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Chapter 2: What is Culture?

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    Remix Authors:

    Vanessa Martínez, Holyoke Community College,

    Demetrios Brellas, Framingham State University,

    Original Authors

    Priscilla Medeiros, Women’s College Hospital,

    Emily Cowall, McMaster University,

    Learning Objectives

    • Describe how anthropologists define culture.
    • Compare and contrast the ideas of ethnocentrism and cultural relativism.
    • Describe how the anthropological concept of culture came to be.
    • Identify the differences between armchair anthropology and participant-observer fieldwork.
    • Assess some of the ethical issues that can arise from anthropological research.

    2.1 Introduction

    Cultural anthropologists study all aspects of culture, but what exactly is “culture”? When we first ask students in our introductory cultural anthropology courses what culture means to them, our students typically say that culture is food, clothing, religion, language, traditions, art, music, and so forth. Indeed, culture includes many of these observable characteristics, but culture is also something deeper. Culture is a powerful defining characteristic of human groups that shapes our perceptions, behaviors, and relationships.

    Culture is a set of beliefs, practices, materials, and symbols that are learned and shared. In this definition, belief refers not just to what we “believe” to be right or wrong, true or false. Belief also refers to all the mental aspects of culture including values, norms, philosophies, worldview, knowledge, and so forth. Practices refers to behaviors and actions that may be motivated by belief or performed without reflection as part of everyday routines.

    This definition of culture – both shared and learned beliefs, practices, and symbols – allows us to understand that people everywhere are thinkers and actors shaped by their social contexts. As we will see throughout this book, these contexts are incredibly diverse, comprising the human cultural diversity that drew many of us to become anthropologists in the first place. Together, they form an all-encompassing, integrated whole that binds groups of people together and shapes their worldview and lifeways. In defining culture, some anthropologists emphasize material life and objects (e.g. tools, clothing, and technologies); others emphasize culture as a system of intangible beliefs; and still others focus on practices or customs of daily life.

    2.2 Characteristics of Culture

    So how can we Define culture?:

    • Culture is Performed or Enacted as Part of our daily lives. In other words culture is something that we do. It sustains and comprises us, yet we largely take it for granted. We are not always consciously aware of our own culture which is one reason that culture is sometimes difficult to define.
    • Culture is Shared: To say that a group of people shares a culture does not mean all individuals think or act in identical ways. One’s beliefs and practices can vary within a culture depending on age, gender, social status, and other characteristics. However, members of a culture share many things in common.
    • Culture is Learned. While we are not born with a particular culture, we are born with the capacity to learn any culture. Through the process of enculturation, we learn to become members of our group both directly, through instruction from our parents and peers, and indirectly, by observing and imitating those around us.
    • Culture Changes: Culture is dynamic. It constantly changes in response to both internal and external factors. Some parts of culture change more quickly than others. For instance, in dominant American culture, technology changes rapidly while deep seated values such as individualism, freedom, and self-determination change very little over time. Yet, inevitably, when one part of culture changes, so do other parts because nearly all parts of a culture are integrated and interrelated. As powerful as culture is, humans are not necessarily bound by culture; they have the capacity to conform to it or not and even transform it.
    • Culture is Symbolic: Much like art and language, culture is also symbolic. A symbol is something that stands for something else, often without a natural connection. Individuals create, interpret, and share the meanings of symbols within their group or the larger society. For example, in U.S. society everyone recognizes a red octagonal sign as signifying “stop.” In other cases, groups within American society interpret the same symbol in different ways. Take the Confederate flag: Some people see it as a symbol of pride in a southern heritage. Many others see it as a symbol of the long legacy of slavery, segregation, and racial oppression. Thus, displaying the Confederate flag could have positive or, more often, negative connotations. Cultural symbols powerfully convey either shared or conflicting meanings across space and time.
    • Culture and biology are connected: While culture is central to making us human, we are still biological beings with natural needs and urges that we share with other animals: hunger, thirst, sex, elimination, etc. Human culture uniquely channels these urges in particular ways and cultural practices can then impact our biology, growth, and development. Humans are one of the most dynamic species on Earth. Our ability to change both culturally and biologically has enabled us to persist for millions of years and to thrive in diverse environments.

    2.3 Tell Me a Story! Anthropologists as Storytellers

    People throughout recorded history have relied on storytelling as a way to share cultural details. When early anthropologists studied people from other civilizations, they relied on the written accounts and opinions of others; they presented facts and developed their “stories” about other cultures based solely on information gathered by others. These scholars did not have any direct contact with the people they were studying. This approach has come to be known as armchair anthropology. Simply put, if a culture is viewed from a distance (as from an armchair), the anthropologist tends to measure that culture from his or her own vantage point and to draw comparisons that place the anthropologist’s culture as superior to the one being studied. This point of view is also called ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is an attitude based on the idea that one’s own group or culture is better than any other.

    Early anthropological studies often presented a biased ethnocentric interpretation of the human condition. For example, ideas about racial superiority emerged as a result of studying the cultures that were encountered during the colonial era. During the colonial era from the sixteenth century to the mid–twentieth century, European countries (Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, the Dutch Republic, Spain, Portugal) asserted control over land (Asia, Africa, the Americas) and the people of color on those lands. European ideas of wrong and right were used as a measuring stick to judge the way that people in different cultures lived. These other cultures were considered primitive, which was an ethnocentric term for people who were non-European. It is also a negative term suggesting that indigenous cultures had a lack of technological advancement. Colonizers thought that they were superior to the Other in every way, thereby ushering in white supremacy as a long lasting idea that has changed the world.

    Armchair anthropologists were unlikely to be aware of their ethnocentric ideas because they did not visit the cultures they studied. Scottish social anthropologist Sir James Frazer is well-known for his 1890 work The Golden Bough: A Study of Comparative Religions. Its title was later changed to A Study in Magic and Religion, and it was one of the first books to describe and record magical and religious beliefs of different culture groups around the world. However, this book was not the outcome of extensive study in the field. Instead, Frazer relied on the accounts of others who had traveled, such as scholars, missionaries, and government officials, to formulate his study.

    Another example of anthropological writing without the use of fieldwork is Sir E. B. Tylor’s 1871 work Primitive Culture. Tylor, who went on to become the first professor of anthropology at Oxford University in 1896, was an important influence in the development of sociocultural anthropology as a separate discipline. Tylor defined culture as “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.”[1] His definition of culture is still used frequently today and remains the foundation of the culture concept in anthropology.

    Tylor’s definition of culture was influenced by the popular theories and philosophies of his time, including the work of Charles Darwin. Darwin formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species. Scholars of the time period, including Tylor, believed that cultures were subject to evolution just like plants and animals and thought that cultures developed over time from simple to complex. Many nineteenth century anthropologists believed that cultures evolved through distinct stages. They labeled these stages with terms such as savagery, barbarism, and civilization.[2] These theories of cultural evolutionism would later be successfully refuted, but conflicting views about cultural evolutionism in the nineteenth century highlight an ongoing nature versus nurture debate about whether biology shapes behavior more than culture.

    Both Frazer and Tylor contributed important and foundational studies even though they never went into the field to gather their information. Armchair anthropologists were important in the development of anthropology as a discipline in the late nineteenth century because although these early scholars were not directly experiencing the cultures they were studying, their work did ask important questions—questions that could ultimately only be answered by going into the field.

    Quick Reading Check: What is armchair anthropology and why did the discipline move away from this type of analysis?

    2.4 We do it too! Anthropologists as Cultural Participants

    The armchair approach as a way to study culture changed when scholars such as Bronislaw Malinowski, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, Franz Boas, and Margaret Mead took to the field and studied by being participants and observers. As they did, fieldwork became the most important tool anthropologists used to understand the “complex whole” of culture.

    Bronislaw Malinowski, a Polish anthropologist, was greatly influenced by the work of Frazer. However, unlike the armchair anthropology approach Frazer used in writing The Golden Bough, Malinowski used more innovative ethnographic techniques, and his fieldwork took him off the veranda to study different cultures. The off-the-veranda approach is different from armchair anthropology because it includes active participant-observation: traveling to a location, living among people, and observing their day-to-day lives. What happened when Malinowski came off the veranda? The Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922) was considered the first modern ethnography and redefined the approach to fieldwork. This book is part of Malinowski’s trilogy on the Trobriand Islanders. Malinowski lived with them and observed life in their villages. By living among the islanders, Malinowski was able to learn about their social life, food and shelter, sexual behaviors, community economics, patterns of kinship, and family.[3]

    Malinowski went “native” to some extent during his fieldwork with the Trobriand Islanders. Going native means to become fully integrated into a cultural group: taking leadership positions and assuming key roles in society; entering into a marriage or spousal contract; exploring sexuality or fully participating in rituals. When an anthropologist goes native, the anthropologist is personally involved with locals.

    In The Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Malinowski suggested that other anthropologists should “grasp the native’s point of view, his relations to life, to realize his vision of his world.”[4] However, as we will see later in this chapter, Malinowski’s practice of going native presented problems from an ethical point of view. Participant-observation is a method to gather ethnographic data, but going native places both the anthropologist and the culture group at risk by blurring the lines on both sides of the relationship.

    Quick Reading Check: What is participant observation? How does this research methodology teach us about culture? How is it different from “going native”?

    2.5 The Development of Theories of Culture

    2.5.1 Anthropology in Europe

    The discipline of cultural anthropology developed somewhat differently in Europe and North America, in particular in the United States, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with each region contributing new dimensions to the concept of culture. Many European anthropologists were particularly interested in questions about how societies were structured and how they remained stable over time. This highlighted the emerging recognition that culture and society are not the same. Culture had been defined by Tylor as knowledge, beliefs, and customs, but a society is more than just shared ideas or habits. In every society, people are linked to one another through social institutions such as families, political organizations, and businesses. Anthropologists across Europe often focused their research on understanding the form and function of these social institutions.

    Table 2.1: Contrasting approaches to the study of groups of people.
    Culture Society
    Definition what people make, think, feel, and do people linked through social institutions; bigger, larger scale
    Focus People Institutions
    Way to Study Enculturation Socialization
    Primary Research Method Fieldwork Surveys

    European anthropologists developed theories of functionalism to explain how social institutions contribute to the organization of society and the maintenance of social order. Bronislaw Malinowski believed that cultural traditions were developed as a response to specific human needs such as food, comfort, safety, knowledge, reproduction, and economic livelihood. One function of educational institutions like schools, for instance, is to provide knowledge that prepares people to obtain jobs and make contributions to society. Although he preferred the term structural-functionalism, the British anthropologist A.R. Radcliffe-Brown was also interested in the way that social structures functioned to maintain social stability in a society over time.[5] He suggested that in many societies it was the family that served as the most important social structure because family relationships determined much about an individual’s social, political, and economic relationships and these patterns were repeated from one generation to the next. In a family unit in which the father is the breadwinner and the mother stays home to raise the children, the social and economic roles of both the husband and the wife will be largely defined by their specific responsibilities within the family. If their children grow up to follow the same arrangement, these social roles will be continued in the next generation.

    In the twentieth century, functionalist approaches also became popular in North American anthropology, but they eventually fell out of favor. One of the biggest critiques of functionalism is that it views cultures as stable and orderly and ignores or cannot explain social change. Functionalism also struggles to explain why a society develops one particular kind of social institution instead of another. Functionalist perspectives did contribute to the development of more sophisticated concepts of culture by establishing the importance of social institutions in holding societies together. While defining the division between what is cultural and what is social continues to be complex, functionalist theory helped to develop the concept of culture by demonstrating that culture is not just a set of ideas or beliefs, but consists of specific practices and social institutions that give structure to daily life and allow human communities to function.

    2.5.2 Anthropology in the United States: Boas, Benedict, Hurston, Mead and Kroeber

    During the development of anthropology in North America (Canada, the United States, and Mexico), the significant contribution made by the American school of anthropology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was the concept of cultural relativism, which is the idea that cultures cannot be objectively understood since all humans see the world through the lens of their own culture. Cultural relativism is different from ethnocentrism because it emphasizes understanding culture from an insider’s view. The focus on culture, along with the idea of cultural relativism, distinguished cultural anthropology in the United States from social anthropology in Europe. This is the goal of anthropologists when doing their fieldwork: to not be ethnocentric and instead strive to understand the cultural rules, values, and actions from within their own cultural frame.

    The participant-observation method of fieldwork was a revolutionary change to the practice of anthropology, but at the same time it presented problems that needed to be overcome. The challenge was to move away from ethnocentrism, race stereotypes, and colonial attitudes, and to move forward by encouraging anthropologists to maintain high ethical standards and open minds when creating research questions and going out into the field.

    Franz Boas, a German immigrant and an American anthropologist, is acknowledged for redirecting American anthropologists away from cultural evolutionism and toward cultural relativism. Boas first got his doctorate in physical science at the University of Kiel in Germany. Because he was a trained scientist, he was familiar with using empirical methods as a way to study a subject. Empirical methods are based on evidence that can be tested using observation and experiment.

    In 1883, Franz Boas went on a geographical expedition to Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. The Central Eskimo (1888) details his time spent on Baffin Island studying the culture and language of the central Eskimo (Inuit) people. He studied every aspect of their culture such as tools, clothing, and shelters. This study was Boas’ first major contribution to the American school of anthropology and convinced him that cultures could only be understood through extensive field research. As he observed on Baffin Island, cultural ideas and practices are shaped through interactions with the natural environment. The cultural traditions of the Inuit were suited for the environment in which they lived. This work led him to promote cultural relativism: the principle that a culture must be understood on its own terms rather than compared to an outsider’s standard. This was an important turning point in correcting the challenge of ethnocentrism in ethno-graphic fieldwork.[6]

    Boas is often considered the originator of American anthropology because he trained the first generation of American anthropologists including Zora Neale Hurston, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Alfred Kroeber. Using a commitment to cultural relativism as a starting point, these students continued to refine the concept of culture.

    Zora Neale Hurston, a black woman anthropologist and student of Boas’, is known for her notable contribution to our understanding of African American and Caribbean folklore. Most notably known for her book Their Eyes Were Watching God, she traveled extensively across the Caribbean and the American South immersing herself in their cultural practices and folklore to conduct her anthropological research and produce over 50 bodies of literature. For many decades, her research and writing was ignored for cultural and political reasons – the devaluing of a black woman, writer, scholar, and anthropologist. It was not until the late 20th century that her work began to be acknowledged for its cultural significance. Anthropology is not the first discipline to erase the significance of people of color from its history. In fact, all disciplines have this as part of their story. All you have to do is look.

    black and white photo of Zora Neale Hurston
    Figure 2.1: Zora Neale Hurston, Anthropologist (public domain

    Ruth Benedict, one of Boas’ first female students, used cultural relativism as a starting point for investigating the cultures of the American northwest and southwest. Her best-selling book Patterns of Culture (1934) emphasized that culture gives people coherent patterns for thinking and behaving. She argued that culture affects individuals psychologically, shaping individual personality traits and leading the members of a culture to exhibit similar traits such as tendency toward aggression or calmness.

    Benedict was a professor at Columbia University and in turn greatly influenced her student Margaret Mead, who went on to become one of the most well-known female American cultural anthropologists. Mead was a pioneer in conducting ethnographic research at a time when the discipline was predominately male. Her 1925 research on adolescent girls on the island of Ta‘ū in the Samoan Islands, published as Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), revealed that teenagers in Samoa did not experience the same stress and emotional difficulties as those in the United States. The book was an important contribution to the nature versus nurture debate, providing an argument that learned cultural roles were more important than biology. The book also reinforced the idea that individual emotions and personality traits are products of culture.

    Alfred Louis Kroeber, another student of Boas, also shared the commitment to field research and cultural relativism, but Kroeber was particularly interested in how cultures change over time and influence one another. Through publications like The Nature of Culture (1952), Kroeber examined the historical processes that led cultures to emerge as distinct configurations as well as the way cultures could become more similar through the spread or diffusion of cultural traits. Kroeber was also interested in language and the role it plays in transmitting culture. He devoted much of his career to studying Native American languages in an attempt to document these languages before they disappeared. We will discuss more about language extinction and linguistic diversity in Chapter 4 on Languages.

    Anthropologists in the United States have used cultural relativism to add depth to the concept of culture in several ways. Tylor had defined culture as including knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, customs, capabilities and habits. Boas and his students added to this definition by emphasizing the importance of enculturation, the process of learning culture, in the lives of individuals. Benedict, Mead, and others established that through enculturation culture shapes individual identity, self-awareness, and emotions in fundamental ways. They also emphasized the need for holism, approaches to research that considered the entire context of a society including its history.

    Kroeber and others also established the importance of language as an element of culture and documented the ways in which language was used to communicate complex ideas. By the late twentieth century, new approaches to symbolic anthropology put language at the center of analysis. Later on, Clifford Geertz, the founding member of postmodernist anthropology, noted in his book The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) that culture should not be seen as something that was “locked inside people’s heads.” Instead, culture was publicly communicated through speech and other behaviors. Culture, he concluded, is “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes toward life.”[7] This definition, which continues to be influential today, reflects the influence of many earlier efforts to refine the concept of culture in American anthropology.

    Quick Reading Check: What was the impact of Franz Boas on the field of anthropology, both in research and on students?

    2.5.3 Ethical Issues in Truth Telling

    As anthropologists developed more sophisticated concepts of culture, they also gained a greater understanding of the ethical challenges associated with anthropological research. Because participant- observation fieldwork brings anthropologists into close relationships with the people they study, many complicated issues can arise. Cultural relativism is a perspective that encourages anthropologists to show respect to members of other cultures, but it was not until after World War II that the profession of anthropology recognized a need to develop formal standards of professional conduct.

    The Nuremberg trials, which began in 1945 in Nuremberg, Germany and were conducted under the direction of France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States, prosecuted members of the Nazi regime for war crimes. In addition to military and political figures, physicians and scientists were also prosecuted for unethical human experimentation and mass murder. The trials demonstrated that physicians and other scientists could be dangerous if they used their skills for abusive or exploitative goals. The Nuremberg Code that emerged from the trials is considered a landmark document in medical and research ethics. It established principles for the ethical treatment of the human subjects involved in any medical or scientific research.

    Many universities adopted principles from the Nuremberg Code to write ethical guidelines for the treatment of human subjects. Anthropologists and students who work in universities where these guidelines exist are obliged to follow these rules. The American Anthropological Association (AAA), along with many anthropology organizations in other countries, developed codes of ethics describing specific expectations for anthropologists engaged in research in a variety of settings.

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    The career of Bronislaw Malinowski provides an example of how investigations of culture can lead anthropologists into difficult ethical areas. As discussed above, Malinowski is widely regarded as a leading figure in the history of anthropology. He initiated the practice of participant-observation fieldwork and published several highly regarded books including The Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Following his death, the private diary he kept while conducting fieldwork was discovered and published as A Diary in the Strictest Sense of the Term (1967). The diary described Malinowski’s feelings of loneliness and isolation, but also included a great deal of information about his sexual fantasies as well his somewhat insensitive and contemptuous opinions about the Trobriand Islanders. The diary provided valuable insight into the mind of an important ethnographer, but also raised questions about the extent to which his personal feelings, including bias and racism, were reflected in his official conclusions.

    Most anthropologists keep diaries or daily notes as a means of keeping track of the research project, but these records are almost never made public. Because Malinowski’s diary was published after his death, he could not explain why he wrote what he did or assess the extent to which he was able to separate the personal from the professional. Which of these books best reflects the truth about Malinowski’s interaction with the Trobriand Islanders? This rare insight into the private life of a field researcher demonstrates that even when anthropologists are acting within the boundaries of professional ethics, they still struggle to set aside their own ethnocentric attitudes and prejudices.

    2.5.4 Napoleon Chagnon & The Yanomami

    A more serious and complicated incident concerned research conducted among the Yanomami, an indigenous group living in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil and Venezuela. Starting in the 1960s, the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and James Neel, a geneticist, carried out research among the Yanomami. Neel was interested in studying the effects of radiation released by nuclear explosions on people living in remote areas. Chagnon was investigating theories about the role of violence in Yanomami society. In 2000, an American journalist, Patrick Tierney, published a book about Chagnon and Neel’s research: Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. The book contained numerous stunning allegations, including a claim that the pair had deliberately infected the Yanomami with measles, starting an epidemic that killed thousands of people. The book also claimed that Neel had conducted medical experiments without the consent of the Yanomami and that Chagnon had deliberately created conflicts between Yanomami groups so he could study the resulting violence.

    These allegations were brought to the attention of the American Anthropological Association, and a number of inquiries were eventually conducted. James Neel was deceased, but Napoleon Chagnon steadfastly denied the allegations. In 2002, the AAA issued their report; Chagnon was judged to have misrepresented the violent nature of Yanomami culture in ways that caused them harm and to have failed to obtain proper consent for his research. However, Chagnon continued to reject these conclusions and complained that the process used to evaluate the evidence was unfair. In 2005, the AAA rescinded its own conclusion, citing problems with the investigation process. The results of several years of inquiry into the situation satisfied few people. Chagnon was not definitively pronounced guilty, nor was he exonerated. Years later, the debate over this episode continues.[8][9] The controversy demonstrates the extent to which truth can be elusive in anthropological inquiry. Although anthropologists should not be storytellers in the sense that they deliberately create fictions, differences in perspective and theoretical orientation create unavoidable differences in the way anthropologists interpret the same situation. Anthropologists must try to use their toolkit of theory and methods to ensure that the stories they tell are truthful and represent the voice of the people being studied using an ethical approach.

    Quick Reading Check: Name 2 – 3 ethical concerns when “doing ethnography”?

    2.6 Our Final Reflection on Culture

    Culture by its very nature is complex and ever-changing, making a solid definition difficult. There are likely as many definitions of culture as there are anthropologists defining it. In fact, when the term culture is used outside of anthropology, the abundance of definitions of this term can serve to even further muddy the waters of consensus. And yet, the common elements of culture remain clear – culture is performed, shared, learned, symbolic, and ever changing.


    Armchair anthropology: an early and discredited method of anthropological research that did not involve direct contact with the people studied.

    Cultural evolutionism: a discredited theory popular in nineteenth century anthropology suggesting that societies evolve through stages from simple to advanced.

    Cultural relativism: the idea that we should seek to understand another person’s beliefs and behaviors from the perspective of their own culture and not our own.

    Culture: a set of beliefs, practices, and symbols that are learned and shared. Together, they form an all-encompassing, integrated whole that binds people together and shapes their worldview and lifeways.

    Enculturation: the process of learning the characteristics and expectations of a culture or group.

    Ethnocentrism: the tendency to view one’s own culture as most important and correct and as the ruler by which to measure all other cultures.

    Functionalism: an approach to anthropology developed in British anthropology that emphasized the way that parts of a society work together to support the functioning of the whole.

    Going native: becoming fully integrated into a cultural group through acts such as taking a leadership position, assuming key roles in society, entering into marriage, or other behaviors that incorporate an anthropologist into the society he or she is studying.

    Holism: taking a broad view of the historical, environmental, and cultural foundations of behavior.

    Kinship: blood ties, common ancestry, and social relationships that form families within human groups.

    Participant observation: a type of observation in which anthropologists observe while participating in the same activities in which their informants are engaged.

    Structural-Functionalism: an approach to anthropology that focuses on the ways in which the customs or social institutions in a culture contribute to the organization of society and the maintenance of social order.

    The Other: a term that has been used to describe people whose customs, beliefs, or behaviors are “different” from one’s own.


    Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. Boston: Houghton and Mifflin Company, 1934. Boas, Franz. Race, Language, and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940. Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1859. Kroeber, Alfred. The Nature of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952.

    Malinowski, Bronislaw. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. London: Routledge and Sons, 1922.

    Mead, Margaret. Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization.

    New York: William Morrow and Company, 1928.

    Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. London: Benjamin Motte, 1726.

    Tylor, Edward B. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Lan-guage, Art, and Customs. London: Cambridge University Press. 1871.

    About the Original Authors

    Photo of author Doctor Priscilla Medeiros

    Dr. Priscilla Medeiros is a medical anthropologist and Postdoctoral Fellow in the Women’s College Research Institute at Women’s College Hospital, Canada. She recently defended her thesis in January 2019 at McMaster University, Ontario. Her primary research interests center on the anthropology of health. This involves studying the biocultural dimensions of medicine, with a particular emphasis on the history and development of public health measures in developed countries, sickness and inequalities, and gender relationships. Priscilla began her community-based work in prevention, care, and support of people living with HIV seven years ago in Nairobi County, Kenya, as part of her master’s degree at the University of New Brunswick. Her current postdoctoral work focuses on geospatial analysis of data from the Canadian HIV Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Health Study (CHIWOS) and expansion to the Atlantic Provinces, and is funded by the CIHR Canadian HIV Trials Network. When she is not working in the field or teaching in the classroom, Priscilla is traveling to exotic destinations to learn to prepare local cuisine, speak foreign languages, and explore the wonders of the world. In fact, she is the real-life Indiana Jane of anthropology when it comes to adventures in the field and has many great stories to share.

    Photo of author doctor Emily Cowall

    Dr. Emily Cowall is a cultural anthropologist and instructor in the department of Anthropology at McMaster University, Canada; Medical Historian; and former regulated health practitioner in Ontario. Her primary academic research interests are focused on the cultural ethno-history of the Canadian Arctic. Emily moved to the Eastern Arctic in the 1980s, where she became integrated into community life. Returning for community-based research projects from 2003-2011, her previous community relationships enabled the completion of a landmark study examining the human geography and cultural impact of tuberculosis from 1930-1972. From 2008-2015, her work in cultural resource management took her to the Canadian High Arctic archipelago to create a museum dedicated to the Defense Research Science Era at Parks Canada, Quttinirpaaq National Park on Ellesmere Island. When she is not jumping into Twin Otter aircraft for remote field camps, she is exploring cultural aspects of environmental health and religious pilgrimage throughout Mexico.

    Media Attributions

    1. Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Customs (London: Cambridge University Press, 1871), preface. ↵
    2. Lewis Henry Morgan was one anthropologist who proposed an evolutionary framework based on these terms in his book Ancient Society (New York: Henry Holt, 1877). ↵
    3. The film Bronislaw Malinowski: Off the Veranda, (Films Media Group, 1986) further describes Malinowski’s research practices. ↵
    4. Bronislaw Malinowski. Argonauts of the Western Pacific (London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1922), 290. ↵
    5. For more on this topic see Adam Kuper, Anthropology and Anthropologists: The Modern British School (New York: Routledge, 1983) and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, Structure and Function in Primitive Society (London: Cohen and West, 1952). ↵
    6. Boas’ attitudes about cultural relativism were influenced by his experiences in the Canadian Arctic as he struggled to survive in a natural environment foreign to his own prior experience. His private diary and letters record the evolution of his thinking about what it means to be “civilized.” In a letter to his fiancé, he wrote: “I often ask myself what advantages our 'good society' possesses over that of the 'savages' and find, the more I see of their customs, that we have no right to look down upon them ... We have no right to blame them for their forms and superstitions which may seem ridiculous to us. We ‘highly educated people’ are much worse, relatively speaking.” The entire letter can be read in George Stocking, ed. Observers Observed: Essays on Ethnographic Fieldwork (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), 33. ↵
    7. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Culture (New York: Basic Books, Geertz 1973), 89. ↵
    8. For more information about the controversy, see Thomas Gregor and Daniel Gross, “Guilt by Association: The Culture of Accusation and the American Anthropological Associations Investigation of Darkness in El Dorado.” American Anthropologist 106 no. 4 (2004):687-698 ↵
    9. Robert Borofsky, Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy and.What We Can Learn From It (Berkley: University California Press, 2005). Napoleon Chagnon has written his rebuttal in Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—The Yanomamo and the Anthropologists (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013). ↵

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