Cultural anthropology

HomePage | Recent changes | View source | Discuss this page | Page history | Log in |

Printable version | Disclaimers | Privacy policy

Cultural anthropology, also called socio-cultural anthropology, is one of the four fields of anthropology (the study of the human species). It reflects in part a reaction against earlier western discourses based on an opposition between "culture" and "nature," according to which some human beings lived in a "state of nature." Anthropologists argue that culture IS "human nature," and that all people have a capacity to classify experiences, encode classifications symbolically, and teach such abstractions to others. Since culture is learned, people living in different places have different cultures. Anthropologists have also pointed out that through culture people can adapt to their environment in non-genetic ways, so people living in different environments will often have different cultures. Much of anthropological theory has been motivated by an appreciation of and interest in the tension between the local (particular cultures) and the global (a universal human nature, or the web of connections between people in distant places).

A Brief History

Modern socio-cultural anthropology has its origins in 19th century "ethnology." Ethnology involves the systematic comparison of human societies. Scholars like Sir E.B. Tylor and Sir J.G. Frazer in England worked mostly with materials collected by others -- usually missionaries, explorers, or colonial officials -- and are today called "arm-chair anthropologists." Ethnologists were especially interested in why people living in different parts of the world sometimes had similar beliefs and practices. Ethnologists in the 19th century were divided: some, like William Graham Sumner, argued that different groups must somehow have learned from one another, however indirectly; in other words, they argued that cultural traits spread from one place to another, or "diffused." Others argued that different groups were capable of inventing similar beliefs and practices independently. Some of those who advocated "independent invention," like Lewis Henry Morgan, additionally supposed that similarities meant that different groups had passed through the same stages of cultural evolution.

20th century ethnologists largely reject the notion that all human societies must pass through the same stages in the same order. Some, like Julian Steward, have instead argued that such similarities reflected similar adaptations to similar environments. Others, like Claude Levi-Strauss, have argued that they reflect fundamental similarities in the structure of human thought.

By the 20th century most socio-cultural anthropologists turned to "ethnography," in which the anthropologist actually lived among another society for a considerable period of time, simultaneously participating in and observing the social and cultural life of the group. This method was developed by B. Malinowski (who conducted fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands and taught in England) and promoted by F. Boas (who conducted fieldwork in Baffin Island and taught in the United States). Although 19th century ethnologists saw "diffusion" and "independent invention" as mutually exclusive and competing theories, most ethnographers quickly reached a consensus that both processes occur, and and that both were plausible explanations for cross-cultural similarities. But these ethnographers pointed out that such similarities were often superficial, and that even traits that spread through diffusion often changed their meaning and functions as they moved from one society to another. Accordingly, these anthropologists were less interested in comparing cultures, generalizing about human nature, or discovering universal laws of cultural development, than they were in understanding particular cultures in their own terms. They and their students promoted the idea of "cultural relativism," that a person's beliefs and behaviors could only be understood in the context of the culture in which he or she lived.

In the early 20th century soci-cultural anthropology developed in different forms in Europe and the United States. European "social anthropologists" focused on observed social behaviors, and "social structure," that is, relationships among social roles (e.g. husband and wife, or parent and child) and social institutions (e.g. religion, economy, and politics). American "cultural anthropologists" focused on the ways people expressed their view of themselves and their world, espcially in symbolic forms (e.g. art and myths). These two approaches frequently converged (e.g. kinship is both a symbolic system and a social institution), and generally complemented one another. Today almost all socio-cultural anthropologists refer to the work of both sets of predecessors, and are equally interested in what people do and what people say.

Today socio-cultural anthropology is still dominated by ethnography. Nevertheless, many contemporary socio-cultural anthropologists have rejected earlier models of ethnography that treated local cultures as bounded and isolated. These anthropologists are still concerned with the distinct ways people in different locales experience and understand their lives, but they often argue that one cannot understand these particular ways of life solely in the local context; one must analyze them in the context of regional or even global political and economic relations. Notable proponents of this approach are Arjun Appadurai, James Clifford, Jean Comaroff, John Comaroff, James Ferguson, Akhil Gupta, George Marcus, Sidney Mintz, Michael Taussig, Joan Vincent, and Eric Wolf.

Could someone please explain in depth, in an appropriately-titled article (or two or three), the differences and similarities between cultural anthropology, sociology, and social psychology?

Cultural Anthropology: this is essentially the study of or inquiry into the "transmitted and created content and patterns of values, ideas, and other symbolic-meaningful systems as factors in shaping of human behavior and the artifacts produced through behavior" (Alfred L. Kroeber and Talcott Parsons: "The Concepts of Culture and of Social System." American Sociological Review, 23(1958), 582-583). This definition agreed upon by the pre-eminent scholars in their respective fields of Anthropology and Sociology at the time, has gradually replaced the materialist conceptions developed by Edward Tylor. A major influence on Kroeber and Parsons would have been Franz Boas. In its earlier formation, cultural anthropology would have applied largely to what has also been considered as "anthropology" in the strict sense. Later, the methods and categories developed under the influence of the Kroeber and Parsons consensus were applied to those human aggregations that had properly been the study of sociologists, and this development has been a major impetus in the development of cultural studies.

Cultural Studies: Generally taken to refer to the study of developed human societies in terms of the catgories and methods of cultural anthropology. Historically, however, cultural studies as a named field of research and teaching begins with the application of the methods and categories of literary criticism to the object of study of British social anthropology. The latter overlaps with "sociology" in the broad sense. This early formation is attributed mainly to Richard Hoggart's establishment of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University in the early 1960s. Key texts for this early development are usually given as Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy (1957); Raymond Williams's Culture and Society (1958) and The Long Revolution 1961); and Edward P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (1960?). The association of Williams's work with Communications Studies topics (especially television) brought the conception of a separate "cultural studies" to the attention of US communications studies scholars. With time, the influence of the Kroeber-Parsons consensus has infiltrated US cultural studies, meshing cultural anthropology with literary criticism to create the dominant form of cultural studies in terms of publications and teaching programmes. Other influential cultural studies schools are those in Australia -- with their focus on post-coloniality and their subsequent influence on cultural inquiry along the Indian Ocean Rim -- and that developed from the experience of Southern and Central American social movements, with its special development of the thought of Paulo Freire.

The strengths and problems with cultural studies are fairly difficult to differentiate, because the strengths of the field in nominalist logics is clear because of the absorbed influence of Nietzsche's philosophy via Michel Foucault and Stuart Hall. The latter is easily the most influential figure in cultural studies after Hoggart, Williams, and Thompson. However, in a realist logical framework, the exceptional vagueness of definitions of "culture" derived from the Kroeber-Parsons consensus leads to the lack of concretely inferred conclusions in terms of which social, cultural, and political bodies can act. There is some indication that a philosophically realist approach based on C.S. Peirce's logical doctrine of pragmaticism might lend more definition to the subject-matter of cultural studies.

/Talk