What is Cultural Anthropology?
Have you ever thought about your culture? There are two types of culture; material and non-material culture. It’s very easy to think about your culture, but have you ever stopped to wonder where this culture comes from. The study of learning about how far certain cultures go is cultural anthropology.
Our cultures as we know them today, stem from basic practices that our ancestors would carry out based on where they lived. Festivals, as we’ll see them today, may have been a reminder of something else, centuries ago.
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 his 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 because of the term ‘civilization’, which portrayed culture as a broader umbrella term and 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, and that before ‘culture’, humans existed in an era of ‘nature’. The study argues that culture is a part of human nature and it’s what separates us from other species; people have beenthe abilityto categorize their experiences to a certain extentand teach it to others.
Well Known Cultural Anthropologists
Cultural anthropology is less about actual exploration than it is about thinking and making assumptions about aspects of culture. So while there are well known cultural anthropologists who have existed over the times, their work mainly involved deriving meaning from anthropological finds in a cultural perspective.
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 most 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. He established his approach in the U.S., and it was rather empirical because of how it would treat overgeneralizations with skepticism.
One of his researches involves 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 civilizationbecause it relied on over-generalizing and regarding one stage as being civilized. He disapproved of making cross-cultural generalizations, saying that it wouldn’t be possible as it is in natural sciences.
Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict
Because of his position as an educator and curator at the Columbia University and American Museum of Natural History respectively, Franz Boas was able to train a generation of disciples. The first generation included thinkers like Ruth Benedict, Alfred Kroeber, andMargaret Mead. All of this 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 scienceand shifting the focus away from European languages.
The Methodology Involved in Cultural Anthropology
The modern methods of cultural anthropology are derived from ethnology, which was practiced in the 19th century. Since ethnology involved studying and comparing human societies in a way that’s organized, the methodology is applicable to cultural anthropology as well.
Scholars such as J.G. Frazer and E.B. Tylor in England, mostly made their assumptions from materials that other people collected, like officers, explorers, andtraders.
One of the main methods that areemployed in cultural anthropological studies is participant observation, and it’s a principle way to conduct research. The approach relies on the assumption that interacting with a group or society over a long period is an ideal way to understand them. Social anthropologists implemented the method in their fieldstudies.
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 i.e. churches, cults, corporations and 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 science i.e. studies that employ controlled environments.
During the 20th century, there was a growing interest in the field 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 societyfor a period of time, while continuously observing and participating in their routines. Their observations and recorded events are then added to the ethnography.
Anthropologists have come across new ethnographic techniques through preserved ethnographic details and texts,and looking at records from libraries, ancient scripts in churches and curate artifacts. A typical ethnographic record includes information about the society’s habitat, climate, andgeography.
Ethnography is supposed to serve as a complete record to anthropologists, about the people that they’re studying. Today, written texts include the most possibly detailed timeline of earlier events that the ethnographer retrieves through primary and secondary forms of research.
Bronislaw Malinowski initially developed the research method and 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.
Comparisons between Cultures
Ethnocentrism is dangerous for all forms of research 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, but if you look at comparative studies of the ethnographic record, you’ll find that plenty of societies practiced monogamy.
Yale University hosts a research agency ‘The Human Relations Area Files Inc’, which facilitates and encourages comparative studies of human behavior, society, andculture 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.
Contemporary cultural anthropologists criticize the previousmethod of recording ethnographies to be outdated; they claim that it treats local cultures as isolated and uninfluenced by the environment.
Contemporary forms of cultural anthropology 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, because these are what affect the realities in localities. Another emergence in the trend of multi-sited ethnography isthe fieldwork approaches stemming from disciplines from media and culturalstudies, as well as the natural science.
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’.
The Future of Cultural Anthropology
Although cultural anthropology doesn’t involve all the exciting adventures that other field experts get a chance to participate in, it has its own share of interesting perspective. As long as cultural anthropologists continue their respective research, they have an opportunity to make valuable discoveries and insights into 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, forinstance, 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 for upcoming generations 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 and developed them into moderns ones. Influential factors include the industrial revolution and other impactful events that changed the way humans do things. Other ancient cultures include the concept of wearing jewelry and as a way of symbolizing different things, like being betrothed to someone.
Careers in Cultural Anthropology
A degree in cultural anthropology allows you to enter a variety of professional fields, even though it deeply focuses on research methods, studies and making evaluations from archaeological findings ofcultures. 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 and Libraries
Museums and similar institutions offer various positions to people who have an educational background in anthropology. Although you’ll be required to have in-depth knowledge about other branches of anthropology as well, knowledge of cultural artifacts would be highly valuable.
You can also be a part of the administration or exhibit management team that looks after the artifacts and organizes the exhibits in a way that visitors can learn about timelines. Specializing in the interpretation of ethnographic texts can give you a great position in prestigious libraries.
If you’ve taken up courses on anthropologicalfieldwork, then you’ll know that you can traveltofar 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 what cultural anthropology is; there’s far more to it than just writing records and studying earlier texts. The process of uncovering new finds never really ends; we simply discover that our new cultures date back to farther 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.