Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

1.2: Central Concepts

  • Page ID
  • Culture

    A central concept in our discipline is the idea of culture, a concept that changed how we explain human differences. Edward Burnett Tylor (1832–1917) was an English Quaker who, because of religious prejudice, could not enroll in any English universities and so went to work in his father’s business. However, in his mid-twenties he became ill, and his doctor recommended rest and travel. Tylor traveled first to Cuba and then to Mexico for six months. While the idea of culture was not new, Tylor used the concept to make sense of what he learned from his travels. In his 1871 book, Primitive Culture, he defined the idea: “Culture or civilization, taken in its ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”1 We are all human, something that Columbus was not so sure about in 1492 when he first encountered the Caribs or, more generally, the Amerindians. Before Tylor, differences were explained as due to climate differences or even as God’s choice, wrong-headed ideas about difference. Tylor’s cross-cultural approach opened new vistas in nineteenth-century anthropology.

    In North America, Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–1881), a lawyer who had grown up amid the Iroquois, wrote League of the Iroquois in 1851. He noticed that their terms for kinfolk were not classified in the same way as English terms. Terminology for cousins was different depending on whether the maternal or fraternal line was credited. As a lawyer for the New York Central Railroad, he had noticed other differences among speakers of other languages as well. Morgan began to collect kinship terminologies from all over the world, and in 1871 he published his master work, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity, which would influence French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

    New questions arose. Could terminology be a key to understanding the social organization of small societies? The Iroquois were matrilineal; membership in a clan was determined by female links only, and one’s father and his sisters and brothers belonged to a different clan. Without going into further detail, it should be clear that the invention of the concept of culture paved the way for explaining differences among peoples. Culture differentiates peoples, but in the process, we need to remember we are all members of the same species. We might identify others according to their color, but all peoples everywhere share the need to survive disease. Every society has primary groups, such as families, whose primary function is to have and raise children.


    Another important founding father of American anthropology was German-born Franz Boas (1858–1942), a scholar originally trained in physics. He turned to anthropology after a year-long expedition to Baffin Island, land of the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic. He began to study their language. He came to the United States, where he is recognized as the father of cultural anthropology. More than anyone, Boas framed the discipline around the concept of holism: taking a broad view of the historical and cultural foundations of behavior rather than attributing differences to biology dismantling the concept of race. Although he stressed cultural differences, he explained such differences in terms of the historical development of each culture. In his book Race, Language, and Culture (1940), he stressed the idea that there is no necessary correlation between race, language, and culture, that one’s physical appearance does not determine one’s culture or ability to learn any language.

    Boas is also noted for his development of the concepts of cultural relativism and cultural determinism—that all behavioral differences among peoples result from cultural, not racial or genetic causes. It was Boas who grounded the discipline in four fields and founded the American Anthropological Association. The four fields—archeological, cultural, linguistic, and physical anthropology—defined most departments in the United States until more recently when four became five with medical anthropology. Throughout the development of anthropology in the United States, there was a fear of fragmentation for holistic thinkers. As Boas noted in 1905, “there are indications of [anthropology] breaking up. The biologic, linguistic, and ethnologic-archeological methods are so distinct.”2 It must be noted that Boas trained many women anthropologists such as Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, knowing that diversifying fieldworkers by including people of all genders was important to successful fieldwork.


    Talking about biologically superior and inferior races was common to colonialists who carried the notion of the “white man’s burden,” in which it was their mission to civilize the savages or, among some groups, to classify groups according to their perceived slots, as for example, the idea that some “races” were thought to be biologically intended to be solely servants! The scientific study of race has often floundered in confusion and misunderstanding over the past 200 years even though anthropologists have repeatedly stressed the observation that people can be equally endowed without being alike. In spite of our efforts, race bigots are alive and well. It is apparently comforting to believe that “we” are the best, a belief that is not restricted to Euro-Americans. After all, Navajo means people and many groups think they are superior to others. Thus, Boas’ assessment was that all healthy individuals of the Homo sapiens species had the capacity to learn any language or culture, that plasticity is part of our species.

    In the contemporary world, difference is treated as if it were a problem. Why? Some say it is due to the movement of cheap labor, debates over racism and tolerance in the midst of refugee crises, the power of the Islamic “scarf.” In other words, to colonialist language in modern garb, state management of diversity and far-right politics, institutionalized racism, and the primacy of difference, especially in the context of Europe and the United States. In early 2001, a volume by historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn was published. Race Experts, Etiquette, Sensitivity Training, and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution examined the racial-problem industry and racial-solution industry that have flourished and have had difficulty acknowledging that any differences between people may be superficial compared with what they have in common. The concept of race also avoids discussion of class and inequality associated with poverty. Such social-engineering is deeply interested in difference as a problem. The pursuit of homogeneity by state structures is something that has been observed all over Europe and the western worlds, especially at the contemporary moment when refugees are pouring into western countries from North Africa and the Middle East.

    Participant Observation

    With European colonization of peoples around the globe, more anthropological research around the planet began to happen. Better data collection came to be referred to as participant observation meaning that the ethnographers participated in the daily lives of the people they studied, learned their languages, and became immersed in the ordinary workings of others’ societies. A Polish anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942), is often credited with setting the standard for ethnography with wide-angled vision. Malinowski had studied in London, and during World War I, he found himself in the Trobriand Islands, then a British dependency. Although he was a Pole, he was allowed to remain in the Trobriands. He had to learn the language—had to because the local people were his only companions. He moved among native people, speaking to them in their language. He studied their gardens, magic, science, law—all with the tools of participant observing. Malinowski wrote a number of ethnographies based on his work there: Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922) on trade and the economy involving multiple sites, The Sexual Life of the Savages (1929) about kinship and sexuality, Coral Gardens and their Magic (1935) on gardens and farming, and Crime and Custom in a Savage Society (1926) dealt with problems of law and social order. Malinowski set a very high standard for participatory ethnographic fieldwork that stands to this day, a standard in which ethnography was theory, not mere description. The ethnography itself, as well as its explanatory uses, is a theoretical endeavor, a combination of loose and strict thinking.3

    The invention of new technologies facilitates new frontiers of ethnography. In linguistic anthropology, the appearance of the cassette tape recorder and “shotgun” microphones in the early 1970s, of video cameras in the early 1980s, and of the internet and other electronic inventions in the past 25 years has allowed people to seek connections hitherto unnoticed. Similarly, geographic information systems, so important to archeologists and ecological anthropologists, are also used to locate the people we study. In the process, fieldworkers have lost the possibility of immersion in other cultures with little contact from home sites. Technological innovations connect us all, for better or for worse.

    Area Studies and Beyond

    By the mid-twentieth century, the major concepts were in place for the discipline—culture, comparison, and ethnography as participation fieldwork. The organizing concept is area studies. Anthropology departments commonly organize their curriculums around area studies courses taught about Africa, the Middle East, East Asia, China, Latin America, Europe, and so forth. Students learn about the geography and history and delve into specific topics such as religion, kinship, minorities, and language—subjects that equip them for a general understanding of a particular geographic area. Area specialties are useful for gaining funding, job searching, and hires especially in large departments.

    In more recent times, critical research has investigated the origins of area studies in museums and in association with the military. It was American imperialist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, who first called the area between Europe and India the Middle East. Area studies are useful, but they can cause intellectual blindness that limits the anthropological analysis and imagination. At times, those who go beyond the boundaries of a region have been censored, raising the question: Can we be both area scholars and comparativists searching for similarities and differences between cultures, or even diffusionists who study the spread of cultural ideas from one area to another. The study of the colonized and not the colonizers still haunts our work. In 1989, Sir Edmund Leach had to reiterate that social systems are open, not bounded. We live in a globalized world, and, as Sidney Mintz reminded us in his 1996 distinguished lecture to the American Anthropological Association, we have been globalized for a very long time.4

    The subject matter of anthropological research was expanding from isolated locales to the urban ethnography of cities such as S. F. Nadel’s ethnography of urban Nigeria in A Black Byzantium (1942) and Cora Du Bois’ investigation of the link between culture and personality and Euro-American colonialism in The People of Alor (1944). In 1949, Clyde Kluckhohn published Mirror for Man—The Relation of Anthropology to Modern Life. It was time to use the study of others to examine their own cultures and to test assumptions that might be ethnocentric. Margaret Mead had already published Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) in which she examined the adolescence problem as originating in culture, not as a physical and inevitable result of hormones as commonly thought in the United States at the time. Thus, through the comparative method we may learn that while human populations face some common problems, such as growing up, each addresses those problems in different ways. Mead’s findings were considered controversial by some; thus, it is not surprising that some years later John and Beatrice Whiting carried out a controlled comparison of Six Cultures: Studies of Child Rearing (1963) one of which was in New England.

    Gradually, anthropology was no longer the study of “savages” or “primitives;” it became the study of all human cultures. As Ruth Benedict pointed out in her bestselling Patterns of Culture (1934), people of different cultures interpret life differently. Her observation implied that one cannot judge one culture as superior to another. Both Boas and Malinowski elaborated on cultural relativism. Boas in particular pushed hard against the common tendency to judge others by one’s own culture rather than by the basic assumptions of the culture being studied. He was fighting the phenomenon called ethnocentrism, seeing the world through one’s own glasses. Ethnocentrism allowed people to see or categorize others as somehow less than or inferior, as “primitive” and in need of aid or development.5

    Examining Cultural Assumptions

    The fight against ethnocentrism—what in the United States today is sometimes called exceptionalism (we are always better)—is what motivates anthropologists to examine assumptions commonly used by Americans for example, or even embedded in the work of anthropologists themselves. Indeed, as fieldworkers, anthropologists must understand themselves, understand the eyes doing the recording of others. Does an anthropologist’s gender influence what he or she “sees”? Does an aversion to conflict affect the record, the choice of research interests? Do the bilingual or bicultural characteristics of anthropologists increase sensitivity in the field? The ethnographies that we produce are, in the final analysis, the theory of what we do and why, and what the people we study do and why: a Mirror for Man.

    A frequently cited example of analyzing the underlying premises is E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1902–1973), a British anthropologist who published Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande (1937), a work of ethnography as theory. His study of the Azande of the southern Sudan was meant to indicate why and how Azande beliefs in magic and witchcraft made perfect sense according to Azande premises (and to many peoples everywhere who wanted to understand human ills such as disease and death). He avoided ethnocentric notions like “they are ignorant primitives.” His point was that their beliefs made sense given their premises, and that they were as logical as any other people. The main reason the Azande work is so much cited is that the main discovery is that we are all caught in our premises, our unchallenged assumptions. This idea applies to any thought including western science, as for example, the “nuclear religion”—the belief that President Eisenhower’s atoms for peace made up for dropping nuclear bombs on Japan during World War II, in spite of scientists’ inability to deal with nuclear waste and other associated problems. In Evans-Pritchard’s case, he was writing not merely about the Azande or, later, about the Nuer herdsmen; he was also writing about how a particular ethnography is theoretically comparative, raising issues about our ingrained premises.

    By mid-century, ethnographies had begun to include power as with The Political Systems of Highland Burma by Sir Edmund Leach (1954). Although there was general agreement in anthropology, scholars in academia were hesitant to deal with the phenomenon of power in anything but abstract terms. Also around the same time, Gregory Bateson’s Naven was re-issued (1958) and ethnographers began to understand the many different lenses useful for interpreting the lives and rituals of people under study. By the 1960s, the unease in American academia began to be affected by the Civil Rights Movement, the war in Vietnam, the American Indian Movement, and sexual and gender liberations.

    Dell Hymes edited a book (1972) called Reinventing Anthropology which called anthropologists to a revised or reinvented anthropology, one that took into consideration race, newly independent states, and what might be called the vertical slice. Laura Nader wrote “Up the Anthropologist: Perspectives Gained from Studying Up,” a thought piece about the need to study up, down, and sideways as a way to liberate anthropologists from narrow concerns and exclusions. For example, she argued for studying the colonizers as well as the colonized, for understanding poverty and ghettos in connection with bank’s redlining practices, which were essentially illegal, for understanding the enormous role corporations play in raising our children through the foods they prepare or the technologies required of children as part of their normal schooling. Today, some anthropologists study up while others study up, down, and sideways simultaneously.6

    Moving into the twenty-first century, anthropologists had major intellectual interests in political economy, gender, representation, the Cold War, the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the anthropology of science, colonialism, tourism and more. The story of how the study of humankind advanced over a century does not move in steady progression. Science is prickly and contentious, and anthropology, more than most disciplines, is not only contentious but also self-reflexive. Indeed, the self-critical tradition has helped us adapt to the incoherent conditions of accelerated history and the new technologies that have come with it. So one might conclude that what changed least was what scholars in 1929 called “the anthropological attitude,” which values both detachment and involvement as a mode of rethinking assumptions, while the changed relationship between those who study and those being studied forced anthropologists to reconsider the conditions under which their knowledge had been acquired. In addition, anthropology has increasingly become a worldwide discipline.