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1.1: What is Anthropology?

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    Anthropology is the scientific study of human beings as social organisms interacting with each other in their environment, and cultural aspects of life. It is a scholarly discipline that aims to describe in the broadest possible sense what it means to be human. Anthropologists are interested in comparison. To make substantial and accurate comparisons between cultures, a generalization of humans requires evidence from the wide range of human societies. Anthropologists are in direct contact with the sources of their data, thus field work is a crucial component. The field of Anthropology, although fairly new as an academic field, has been used for centuries. Anthropologists are convinced that explanations of human actions will be superficial unless they acknowledge that human lives are always entangled in complex patterns of work and family, power and meaning.

    Five Disciplines of Anthropology

    • Applied Anthropology: Includes the fields of Applied Medical Anthropology, Urban Anthropology, Anthropological Economics, Contract Archaeology and others. Applied anthropology is simply the practice of applying anthropological theory and or methods from any of the fields of Anthropology to solve human problems. For example, applied anthropology is often used when trying to determine the ancestry of an unearthed Native American burial. Biological anthropology can be used to test the DNA of the body and see if the DNA of the burial has any similarities to living populations. Medical Anthropology studies illness and healthcare within specific populations in order to form healthcare solutions that are tailored specifically to populations as well as identify unique areas of susceptibility within populations.
    • Archaeology: The study and interpretation of ancient humans or animals, their history, and culture. This is done through examination of the artifacts and remains that they left behind. An example of this is the study of Egyptian culture through the examination of their grave sites and the pyramids and the tombs in the Valley of Kings. Through the examination of pyramids and tombs in which these ancient humans lived in, much about human history and Egyptian culture is learned. Archaeology is an important study in improving knowledge about ancient humans, particularly, prehistoric or the long stretch of time before the development of writing.
    • Biological Anthropology: A subfield of Anthropology that studies humanity through the human body as a biological organism, using genetics, evolution, human ancestry, primates, and their ability to adapt. There was a shift in the emphasis on differences (with the older “physical anthropology”) due to the development of the “new” physical anthropology developed by Sherwood Washburn at the University of California, Berkley. This field shifted from racial classification when it was discovered that physical traits that had been used to determine race could not predict other traits such as intelligence and morality. Some biological anthropologists work in the fields of primatology, which studies the closest living relative of human beings, the nonhuman primate. They also work in the field of paleoanthropology, which is the study of fossilized bones and teeth of our earliest ancestors. (also: Physical Anthropology). Biological anthropologists focus heavily on comparing and contrasting the biology of humans to that of our nearest extant relatives, the primates, to discover what distinguishes humans from primates as well as primates from other mammals.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Excavated ruins of Mohenjo-daro, Pakistan.
    • Cultural Anthropology: The study of contemporary human cultures and how these cultures are formed and shape the world around them. Cultural anthropologists often conduct research by spending time living in and observing the community they study (fieldwork) and participant observation in order to increase understanding of its politics, social structures, and religion. (also: sociocultural anthropology, social anthropology, or ethnology)
    • Linguistic Anthropology: Examines human languages: how they work, how they are made, how they change, and how they die and are later revived. Linguistic anthropologists try to understand the language in relation to the broader cultural, historical, or biological contexts that make it possible. The study of linguistics includes examining phonemes, morphemes, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. They look at linguistic features of communication, which includes any verbal contact, as well as non-linguistic features, such as, eye contact, the cultural context, and even the recent thoughts of the speaker.

    Holism in Anthropology

    Anthropology is holistic, comparative, field-based, and evolutionary. These regions of Anthropology shape one another and become integrated over time. Historically it was seen as "the study of others," meaning foreign cultures, but using the term "others" imposed false thoughts of "civilized versus savagery." These dualistic views have often caused wars or even genocide. Now, anthropologists strive to uncover the mysteries of these foreign cultures and eliminate the prejudice that it first created. Holism is the perspective on the human condition that assumes that mind, body, individuals, society, and the environment interpenetrate and even define one another. In anthropology holism tries to integrate all that is known about human beings and their activities. From a holistic perspective, attempts to divide reality into mind and matter isolate and pin down certain aspects of a process that, by very nature, resists isolation and dissection. Holism holds great appeal for those who seek a theory of human nature that is rich enough to do justice to its complex subject matter. An easier understanding of holism is to say that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

    The holistic approach is a perspective that assumes interrelationships among parts of a subject including both biological and cultural aspects. This approach is used to study the thoughts, behaviors, emotional, and spiritual changes we experience as humans. Anthropologists have the opportunity to use this approach to study the way humans are interested in engaging and developing as a whole person. [1]

    What is Culture?

    Culture is the patterns of learned and shared behavior and beliefs of a particular social, ethnic, or age group. It can also be described as the complex whole of collective human beliefs with a structured stage of civilization that can be specific to a nation or time period. Humans, in turn, use culture to adapt and transform the world they live in.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Ashanti flag, note the golden stool

    This idea of Culture can be seen in the way that we describe the Ashanti, an African tribe located in central Ghana. The Ashanti live with their families as you might assume but the meaning of how and why they live with whom is an important aspect of Ashanti culture. In the Ashanti culture, the family and the mother’s clan are most important. A child is said to inherit the father’s soul or spirit (ntoro) and from the mother, a child receives flesh and blood (mogya), relating them more closely to the mother’s clan. The Ashanti live in an extended family. The family lives in various homes or huts that are set up around a courtyard. The head of the household is usually the oldest brother that lives there. He is chosen by the elders. He is called either Father or Housefather and everyone in the household obeys him.[2]

    The anthropological study of culture can be organized along two persistent and basic themes: Diversity and Change. An individual's upbringing and environment (or culture) is what makes them diverse from other cultures. It is the differences between all cultures and sub-cultures of the world's regions. People's need to adapt and transform to physical, biological and cultural forces to survive represents the second theme, Change. Culture generally changes for one of two reasons: selective transmission or to meet changing needs. This means that when a village or culture is met with new challenges, for example, a loss of a food source, they must change the way they live. This could mean almost anything to the culture, including possible forced redistribution of, or relocation from ancestral domains due to external and/or internal forces. And an anthropologist would look at that and study their ways to learn from them.

    Culture is:

    • Learned through active teaching, and passive habitus.
    • Shared meaning that it defines a group and meets common needs.
    • Patterned meaning that that there is a recourse of similar ideas. Related cultural beliefs and practices show up repeatedly in different areas of social life.
    • Adaptive which helps individuals meet needs across variable environments.
    • Symbolic which means that there are simple and arbitrary signs that represent something else, something more.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): "Petty apartheid": sign on Durban beach in English, Afrikaans and Zulu (1989)

    Originally the overlap of the two concepts had a positive effect, especially during colonial times; it helped spread the idea that vulnerable seemingly “primitive” and “uncivilized” cultures had some intrinsic value and deserved protection from other more dominating cultures. However, the drawback of this is it assumes first that culture is a static thing that it can be preserved, unchanged by the changing people and times it runs into. It also assumes that the people accept at face value and do not wish to change their patterns or ways of life. If people then do change, often they are criticized by a member from within and outside their own culture for not valuing ‘authenticity’ and tradition. This relates to the "Culture" vs. "culture" in that field of anthropology’s focus and appreciation of Culture and how it develops differently can be twisted when talking about Cultural relativism or human rights. Appreciation and defense of Culture do not imply blind tolerance to all aspects of all cultures.

    Levels of Culture

    Familial culture

    How you express culture as a family through traditions, roles, beliefs, and other areas, is what describes this aspect of culture. Familial culture is passed down from generation to generation, it is both shared and learned. As a family grows, new generations are introduced to the traditional family practices. Familial culture is learned by means of enculturation which is the process by which a person learns the requirements of the culture that he or she is surrounded by. With enculturation, an individual will also learn behaviors that are appropriate or necessary in their given culture. The influences of enculturation from the family will then direct and shape the individual.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): The Royal Family of Great Britain is deeply set in family tradition

    The present Royal family of Great Britain is a good example of family tradition, as each male member of the royal family has served in the armed forces. This tradition began with the Duke of Edinburgh enlisting in Great Britain's Royal Navy prior to World War II, and the tradition has continued through the generations.

    Micro or Subculture

    Micro or Subculture are distinct groups within a larger group that share some sort of common trait, activity or language that ties them together and/or differentiates them from the larger group. A micro or subculture is also not limited to how small it can be, it could be defined similarly to a clique. An example of this could be Mexican-Americans within the U.S. society. They share the same language, but they may have their own traditions that differentiate them for the whole. An example of a micro-culture would be the Japanese hip hop genba (club site) that is becoming more and more popular throughout Japanese cities.[3] Although rap began in the United States, it has created its own unique appearance and style in the Japanese youth today. The physical appearance of rappers may be the same to those in the States, however, the content of the music differs along with the preservation of Japanese traditions.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Cinco de Mayo dancers greeted by former Pres. George W. Bush."The holiday, which has been celebrated in California continuously since 1863, is virtually ignored in Mexico."[4]

    Cultural universals

    Cultural universals (which have been mentioned by anthropologists like George Murdock, Claude Levi-Strauss, Donald Brown and others) are common elements that exist in every human culture yet varies from different ethnic groups. This includes attributes such as values and modes of behavior. Examples of elements that may be considered cultural universals are gender roles, the incest taboo, religious and healing ritual, mythology, marriage, language, art, dance, music, cooking, games, jokes, sports, birth, and death because they involve some sort of ritual ceremonies accompanying them, etc. Many anthropologists and socialists with an extreme perspective of cultural relativism deny the existence or reduce the importance of cultural universals believing that these traits were only inherited biologically through the known controversy of “nurture vs. nature”. They are mainly known as "empty universals" since just mentioning their existence in a culture doesn't make them any more special or unique. The existence of these universals has been said to date to the Upper Paleolithic with the first evidence of behavioral modernity.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): A woman dancing folklórico in the traditional dress of Jalisco

    Among the cultural universals listed by Brown are:

    • Language and cognition - All cultures employ some type of communication, symbolism is also a universal idea in language.
    • Society - Being in a family, having peers, or being a member of any organized group or community is what makes society.
    • Myth, Ritual, and aesthetics - Different cultures all have a number of things in common, for example, a belief system, celebration of life and death, and other ceremonial events.
    • Technology - There are worldwide variations in clothing, housing, tools and techniques for getting food through different types of technology.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Residents of Vanuatu making fire. The use of fire for cooking is a human cultural universal

    Two Views of Culture

    • Etic

    An etic view is a judgment or perspective about a culture, gained based on an analysis from an outsider's customs and culture. Etic view minimizes the acceptance between two parties. Therefore, the importance of having an anthropological knowledge is greatly beneficial. There are so many situations where a person can have or get an etic view on. For example, if an American anthropologist went to Africa to study a nomadic tribe, their resulting case study would be from an etic standpoint if they did not integrate themselves into the culture they were observing. Some fields of anthropology may take this approach to avoid altering the culture that they are studying by direct interaction. The etic perspective is data gathering by outsiders that yield questions posed by outsiders. One problem that anthropologists may run in to is that people tend to act differently when they are being observed. It is especially hard for an outsider to gain access to certain private rituals, which may be important for understanding a culture. Etic ethnographic works often use exotic language when describing the "other".

    • Emic

    An emic view of culture is ultimately a perspective focus on the intrinsic cultural distinctions that are meaningful to the members of a given society. This is often considered to be an 'insider’s' perspective. While this perspective stems from the concept of immersion in a specific culture; the emic participant is not always a member of that culture or society. Studies done from an emic perspective often include more detailed and culturally rich information than studies done from an etic point of view. Because the observer places themselves within the culture of intended study, they are able to go further in-depth on the details of practices and beliefs of a society that may otherwise have been ignored. However, the emic perspective has its downfalls. Studies done from an emic perspective can create bias on the part of the participant, especially if said individual is a member of the culture they are studying, thereby failing to keep in mind how their practices are perceived by others and possibly causing valuable information to be left out. The emic perspective serves the purpose of providing descriptive in-depth reports about how insiders of a culture understand their rituals, beliefs, and traditions.

    Cross-Cultural

    Cross-cultural studies, is dealing with or offering comparison between two or more different cultures or cultural areas.

    Enculturation

    Enculturation is a process by which we obtain and transmit culture. This process is experienced universally among humans. It describes how each individual is affected by prohibited behaviors and beliefs, which are 'proscribed' rather than encouraged behaviors and beliefs, which are 'prescribed'. Parents and other authority figures in young children’s lives are usually the initiators of this process, steering the children toward activities and beliefs that will be socially accepted in their culture. Through this process, these authority figures definitely shape the child’s view on life. Enculturation results in the interpretation of these ideals established by our culture and the establishment of our own individual behaviors and beliefs. In general, enculturation is a refereed journal devoted to contemporary theories of rhetoric, writing, and culture, and invites submissions on rhetoric, composition, media, technology, and education.

    Cultural Transmission

    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Barack Obama shows multi-cultural respect by hosting a Seder dinner. Seder is a Jewish tradition passed down through families for generations.

    Cultural Transmission is the passing of new knowledge and traditions of culture from one generation to the next, as well as cross-culturally. Cultural Transmission happens every day, all the time, without any concept of when or where. Everything people do and say provides cultural transmission in all aspects of life. In everyday life, the most common way cultural norms are transmitted is within each individuals' home life. Each family has its own, distinct culture under the big picture of each given society and/or nation. With every family, there are traditions that are kept alive. The way each family acts and communicates with others and an overall view of life are passed down. Parents teach their kids every day how to behave and act by their actions alone. Outside of the family, culture can be transmitted at various social institutions. Places of worship, schools, even shopping centers are places where enculturation happens amongst a population.

    Social Institutions

    Social institutions are a framework of social relationships that link an individual to the society, through participation. The forms of these social relationships can vary greatly across political, economic, religious, and familial platforms. Cross culturally, these relationships require understanding of the norms, values, and traditions that make them functional. Cultural transmission takes place within these relationships throughout an individual's lifetime.

    Examples of these relationships range from marriage to participating in church. The complexities that govern this relationship are unique and highly culturally bound. Often external factors such as economics and health issues come into play. Studies were done in rural Malawi that discuss these issues further.[5]

    Symbols within Culture

    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): The Rosetta stone has several different languages carved into it

    A symbol is an object, word, or action that stands for something else, depending on the culture. Everything one does throughout their life is based and organized through cultural symbolism, which is when something represents abstract ideas or concepts. Symbols can represent a group or organization that one is affiliated with and mean different things to different people, which is why it is impossible to hypothesize how a specific culture will symbolize something. Some symbols are gained from experience, while others are gained from culture. One of the most common cultural symbols is language. For example, the letters of an alphabet symbolize the sounds of a specific spoken language. Hawaiian culture presents a good example of symbols in culture through the performance of a Lua which is a symbol of their land and heritage through song and dance [6]

    Symbols can have good or bad meanings depending on how others interpret them. For example, the Swastika shown on the German Flag back in World War 2 means good fortune in some religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism and often used on designs, but after World War 2 the meaning of the Swastika shifted to a negative side among Americans. Street gangs have used colors and gang signs to show their affiliation to a gang. For Example, bloods are a street gang that are usually associated with red and have a gang sign that resembles the word ‘blood’.

    Symbols are also extremely common and important in religion. Churches, mosques and temples are places where people gather to practice a shared belief or faith and establish relationships based on this commonality, but many of these individuals will spend most of their time at school, work or other places where they are not amongst people with the same belief so they often wear a symbol of their religion to express belief. For example, a cross is usually associated with Christianity as churches often have them on their buildings to identify it as a setting of Christian worship. Some Christians wear the cross in the form of jewelry and in some cases in the form of a body tattoo. Other religions make use of symbols as well such as the Star of David in Judaism.

    Language is the most used form of symbolism. There are 6,912 known living languages. Such diversity in languages is caused by isolation. Most languages have a different "symbol" for each letter, word, or phrase. The use of symbols is adaptive, which means that humans can learn to associate new symbols to a concept or new concepts with a symbol. An example may be drawn from two populations who speak different languages that come into contact with one another and need to communicate. They form a language that has a large degree of flexibility in using either language's symbols (in this case patterns of sound) or a hybrid set of symbols to communicate messages back and forth. This contact language, or pidgin gradually gives way to a creole with a more formal set of symbols (words), grammatical rules for their organization, and its own native speakers who transmit the language from generation to generation.

    It is important for anthropologists to consider their own cultural background when looking at symbolism in a different culture. This is because many symbols, though similar in appearance, can mean drastically different things. These symbols can best be understood or interpreted through the eyes of the culture that they pertain to, otherwise they may lose their unique significance. One example of a misinterpreted cultural symbol is the “whirl log” symbol commonly used in Southwestern Native American blanket weaving. This symbol is almost identical to the Nazi Swastika, and therefore brings a negative response from many Americans. Although the Native American symbol has nothing to do with Nazi or Germanic symbolism, this design is rarely used on blankets today because of misinterpretation of the symbol.[7]

    Ethnocentrism

    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): "Colonization of New England" - Early settlers cut and saw trees and use the lumber to construct a building, possibly a warehouse for their supplies. This is the first scene painted entirely by Costaggini.

    Ethnocentrism is the term anthropologists use to describe the opinion that one's own way of life is natural or correct. Some will simply call it cultural ignorance. Those who have not experienced other cultures in depth can be said to be ethnocentric if they feel that their lives are the most natural way of living. Some cultures may be similar or overlap in ideas or concepts. However, some people are in a sense, shocked to experience differences with individuals culturally different than themselves. In extreme cases, a group of individuals may see another culture's way of life and consider it wrong, because of this, the group may try to convert the other group to their own ways of living. Fearful war and genocide could be the devastating result if a group is unwilling to change their ways of living.

    Ethnocentrism is seen in parts of Asia, where they use chopsticks with every meal. These people may find it unnecessary to find that people in other societies, such as the American society, eat using forks, spoons, knives, etc. Since these countries use chopsticks to eat every meal, they find it foolish for other cultures to not use utensils similar to chopsticks; however, they do accept the fact that they use different utensils for eating. This example is not something extreme that could lead to genocide or war, but it is a large enough gap between these cultures for people to see their way of eating as the natural or best way to typically eat their food.

    Another example of ethnocentrism is colonialism. Colonialism can be defined as cultural domination with enforced social change. Colonialism refers to the social system in which the political conquests by one society of another leads to "cultural domination with enforced social change". A good example to look at when examining colonialism is the British overtake of India. The British had little understanding of the culture in India which created a lot of problems an unrest during their rule.[8]

    Figure \(\PageIndex{11}\): "Statue of Gandhi" - Gandhi was an important figure in the struggle to end the period of British colonial rule in India, he fought for peace and understanding during this time of unrest.

    "Statue of Gandhi" - Gandhi was an important figure in the struggle to end the period of British colonial rule in India, he fought for peace and understanding during this time of unrest.

    Ethnocentrism may not, in some circumstances, be avoidable. We often have instinctual reactions toward another person or culture's practices or beliefs. But these reactions do not have to result in horrible events such as genocide or war. In order to avoid conflict over culture practices and beliefs, we must all try to be more culturally relative. Ethnocentrism is one solution to the tension between one cultural self and another cultural self.

    Affect on Anthropology: In many instances Anthropologist have allowed ethnocentrism to determine research and influence analyses. For example Ajami is a language created centuries ago by Islamic teachers and used throughout Sub Saharan Africa that combines Arabic script and another language (such as Swahili, Wolof, Hausa or Berber).[9] The origin and historic use of the language is powerful and significant since it served as a form of resistance against colonialism, inspired self- sufficiency and propagated Islam. Many African historical documents are in Ajami. However, there are some historians and anthropologist who have refused to acknowledge African history due to ethnocentric views and do not value the information those historical documents may reveal. This is just one of the many examples where personal views have interfered with the understanding of other cultures and societies.

    Cultural Relativism

    The Cross-Cultural Relationship is the idea that people from different cultures can have relationships that acknowledge, respect and begin to understand each others' diverse lives. People with different backgrounds can help each other see possibilities that they never thought were there because of limitations, or cultural proscriptions, posed by their own traditions. Traditional practices in certain cultures can restrict opportunity because they are "wrong" according to one specific culture. Becoming aware of these new possibilities will ultimately change the people that are exposed to the new ideas. This cross-cultural relationship provides hope that new opportunities will be discovered, but at the same time it is threatening. The threat is that once the relationship occurs, one can no longer claim that any single culture is the absolute truth.

    Cultural relativism is the ability to understand a culture on its own terms and not to make judgments using the standards of one's own culture. The goal of this is promote understanding of cultural practices that are not typically part of one's own culture. Using the perspective of cultural relativism leads to the view that no one culture is superior than another culture when compared to systems of morality, law, politics, etc.[10] It is a concept that cultural norms and values derive their meaning within a specific social context. This is also based on the idea that there is no absolute standard of good or evil; therefore, every decision and judgment of what is right and wrong is individually decided in each society. The concept of cultural relativism also means that any opinion on ethics is subject to the perspective of each person within their particular culture. Overall, there is no right or wrong ethical system. In a holistic understanding of the term cultural relativism, it tries to counter ethnocentrism by promoting the understanding of cultural practices that are unfamiliar to other cultures such as eating insects, genocides, or genital cutting.

    There are two different categories of cultural relativism:

    • Absolute: Complete acceptance and tolerance for any type of cultural practice.
    • Critical: Critiquing cultural practices in terms of human rights.

    Absolute cultural relativism is displayed in many cultures, especially Africa, that practice female genital cutting. This procedure refers to the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or any other trauma to the female reproductive/genital organs. By allowing this procedure to happen, females are considered women and then are able to be married. FGC is practiced mainly because of culture, religion and tradition. Outside cultures such as the United States look down upon FGC as inhumane, but are unable to stop this practice from happening because it is protected by its culture.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{12}\): A Chinese woman with her feet unbound

    Cultural relativism can also be seen with the Chinese culture and their process of feet binding. Foot binding was to stop the growth of the foot and make them smaller. The process often began between four and seven years old. A ten foot bandage would be wrapped around the foot forcing the toes to go under the foot. It caused the big toe to be closer to the heel causing the foot to bow.[4] In China, small feet were seen as beautiful and a symbol of status. The women wanted their feet to be “three-inch golden lotuses”三寸金蓮[3] It was also the only way to get married. Because men only wanted women with small feet, even after this practice was banned in 1912, women still continued to do it. To Western cultures the idea of feet binding might seem like torture, but for the Chinese culture it is symbol of beauty that has been ingrained in the culture for hundreds of years. The idea of beauty differs from culture to culture.


    1.1: What is Anthropology? is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Wikibooks - Cultural Anthropology (Wikibooks) .

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