Cultural Anthropology/Introduction

From Wikibooks, open books for an open world
Jump to: navigation, search

Cultural Anthropology is the study of human cultures, their beliefs, practices, values, ideas, technologies, economies and other domains of social and cognitive organization. This field is based primarily on cultural understanding gained through first hand experience, or participant observation within living populations of humans.

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?[edit]

Anthropology is the scientific study of human beings as social organisms interacting with each other in their environment,and cultural aspects of life. Anthropology can be defined as the study of human nature, human society, and the human past. 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. Anthropology is holistic[[1]], comparative, field based, and evolutionary. These regions of Anthropology shape one another and become integrated with one another 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.

While it is a holistic field, anthropology is typically considered to consist of five sub-disciplines, each focusing on a particular aspect of human existence:

  • Archaeology: The study and interpretation of ancient humans, their history and culture, through examination of the artifacts and remains they left behind. Such as: The study of the Egyptian culture through examination of their grave sites, the pyramids and the tombs in the Valley of Kings. Through this branch, anthropologists discover much about human history, particularly prehistoric, the long stretch of time before the development of writing.
Excavated ruins of Mohenjo-daro, Pakistan.
  • Cultural Anthropology:(also: sociocultural anthropology, social anthropology, or ethnology) studies the different cultures of humans and how those cultures are shaped or shape the world around them. They also focus a lot on the differences between every person. The goal of a cultural anthropologist is to learn about another culture by collecting data about how the world economy and political practices effect the new culture that is being studied.
  • Biological Anthropology (also: Physical Anthropology):Specific type of Anthropology that studies humanity through the human body as a biological organism, using genetics, evolution, human ancestry, primates, and the 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 is the study of the closest living relatives of the human being, the nonhuman primates. They also work in the field of paleoanthropology which is the study of fossilized bones and teeth of our earliest ancestors.
  • 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 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, which would include movements, eye contact, the cultural context, and even the recent thoughts of the speaker.
  • 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.

Holism in Anthropology[edit]

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. Individual human organisms are not just x percent genes and y percent culture added together. Rather, human beings are what they are because of mutual shaping of genes and culture and experiences living in the world produces something new, something that cannot be reduced to the materials used to construct it. It is important to note that humans who grow and live together are inevitably shaped by shared cultural experiences and develop into a much different person than they would have if developing in isolation. Sally Engle Merry, an anthropologist, got a call from a radio show asking her to talk about a recent incident that happened in Pakistan that resulted in a gang rape of a young woman authorized by a local tribal council. She explained to them that it was an inexcusable act and that the rape was probably connected to local political struggles and class differences. This relates to holism because the gang rape was authorized by higher authorities because it is a cultural norm for socially higher class men to feel more empowered over women. This emphasizes the connection between human actions and their environment and society.

What is Culture?[edit]

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.

Ashanti flag, note the golden stool

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). This relates 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.[1]

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 worlds 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.

Culture is:
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.

"Culture" vs. "culture"[edit]

At its most basic level, the difference between Culture and culture is in the way they are defined. Culture with a capital C refers to the ability of the human species to absorb and imitate patterned and symbolic ideas that ultimately further their survival. Culture is a trait all humans have, whereas culture with a lower case c refers to a particular learned way of life and set of patterns an individual person has picked up, representing one variation amongst many different cultures.

"Petty apartheid": sign on Durban beach in English, Afrikaans and Zulu (1989)

The concept of Culture vs. culture becomes more complex when it comes to how the two terms are misinterpreted and misused. 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. But there are drawbacks to this mentality, as 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 member from within and outside their own culture for not valuing ‘authenticity’ and tradition. This relates to the Culture vs. culture in that 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 does not imply blind tolerance to all aspects of all cultures. A pertinent example of this would be Female Genital Cutting and how as an aspect of little c culture, it can be examined and judged a violation of human rights. This does not however, diminish an anthropologist’s appreciation for the ability of the human being to develop Culture.

An example of how defense of culture has been misused is in apartheid South Africa, where the white supremacist government justified the oppression of black Africans, or the bantu peoples because their aim was a “higher Bantu culture and not at producing black Europeans”. They argued that “not race but culture was the true base of difference, the sign of destiny. And cultural differences were to be valued”. In such cases, the abuse of the term is clear, in that they were using it as a basis for unequal treatment and access to services such as education.

Levels of culture[edit]

Familial culture[edit]

Familial culture is how you express culture as a family through traditions, roles, beliefs, and other areas. Many aspects can influence a family culture such as religion, and the community around you. Religion can strongly influence family culture, which can be demonstrated by the Catholic religion in many Hispanic countries. Most Hispanic cultures practice Catholic beliefs and within a family these beliefs are practiced to different degrees. For example, one family may go to the catholic mass every week while some may only go once a month. This can all depend on the standards and cultural norms for a given community. Every family is different, and every family has its own culture.

Familial culture is also passed down from generation to generation and this means that it is both shared and learned. It is shared because as a family grows, new generations are introduced to traditional family practices and then it becomes a routine to that new generation. 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 direct and shape the individual.

The Royal Family of Great Britain is deeply set in family tradition

The present Royal family of Great Britain is a good example of family tradition because each male member of the royal family has served in the armed forces. Prince Andrew joined the Navy in 1979, Prince Edward joined the Royal Marines as a second lieutenant in 1983, Prince Charles the current prince of Wales was appointed in 1969 as the as colonel-in-chief of the Royal Regiment of Wales, the Duke of Edinburgh joined the Navy in 1939 and served in World War 2 and as of June 12, 2003 Prince Henry announced that he would be continuing the tradition by joining the Army. This long standing tradition of serving in the armed forces is an important aspect of familial culture because it shows the connection of the generations of the royal family of Great Britain through the years.

Micro or Subculture[edit]

Micro or Subculture- 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 on 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 are found in a larger whole. This is similar the subculture of an African American, they are fully accepted in the American culture but are also capable of also maintaining a individual smaller culture too. 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.[2] Although rap started in the United States, it has created its own unique appearance and style in the Japanese youth culture 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.

Cinco de Mayo dancers greeted by former Pres. George W. Bush."The holiday, which has been celebrated in California continuously since 1863, is virtually ignored in Mexico."[3]

Cultural universals[edit]

Cultural universals ( which has been mentioned by anthropologists like George Murdock, Claude Levi-Strauss, Donald Brown and others) can be defined as being anything common that exists in every human culture on the planet yet varies from different culture to culture, 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 anthropologist 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.

A woman dancing folklórico in the traditional dress of Jalisco

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.

Residents of Vanuatu making fire. The use of fire for cooking is a human cultural universal

Dance is a great example of a cultural universal because it exists in every culture as form of expression, social interaction, or presented in a spiritual or performance setting. Traditional dances found in Mexico are quite different from those found in the United States. American style dancing includes Flat Foot Dancing, Hoofing, Buck Dancing, Soft Shoe, Clogging, Irish Sean-Nós Dance, and Irish Jig. Because these forms of dance are not commonly found on stage, in the media, or taught in the dance schools, it has received minimal attention and its practice has significantly decreasing compared to its past popularity. Mexico on the other hand had a traditional style of dance called Ballet Folklorico which reflects different regions and folk music genres. These dances are widely known and are constantly being taught in schools and performed during festivities such as Cinco de Mayo.

Two Views of Culture[edit]

125th Street in East Harlem

In the article, “Workaday World, Crack Economy”, anthropologist Philippe Bourgois uses participant observation to get involved with the people living in East Harlem. He actually lived there trying to uncover this system, and getting to know the people that he was observing. His approach displays both emic detail, the stories and explanations given by Primo and Cesar, as well as etic analysis attributing workplace discrimination to the FIRE economy. Both points of view are rather crucial (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate) ^ .


An etic view of a culture is the perspective of an outsider looking in. For example, if an American anthropologist went to Africa to study a nomadic tribe, his/her resulting case study would be from an etic standpoint if he/she did not integrate themselves into the culture they were observing. Some anthropologies 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.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is an example of an “etic” view. The WHO created a group that specializes in Health and Human Rights. Although the idea that all cultures should have their rights protected in terms of health seems logical, it can also be dangerous as it is an “etic” view on culture. The WHO posits that “violations or lack of attention to human rights (e.g. harmful traditional practices, slavery, torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, violence against women) can have serious health consequences."[4] Although some cultures may see this as a big step in health care, others could see it as an attack on their way of life. This problem of right and wrong in terms of crossing cultural lines is a big one. It can be hard for some cultures to watch other cultures do things that are seen as damaging when to the culture itself it has a purpose and a meaning.


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, often considered to be an 'insider’s' perspective. While this perspective stems from the concept of immersion in a specific culture, the emic participant isn't 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.


Growing up in any culture, all humans go through the process of enculturation. This process is the way in which we obtain and transmit culture. It describes how each individual comes to terms with the already set ideals that their culture has established, and how each person adapts to prohibited behaviors and beliefs, which are 'proscribed', versus 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.

The !Kung People diligently work on making a fire

For example the !Kung Bushman who live in the Kalahari were raised quite differently than someone who grew up in Washington State,or the States in general. In the United States, we tend to tolerate arrogance more so than the !Kung people.[5] For example, when we give people gifts and they thank us graciously for it, we acknowledge their acceptance by saying "It was no big deal", which by accepting their gratitude makes us in a way arrogant because we accept the fact the receiver appreciates the gift. Growing up in another culture, there are different guidelines that people have to follow in order to be socially accepted. In the !Kung Bushman tribe they look down upon people who think highly of themselves and who are arrogant. To avoid these characteristics, each child was raised to put down and mock others when they do things such as hunting and other activities. Their view is that by telling someone who had just hunted a huge ox, that the ox is a “bag of bones” or “thin, sick, and dead,” then they are preventing this person from being arrogant and full of them self.

In contrast, enculturation in the United States teaches people to see this behavior as mean and wrong. Often in the United States culture arrogance is also viewed as a negative quality, but it is not discouraged in the same way. A common way members of the United States culture discourage displays of arrogance is simply by telling the younger generation that it is a bad quality. The !Kung people use enculturation strongly to impress their cultural value of humility; in United States culture, it is emphasized less and it shows in the much wider acceptance of arrogance. In the US, a hunter might have been praised for doing good things such as hunting large game and providing food for everyone else. All of the members of these two cultures went through the process of enculturation but just into different cultures with different established ideals.

Cultural Transmission[edit]

Barack Obama shows multi-cultural respect by hosting a Sedar dinner. Sedar is a Jewish tradition passed down through families for generations.

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 everyday, 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, communicates with others and an overall view of life are passed down. Parents teach their kids everyday how to behave and act by their actions alone.

Another big influence on cultural transmission is the media. The distinct way the media portrays America to other countries and themselves. One example is the way that hip-hop has formed all over the world, each with its own distinct way of interpretation formed by any such culture. Each, separate translation of the meaning of hip-hop is an example of cultural transmission, passed from one culture to the next. In Japanese culture, hip-hop[6] for instance, has become quite a popular aspect as more of an underground scene and has made its own concepts of what hip-hop is, but still has similar characteristics of original hip-hop. Cultural transmission cross culturally happens very easily now with Globalization. For example, hip-hop is not just music; it’s a lifestyle, an image, and a culture of its own. Cultural transmission is what keeps cultures alive and thriving.

Dakar, the capitol of Senegal located in Western Africa, has also seen its media become influenced through cultural transmission and Hip-Hop. As shown in the film "Democracy in Dakar," Dakar's 2007 elections were heavily influenced by underground Hip-Hop. The documentary shows how the youth of Dakar have used their musical talents to encourage everyone to vote, in an attempt to void the corruption present within the government. [7]

Symbols and Culture[edit]

The Rosetta stone has several different languages carved into it

Symbols are the basis of culture. A symbol is an object, word, or action that stands for something else with no natural relationship that is culturally defined. Everything one does throughout their life is based and organized through cultural symbolism. Symbolism is when something represents abstract ideas or concepts. Some good examples of symbols/symbolism would be objects, figures, sounds, and colors. For example in the Hawaiian culture, the performance of a Lua is a symbol of their land and heritage which is performed through song and dance [8] . Also, they could be facial expressions or word interpretations. Symbols 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.

Symbolism leads to the "Layers of Meaning" concept. Culture is the meaning that is shared to provide guiding principles for individual meaning.

Language is the most often used form of symbolism. There are 6,912 known living languages, and the diversity is caused by isolation. Most languages have a different "symbol" for each letter, word, or phrase. The use of symbols is adaptive, that means that humans can learn to associate new symbols to a concept or new concepts with a symbol. An example may be drawn from two populations who speak different languages that come into contact with one another and need to communicate. They form a language that has a large degree of flexibility in using either language's symbols (in this case patterns of sound) or a hybrid set of symbols to communicate messages back and forth. This contact language, or pidgin gradually gives way to a creole with a more formal set of symbols (words), grammatical rules for their organization, and its own native speakers who transmit the language from generation to generation.

It is important for anthropologists to consider their own cultural background when looking at symbolism in a different culture. This is because many symbols, though similar in appearance, can mean drastically different things. These symbols can best be understood or interpreted though the eyes of the culture that they pertain to, otherwise they may loose their unique significance. One example of a misinterpreted cultural symbol is the “whirl log” symbol commonly used in Southwestern Native American blanket weaving. This symbol is almost identical to the Nazi Swastika, and therefore brings a negative response from many Americans. Although the Native American symbol has nothing to do with Nazi or Germanic symbolism, this design is rarely used on blankets today because of the symbolic misinterpretation. [9]


"Colonization of New England" - Early settlers cut and saw trees and use the lumber to construct a building, possibly a warehouse for their supplies. This is the first scene painted entirely by Costaggini.

Ethnocentrism is the term anthropologists use to describe the opinion that one's own way of life is natural or correct. Some would simply call it cultural ignorance. Ethnocentrism means that one may see his/her own culture as the correct way of living. For those who have not experienced other cultures in depth can be said to be ethnocentric if they feel that their lives are the most natural way of living. Some cultures may be similar or overlap in ideas or concepts, however, some people are in a sense, shocked to experience differences they may encounter with individuals culturally different than themselves. In extreme cases, a group of individuals may see another cultures way of life and consider it wrong, because of this, the group may try to convert the other group to their own ways of living. Fearful war and genocide could be the devastating result if a group is unwilling to change their ways of living.

An example of ethnocentrism in culture is the Asian cultures across all the countries of Asia. Throughout Asia, the way of eating is to use chopsticks with every meal. These people may find it unnecessary to find that people in other societies, such as the American society, eat using forks, spoons, knives, etc. Since these countries use chopsticks to eat every meal, they find it foolish for other cultures to not use utensils similar to chopsticks; however, they do accept the fact that they use different utensils for eating. This example is not something extreme that could lead to genocide or war, but it is a large enough gap between these cultures for people to see their way of eating as the natural or best way to typically eat their food.

Another example of ethnocentrism is colonialism. Colonialism can be defined as cultural domination with enforced social change. Colonialism refers to the social system in which the political conquests by one society of another leads to "cultural domination with enforced social change". A good example to look at when examining colonialism is the British overtake of India. The British had little understanding of the culture in India which created a lot of problems an unrest during their rule.[10]

"Statue of Gandhi" - Gandhi was an important figure in the struggle to end the period of British colonial rule in India, he fought for peace and understanding during this time of unrest.

Ethnocentrism may not, in some circumstances, be avoidable. We all often have instinctual reactions toward another person or culture's practices or beliefs. But these reactions do not have to result in horrible events such as genocide or war. In order to avoid such awful things like those we must all try to be more culturally relative. Ethnocentrism is one solution to tension between one cultural self and another cultural self. It helps reduce the other way of life to a version of one's own.

Cultural Relativism[edit]

The Cross-Cultural Relationship is the idea that people from different cultures can have relationships that acknowledge, respect and begin to understand each others diverse lives. People with different backgrounds can help each other see possibilities that they never thought were there because of limitations, or cultural proscriptions, posed by their own traditions. Traditional practices in certain cultures can restrict opportunity because they are "wrong" according to one specific culture. Becoming aware of these new possibilities will ultimately change the people that are exposed to the new ideas. This cross-cultural relationship provides hope that new opportunities will be discovered but at the same time it is threatening. The threat is that once the relationship occurs, one can no longer claim that any single culture is the absolute truth.

Cultural relativism is the ability to understand a culture on its own terms and not to make judgments using the standards of ones own culture. The goal of this is promote understanding of cultural practices that are not typically part of one's own culture. Using the perspective of cultural relativism leads to the view that no one culture is superior than another culture when compared to systems of morality, law, politics, etc. [11] It is a concept that cultural norms and values derive their meaning within a specific social context. This is also based on the idea that there is no absolute standard of good or evil, therefore every decision and judgment of what is right and wrong is individually decided in each society. The concept of cultural relativism also means that any opinion on ethics is subject to the perspective of each person within their particular culture. Overall, there is no right or wrong ethical system. In a holistic understanding of the term cultural relativism, it tries to promote the understanding of cultural practices that are unfamiliar to other cultures such as eating insects, genocides or genital cutting.

There are two different categories of cultural relativism: Absolute: Everything that happens within a culture must and should not be questioned by outsiders. The extreme example of absolute cultural relativism would be the Nazi party’s point of view justifying the Holocaust.

Critical: Creates questions about cultural practices in terms of who is accepting them and why. Critical cultural relativism also recognizes power relationships.

Absolute cultural relativism is displayed in many cultures, especially Africa, that practice female genital cutting. This procedure refers to the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or any other trauma to the female reproductive/genital organs. By allowing this procedure to happen, females are considered women and then are able to be married. FGC is practiced mainly because of culture, religion and tradition. Outside cultures such as the United States look down upon FGC, but are unable to stop this practice from happening because it is protected by its culture.

A Chinese woman with her feet unbound

Cultural relativism can be seen with the Chinese culture and their process of feet binding. Foot binding was to stop the growth of the foot and make them smaller. The process often began between four and seven years old. A ten foot bandage would be wrapped around the foot forcing the toes to go under the foot. It caused the big toe to be closer to the heel causing the foot to bow.[4]In China, small feet were seen as beautiful and a symbol of status. The women wanted their feet to be “three-inch golden lotuses”三寸金蓮[3] It was also the only way to marry into money. Because men only wanted women with small feet, even after this practice was banned in 1912, women still continued to do it. To Western cultures the idea of feet binding might seems torturous, but for the Chinese culture it is symbol of beauty that has been ingrained the culture for hundreds of years. The idea of beauty differs from culture to culture.

Cultural Anthropology Today[edit]

What do Cultural Anthropologists do?

This image shows participants in Diana Leafe Christian's 'Heart of a Healthy Community' seminar circle during an afternoon session at an O.U.R. Ecovillage


The word Ethnography comes from these two Greek words:"Ethnos", meaning people & "Graphein", meaning writing. Wolcott (1999) defines ethnography is a description of “the customary social behaviors of an identifiable group of people”. Ethnography is often referred to as "culture writing," and it refers to a type of documentation often employed by Anthropologists in their field work. This genre of writing uses detailed first-hand written descriptions of a culture based on first-hand research in the field.

Ethnographies often reflect the anthropological desire for holism, the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. In the case of ethnography, holism refers to the fact that a culture can be best understood through the understanding of as many aspects of the cultural context as possible.

Cultural anthropologists who write ethnographies are often called ethnographers. Ethnographers who write about what they have learned from the people that they have been working with often use a research method known as participant-observation. Participant Observation is a technique of field research used in anthropology by which an anthropologist studies the life of a group by sharing in its activities.

Ethnographic information can take many different forms. Articles, journals, statistical data, and documentaries are just a few of the many forms that ethnographic information can be conveyed. A very common form is a book written by the person participating in the research or observation. A great example of a book would be "Waiting For An Ordinary Day" by Farnaz Fassihi because as a journalist traveling to Iraq during the Iraq war, she participates in Iraqi daily life and documents her description of it, because of her methods and style of writing although Fassihi may not consider herself an anthropologist, her book Waiting for an Ordinary Day is ethnographic. Eventually, she turns all of her journalistic notes into a book which describes certain events that help her define the Iraqi culture. She uses the participant-observation method, and also uses the concept of holism to explain the whole of Iraqi culture, rather than just small aspects of it.

Anthropologists, scientists, philosophers, historians and most social scientists have been reexamining assumptions about what science is and how it works. They have challenged the traditional distinction between hard sciences (such as physics, chemistry, and biology) and soft sciences (psychology, sociology, and anthropology). They think they have more in common than previously believed. Anthropologists aid in the effort to study and reconsider what science is all about through gathering information about diverse cultural views on the process of explanation gained during participant-observation-based fieldwork.


Ethnology is the comparative study of two or more cultures. Ethnology utilizes the data taken from ethnographic research and applies it to a single cross cultural topic. The ethnographic approach can be used to identify and attempt to explain cross cultural variation in cultural elements such as marriage, religion, subsistence practices, political organization, and parenting, just to name a few. Ethnology often compares and contrasts various cultures. Anthropologists who focus on one culture are often called ethnographers while those who focus on several cultures are often called ethnologists. The term ethnology is credited to Adam Franz Kollár who used and defined it in his Historiae ivrisqve pvblici Regni Vngariae amoenitates published in Vienna in 1783.[12]

Deconstructing Race and Racism[edit]

Race was created long ago as a tool to separate humans from different areas on the globe in order to justify enslaving and belittling certain peoples of the world. Since its creation there has been a slow but steady attempt to deconstruct it. Of course there have been many speed bumps along the way.

Deconstructing the social concept of race has been a major interest of Cultural Anthropology at least since Franz Boas's work on race and immigration in the early 1900's. The concept of race is important in many different areas of the discipline including cross-cultural studies, the way we look at ourselves vs. people we feel are different from us and many other areas. Race is not biological but it's supposed to be a way to classify biological differences by grouping people according to different characteristics that they have [13]. However it's important to remember that race is not based on genetic features. There is no biological part of race. It is strictly a concept created by humans to try to better understand differences between us. The history of the relationship between anthropology and the concept of race is long and interesting (see Race in Science web resources for more information).


Technology is an important aspect of Cultural Anthropology. Anthropologists have studied the examples of material life established in different human civilizations. Some examples of these universal differences are in shelter, attire, tools and methods for acquiring food and producing material goods. Some anthropologists focus their main concern on studying technology in diverse societies or the progression of technology. Individuals concerned with material life also illustrate the primary environment for which technologies have been revolutionized. In Anthropology, technology is often studied in relationship to the natural environment that it was developed in.

Different cultures use technology in different ways. Western technology that is used in non-Western cultures are being used in new and creative ways. Although some of the new uses for the technology are unexpected, it makes sense in the context of the different cultures. An example would be the ipod in the African country of Benin in which predominantly students of higher education, who speak French as well as their native language and go to a Private University. The Ipods are shipped from England, France, and the United States. The country of Benin is sometimes referred to as "little America" because the country has a good economic system and isn't involved in wars, ethnic cleansings, or starvation like other countries. Students here try to imitate students from European and American schools. This trend is not concurrent throughout Africa, due to political differences.

Personal Computer 774.JPG

Some anthropologists analyze the ways in which technologies and settings shape each other, and others analyze the way non-Western civilizations have reacted in regards to political and economic strife of colonialism and capitalist industrialized technology. With globalization, all people increasingly consume material goods and technologies manufactured beyond their own culture. Anthropologists have proven that non-Western inhabitants do not mindlessly imitate Western customs for the use of technology; instead they utilize Western technologies in creative ways, which are often unforeseen and can be adaptive or maladaptive. A cargo cult could be considered an example of the creative use of new technology.

An example of differences in culture can also be found within the same culture. For example, the differences between generations in the American culture. For the adult generation it is much harder to do the simple tasks that young adults do daily with technology. This is because they were not raised with the technology constantly surrounding them like this generation has been. Today teenagers rarely go a day without using either their cell phone, laptop, ipod, or a television.


  1. "African People & Culture - Ashanti". 
  2. "Japanese Hip Hop and the Globalization of Popular Culture" Ian Condry
  3. Southern California Quarterly "Cinco de Mayo's First Seventy-Five Years in Alta California: From Spontaneous Behavior to Sedimented Memory, 1862 to 1937" Spring 2007 (see American observation of Cinco de Mayo started in California) accessed Oct 30, 2007
  4. "Health and Human Rights", World Health Organization (pdf) Accessed June 2009
  5. "Discussion Group 10 Week 2- Marisa Mikelsons"
  6. Condry, Ian, 2001 "Japanese Hip-Hop and the Globalization of Popular Culture." In Urban Life: Readings in the Anthropology of the City. George Gmelch and Walter Zenner, eds. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
  7. Democracy in Dakar, Nomadic Wax, 2008
  9. Barton Wright Cruz Bay Publishing, Inc.
  10. Schultz, Emily A., and Robert H. Lavenda. Cultural Anthropology : A Perspective on the Human Condition. New York: Oxford UP, Incorporated,
  11. Philosophy Home, 2009.
  12. Zmago Šmitek and Božidar Jezernik, "The anthropological tradition in Slovenia." In: Han F. Vermeulen and Arturo Alvarez Roldán, eds. Fieldwork and Footnotes: Studies in the History of European Anthropology. 1995.
  13. American Anthropological Association Statement on "Race"(May 17, 1998)
  1. ^ Peter L. Berger, Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective, Anchor, 1963, ISBN 0385065299
  2. ^ C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, Oxford University Press, 1961, ISBN 0195133730
  3. ^ Louisa Lim, Painful Memories for China's Footbinding Survivors
  4. ^ James A. Crites Chinese Foot Binding,
  5. ^
  6. ^ Justin Marozzi, The son of the Father of History, 2007,
  7. ^ Introduction to The Journey of Friar John of Pian de Carpine to the Court of Kuyuk Khan, 1245-1247, as translated by William Woodville Rockhill, 1900,
  8. ^ Schultz, Emily A., and Robert H. Lavenda. Cultural Anthropology A Perspective on the Human Condition. 7th ed. New York: Oxford UP.
  9. ^ "RACE - The Power of an Illusion . What Is Race |." PBS. 08 Mar. 2009 <>.
  10. ^ Miller, Barabra. Cultural Anthropology. 4th ed. Boston: Pearson Education Inc., 2007.
  11. ^ Lorber, Judith. "Night to His Day": The Social Construction of Gender." From Inquiry to Academic Writing: A text and Reader. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008. 617-30.
  12. ^ Bourgois, Philippe. "Workaday World, Crack Economy." The Nation (1995): 706-11.

This page also draws upon the following wikipedia resources:

External links[edit]

  • What is Anthropology? - Information from the American Anthropological Association
  • SLA- Society for Linguistic Anthropology
  1. ^ Schultz, Emily A., and Robert H. Lavenda. Cultural Anthropology : A Perspective on the Human Condition. New York: Oxford UP, Incorporated,
  1. ^ Schultz, Emily A., and Robert H. Lavenda. Cultural Anthropology : A Perspective on the Human Condition. New York: Oxford UP, Incorporated, 2009. pgs. 332-333

History of Anthropological Theory