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2.S: The Culture Concept (Summary)

  • Page ID
  • Emily

    My cultural self has evolved from the first customary traditions of my childhood, yet my life with the Inuit caused me to consider that I have similar values and community traits as my friends in the North. My childhood was focused on caring, acceptance, and working together to achieve the necessities of life. Life on the land with the Inuit was no different, and throughout the years, I have seen how much we are the same, just living in different locations and circumstances. My anthropological training has enriched my life experiences by teaching me to enjoy the world and its peoples. I have also experienced being the cultural Other when working in the field, and this has always reminded me that the cultural self and the cultural Other will always be in conflict with each other on both sides of the experience.


    Living with different indigenous tribes in Kenya gave me a chance to learn how communities maintain their traditional culture and ways of living. I come from a Portuguese- Canadian family that has kept strong ties to the culture and religion of our ancestors. Portuguese people believe storytelling is a way to keep one’s traditions, cultural identity, indigenous knowledge, and language alive. When I lived in Nairobi Province, Kenya, I discovered that people there had the same point of view. I found it odd that people still define their identities by their cultural history. What I have learned by conducting cultural fieldwork is that the meanings of culture not only vary from one group to another, but that all human societies define themselves through culture.

    Our Final Reflection

    Bob took us on a journey to understand what is at the heart of the culture concept. Clearly, the culture concept does not follow a straight line. Scholars, storytellers, and the people one meets in everyday life have something to say about the components of culture. The story that emerges from different voices brings insight into what it is to be human. Defining the culture concept is like putting together a puzzle with many pieces. The puzzle of culture concepts is almost complete, but it is not finished…yet.


    How did the armchair anthropology and the off the veranda approaches differ as methods to study culture? What can be learned about a culture by experiencing it in person that cannot be learned from reading about it?

    Why is the concept of culture difficult to define? What do you think are the most important elements of culture?

    Why is it difficult to separate the “social” from the “cultural”? Do you think this is an important distinction?

    In the twenty-first century, people have much greater contact with members of other cultures than they did in the past. Which topics or concerns should be priorities for future studies of culture?


    • Armchair anthropology: an early and discredited method of anthropological research that did not involve direct contact with the people studied.
    • Cultural determinism: the idea that behavioral differences are a result of cultural not racial or genetic causes.
    • Cultural evolutionism: a theory popular in nineteenth century anthropology suggesting that societies evolved through stages from simple to advanced. This theory was later shown to be incorrect.
    • 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.
    • 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 stick 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 the anthropologist observes while participating in the same activities in which her informants are engaged.
    • Salvage anthropology: activities such as gathering artifacts, or recording cultural rituals with the belief that a culture is about to disappear.
    • Structuralism: 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


    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 to 2011, her previous community relationships enabled the completion of a landmark study examining the human geography and cultural impact of tuberculosis from 1930 to 1972. From 2008 to 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.

    Priscilla Medeiros is a PhD candidate and instructor at McMaster University, Canada, and is defending her thesis in fall 2017. 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 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 and AIDS seven years ago in Nairobi Province, Kenya, as part of her master’s degree. Her current research focuses on the absence of gender-specific and culturally appropriate HIV prevention initiatives and programs for women in the Maritime Provinces, Canada, and is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. When she is not working in rural areas 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.


    • 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, Language, Art, and Customs. London: Cambridge University Press. 1871.


    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 and 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).