Cultural Anthropology is the study of human cultures, beliefs, practices, values, ideas, technologies, economies and other domains of social and cognitive organization. This field is based primarily on cultural understanding of populations of living humans gained through first hand experience or participant observation.
This chapter will introduce you to the field of anthropology, define basic terms and concepts and explain why it is important, and how it can change your perspective of the world around you.
What is Anthropology?
Anthropology is the scientific study of human beings as social organisms interacting with each other in their environment, and cultural aspects of life. It is a scholarly discipline that aims to describe in the broadest possible sense what it means to be human. Anthropologists are interested in comparison. To make substantial and accurate comparisons between cultures, a generalization of humans requires evidence from the wide range of human societies. Anthropologists are in direct contact with the sources of their data, thus field work is a crucial component. The field of Anthropology, although fairly new as an academic field, has been used for centuries. Anthropologists are convinced that explanations of human actions will be superficial unless they acknowledge that human lives are always entangled in complex patterns of work and family, power and meaning.
Five Disciplines of Anthropology
- Applied Anthropology: Includes the fields of Applied Medical Anthropology, Urban Anthropology, Anthropological Economics, Contract Archaeology and others. Applied anthropology is simply the practice of applying anthropological theory and or methods from any of the fields of Anthropology to solve human problems. For example, applied anthropology is often used when trying to determine the ancestry of an unearthed Native American burial. Biological anthropology can be used to test the DNA of the body and see if the DNA of the burial has any similarities to living populations. Medical Anthropology studies illness and healthcare within specific populations in order to form healthcare solutions that are tailored specifically to populations as well as identify unique areas of susceptibility within populations.
- Archaeology: The study and interpretation of ancient humans or animals, their history, and culture. This is done through examination of the artifacts and remains that they left behind. An example of this is the study of Egyptian culture through the examination of their grave sites and the pyramids and the tombs in the Valley of Kings. Through the examination of pyramids and tombs in which these ancient humans lived in, much about human history and Egyptian culture is learned. Archaeology is an important study in improving knowledge about ancient humans, particularly, prehistoric or the long stretch of time before the development of writing.
- Biological Anthropology: A subfield of Anthropology that studies humanity through the human body as a biological organism, using genetics, evolution, human ancestry, primates, and their ability to adapt. There was a shift in the emphasis on differences (with the older “physical anthropology”) due to the development of the “new” physical anthropology developed by Sherwood Washburn at the University of California, Berkley. This field shifted from racial classification when it was discovered that physical traits that had been used to determine race could not predict other traits such as intelligence and morality. Some biological anthropologists work in the fields of primatology, which studies the closest living relative of human beings, the nonhuman primate. They also work in the field of paleoanthropology, which is the study of fossilized bones and teeth of our earliest ancestors. (also: Physical Anthropology). Biological anthropologists focus heavily on comparing and contrasting the biology of humans to that of our nearest extant relatives, the primates, to discover what distinguishes humans from primates as well as primates from other mammals.
- Cultural Anthropology: The study of contemporary human cultures and how these cultures are formed and shape the world around them. Cultural anthropologists often conduct research by spending time living in and observing the community they study (fieldwork) and participant observation in order to increase understanding of its politics, social structures, and religion. (also: sociocultural anthropology, social anthropology, or ethnology)
- Linguistic Anthropology: Examines human languages: how they work, how they are made, how they change, and how they die and are later revived. Linguistic anthropologists try to understand the language in relation to the broader cultural, historical, or biological contexts that make it possible. The study of linguistics includes examining phonemes, morphemes, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. They look at linguistic features of communication, which includes any verbal contact, as well as non-linguistic features, such as, eye contact, the cultural context, and even the recent thoughts of the speaker.
Holism in Anthropology
Anthropology is holistic , comparative, field-based, and evolutionary. These regions of Anthropology shape one another and become integrated over time. Historically it was seen as "the study of others," meaning foreign cultures, but using the term "others" imposed false thoughts of "civilized versus savagery." These dualistic views have often caused wars or even genocide. Now, anthropologists strive to uncover the mysteries of these foreign cultures and eliminate the prejudice that it first created.''Holism is the perspective on the human condition that assumes that mind, body, individuals, society, and the environment interpenetrate and even define one another. In anthropology holism tries to integrate all that is known about human beings and their activities. From a holistic perspective, attempts to divide reality into mind and matter isolate and pin down certain aspects of a process that, by very nature, resists isolation and dissection. Holism holds great appeal for those who seek a theory of human nature that is rich enough to do justice to its complex subject matter. An easier understanding of holism is to say that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."
The holistic approach is a perspective that assumes interrelationships among parts of a subject including both biological and cultural aspects. This approach is used to study the thoughts, behaviors, emotional, and spiritual changes we experience as humans. Anthropologists have the opportunity to use this approach to study the way humans are interested in engaging and developing as a whole person. Page text.
What is Culture?
Culture is the patterns of learned and shared behavior and beliefs of a particular social, ethnic, or age group. It can also be described as the complex whole of collective human beliefs with a structured stage of civilization that can be specific to a nation or time period. Humans, in turn, use culture to adapt and transform the world they live in.
This idea of Culture can be seen in the way that we describe the Ashanti, an African tribe located in central Ghana. The Ashanti live with their families as you might assume but the meaning of how and why they live with whom is an important aspect of Ashanti culture. In the Ashanti culture, the family and the mother’s clan are most important. A child is said to inherit the father’s soul or spirit (ntoro) and from the mother, a child receives flesh and blood (mogya), relating them more closely to the mother’s clan. The Ashanti live in an extended family. The family lives in various homes or huts that are set up around a courtyard. The head of the household is usually the oldest brother that lives there. He is chosen by the elders. He is called either Father or Housefather and everyone in the household obeys him.
The anthropological study of culture can be organized along two persistent and basic themes: Diversity and Change. An individual's upbringing and environment (or culture) is what makes them diverse from other cultures. It is the differences between all cultures and sub-cultures of the world's regions. People's need to adapt and transform to physical, biological and cultural forces to survive represents the second theme, Change. Culture generally changes for one of two reasons: selective transmission or to meet changing needs. This means that when a village or culture is met with new challenges, for example, a loss of a food source, they must change the way they live. This could mean almost anything to the culture, including possible forced redistribution of, or relocation from ancestral domains due to external and/or internal forces. And an anthropologist would look at that and study their ways to learn from them.
'•Learned' through active teaching, and passive habitus.
'•Shared' meaning that it defines a group and meets common needs.
•'Patterned' meaning that that there is a recourse of similar ideas. Related cultural beliefs and practices show up repeatedly in different areas of social life.
•'Adaptive' which helps individuals meet needs across variable environments.
•'Symbolic' which means that there are simple and arbitrary signs that represent something else, something more.
Originally the overlap of the two concepts had a positive effect, especially during colonial times; it helped spread the idea that vulnerable seemingly “primitive” and “uncivilized” cultures had some intrinsic value and deserved protection from other more dominating cultures. However, the drawback of this is it assumes first that culture is a static thing that it can be preserved, unchanged by the changing people and times it runs into. It also assumes that the people accept at face value and do not wish to change their patterns or ways of life. If people then do change, often they are criticized by a member from within and outside their own culture for not valuing ‘authenticity’ and tradition. This relates to the "Culture" vs. "culture" in that field of anthropology’s focus and appreciation of Culture and how it develops differently can be twisted when talking about Cultural relativism or human rights. Appreciation and defense of Culture do not imply blind tolerance to all aspects of all cultures.
Levels of Culture
How you express culture as a family through traditions, roles, beliefs, and other areas, is what describes this aspect of culture. Familial culture is passed down from generation to generation, it is both shared and learned. As a family grows, new generations are introduced to the traditional family practices. Familial culture is learned by means of enculturation which is the process by which a person learns the requirements of the culture that he or she is surrounded by. With enculturation, an individual will also learn behaviors that are appropriate or necessary in their given culture. The influences of enculturation from the family will then direct and shape the individual.
The present Royal family of Great Britain is a good example of family tradition, as each male member of the royal family has served in the armed forces. This tradition began with the Duke of Edinburgh enlisting in Great Britain's Royal Navy prior to World War II, and the tradition has continued through the generations.
Micro or Subculture
Micro or Subculture are distinct groups within a larger group that share some sort of common trait, activity or language that ties them together and/or differentiates them from the larger group. A micro or subculture is also not limited to how small it can be, it could be defined similarly to a clique. An example of this could be Mexican-Americans within the U.S. society. They share the same language, but they may have their own traditions that differentiate them for the whole. An example of a micro-culture would be the Japanese hip hop genba (club site) that is becoming more and more popular throughout Japanese cities. Although rap began in the United States, it has created its own unique appearance and style in the Japanese youth today. The physical appearance of rappers may be the same to those in the States, however, the content of the music differs along with the preservation of Japanese traditions.
Cultural universals ( which has been mentioned by anthropologists like George Murdock, Claude Levi-Strauss, Donald Brown and others) are common elements that exist in every human culture yet varies from different ethnic groups. This includes attributes such as values and modes of behavior. Examples of elements that may be considered cultural universals are gender roles, the incest taboo, religious and healing ritual, mythology, marriage, language, art, dance, music, cooking, games, jokes, sports, birth, and death because they involve some sort of ritual ceremonies accompanying them, etc. Many anthropologists and socialists with an extreme perspective of cultural relativism deny the existence or reduce the importance of cultural universals believing that these traits were only inherited biologically through the known controversy of “nurture vs. nature”. They are mainly known as "empty universals" since just mentioning their existence in a culture doesn't make them any more special or unique. The existence of these universals has been said to date to the Upper Paleolithic with the first evidence of behavioral modernity.
Among the cultural universals listed by Brown are:
• Language and cognition - All cultures employ some type of communication, symbolism is also a universal idea in language.
• Society - Being in a family, having peers, or being a member of any organized group or community is what makes society.
• Myth, Ritual, and aesthetics - Different cultures all have a number of things in common, for example, a belief system, celebration of life and death, and other ceremonial events.
• Technology - There are worldwide variations in clothing, housing, tools and techniques for getting food through different types of technology.
Two Views of Culture
An etic view is a judgment or perspective about a culture, gained based on an analysis from an outsider's customs and culture. Etic view minimizes the acceptance between two parties. Therefore, the importance of having an anthropological knowledge is greatly beneficial. There are so many situations where a person can have or get an etic view on. For example, if an American anthropologist went to Africa to study a nomadic tribe, their resulting case study would be from an etic standpoint if they did not integrate themselves into the culture they were observing. Some fields of anthropology may take this approach to avoid altering the culture that they are studying by direct interaction. The etic perspective is data gathering by outsiders that yield questions posed by outsiders. One problem that anthropologists may run in to is that people tend to act differently when they are being observed. It is especially hard for an outsider to gain access to certain private rituals, which may be important for understanding a culture. Etic ethnographic works often use exotic language when describing the "other".
An emic view of culture is ultimately a perspective focus on the intrinsic cultural distinctions that are meaningful to the members of a given society. This is often considered to be an 'insider’s' perspective. While this perspective stems from the concept of immersion in a specific culture; the emic participant is not always a member of that culture or society. Studies done from an emic perspective often include more detailed and culturally rich information than studies done from an etic point of view. Because the observer places themselves within the culture of intended study, they are able to go further in-depth on the details of practices and beliefs of a society that may otherwise have been ignored. However, the emic perspective has its downfalls. Studies done from an emic perspective can create bias on the part of the participant, especially if said individual is a member of the culture they are studying, thereby failing to keep in mind how their practices are perceived by others and possibly causing valuable information to be left out. The emic perspective serves the purpose of providing descriptive in-depth reports about how insiders of a culture understand their rituals, beliefs, and traditions.
Enculturation is a process by which we obtain and transmit culture. This process is experienced universally among humans. It describes how each individual is affected by prohibited behaviors and beliefs, which are 'proscribed' rather than encouraged behaviors and beliefs, which are 'prescribed'. Parents and other authority figures in young children’s lives are usually the initiators of this process, steering the children toward activities and beliefs that will be socially accepted in their culture. Through this process, these authority figures definitely shape the child’s view on life. Enculturation results in the interpretation of these ideals established by our culture and the establishment of our own individual behaviors and beliefs. In general, enculturation is a refereed journal devoted to contemporary theories of rhetoric, writing, and culture, and invites submissions on rhetoric, composition, media, technology, and education.
Cultural Transmission is the passing of new knowledge and traditions of culture from one generation to the next, as well as cross-culturally. Cultural Transmission happens every day, all the time, without any concept of when or where. Everything people do and say provides cultural transmission in all aspects of life. In everyday life, the most common way cultural norms are transmitted is within each individuals' home life. Each family has its own, distinct culture under the big picture of each given society and/or nation. With every family, there are traditions that are kept alive. The way each family acts and communicates with others and an overall view of life are passed down. Parents teach their kids every day how to behave and act by their actions alone. Outside of the family, culture can be transmitted at various social institutions. Places of worship, schools, even shopping centers are places where enculturation happens amongst a population.
Social institutions are a framework of social relationships that link an individual to the society, through participation. The forms of these social relationships can vary greatly across political, economic, religious, and familial platforms. Cross culturally, these relationships require understanding of the norms, values, and traditions that make them functional. Cultural transmission takes place within these relationships throughout an individual's lifetime.
Examples of these relationships range from marriage to participating in church. The complexities that govern this relationship are unique and highly culturally bound. Often external factors such as economics and health issues come into play. Studies were done in rural Malawi that discuss these issues further:
Symbols within Culture
A symbol is an object, word, or action that stands for something else, depending on the culture. Everything one does throughout their life is based and organized through cultural symbolism, which is when something represents abstract ideas or concepts. Symbols can represent a group or organization that one is affiliated with and mean different things to different people, which is why it is impossible to hypothesize how a specific culture will symbolize something. Some symbols are gained from experience, while others are gained from culture. One of the most common cultural symbols is language. For example, the letters of an alphabet symbolize the sounds of a specific spoken language. Hawaiian culture presents a good example of symbols in culture through the performance of a Lua which is a symbol of their land and heritage through song and dance 
Symbols can have good or bad meanings depending on how others interpret them. For example, the Swastika shown on the German Flag back in World War 2 means good fortune in some religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism and often used on designs, but after World War 2 the meaning of the Swastika shifted to a negative side among Americans. Street gangs have used colors and gang signs to show their affiliation to a gang. For Example, bloods are a street gang that are usually associated with red and have a gang sign that resembles the word ‘blood’.
‘Ethnography’ has turned into a complicated concept. To understand why, it is useful to go back to a time when it was thought to be simpler. Traditionally, the term was used to label what anthropologists did when they did their research.
By ‘anthropologist’ is meant here those anthropologists—sometimes called ‘ethnologists’—who work with living peoples to explore and document their culture. Their research involved long-term involvement in a community called ‘participant observation,’ discussions of topics of interest with community members called ‘informal interviews,’ and a record of the experience called ‘field notes.’ Ethnography also labeled the book-length report that an anthropologist wrote, using intuitive methods of analysis called ‘immersion in the data.’ The ethnography, the book, was also called a description of the culture of the community, although the culture focus was more characteristic of work in the USA than in Europe.
This straightforward definition of ethnography must be understood in its historical context. Anthropological research, as practiced in the early to middle twentieth century, usually involved an Anglo-American or European working in a small isolated community in a remote area of the world, with a group of people who often lived without modern amenities, had little or no formal education, and existed at a modest if not impoverished economic level. The anthropologist took up residence in the community, and set out to learn who the people in the community were and how they lived. Depending on their interests, anthropologists investigated topics as diverse as economic and household tasks, social organization and religious beliefs, family life and local markets—virtually anything that made up daily life. Since they also lived in the community, anthropologists visited with people, attended communal events, and worked together with community members on common projects, including the ethnography itself.
As one learned the community's way of living, one said one was ‘doing ethnography.’ Ethnography, then, named the process of learning what for the anthropologist was a new and different way of talking, thinking, and acting.
When the work was done, a monograph was usually written—a report of this exploration into the community's way of life. One could point to that book and say it was an ‘ethnography’ as well. Further, one could also say that the book was a description of the group's culture.
Traditionally, then, ethnography named both a research process characteristic of anthropology and a research product, often a book-length description, but at any rate a representation of the culture of the community in which the research had been done. (Agar 1996 introduces this traditional view and contextualizes it in light of more recent discussions.)
Because anthropologists set out to learn ways of thinking, talking, and acting whose nature they could not specify before they started their research, ethnography did not look much like traditional science. In fact, the scientific status of ethnography has been an issue since its beginning.
Traditional science sought universal laws; ethnography went after local particulars. Traditional science emphasized control of the research process; ethnography featured adaptability as the nature of community emerged. Traditional science evaluated a sample by size and strategy; ethnography, by competence, social position, and relationship to subject. Traditional science preserved initial concepts through the course of the research; ethnography developed new ones. Traditional science rested on linear models; ethnography, on models more systemic and processual. Traditional science represented data with numbers; ethnography more often used words.
Over the last twenty years it has become clear that ethnography cannot be adequately modeled or evaluated by traditional science. Some still argue that it should be. Some argue that it is a different kind of science. Some argue that it should be classed with the humanities. The issue is treated in Sect. 2 of this article.
A second problem arose with the nature of ethnography as a product, a description of a culture that resulted from the research. Anthropologists assumed that small communities represented a single culture, one that was internally consistent and traditional, passed from generation to generation in essentially unaltered form. The ‘culture’ concept served as description, explanation, and generalization. The fact that a person did something was data for the description of that culture. What was done could be explained by membership in that culture, and it could be generalized to the single culture assumed to be relevant.
The culture concept that guided earlier ethnographies is now in a shambles. The earlier assumptions about culture, such as its traditional and consistent nature, have been shown to have been in error from the beginning (Wolf 1982). Further, contemporary life makes the assumption that a person is a member of only one culture look hopelessly naive. While the nature of ethnography as a research process endures, it is no longer clear how to describe, explain, or generalize what is learned, nor is it clear what form a report—the ethnographic product—should take. The old concept of culture is no longer adequate to the task. Sect. 3 of this article deals with the problem.
Until this point ethnography has been discussed in the context of anthropology. Because of its long-standing concern with the exploration of previously unknown ways of living, anthropology is the academic discipline with the most elaborate history of ethnographic research. Ethnographic work outside anthropology also exists. For example, predisciplinary efforts such as Tacitus' description of the Germans in Roman times are often cited as a precursor. And ethnographic work in the discipline of sociology also has a long tradition, beginning with work based on Weber's theory of social action, continuing with the symbolic interactionism of the Chicago school and with the development of grounded theory and ethnomethodology in the 1960s.
By now the historical link between anthropology and ethnography has turned complicated in at least two ways. First of all, ethnography is used in a variety of different disciplines—ranging from history to speech communication to organization and management to public health—as a new approach, as well as in kindred social sciences such as political science and psychology. Second, the concept now coexists with such related terms as qualitative research, grounded theory, and phenomenology, terms that are also used widely in a number of different research contexts. These multiple uses of ‘ethnography’ and related terms have further blurred the edges of how ethnography should be defined, a problem dealt with in Sect. 4 of this entry.
In traditional cultural anthropology, then, ethnography had a clear meaning—the process of learning a community's way of life and reporting the results of that learning under the label ‘culture.’ Beginning in the late twentieth century, many of the assumptions underlying traditional ethnography were called into question—questions amplified by the changing nature of the world we all live in now. Finally, the increasing popularity of ethnography and related nontraditional approaches to research in numerous academic and organizational settings further complicates any attempt to define the term.
This article, then, is built less on a definition than it is on a sample of key issues around the question of what a definition might look like. ‘Ethnography’ is now a cover term for several debates around the nature of human understanding; debates for which, at the time of writing, no end is in sight. In fact, this might be the major contribution of the term to current social research, a contribution with more historical importance than its use as a label for a discipline-internal activity. If nothing else, this entry alerts the readers new to ethnography and culture that they are stepping into a series of issues rather than a recipe for doing research. Many new to ethnography import outdated notions of ethnography and culture from traditional anthropology into their work, a move that replicates historical mistakes and distorts their results.