Anthropology and Culture

This is part of  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.

Franz Boas posing for figure in USNM (National...
Image via Wikipedia

When we encounter a group of people like the Shakers, there often seems to be an insurmountable wall between “us” and “them”. The practices of other people often seem so incomprehensible that we describe a “cultural barrier” standing between us (or a “language barrier” or a “gender barrier” — differences of all sorts can seem like a wall that prevents any kind of understanding). Anthropologists are, primarily, facilitators of communication across those walls — which, it usually emerges, exist more in our heads than in the real world.

Although anthropology as a professional, academic discipline did not emerge until the 19th century, seeds of it can be found deep in the world’s history. Herodotus, a Greek historian who travelled through the regions conquered by the Greeks in the 5th century BC, wrote about the culture of the verious peoples he encountered in a way that many see as anthropological. Ibn Khaldun, a 14th c. North African Arab scholar, did the same as he travelled through Europe. In a sense, we all do anthropology all the time, whenever we are confronted with difference and try to overcome it (whether between us and the people around the world, or us and our neighbors, spouses, and friends), or whenever we consider the things that hold us together as a community and make us different from other communities. But most of us lack the disciplinary knowledge and methodology to make much sense out of the differences and similarities we come across — this kind of “anthropologising” comes more out of unconsidered biases and prejudice than any real comparison of depth of knowledge.

During the 18th century Enlightenment period, a concerted effort was made to begin to consider human nature more scientifically. While Rousseau’s “Noble Savage” is today seen as a biased and romanticized stereotype of indigenous peoples, his use of this stereotype to shed light on the culture of Europeans is seen as a major step towards a modern anthropology. Thomas Jefferson, who was deeply influenced by Enlightenment thinkers like Rousseau and John Locke, brought the scientific spirit to play in his excavations of Indian sites on his own land, producing the world’s first stratified dig (in which the absolute location of each item and its location relative to other items is recorded, allowing for the reliable reconstruction of a timeline and an understanding of changes over time). He also produced highly detailed instructions for the study of the American native peoples. His instructions to Lewis and Clark posed a series of detailed questions about the people of the North American continent, who with the Louisiana Purchase had suddenly become American subjects.

The relationship between anthropology and conquest is a tricky one. Anthropology came of age during the 19th century’s period of global colonial exapnsionism, particularly the British colonization of Africa, the French colonization of North Africa and Southeast Asia, and the US expansion across North America. On one hand, anthropology proved useful as a way of gathering information about conquered and colonized peoples, for instance as institutionalized in the Bureau of American Ethnology. Onthe other hand, many anthropologists saw there work as a way to alleviate the worst effects of such colonization, and anthropologists often emerged as the only voices in support of indigenous peoples’ humanity. For instance, James Mooney, a BAE anthropologist working with the Lakota (Sioux), captured the outrage of the treatment of the Lakota leading up to the massacre at Wounded Knee.

During the late 19thy century, the predominant model of cultural variation was an evolutionary one. Taking their own culture as the highest, “most evolved” form of cultural life, Western European and American social scientists arranged non-Western peoples in a hierarchical set of levels — civilized, barbarian, and savage — primarily based on the complexity and apparent sophistication of their material technology: mainly weapons, but also basketry and pottery, tools, dwellings, and clothing. This system was closely aligned with the scientific racism of the day; peoples described as “savage” were assumed to be inherently incapable of “higher” levels of culture, thus justifying their enslavement or colonization. An entire industry in body measurements, particularly of the skull, developed with hopes of producing an accurate map of human variation and abilities.

In the early 20th century, the German-Jewish immigrant Franz Boas challenged the evolutionary model, insisting that cultures not be described inr elation to Western civilization, but rather in terms of the needs and history of each culture, in its own terms. Each people, he said, were uniquely adapted, by virtue of their particular history and their particular environment, to the conditions in which they lived. This view became known as “cultural relativism“, and had the effect of divorcing culture from language and, especially, race/biology. It also had consequences for anthropological practice, encouraging anthropologists to attempt to understand the worldview of the people s/he studied, to discover “the native’s point of view”. In order to get at how a people understood and acted upon the world around them, anthropologists had to learn how to set aside their own cultural biases — to avoid explicit and, as much as possible, implicit comparisons with their own cultural background. This view is often mistaken with moral relativism — the idea that no absolute moral standard exists, which itself is often mistakenly understood as the nihilist view that nothing is immoral, or “anything goes” — but cultural relativism does not in and of itself preclude the anthropologst from making judgements about the culture of the people s/he studies. However, anthropological judgements do not typically invoke moral standards, but functional ones: how well does a particular trait or behavior function in the lives of a particular people. Walter Goldschmidt, one of Boas’ students, put it this way: How well does a given culture satisfy the physical and psychological needs of those whose behavior it guides?

Fieldwork is the primary research tool of most anthropologists. Because of the need for a truly deep understanding of people’s behavior, material life, environment, and beliefs, anthropologists typically spend at minimum months, and often a year or more, followed by repeat visits of a few weeks to a few months, living with the people they are studying. The idea is to participate as closely as possible in the day-to-day life of the community, to do the same things that people in that community do, leanr their language, listen to their stories, attend their rituals — in short, to live the daily lives of the people themselves. This is called participant-observation, a term which highlights one of the tensions that form the core of anthropological practice. “Participation” implies wholly taking part, while “observation” indicates a sense of detachment. Hopefully, this is a creative tension, allowing anthropologists to occupy a place in the local social system without losing track of his/her training and research goals.

The whole process of living with and studying a people is called “doing ethnography“. “Ethnography” is also the term for the written product of anthropological resarch. The word “ethnography” breaks down as ethnos: culture + graph: writing — writing culture. Traditionally, an ethnography attempted to compile all that the anthropologist had observed and experienced to produce a thorough look at the lifeways of the people s/he had studied. Today, we have accepted that this is an impossible dream, that all views are partial, both because no ethnographer can hope to capture the totality of cultural experience of a people, and because the social position of the anthropologist him- or herself affects their view of the society. For instance, a male anthropologist is often barred from interacting closely, or at all, with female members of a community. Rituals might be hidden fromthe anthropologist’s view, as from all non-initiates. Or a people might hide acts or behaviors that they feel the anthropologist — or the nation s/he is often taken as a representative of — might disprove of. Also, today’s financial situation forces anthropologists to be much more specific in their research planning and hoped-for outcomees. No longer are their many sources willing to fund a study of a community “in its entirety” — modern funding sources tend to want projects that address specific problems, such as drug abuse, or an issue such as microlending.

Over the next several posts, we will be discussing the domain of the other anthropological sub-disciplines — biological variation among human populations, human evolution, and language — as they intersect with the study of culture.

Posts in this series:

  1. Introduction to Anthropology
  2. The Shakers
  3. Anthropology and Culture

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