What is Cultural Anthropology?
Have you ever thought about your culture and where it comes from? Our cultures as we know them today stem from basic practices in the past. In those time, our ancestors would carry out activities based on where they lived. For example, festivals may have been a reminder of something else centuries ago. Cultural anthropology studies builds on this curiosity of culture to figure out how and why it varies over time. The field helps us understand our own current customs, as well as those of other people who might seem foreign to us. This understanding builds a common connection that fosters peace and growth.
Early History of the Study
One of the earliest recorded instances of using the word ‘culture’ from an anthropological perspective is from 1871 when Sir Edward Tyler wrote about it in a book. According to him, culture is a complex concept comprising of knowledge, customs, and beliefs, in a broad sense. Later on, V. Gordon Childe created numerous definitions in which he portrayed culture as a broader umbrella term. He then classified civilization as a type of culture.
In anthropology, culture is a reaction to older Western statements about how culture and nature are two separate entities. According to this view, before ‘culture’ humans existed in an era of ‘nature’. This view argues that culture is a part of human nature and it’s what separates us from other species. Although some studies show otherwise, indicating that culture is merely the ability to categorize experiences to a certain extent and teach it to others, no matter the species. These types of discussions and discoveries are what make the field lively and vibrant.
Studying Cultural Anthropology
Schools and Degrees in Cultural Anthropology Studies
If looking for degrees in cultural Anthropology, keep in mind that the field is actually just one of various types of studies within general anthropology. Some schools have specialized degrees specifically in cultural anthropology, especially higher degrees like master's and PhD's. However, many schools, particularly in bachelor's, will lump the various types together.
When selecting a degree program, be sure to consider any potential requirements you need to meet beforehand. These requirements will be lower for bachelor's, often just needing a high school diploma or GED. Higher degrees, on the other hand, may require certain previous courses, GPAs, or even certain bachelor's degrees before they will accept you.
Another variation between different degree options is the location, which can also translate into variations in price. If you are in a spot with less time, money, or ability to go to a physical school, then you might want to consider online programs. If a physical school with in-person interactions is more your style, then check out this list. It ranks universities on various factors such as price, student to faculty ratio, and accreditation that it combines into point-based a score. The list provides 35 options with thorough analysis of pros and cons, so you're sure to find a good fit.
Structure and Experiences of Cultural Anthropology Studies
If you decide to dive into a degree in the field, there are various things that you'll likely encounter. Studying cultural anthropology inherently means taking a range of classes as the field is so broad and diverse. Some of the topics you'll cover include archaeology, religion, evolution, linguistics, and even geology and geography. It's crucial to have an open mind in many of these areas that may be foreign to you. So, approach them with the intent of learning about different ways of life and relating them all together.
Most degrees should offer hand-on fieldwork and participation during the studies. This should be true for all degree levels, but especially higher degrees such as master's and PhD's. The higher up the chain you go, the more independent this participation will become. You'll start to conduct you're own research in the areas that interest you most, organizing and creating your own path towards adding to the overall knowledge in the field.
Keep this in mind during lower degree levels and be thinking about which areas draw you in. Consider which parts still have a little bit of mystery that you could potentially dispel in your future studies. Think about which methods you might use and work on increasing your skills in those areas. Instead of feeling pressure and stress during higher degrees, this kind of preparation beforehand will make it almost a relief to finally be able to really work on the areas that have caught your interest since the beginning. You'll be able to make a contribution with all your effort and skills that you will truly feel proud of.
Well-Known Cultural Anthropologists
Particularly before the rise of methodical surveys and evaluations of data, cultural anthropology was less about actual studies and exploration than it was about thinking about aspects of culture. While there are well-known cultural anthropologists who have existed over the years, their work mainly involved deriving meaning from anthropological finds in a cultural perspective. For information on additional notable anthropologists, see this article.
Lewis Henry Morgan
Born in 1818, Lewis Henry Morgan was a lawyer and advocate for the Iroquois. As part of his job, he had to conduct various comparative analyses of aspects such as material culture, government, and religion. Most importantly, he studied kinship patterns, which made the largest contribution to the field of study.
His arguments were similar to those by Edward Tyler, and he claimed that we can classify human societies into different stages of cultural evolution. The scale progresses from being savage to barbaric, and finally, civilized. Most commonly, he would use ancient practices like pottery or weapon making as indicating the society’s position on his scale.
Franz Boas’ approach to the concept of culture opposed that of Lewis Henry Morgan. It was rather empirical because of how it would treat overgeneralizations with skepticism.
One part of his research involved studying immigrant children. He was able to determine that a person’s biological race isn’t immutable and the behavior and conduct that humans display is a result of nurture, and not nature.
It was the German tradition that influenced him, and he argued that the world simply comprised of different cultures rather than being at different stages of evolution. He opposed the idea that there were societies with varying degrees of civilization because it relied on over-generalizing and regarding one stage as being civilized.
Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict
Because of his positions as an educator and museum curator, Franz Boas was able to train a generation of disciples. The first generation included thinkers like Ruth Benedict, Alfred Kroeber, and Margaret Mead. All of these students were able to produce detailed studies of cultures practiced in indigenous North American societies.
Their studies challenged the view about there being only one evolutionary process. Edward Sapir and Alfred Kroeber’s studies focused on Native American languages and it made a significant contribution in establishing linguistics as a general science. These contributions even shifted the focus away from European languages.
The Methodology Involved in Cultural Anthropology Studies
The modern methods of cultural anthropology are derived from ethnology, which was practiced in the 19th century. Ethnology involved studying and comparing human societies in a way that’s organized, making it applicable to studies in cultural anthropology. Some of the methods are detailed below.
One of the main methods that is employed in cultural anthropological studies is participant observation. The approach relies on the assumption that interacting with a group or society over a long period of time is an ideal way to understand them. Social anthropologists implemented the method in their field studies as well.
In early instances of cultural anthropological research, the participants would engage with members of a non-western society to study them. Nowadays, the method is mostly employed to study a group such as churches, cults, corporations, or small towns.
The insider perspective is highly valuable for researchers, especially if they’re studying a group or society that is closed off. When the study takes place over a long period of time, it allows the researchers to observe various parts of a culture, which may also be hidden. The main criticism of this methodology is that it isn’t as objective as the research methods derived from natural sciences which employ the controlling of environments.
During the 20th century, there was a growing interest in the studies of anthropology, so students in the social and cultural branches started crafting ethnographies. This was a piece of text written about a certain group of people at a particular place and at a specific point in time. Usually the cultural anthropologist writing the ethnography lives in a particular society for a period of time, while continuously observing and participating in their routines. They then add their observations and record events to the ethnography.
Anthropologists have come across new ethnographic techniques through preserved ethnographic details and texts, as well as by looking at records from libraries, ancient scripts in churches, and curate artifacts. A typical ethnographic record includes information about the society’s habitat, climate, and geography.
Ethnography aims to serve as a complete record to anthropologists about the people that they’re studying. Today, written texts include possibly the most detailed timeline of earlier events that the ethnographer retrieves through primary and secondary forms of research.
Bronislaw Malinowski initially developed the research method. In the U.S., Franz Boas was teaching it to his students, including Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Alfred Kroeber. These students worked on the theme of cultural relativism to develop cultural anthropology in the U.S. At the same time, A.R. Radcliffe Brown and Malinowski’s disciples were developing the study of social anthropology in the UK.
Contemporary cultural anthropologists criticize the previous method of recording ethnographies as outdated. They claim that it treats local cultures as isolated and uninfluenced by the environment.
Contemporary forms of cultural anthropology studies focus on the unique ways in which people understand and experience the surroundings in their lives. However, they also argue that it’s impossible to understand their lives from a local perspective only.
Comparatively, they use a local focus to understand larger concepts in the cultural, economic, and political spheres. This is because these are what affect the realities in localities. Another emergence in the trend of multi-sited ethnography is the presence of fieldwork approaches. These approaches stem from disciplines in media and cultural studies as well as the natural sciences.
Cultural anthropologists have begun to investigate Western culture in an effort to test the multi-sited ethnographic method. In 1997, Philippe Bourgois received the Margaret Mead Award for his study of the Harlem-based entrepreneurs in a crack-den, titled “In Search of Respect”.
Comparisons Between Cultures
Ethnocentrism is dangerous for all forms of study that cultural anthropologists conduct. It’s the evaluation of different cultures based on the researcher’s preconceptions that originate in the customs of their own culture. One way that anthropologists can reduce the error of ethnocentrism is to engage in the cross-cultural comparison process.
This is because it’s important that researchers test what we preconceive as ‘human universals’ against the records that ethnographies hold. Take monogamy for example; it’s considered to be a universal trait for humans. However, taking a look at comparative studies of the ethnographic record shows that plenty of societies practiced (and still practice) polygamy.
Yale University hosts a research agency, the Human Relations Area Files Inc. (HRFA), which facilitates and encourages comparative studies of human behavior, society, and culture in the present and past. The HRFA sponsored the Cross-Cultural Survey as a way to advance a study that integrates human culture and behavior.
Studies and Advances in the Future of Cultural Anthropology
Although cultural anthropology doesn’t always involve all the exciting adventures that other field experts get a chance to participate in, it has its own share of interesting perspectives. As long as cultural anthropologists continue their respective research, they have an opportunity to make valuable discoveries and insights. Many of these discoveries deal with and influence the themes that form the basis of cultures that we’re familiar with today.
Discovering More Cultural Practices to Be a Part of Earlier Societies
To begin with, we can learn more about how cultural factors that we’ve thought to be modern creations have actually been practiced since long ago. Take writing and recording, for instance- something that we’ve found to be associated with modern evolution. It turns out that humans have been practicing the concept of writing and recording stories since long ago.
Learning How Ancient Cultures Developed into Modern Ones
Another thing that cultural anthropology can bring into focus is how environmental influences developed ancient cultures into moderns ones. Influential factors include natural events and disasters, as well as human events such as the industrial revolution. Through large-scale changes in the natural, economic, and social environments of groups of people, they start to change their behavior in ways that help them adapt.
Careers in Cultural Anthropology
Obtaining a degree in cultural anthropology studies allows you to enter a variety of professional fields. These fields often focus deeply on research methods, studies, and making evaluations from archaeological findings of cultures. Here are some of the careers you can take up with a degree in cultural anthropology.
The academic field provides many employment opportunities at different levels. You can teach history, research methods applied in non-natural sciences and even work as a professor at a university’s anthropology department. Museums, libraries, and similar institutions also offer various positions to people who have an educational background in anthropology.
You can also be a part of the administration or management team that looks after artifacts and organizes exhibits. Specializing in the interpretation of ethnographic texts can give you a great position in prestigious libraries. Although you’ll need to have in-depth knowledge about other branches of anthropology as well, knowledge of cultural artifacts would be highly valuable in museums.
If you’ve taken up courses on anthropological fieldwork, then you’ll know that you can travel to far away locations with excavation teams to retrieve artifacts. It’ll be beneficial to apply your knowledge about cultural anthropology and focus on things that other researchers may overlook.
This was just an introduction to cultural anthropology studies. There is far more to it than just writing records and studying earlier texts. The process of uncovering new findings never really ends; we simply discover that our new cultures date further back than we thought. As new forms of research and technology develop, anthropologists will be better equipped to fill in the blanks about the origins of cultural concepts that we experience today.