This is the first in a series of posts I wrote for an Introduction to Anthropology blog I kept for my students. That site got eaten in the Great LeafyHost Collapse of 2006, but I’ve held onto the content backups in the hopes of someday reposting it. Finally I realized that it was unlikely I’d get the whole site back up, so I’m reposting the content here.
Read Horace Miner’s classic essay, “Body Ritual among the Nacirema”. The Nacirema are strange, alien, maybe even a little exotic. For many readers, a sense of superiority is felt — the way the Nacirema live seems inefficient, superstitious, backwards, primitive, even silly. Be that as it may, the thing that stands out for most anthropologists is that no matter how odd the customs of a group of people might seem to an outside observer, somehow the group manages to get along — those customs must , in some way, make sense to the people who practice them. It is our job, as anthropologists, to determine what sense they make: why people do the things they do, why there is so much diversity in the practices, beliefs, and lifestyles of people around the world, how various practices are invented, spread, and challenged in various communities, how societies create a sense of “belonging” in the people who make them up — how people in general live in this world of ours.
To do that, anthropologists have divided their work into four subfields, each of which looks at humans and human behavior from a different perspective, but all of which are, ultimately, necessary to fully understand who we are. Physical anthropologists are concerned with the biological make-up of the human body — how did it evolve, what are it’s limits and possibilities, what do we have in common as a species, and what variations exist between various populations? Linguistic anthropologists are concerned with the use of language to create and convey meaning between people. Archaeologists look at the material traces humans have left — their bones, ruins, and artifacts — to understand our past and, increasingly, our present.
The fourth subfield, cultural anthropology, is the subject of these posts. Although I will briefly touch on the work of the other subdisciplines, I will mainly be focusing on what some have called humanity’s main quality as a species: culture. Culture has been defined in hundreds of different ways, but ultimately we keep returning to the original definition put forth by EB Tylor in 1871:
“…that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”
Tylor’s definition stresses three things:
- Culture is acquired, or learned, not inherited biologically.
- Culture is a “complex whole“, an integrated system — every part of culture is interrelated with every other part.
- Culture exists within the context of our social relationships. Although we certainly can and do invent culture as individuals, even our invention takes place in relation to the people around us.
Tylor’s definition is not without its problems — anthropologists wouldn’t have needed to come up with hundreds of variations on it over the past hundred-plus years if the original was perfect! For instance, Tylor doesn’t mention material culture at all — the “stuff” we create, build, and use in our daily lives, and which are seen by many anthropologists as physical manifestations of the culture of its creators. Also, Tylor doesn’t mention behaviors — what people do as opposed to what we carry around in our heads (although the catch-all categories of “custom” and “habits” might be read as a nod in this direction). Despite these omissions, though, Tylor’s definition provides a good place to start thinking about what culture is and how it works, which we will be returning to in the next post in this series.
Let’s return to Miner’s essay on the Nacirema. Miner illustrates one of the central tasks of the anthropologist: “to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.” Anthropologists strive to make the seemingly nonsensical behaviors of people like the Nacirema seem familiar — reasonable, comfortable, normal. At the same time, learning to see the sense in cultural practices other than our own often leads us to see our own practices as strange, irrational, and most definitely notthe best way to get things done. Doing this requires a special perspective on the part of the anthropologist, one which sets aside, as much as possible, our preferences, prejudices, and ingrained habits and trying to see things from the other’s point of view. This is even harder than it sounds, and no anthropologist ever completely accomplishes this, nor should they want to — to do so completely would mean, in effect, to ceas being who you are and become instead someone else entirely. However, we can put our biases “on hold” for a while and try as hard as we can to see where they are interfering with our ability to understand what we’re seeing.
For this reason, anthropologists practice, as far as possible, the scientific method in their work. While anthropology seems unlikely to produce “laws” of human behavior with the strength and universality of, say, the physicists’ Law of Gravity, we can and do produce scientific explanations of what we observe and take part in. The scientific method is composed of several parts:
- Empirical observation: We report what we experienced, as we experienced it, not on what we hoped we’d experienced, thought we should experience, or wished we could have experienced.
- Verifiability: Within limits, another observer should experience the same things we did under the same or similar conditions. Anthropologists do not have the luxury of many other scientists, such as physicists or chemists, who can exactly repeat the experiments carried out by their peers — the people we study aren’t very likely to “stand still” while we call other anthropologists in to verify our findings. This means that anthropologists have to work extra-hard to keep their biases from coloring their observations and conclusions.
- “Occam’s Razor”: “One should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything.” What this means is that we seek the simplest explanation that fits all the known facts of a situation, and more specifically that we do not resort to unobservable factors, like the intervention of the supernatural or the divine, unless there is no other possible way to explain what we have observed. For instance, if I drop a baseball from the roof of my house, I will observe that it falls to the earth, steadily gaining speed until it hits the ground. It is possible that, the moment I let go of the ball, invisible faeries took hold of it and flew at an ever-increasing rate, carrying the ball down to the earth, but I cannot verify this in any way, so I must dismiss it as a viable explanation. On the other hand, the force of gravity is well-documented and its effects well-measured, so there is no reason for me to assume the intervention of invisible baseball-carriers.
- Testability and Disprovability: The philosopher of science Karl Popper observed in the middle of the 20th century that a scientist can never wholly prove any statement, and therefore all scientific statements are and must be tentative. My first anthropology professor put it this way: “Science can disprove, science can improve, but science can never prove.” The reason for this is simple: no matter how well-founded a statement about reality might be, it only takes one instance where that statement is wrong to show we really don’t understand — and that instance might always be just about to happen. The inability to prove statements beyond any possibility of doubt means that science is always open to improvement, revision, and change. The ability to be disproven, far from being a problem for scientists, has become the mark of scientific thought. A conclusion stated in such a way that it cannot be disproven is an unscientific one. This is closely related to Occam’s Razor — if I believe that invisible faeries carry dropped items to the ground, how can you disprove my belief?
These rules help keep anthropologists and other scientists honest, and that is crucial to science of all sorts. If we cannot trust a scientist’s data, how can we trust her or his conclusions? It also protects us from future data — if my data is good, then it will help future scientists to interpret conflicting data. My conclusions might well be shown to be wrong, but they will have contributed to the formulation of better ones.
We will explore more in-depth what exactly anthropologists do and how these principles apply in practice in my next post in this series.