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1.5: Conclusion to the Development of Anthropological Ideas

What is anthropology? The question can be answered in many ways depending on the particular anthropologist-author. A linguistic anthropologist might start with a reference to Boas’ student, Edward Sapir, whose work on Language (1921) is as good today as it was when he wrote it. Sapir’s work spanned the subjects of Amerindian languages and their connections and distributions as they pertain to anthropology, the interdisciplinary nature of the study of language from earliest times to the contemporary use of speech. Language and culture studies encompass both technical aspects of language and socio-linguistics—the study of language in context.31 The founding of the Summer Institute of Linguistics in the 1930s also played an important role in educating anthropologists of all stripes in the techniques of linguistic study whether we were specialists or not. Such broad education would include folklorists for whom language is key. Forever forward-thinking, Alan Dundes demonstrated the important but disputed point that folklore is not necessarily transmitted and expressed orally, particularly folklore of the electronic age.32

For all of anthropologists’ divergences and disagreements, we share the “anthropological attitude,” which values both detachment and involvement as modes of rethinking existing assumptions. Such shared values have not changed much since the nineteenth century, nor have the social prejudices that anthropologists have challenged: ethnocentrism, racism, sexism, and inadequate measures of human worth. What has changed is the world around us, a world that affects who we are, what we study, and what consequences result, forcing us to question why we take the stands we do. Factors external to the profession that have been a critical part of doing anthropology in the United States are still with us and merit remembering. Anthropology, more than any other discipline, has the capacity to generate the kind of introspection that can influence the future role of human beings on earth—to impart the lessons of history, the experience of Homo sapiens on the planet.