Skip to main content
3: Anthropological Theory
- Last updated
Save as PDF
- 3.1: Social Evolution of Anthropological Theory
- There are a number of theoretical approaches used in cultural anthropology. This page highlights some of the major theoretical approaches used in cultural anthropology. Not all of the theories reviewed are in use any more. Social evolutionism was abandoned early on in cultural anthropology. Culture and Personality, Cultural Ecology, and Cultural Materialism have all been jumping off points for more modern theoretical perspectives.
- 3.2: Historical Particularism
- The Historical particularists valued fieldwork and history as critical methods of cultural analysis. At the same time, the anthropologists in this theoretical school had different views on the importance of individuals in a society. For example, Frantz Boas saw each individual as the basic component of a society. He gathered information from individual informants and considered such data valuable enough for cultural analysis.
- 3.3: Functionalism
- Functionalism considers a culture as an interrelated whole, not a collection of isolated traits. Like a human being has various organs that are interconnected and necessary for the body to function correctly, so society is a system of interconnected parts that make the whole function efficiently. The Functionalists examined how a particular cultural phase is interrelated with other aspects of the culture and how it affects the whole system of the society; in other words, cause and effect.
- 3.4: Culture and Personality
- The Culture and Personality school of thought drew on the work of Edward Sapir to explain relationships between childrearing customs and human behaviors in different societies. They suggested anthropologists could gain an understanding of a national culture through examination of individual personalities. There were two main themes: (1) One was about the relationship between culture and human nature and (2) The other was about the correlation between culture and individual personality.
- 3.5: Cultural Ecology
- Ecology is a biological term for the interaction of organisms and their environment, which includes other organisms. Cultural ecology is a theoretical approach that attempts to explain similarities and differences in culture in relation to the environment. Highly focused on how the material culture, or technology, related to basic survival, i.e., subsistence, cultural ecology was the first theoretical approach to provide a causal explanation for those similarities and differences.
- 3.6: Structural Anthropology
- Structural anthropology is a school of anthropology based on Claude Lévi-Strauss’ idea that immutable deep structures exist in all cultures, and consequently, that all cultural practices have homologous counterparts in other cultures, essentially that all cultures are equitable. Lévi-Strauss’ approach arose in large part from dialectics expounded on by Marx and Hegel, though dialectics (as a concept) dates back to Ancient Greek philosophy.
- 3.7: Cultural Materialism
- Cultural materialism is one of the major anthropological perspectives for analyzing human societies. It incorporates ideas from Marxism, cultural evolution, and cultural ecology. Materialism contends that the physical world impacts and sets constraints on human behavior. The materialists believe that human behavior is part of nature and therefore, it can be understood by using the methods of natural science. Materialists do not necessarily assume that material reality is more important than ment
- 3.8: Symbolic and Interpretive Anthropology
- The theoretical school of Symbolic and Interpretive Anthropology assumes that culture does not exist beyond individuals. Rather, culture lies in individuals’ interpretations of events and things around them. With a reference to socially established signs and symbols, people shape the patterns of their behaviors and give meanings to their experiences. Therefore, its goal is to analyze how people give meanings to their reality and how this reality is expressed by their cultural symbols.
- 3.9: Postmodernism
- Postmodernism is a theoretical approach that arose in the 1980s to explain an historical period, post-modernity, which is generally accepted to have begun in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is a period related to the Cold War and social upheaval in many parts of the world. The postmodernism theoretical approach is difficult to define and delineate. It is generally scoffed at in the Natural Sciences, debated in the Social Sciences, and more favorably accepted within the Humanities.
- 3.10: Feminist Anthropology
- Feminist anthropology is a four-field approach to anthropology (archaeological, biological, cultural, linguistic) that seeks to reduce male bias in research findings, anthropological hiring practices, and the scholarly production of knowledge. Simultaneously, feminist anthropology challenges essentialist feminist theories developed in Europe and America.
- 3.S: Anthropological Theory (Summary)