor is cultural anthropology limited to the study of "primitive" peoples. Cultural anthropology attempts to study the full variety of humanity. Also, because the cultural viewpoint of the anthropologist, not just that of the people being studied, is important, the richness of the field grows in part from the fact that there are trained anthropologists from many parts of the world. In the United Kingdom social anthropology, which gives particular emphasis to social relations and social structures, has been very influential from the early work of Malinowski, Firth, Radcliffe-Brown, Evans-Pritchard and Kuper through Rodney Needham, Mary Douglass and many others.
  3. Archaeology has origins in ancient history and the classics, biblical studies, and art history, as well as in the practice of collecting and its institutional cousin, the museum. Most broadly, archaeology is the study of the material remains of humans who lived in the past, and as such it is not always considered a branch of anthropology. Yet archaeologists will often ask anthropological questions, and many view their quest as a cultural anthropology of extinct peoples.
  4. Anthropological linguistics is the anthropological study of human languages, ancient and modern, oral and written. To the extent that an anthropological perspective on linguistics differs from the separate field of linguistics, it will emphasize communication as an element of culture and as a crucial development in human evolution. Archaeologist Colin Renfrew is using linguistics to aid in reconstructing human movements in the past. Language study is also central to work in cognitive evolution.

Anthropology and the science-religion dialogue

Anthropology is not clearly a science, as indicated by the importance of divergent perspectives or schools of thought (social evolutionism, functionalism, historical particularism, cultural materialism, structuralism). It is thus difficult for a scholar of religion to discover the anthropological understanding of a topic. For example, a biblical scholar who painstakingly applies the structuralist insights of Claude Levi-Strauss to a particular text may be surprised and disheartened when her work is ignored by anthropologists sympathetic to Christianity, simply because they are not sympathetic to structuralism.

Anthropology may have more to contribute through its rich body of ethnographic, linguistic, archaeological, and paleoanthropological literature, and through more widely accepted conceptual categories such as culture, holism, and cultural relativism. In some cases the anthropology-religion connection can be put to practical use. Kenneth Pike, Thomas Headland, and others with SIL International (formerly the Summer Institute of Linguistics), for example, are using anthropology to help ensure that translations of the Bible make sense in the local cultural context.

Perhaps most promising is the use of anthropological insights to address issues that grow from theology itself or from the science-religion dialogue. Such issues include sin, human destiny, consciousness, the environment, technology and religion, cognitive evolution, mind-body questions, and the fundamental nature of humanity. The opportunity for the science-religion dialogue to be conducted using questions drawn from theology rather than for theology to follow along and comment on science is potentially of great value.

A striving to understand what it is to be human is a central theme of both anthropology and theology, and systematic theologies often include a major section on the subject. The nineteenth-century Princeton theologian Charles Hodge gave the title Anthropology to the second volume of his three-volume Systematic Theology (1872), and he devoted some 730 pages to this subject and to salvation. Primary topics included the origins and nature of human beings, the soul, unity of the human race, original state, covenant of works, the fall, sin, and free agency. More than a century later the second volume of Wolfhart Pannenberg's Systematic Theology (1991) covers some of the same topics, though in different ways, in no small part because Pannenberg has given serious attention to the findings of academic anthropology, a field that did not exist when Hodge wrote Systematic Theology.

Pannenberg is a good model of serious theological engagement with anthropology without allowing the theological agenda to be overwhelmed. This is not an easy balance, for as F. LeRon Shults points out, theology has not come to grips with the changing view of humanity and human origins carefully constructed by anthropology (and evolutionary biology). It is possible for these topics to be explored philosophically, biblically, and in light of the history of theology, but without much contact with the growing anthropological understanding of what it is to be human. Shults, who is a leading expert on Pannenberg's thought, has himself made a major contribution to rethinking the fundamental theological doctrines of human nature, sin, and the image of God in light of anthropology.

Theologian J. Wentzel van Huyssteen is researching Paleolithic cognition to help understand the origins and nature of the human capacity for religion, a topic also being addressed by an interdisciplinary group of scholars organized by biologist William Hurlbut and anthropologist William Durhamat at Stanford University in California. Taking a somewhat different approach, theologian Philip Hefner is engaged in extensive exploration of the theological relevance of sociobiology and biocultural evolution. Hefner suggests that humans should be viewed as "created co-creators." And from a yet different perspective, population geneticist David Wilcox has written a series of articles exploring paleoanthropological findings from a traditionally evangelical, but not creationist, perspective.

Anthropologist Ward Goodenough, perhaps best known for his research on the people of Truk, has written a series of articles for Zygon on such subjects as the human capacity for belief. And the biological anthropologist and polymath Solomon Katz has contributed to the understanding of a great range of issues including religion and food, human purpose, and what it means to have a science of humanity. He has also developed and is now working out a model connecting religious change to subsistence change, arguing in particular that a change in religion was an enabler for the Neolithic adoption of agriculture.

See also Anthropology of Religion; Consciousness Studies; Creationism; Culture, Origins of; Evolution; Evolution, Biocultural; Freedom; Imago Dei; Memes; Mind-body Theories; Sin; Sociobiology; Technology


blackmore, susan. "the meme's eye view." in darwinian culture: the status of memetics as a science, ed. robert aunger. oxford, uk: oxford university press, 2000.

brown, donald e. human universals. new york: mc- graw-hill, 1991.

cronk, lee. that complex whole: culture and the evolution of human behavior. boulder, colo.: westview press, 1999.

evans-pritchard, edward e. the nuer: a description of the modes of livelihood and political institutions of a nilotic people. oxford: oxford university press, 1940. freeman, derek. margaret mead in samoa: the making and unmaking of an anthropological myth. cambridge, mass.: harvard university press, 1983

geertz, clifford. the interpretation of cultures. new york: basic books, 1973.

goodenough, ward h. "evolution of the human capacity for beliefs." zygon 28, no. 1 (1993): 527

harris, marvin. the rise of anthropological theory: a history of theories of culture, updated edition. walnut creek, calif.: altamira press, 200

hefner, philip. the human factor: evolution, culture, and religion. minneapolis, minn.: fortress press, 1993

hicks, david, and gwynne, margaret a. cultural anthropology, 2nd edition. new york: harper, 1996

hodge, charles. systematic theology, vol. 2: anthropology. new york: scriber, 1872.

kroeber, alfred l. "the superorganic." american anthropologist 37 (1917): 539569.

kuper, adam. the invention of primitive society: transformations of an illusion. london: routledge, 1988

mead, margaret. coming of age in samoa. new york: morrow, 1928.

pannenberg, wolfhart. anthropology in theological perspective, trans. matthew j. o'connell. philadelphia: westminster press, 1985

pannenberg, wolfhart. systematic theology, vol. 2, trans. geoffrey w. bromiley. grand rapids, mich.: eerdmans, 1991.

shults, f. leron. reforming theological anthropology after the turn to relationality. grand rapids, mich.: eerdman, 2002.

tylor, edward burnett. primitive culture: researches into the development of mythology, philosophy, religion, language, art, and custom. london: murray, 1871

ward, keith. defending the soul. oxford: one world, 1992

wilcox, david l. "adam, where are you? changing paradigms in paleoanthropology." perspectives on science and the christian faith 48, no. 2 (1996): 8896.

paul k. wason


views updated Jun 11 2018

anthropology Embracing nature and the cosmos, the philosophical thinking of classical antiquity did not consider anthropology, the ‘science of man’, as a subject independent of the greater ontological context. Yet the problems set out in those days were to shape inquiry in later centuries. Were ideas innate or acquired? How did body and soul communicate with the outside world? How did progress come about? And how was it possible that there were varying types of men?

Within Christendom, in the period from the decline of the Roman Empire until the Renaissance all knowledge of mankind was believed to reside in the religious doctrines. The bases of anthropological curiosity were established during the sixteenth century. By the end of the eighteenth century the subject was systematically treated. Subsequently it developed into a science, diversifying into social, physical, and linguistic anthropology; ethnology; ethnography; archaeology; and other sub-disciplines.

In a literal translation of the Greek term, René Descartes (1596–1650) and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646–1716) spoke of ‘doctrina de homine’: Descartes applied the mechanistic philosophy to the natural realm; considering all animals — including mankind in its physical respects — as machines, he showed that human nature was open to scientific investigation. Leibniz built upon the theory of the ‘great chain of being’, situating mankind on an uninterrupted ascending scale that led from the realm of the mineral, through lesser organisms, to mankind, and thence to heavenly creatures. Man's place in nature was thus fixed — until the end of the eighteenth century, when the theory came into disrepute.

At that time, anthropology stood on three legs. Dealing with the individual, medicine told people how to be legislators of their personal bodily constitutions; cultural and political philosophers, by contrast, treating society, inquired into the historical laws governing the growth of civilization; naturalists, finally, devised natural systems which assigned mankind a place among their fellow creatures. Yet philosophers were increasingly occupied not just with the uniqueness of mankind, but also with the classification of human varieties and the question of how physical and psychological differences had been engendered.

In 1594, Otto Casmann had determined anthropology as a science accounting for the dual nature of man as a physical and spiritual being. Reiterating the point, Chambers' Cyclopaedia (1727–51) stated that anthropology ‘includes the consideration both of the human body and soul’. Eighteenth-century Germany has been credited with exploring human nature in this vein, thus putting anthropology as a science in its own right on the map. In his Anthropologie für Ärzte und Weltweise (‘Anthropology for Doctors and Savants’, 1772), Ernst Platner stressed that it was the task of the anthropologists to investigate the relationships between, and mutual influences of, body and soul. The idea struck a chord with minds dwelling in pre-Romantic complexities of thought.

Eighteenth-century Germany knew three different approaches to the subject: anthropology was treated (i) as part of theoretical philosophy; (ii) as part of psychological investigations; and (iii) as one among several empirical sciences dealing with mankind. Immanuel Kant's Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht (‘Anthropology in a pragmatic understanding’, 1798), aiming to scrutinize the framework of the human soul from an empirical viewpoint, belongs to the second category. As the Penny Cyclopedia put it in the 1830s, this perspective did not turn on ‘the investigation of what nature makes of man’, but on the question ‘what man, as a free agent, either makes, or can and ought to make of himself’. The third approach was pursued in various ways. It was here that writers through-out Europe departed from the assumption of the psychological and physiological unity of mankind: physiologists and anatomists, in particular, attempted to differentiate between varying human types.

Physical anthropology, as it was to be called, took its starting point from the dissatisfaction with previous attempts to depict man's place in nature. In 1735 the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus set down a taxonomy of nature (Systema naturae). Considering hands and feet as equal units, he subsumed several sorts of men under the common name of ‘quadrupeds’, including the mythical, ape-like ‘Troglodytes’ as well as humans properly speaking. Himself a pious Protestant, Linnaeus was later accused of having devalued man's special role. In order to defend mankind against the Cartesian suspicion that they were no better than reasoning animals, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752–1840) came up with a new category that applied solely to humans: bimana — the two-handed. On the basis of his examination of skulls, he distinguished five different human varieties. Numerous alternative classifications were put forward by Oliver Goldsmith, John Hunter, Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottfried Herder, Buffon, Georges Cuvier, Julien-Joseph Virey, Louis-Antoine Desmouslins, and many others.

In The Order of Things (1970), Michel Foucault famously characterized eighteenth-century science as descriptive. Discussing the anthropology of French Enlightenment philosophers, Michel Duchet has, however, shown that the quest for causes was equally characteristic of eighteenth-century anthropology. In France, its purpose was not unanimously regarded as the theory of body and soul. Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis (1757–1808) and A. L. C. Destutt de Tracy (1754–1836) — followers of Condillac's philosophy of the mind — argued that medicine and morals were two branches of the same science, but the influential school of Paul-Joseph Barthez (1734–1806) stressed that the science of man was only another name for general physiology. In France the ‘physical’ was widely seen to be opposed to the ‘moral’. A reconciliation was brought about once anthropology was established as a science. Until the second half of the nineteenth century it was dominated by phrenology, which soon became the paramount technique of determining physiological as well as psychological racial traits.

The eighteenth century had not distinguished between anthropological and ethnological enquiries, the latter forming part of the physical history of man. In the early nineteenth century that changed. The new science of ethnology concentrated on the description of different peoples. Its early students tended to believe in the unity of mankind, using historical linguistics to trace genealogical links, while until the mid century physical anthropology was rather the domain of those who thought that mankind was made up of several species or races of man. One of the scholars whose works contributed much to the development of an antagonism between anthropology and ethnology was the doctor James Cowles Prichard. On account of his philanthropic outlooks and his strong belief in the truth of Genesis, he was fervently opposed to the theory of race. His Researchers into the Physical History of Mankind (1836–47, 3rd edn) aimed to delineate the genealogical links between all human races. Praised as the founder of British ethnology, he himself referred the origins of the science to Blumenbach, whom others cherished as the father of anthropology. The parallel in France was Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707–88). Nowadays, adulating the fathers of a particular discipline has given way to a more historical perspective.

During the nineteenth century, anthropological institutions were set up in many countries, the Société Ethnologique de Paris being founded in 1839. In London, the Ethnological Society was established in 1843, and the Anthropological Society in 1863 — modelled on Paul Broca's Société Anthropologique de Paris that had opened its doors four years previously. The first German institute, Rudolf Virchow's Berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, dated from 1869. Initially, the discipline was dominated by physical anthropology. Craniology — or phrenology — was the core of all anthropometry, as the form of the skull seemed to permit inferences on mental faculties. The polygenist Paul Broca became the dominant figure in the field.

Physical anthropology did not necessarily imply racism, as the example of the liberal Rudolf Virchow proved. Not least thanks to his influence, German physical anthropology between 1860 and 1890 — unlike that in America, France, and Austria — was adamantly anti-racist. Darwinian biological determinism was rejected in favour of neo-Lamarckian theories and the belief that physiognomy was subject to cultural influences. This changed towards the end of the century, when a turn to evolutionist Darwinian theory and German nationalism drove German anthropology towards racialism. Physical yielded to biological anthropology. Craniology was replaced by Mendelism and biometry. The latter, a brainchild of Francis Galton and Karl Pearson, held sway throughout the Western world. Eugenic theories and the urges to implement policies of ‘public hygiene’ and race hygiene began to thrive.

These international developments notwithstanding, in Britain and America anthropology also took a course of its own. A universalizing form of cultural philosophy had been pursued during the age of Enlightenment. From the 1860s the threads were taken up by scholars like Edward B. Tylor, James G. Frazer, and Lewis Henry Morgan, once the theory of evolution gained ground. As in the eighteenth century, human development was seen as progress from ape-like rudeness to civilization, this time within the framework of Darwinism. Classical Victorian evolutionism regarded the archaically living Tasmanian Aborigines — who were dying out before their very eyes — as the living representatives of the early Stone Age. Not until 1911 did the American Franz Boas — a former pupil of Virchow, who adhered to the theory of cultural diffusionism and was interested in linguistic differentiation — criticize the evolutionist view of anthropology in his The Mind of Primitive Man. In the same year, the Englishman William Rivers discarded evolutionism in favour of diffusionist theories to explain the historical spread of customs and belief systems. Bronislaw Malinowski, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, and others, by contrast, followed a functional approach, pursued by Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss (and later resumed by Claude Lévi-Strauss). A pluralist and relativist methodology was introduced.

The ‘revolutionary’ reaction against evolutionary anthropology brought about a dehistoricization of the subject. Descriptive ethnography and field work found many adherents, some researchers depicting foreign peoples in the tradition of the ‘noble savage’ — Lucien Lévy-Bruhl's notion of a particular ‘primitive mentality’ (Mentalité primitive, 1922) formed part of that tendency. The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty was not only an ardent proponent of existentialist philosophy, but also formulated ideas on bodily behaviour and perception which stimulated interest in the phenomenology of the body. Marxist theory, being based on a developmental philosophy, brought new acumen to evolutionism. Latterly, functional anthropology has been criticized by advocates of a more historically-oriented position. In any case, the multi-faceted nature of the discipline, which inquires into the evolution from Australopithecus to Homo sapiens as well as into functions and the development of myths and rites, hardly instills the impression that one method alone will suffice to answer all anthropological problems.

H. F. Augstein


Leaf, M. (1979). Man, mind and science: a history of anthropology. Columbia University Press, New York.
Slotkin, J. S. (ed.) (1965). Readings in early anthropology. Methuen, London.
Stocking, G. (1987). Victorian anthropology. Free Press, New York.

See also craniometry; evolution, human; phrenology; skull.


views updated Jun 08 2018



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To provide financial assistance to Alaska Natives of the Koniag region who are enrolled in undergraduate or graduate study in a field related to Alutiiq culture.
Title of Award: Larry Matfay Cultural Heritage Scholarship Area, Field, or Subject: Anthropology; History; Native American studies Level of Education for which Award is Granted: Four Year College, Graduate Number Awarded: 1 each year. Funds Available: The stipend is $1,000. Funds are sent directly to the recipient's school and may be used for tuition, books, supplies, room, board, and transportation. Duration: 1 year; may be renewed.
Eligibility Requirements: This program is open to college juniors, seniors, and graduate students who are 1) Alaska Natives enrolled under Section 5 of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act to the Koniag region, or 2) direct or legally adopted descendants of those original enrollees. Applicants must supply proof of eligibility and documentation of financial need. They must have a GPA of 2.5 or higher cumulatively (3.0 or higher within their major) and be majoring in anthropology, history, Alaska Native or American Indian studies, or another discipline that involves research and learning about Alutiiq culture. Along with their application, they must submit 1) a 300-to 600-word letter that includes their personal and family history, their schooling or work history, and their educational and life goals; and 2) a 200-to 400-word essay on how their education may benefit the Alutiiq people. Deadline for Receipt: March of each year. Additional Information: Recipients are also eligible to apply for a Koniag Education Foundation Academic Achievement/Graduate Scholarship. The Koniag Education Foundation was established in 1993 by the directors of Koniag, Inc. The Koniag region covers Kodiak Island, many smaller islands, and a portion of the Alaska Peninsula.


Attn: Office of Student Financial Assistance
839 Bestgate Road, Suite 400
Annapolis, MD 21401-3013
Tel: (410)260-4563
Free: 800-974-1024
Fax: (410)974-5376
E-mail: [email protected]
Web Site:
To provide scholarship/loans to students in Maryland who wish to prepare for a career as a child care provider.
Title of Award: Maryland Child Care Provider Scholarship Program Area, Field, or Subject: Child care; Child development; Education, Early childhood Level of Education for which Award is Granted: Professional, Undergraduate Number Awarded: Varies each year. Funds Available: Stipends at 4-year institutions are $2,000 per year for full-time study, $1,000 for part-time; at community colleges, annual stipends are $1,000 for full-time study, $500 for part-time. The total amount of all state awards may not exceed the cost of attendance as determined by the school's financial aid office or $17,800, whichever is less. Within 12 months of graduation, recipients must provide 1 year of child care service in Maryland for each year of financial aid received under this program; failure to comply with that service obligation will require the recipient to repay the scholarship money with interest. Teaching in a public school in Maryland does not fulfill the service requirement. Duration: 1 year; may be renewed for up to 3 additional years of full-time study provided the recipient maintains a GPA of 2.0 or higher.
Eligibility Requirements: Eligible are residents of Maryland who are enrolled or plan to enroll in a program leading to an associate or bachelor's degree in a Maryland institution of higher education that offers an undergraduate program in early childhood education or child development. Full-time enrollment is required, although part-time study is allowed if the applicant is employed for a minimum of 15 hours per week at a child care or family day care center. Financial need is not considered in the selection process. Deadline for Receipt: June of each year.


views updated May 29 2018


Latin American scholars began the anthropological enterprise aiming to identify, describe, and understand the multiple cultures and ethnic groups that populate the region. Hegemonic in their approach until the 1970s, theories of cultural assimilation or acculturation assumed that "static" indigenous societies would eventually be subjugated by dynamic modernizing forces, adopting dominant cultures to the detriment of their autonomy and particular ethnic characters. Therefore, early anthropological research was mainly concerned with documenting indigenous cultural heritages such as language, ritual, and myth, and/or supporting indigenous people through the inexorable acculturation process. In regions with relatively small and isolated indigenous populations, detailed ethnologies of still-living indigenous ethnic cultures dominated the discipline for decades. Darcy Ribeiro's original work in Brazil, which added a critical political dimension to comparative descriptions of indigenous peoples, advanced the research agenda for later ethnological studies on indigenous communities in Amazonia, Patagonia, and elsewhere in remote areas.

In countries with large native populations, intellectual debates on possible indigenous contribution to and incorporation into national cultural projects informed anthropological developments. In Mexico, most studies followed official discourses of cultural assimilation toward the constitution of an imagined mestizo (mixed-heritage) national character; Guillermo Bonfil's work on indigenous resistance against state cultural impositions is a relevant exception. In the Andes, the first decades of systematic anthropological work saw both applied research projects intended to foster indigenous modernization and impressive ethnographic studies on enduring indigenous cosmologies and social structures. At the same time, a branch of political economy studies started to give valuable insights on campesino communities' political organizations and systems of production.

As national assimilative projects reached their limits, critical indigenous voices began to populate the anthropological literature. José María Arguedas's pioneer work manifests indigenous agency in shaping the processes of cultural transformation, informing a decade-long debate about ethnicity and mestizaje (mixed ancestry) in the Andes. Similarly, Rigoberta Menchu's testimony on terror and political consciousness in Guatemala stimulated important indigenous literary production as well as a controversy about the epistemology of testimonies. The work of the Taller de Historia Oral Andina (Andes oral history workshop) in Bolivia is a good recent example of this branch of indigenous literary anthropology.

Moreover, the issues of massive indigenous rural-to-urban migrations and continuous transformations of urban popular cultures and rituals have brought anthropological inquiry to the cities. Roberto Damatta's work on the symbolic constitution of an alternative national discourse in Brazilian carnivals is a fascinating early piece, whereas Néstor García Canclini's excellent research on hybrid cultures and urban social landscapes well represent recent urban anthropology studies.

Since the 1970s anthropological literature has focused on the politics of identity in light of the emergence of social movements and the cultural processes of globalization. Research on the indigenous uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, nationwide revolts in Ecuador, or electoral gains in Bolivia analyzes the construction of indigenous political narratives and national alternatives. Likewise, studies on indigenous and grassroots mobilizations in the southern cone, Central America, and Colombia examine the increasing political and cultural visibility of historically marginalized social groups. Xavier Albo's work on Aymara's political representations, Minor Sinclair's compilation on social movements in Central America, and The Journal of Latin American Anthropology's issues on Mayan and Argentinean indigenous movements are significant examples of studies that connect local, national, and global power spheres.

Moreover, significant developments, drawing mostly on post-theories such as postmodern, postcolonial, and subaltern studies, have decentered the meanings of race, class, ethnicity, and gender in postulating the coexistence of contested and multiple identities. Arturo Escobar's work is a good start on ethnic discursive reconstitution and empowerment, whereas Marisol de la Cadena's research on ethnicity and gender has produced an interesting assessment of power-related constructions of identities. Finally, later developments on collective memory and spatial dimensions have contributed to the unfinished anthropological quest for understanding and grasping Latin America's extraordinary cultural diversity and political complexity.

See alsoArguedas, José María; García Canclini, Néstor; Menchú Tum, Rigoberta; Ribeiro, Darcy; Sociology.


Albó, Xavier. Pueblos indios en la política. La Paz: Plural Editores/CIPCA, 2002.

Alvarez, Sonia E., Evelina Dagnino, and Arturo Escobar, eds. Cultures of Politics/Politics of Cultures: Re-Visioning Latin American Social Movements. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998.

Arguedas, José María. Indios Mestizos y Señores. Lima: Editorial Horizonte, 1985.

Bonfil Batalla, Guillermo. México Profundo: Reclaiming a Civilization. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

Cadena, Marisol de la. Indigenous Mestizos: The Politics of Race and Culture in Cuzco, Peru, 1919–1991. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

García Canclini, Néstor. La antropología urbana en México. México, D.F.: Conaculta, UAM, FCE, 2005

García Canclini, Néstor. Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

Matta, Roberto da. Carnivals, Rogues, and Heroes: An Interpretation of the Brazilian Dilemma. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991.

Menchú, Rigoberta, and Elisabeth Burgos-Debray. I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. London and New York: Verso, 1984.

Ribeiro, Darcy. Os índios e a civilização: A integração das populações indígenas no Brasil moderno. 4th ed. Vol. 5. Petrópolis, Brasil: Vozes, 1982.

Rivera Cusicanqui, Silvia, and Taller de Historia Oral Andina. La mujer andina en la historia. La Paz: Ediciones del THOA, 1990.

Sinclair, Minor. The New Politics of Survival: Grassroots Movements in Central America. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1995.

                                      Gerardo Damonte


views updated May 23 2018

17. Anthropology

See also 255. MANKIND ; 341. RACE

cultural anthropology
a specialty that studies the creative achievements of societies, especially those passed on through later generations. Also called culturology .
the theory and work based on the theory that trees were involved in the origin of man. dendranthropologic, dendranthropological, adj.
ethnocentrism. ethnocentric, adj.
the belief in the superiority of ones own group or culture. Also ethnocentricity . ethnocentric, adj.
ethnodicy Rare.
the branch of ethnology that studies comparative legal systems.
the study of the origin of distinctive groups or tribes. ethnogenist, n. ethnogenic, adj.
the branch of anthropology that studies and describes the individual cultures of mankind. ethnographer, n. ethnographic, ethnographical, adj.
the study, often comparative, of the origins and development of the races of mankind. ethnologist, n. ethnologic, ethnological, adj.
the description of moral and ethical systems. ethnographer, n. ethnographic, ethnographical, adj.
hybridism, hybridity
the blending of diverse cultures or traditions.
a person who is a native or inhabitant of an isthmus. isthmian, adj.
a lake-dweller.
people with smooth hair; a division of mankind characterized by people with such hair. Cf. Ulotrichi . Leiotrichan, adj.
the state or custom of residing with the family or tribe of the wife, as in certain primitive societies. Cf. patrilocality . matrilocal, adj.
the state or custom of residing with the family or tribe of the husband, as in certain primitive societies. Cf. matrilocality . patrilocal, adj.
1. a subdivision of an ancient Greek tribe or phyle.
2. a clan or other unit of a primitive tribe.
physical anthropology
the branch of anthropology that studies, describes, and interprets the evolutionary changes in mans bodily structure and the classification of modern races. Cf. cultural anthropology . Also called somatology
social anthropology
the branch of anthropology that studies human societies, emphasizing interpersonal and intergroup relations.
physical anthropology.
the belief that a part of a person or object can act in place of the whole and thus that anything done to the part will equally affect the whole.
people with woolly, tightly curled, or crisp hair; a division of mankind characterized by people with such hair. Ulotrichous, adj.

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