Cultural anthropology

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Cultural Anthropology (known as Social Anthropology in Great Britain) is one of the four branches of general anthropology, the primary focus being the study of human culture. In this context, culture can deal with a host of subjects, such as, but not limited to, religion, mythology, art, music, government systems, social structures and hierarchies, family dynamics, traditions and customs, as well as cuisine, economy, and relationship to the environment.


Any and all of these factors make up important aspects of culture and behavior, and are some of the pieces of human history that cultural anthropology tries to put together into a larger, more comprehensive picture of the human experience. The ultimate goal is to bridge gaps between cultures, breaking down barriers that divide us, allowing us to understand each other more completely and thus to understand ourselves. Through this process we not only advance our ability to take care of all members of human society for the future, but we also give credit to those who came before, honoring and maintaining their memory.


Cultural anthropology is the branch of anthropology that deals with human culture. Depending upon the academic climate of the country in which it is practiced, it can be more focused on "ethnology," such as in France and America, the systematic comparison of the folklore, beliefs, and practices of different societies based on ethnographic observance and study of a small society by an anthropologist living and actively participating in local culture, or "social anthropology," done mostly in Great Britain and Western Europe, which emphasizes a dichotomy of extensive fieldwork and scholarly research. Despite their differences, cultural anthropology, social anthropology, and ethnology all share the similar core ideology that culture is the essence of "human nature," that all people have the capacity to classify experiences, encode classifications symbolically, and to teach abstractions to others.

There are similarities between cultural anthropology and its variants with sociology, such as the systematic study of groups of people and how they relate to the larger community. However, the disciplines developed independently of one another. Cultural anthropology began by focusing first on those societies that were deemed "primitive," in an attempt to understand how human society developed. Sociology was initially interested in the structure of societies, focusing on contemporary, industrialized society. As cultural anthropology became more interested in the contemporary, urban society, the difference remains that, as a main tenet all anthropological studies seek to aid the complete understanding of humanity at all points in time, a broader approach than sociology. Anthropologist Robert Gordon explains, “Whereas the sociologist or the political scientist might examine the beauty of a flower petal by petal, the anthropologist is the person that stands on the top of the mountain and looks at the beauty of the field.” [1]

Another way of viewing the difference is noted by Geert Hofstede:

Organization cultures should be distinguished from national cultures. National cultures distinguish similar people, institutions and organizations in different countries. Organizational cultures, the way I use the term, distinguish different organizations within the same country or countries. Cultures manifest themselves, from superficial to deep, in symbols, heroes, rituals and values. My research has shown that organizational cultures differ mainly at the levels of symbols, heroes and rituals, together labeled 'practices'; national cultures differ mostly at the deeper level, the level of values. … National cultures belong to anthropology; organizational cultures to sociology. [2]


Our interest in other cultures harks back to the fifteenth century, when exploration of the world was beginning to blossom with the discovery of America. The rise of colonialism and the discovery of the "New World" brought the long separated cultures of Western Europe and the Americas, along with cultures of Asia, Africa, and the Pacific, into more frequent contact. Occidental interest in the "other" peoples of the New World, propagated by early, popular, and mostly inaccurate travel narratives, gave rise to ethnocentric mentalities of people as "primitive," "savages," or "noble savages." Such perspectives were widespread in Europe, and were sometimes used as the basis for colonial rule.

The legacy of cultural anthropology as a pseudo-scientific justification for racial superiority and oppression has been difficult for the discipline to overcome. This is particularly the case since it was distorted cultural anthropology that led to such atrocities as the forced removal of Native Americans from their land during the Jackson Administration and the philosophy of Aryan superiority during the Third Reich. [3] Even today, when cultural anthropology has become a recognized, legitimate academic discipline, there are still feelings of distrust on the part of cultures being studied, such as Native Americans viewing anthropologists as arrogant and intrusive. Yet, as early as the nineteenth century, during the peak of anthropological misuse, there were honest academics attempting to scientifically analyze culture so as to understand humanity.

Edward Burnett Tylor

With the rise of history, antiquity, and humanities studies, along with the natural sciences, during the nineteenth century, such scholars as Edward Burnett Tylor and James Frazer began to plant the seeds of cultural anthropology. They wondered why people living in different parts of the world sometimes had similar beliefs and practices. This question became the underlying concern of cultural anthropology, and distinguished the academic discipline as its own separate branch of anthropological studies. An early scholar who tried to answer this question was Grafton Elliot Smith, who argued that different groups must somehow have learned from one another, as if cultural traits were being spread, or "diffused" from one place to another. Others argued that different groups had the capability 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:

As it is undeniable that portions of the human family have existed in a state of savagery, other portions in a state of barbarism, and still other portions in a state of civilization, it seems equally so that these three distinct conditions are connected with each other in a natural as well as necessary sequence of progress. [4]

The Beginnings of Ethnography

A breakthrough in cultural anthropological methodology took place in Britain following World War I. Bronislaw Malinowski’s meticulous, process-oriented fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands of Melanesia between 1915 and 1918, and Radcliffe-Brown's theoretical program for systematic comparison that was based on a conception of rigorous fieldwork and the "structural-functionalist" conception of Emile Durkheim’s sociology, became the basis of ethnography.

Although nineteenth century ethnologists saw "diffusion" and "independent invention" as mutually exclusive and competing theories, most ethnographers quickly reached a consensus that both processes occur, and that both can plausibly account for cross-cultural similarities. However, these ethnographers pointed out the superficiality of many such similarities, 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 showed less interest in comparing cultures, generalizing about human nature, or discovering universal laws of cultural development, than in understanding particular cultures in those cultures' own terms. Such ethnographers and their students promoted the idea of "cultural relativism," the view that one can only understand another person's beliefs and behaviors in the context of the culture in which he or she lived.

Ethnology in France

Most commentators consider Marcel Mauss to be the founder of the French anthropological tradition. Mauss was a member of Emile Durkheim's Année Sociologique group, and while Durkheim and others examined the state of modern societies, Mauss and his collaborators (such as Henri Hubert and Robert Hertz) drew on ethnography and philology to analyze societies which were not as "differentiated" as European nation-states. In particular, Mauss' Essai sur le don (The Gift 1925) was to prove of enduring relevance in anthropological studies of exchange and reciprocity.

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

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

Social Anthropology in Britain

The two most important scholars in this tradition were Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown and Bronislaw Malinowski, both of whom released seminal works in 1922. Radcliffe-Brown's initial fieldwork, in the Andaman Islands, was carried out in the old style of historical reconstruction. After reading the work of French sociologists Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, Radcliffe-Brown published an account of his research (simply titled, The Andaman Islanders) that paid close attention to the meaning and purpose of rituals and myths. Over time, he developed an approach known as "structural-functionalism," which focused on how institutions in societies worked to balance out or create equilibrium in the social system to keep it functioning harmoniously.

Malinowski, in contrast, advocated a functionalism which examined how society operated to meet individual needs. He is well known for his detailed ethnography and advances in methodology. His classic ethnography, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, advocated obtaining "the native's point of view" and an approach to fieldwork that became standard.

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

Following the difficult reconstruction Britain underwent after World War II, especially the final collapse of its colonial empire, modern anthropology in Britain was formed by rejecting historical reconstruction in the name of a science of society. It focused on analyzing how societies held together in the present, challenging the principles of structural-functionalism, absorbing ideas from Claude Levi-Strauss’s structuralism and from Max Gluckman’s Manchester school, and embracing the study of conflict, social change, urban anthropology, and networks. "Social anthropologists" focused on observed social behaviors and on social structure; that is, on relationships among social roles (e.g. husband and wife, or parent and child) and social institutions (e.g. religion, economy, and politics).

While the discipline maintains differences from one country to another, the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) was founded in 1989 as a society of scholarship at a meeting of founder members from fourteen European countries, including Great Britain, supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. The Association seeks to advance anthropology in Europe by organizing biennial conferences and through its academic journal, Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale.

Cultural Anthropology in America

Cultural anthropology in the United States was influenced in its initial development by the ready availability of Native American societies as ethnographic subjects. The field was pioneered by staff from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American Ethnology, including men such as John Wesley Powell and Frank Hamilton Cushing. Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881), a lawyer from Rochester, New York, became an advocate for and ethnological scholar of the Iroquois. His comparative analyses of religion, government, material culture, and especially kinship patterns proved to be influential contributions to the field of anthropology. Like other scholars of his day (such as Edward Burnett Tylor), Morgan argued that human societies could be classified into categories of cultural evolution on a scale of progression that ranged from "savagery," to "barbarism," to "civilization." Generally, Morgan used technology (such as bow making or pottery) as an indicator of position on this scale. [5]

Franz Boas

Franz Boas established academic anthropology in the United States in opposition to this sort of evolutionary perspective. Boasian anthropology was politically active and suspicious of research dictated by the U.S. government and wealthy patrons. It was rigorously empirical and skeptical of overgeneralizations and attempts to establish universal laws. Boas studied immigrant children to demonstrate that biological race was not immutable, and that human conduct and behavior resulted from nurture, rather than nature.

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

Boas used his positions at Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History to train and develop multiple generations of students. His first generation of students included Alfred L. Kroeber, Robert Lowie, Edward Sapir, and Ruth Benedict, all of whom produced richly detailed studies of indigenous North American cultures. They provided a wealth of details used to attack the theory of a single evolutionary process. Kroeber and Sapir's focus on Native American languages helped establish linguistics as a truly general science and free it from its historical focus on Indo-European languages.

The publication of Alfred Kroeber's textbook, Anthropology, marked a turning point in American anthropology. After three decades of amassing material, Boasians felt a growing urge to generalize. This was most obvious in the culture-and-personality studies carried out by younger Boasians such as Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. Influenced by psychologists such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, these authors sought to understand the way that individual personalities were shaped by the wider cultural and social forces in which they grew up. Though such works as Coming of Age in Samoa and The Chrysanthemum and the Sword remain popular with the American public, Mead and Benedict never had the impact on the discipline of anthropology that some expected. However, the American discipline in more recent times has become more focused on the ways people express their view of themselves and their world, especially in symbolic forms (such as art and myths). These two approaches frequently converged (kinship, for example, and leadership function both as a symbolic systems and as social institutions), and generally complemented one another.

Contemporary theory and methods

Ethnographic methodology continues to dominate cultural anthropology. Nevertheless, many contemporary socio-cultural anthropologists have rejected earlier models of ethnography that treated local cultures as bounded and isolated. These anthropologists continue to concern themselves with the distinct ways people in different locales experience and understand their personal lives, but they often argue that one cannot understand these particular ways of life solely in the local context; they argue that one must analyze them in the context of regional or even global political and economic relations. Notable proponents of this approach include Arjun Appadurai, James Clifford, George Marcus, Sidney Mintz, Michael Taussig, and Eric Wolf. Cultural anthropologists have increasingly turned their investigative eye on to "Western" culture. For example, Philippe Bourgois won the Margaret Mead Award in 1997 for In Search of Respect, a study of the entrepreneurs in a Harlem crack-den. Also growing more popular are ethnographies of professional communities, such as laboratory researchers, Wall Street investors, law firms, or IT computer employees. [6] As such, contemporary cultural anthropology has focused more and more on developed cultures and less on traditionally "primitive" societies, although a number of anthropologists still work with the ever decreasing, non-"Westernized" populations of the world in an attempt to record their ways of life before such cultures become extinct.

An outgrowth of this trend in anthropological research and analysis is the use of multi-sited ethnography [7] Looking at culture as embedded in macro-constructions of a global social order, multi-sited ethnography uses traditional methodology in various locations both spatially and temporally. Through this methodology greater insight can be gained when examining the impact of world-systems on local and global communities. Also emerging in multi-sited ethnography are greater interdisciplinary approaches to fieldwork, bringing in methods from cultural studies, media studies, science and technology studies, and others. Such research tracks a subject across spatial and temporal boundaries. For example, a multi-sited ethnography may follow a "thing," such as a particular commodity, as it transfers through the networks of global capitalism. Multi-sited ethnography may also follow ethnic groups in diaspora, stories or rumors that appear in multiple locations and in multiple time periods, metaphors that appear in multiple ethnographic locations, or the biographies of individual people or groups as they move through space and time. It may also follow conflicts that transcend boundaries.

One strong example of multi-sited work is Nancy Scheper-Hughes's ethnography of the international black market for the trade of human organs. [8] In this research she followed organs as they were transferred through various legal and illegal networks of capitalism, as well as the rumors and urban legends that circulated in impoverished communities about child kidnapping and organ theft.

Cultural anthropology has certainly come a long way from its humble origins, evolving into a highly diversified system of academic study. And yet, a major portion work remains the recording of culture and traditions that are dying out due to modernization. The traditional tribal communities are now few and far between, as the world becomes more and more mechanistic and industrialized, and if not for the hard work of cultural anthropologists, information on older ways of life in all parts of the globe would no longer exist.

There are, however, issues that remain in ethnographic research, whether those studied are traditional or recently-emerged cultures. These include the difficulty of understanding another culture without becoming part it, identifying with it, and thus losing the objectivity of an academic study versus invoking personal bias from the researchers' own culture. Equally problematic is the issue of inadvertent cultural change produced by the presence of the anthropologist, and the ethical dilemma of whether to intervene when observing behaviors deemed morally reprehensible by the observer's own culture.

Despite such difficulties, though, anthropologists continue to advance our knowledge through their efforts. The ethnographic method has closed the gap between cultures, enabling people to better understand the true meaning and value of different customs and practices in once distant cultures. As the traditions of our ancestors start to disappear more rapidly, the very least we can do is to look back on the records and reports accumulated and appreciate those who came before us, what they thought and how they lived, and have some understanding of our similarities and differences, and how human society has evolved from those who lived before.


  1. Gordon, Robert. in Haviland, William A. Anthropology. 9th Ed. Orlando: Harcourt, 2000.
  2. Hofstede, Geert "A summary of my ideas about organizational cultures" Retrieved May 17, 2007.
  3. Lewis, Herbert S. 2004: "Imagining Anthropology's History." Reviews in Anthropology, v. 33
  4. Morgan, Lewis Henry. 1877. Ancient Society. Transaction Publishers; New Ed with an Introduction by Robin Fox (2000). ISBN 0765806916
  5. Morgan, Lewis Henry. 1877. Ancient Society Reprint Services Corporation. ISBN 0781245893
  6. Avison D.E. and M.D. Myers. 1995. "Information systems and anthropology: and anthropological perspective on IT and organizational culture." Information Technology & People, no. 3 (1995):43-56.
  7. Marcus, George. "Ethnography In/Of the World System: the Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography" Retrieved May 17, 2007.
  8. Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 2004. "Parts unknown: Undercover ethnography of the organs-trafficking underworld" Ethnography, No. 1 (2004): 29-73.


  • Clastres, Pierre. 1974. Society Against the State. Blackwell Oxford.
  • Erikson, Thomas H. 1985. Social Anthropology. The Social Science Encyclopedia: 926-929
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  • Kuper, Adam. 1996. Anthropology and Anthropologists: The Modern British School. Routledge. ISBN 0415045843
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1949. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Beacon Press. ISBN 0807046698
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1958. Structural Anthropology. Basic Books. ISBN 046509516X
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1915. The Trobriand Islands.
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1922. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. ISBN 0415090946
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1929. The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia. ISBN 1417904771
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1935. Coral Gardens and Their Magic: A Study of the Methods of Tilling the Soil and of Agricultural Rites in the Trobriand Islands. ISBN 0486235971
  • Mauss, Marcel. 2000. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 039332043X
  • Maybury-Lewis, David. 1967. Akwe-Shavante society. Oxford University Press Inc. ISBN 0195197291
  • Maybury-Lewis, David. 2003. The Politics of Ethnicity: Indigenous Peoples in Latin American States. Harvard University David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. ISBN 0674009649
  • Leach, Edmund. 1982. Social Anthropology. Oxford University Press. ISBN 019520428X

External links

All links retrieved July 21, 2013.

  • Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History - Over 160,000 objects from Pacific, North American, African, Asian ethnographic collections with images and detailed description, linked to the original catalogue pages, field notebooks, and photographs are available online.
  • Ethnologue - describes the languages and ethnic groups found worldwide, grouped by host nation-state.


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