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Cultural anthropology is one of four or five fields of anthropology (the holistic study of humanity). It is the branch of anthropology that examines culture as a meaningful scientific concept.

Cultural anthropologists study cultural variation among humans, collecting data about the impact of global economic and political processes on local cultural realities. Anthropologists use a variety of methods, including participant observation, interviews, and surveys. Their research is often called fieldwork because it involves the anthropologist spending an extended period of time at the research location, called a field site. These stays usually last one year during graduate studies, but can be as short as a few weeks, or as long as a lifetime.

One of the earliest articulations of the anthropological meaning of the term "culture" came from Sir Edward Tylor who writes on the first page of his 1897 book: “Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”[1] The term "civilization" later gave way to definitions by V. Gordon Childe, with culture forming an umbrella term and civilization becoming a particular kind of culture.[2]

The anthropological concept of "culture" reflects in part a reaction against earlier Western discourses based on an opposition between "culture" and "nature", according to which some human beings lived in a "state of nature". Anthropologists have argued that culture is "human nature," and that all people have a capacity to classify experiences, encode classifications symbolically (i.e. in language), and teach such abstractions to others.

Since humans acquire culture through the learning processes of enculturation and socialization, people living in different places or different circumstances develop different cultures. Anthropologists have also pointed out that through culture people can adapt to their environment in non-genetic ways, so people living in different environments will often have different cultures. Much of anthropological theory has originated in an appreciation of and interest in the tension between the local (particular cultures) and the global (a universal human nature, or the web of connections between people in distinct places/circumstances).

The rise of cultural anthropology occurred within the context of the late 19th century, when questions regarding which cultures were "primitive" and which were "civilized" occupied the minds of not only Marx and Freud, but many others. Colonialism and its processes increasingly brought European thinkers in contact, directly or indirectly with "primitive others."[3] The relative status of various humans, some of whom had modern advanced cultures that included engines and telegraphs, while others lacked anything but face-to-face communication techniques and still lived a Paleolithic lifestyle, was of interest to the first generation of cultural anthropologists.

Parallel with the rise of cultural anthropology in the United States, social anthropology, in which sociality is the central concept and which focuses on the study of social statuses and roles, groups, institutions, and the relations among them, developed as an academic discipline in Britain. An umbrella term socio-cultural anthropology makes reference to both cultural and social anthropology traditions.[4]


A brief history

Modern cultural anthropology has its origins in, and developed in reaction to, 19th century "ethnology", which involves the organized comparison of human societies. Scholars like E.B. Tylor and J.G. Frazer in England worked mostly with materials collected by others – usually missionaries, traders, explorers, or colonial officials – this earned them their current sobriquet of "arm-chair anthropologists".

Ethnologists had a special interest in why people living in different parts of the world often had similar beliefs and practices. In addressing this question, ethnologists in the 19th century divided into two schools of thought. Some, like Grafton Elliot Smith, argued that different groups must somehow have learned from one another, however indirectly; in other words, they argued that cultural traits spread from one place to another, or "diffused".

Other ethnologists argued that different groups had the capability of creating similar beliefs and practices independently. Some of those who advocated "independent invention", like Lewis Henry Morgan, additionally supposed that similarities meant that different groups had passed through the same stages of cultural evolution (See also classical social evolutionism). Morgan, in particular, acknowledged that certain forms of society and culture could not possibly have arisen before others. For example, industrial farming could not have been invented before simple farming, and metallurgy could not have developed without previous non-smelting processes involving metals (such as simple ground collection or mining). Morgan, like other 19th century social evolutionists, believed there was a more or less orderly progression from the primitive to the civilized.

20th-century anthropologists largely reject the notion that all human societies must pass through the same stages in the same order, on the grounds that such a notion does not fit the empirical facts. Some 20th-century ethnologists, like Julian Steward, have instead argued that such similarities reflected similar adaptations to similar environments (see cultural evolution).

Others, such as Claude Lévi-Strauss (who was influenced both by American cultural anthropology and by French Durkheimian sociology), have argued that apparently similar patterns of development reflect fundamental similarities in the structure of human thought (see structuralism). By the mid-20th century, the number of examples of people skipping stages, such as going from hunter-gatherers to post-industrial service occupations in one generation, were so numerous that 19th-century evolutionism was effectively disproved.[5]

In the 20th century, most cultural (and social) anthropologists turned to the crafting of ethnographies. An ethnography is a piece of writing about a people, at a particular place and time. Typically, the anthropologist lives among people in another society for a considerable period of time, simultaneously participating in and observing the social and cultural life of the group.

Numerous other ethnographic techniques have resulted in ethnographic writing or details being preserved, as cultural anthropologists also curate materials, spend long hours in libraries, churches and schools poring over records, investigate graveyards, and decipher ancient scripts. A typical ethnography will also include information about physical geography, climate and habitat. It is meant to be a holistic piece of writing about the people in question, and today often includes the longest possible timeline of past events that the ethnographer can obtain through primary and secondary research.

Bronisław Malinowski (who conducted fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands and taught in England) developed this method, and Franz Boas (who conducted fieldwork in Baffin Island and taught in the United States) promoted it. Boas's students drew on his conception of culture and cultural relativism to develop cultural anthropology in the United States. Simultaneously, Malinowski and A.R. Radcliffe Brown´s students were developing social anthropology in the United Kingdom. Whereas cultural anthropology focused on symbols and values, social anthropology focused on social groups and institutions. Today socio-cultural anthropologists attend to all these elements.

Although 19th-century ethnologists saw "diffusion" and "independent invention" as mutually exclusive and competing theories, most ethnographers quickly reached a consensus that both processes occur, and that both can plausibly account for cross-cultural similarities. But these ethnographers also pointed out the superficiality of many such similarities. They noted that even traits that spread through diffusion often were given different meanings and function from one society to another.

Accordingly, these anthropologists showed less interest in comparing cultures, generalizing about human nature, or discovering universal laws of cultural development, than in understanding particular cultures in those cultures' own terms. Such ethnographers and their students promoted the idea of "cultural relativism", the view that one can only understand another person's beliefs and behaviors in the context of the culture in which he or she lived or lives.

In the early 20th century, socio-cultural anthropology developed in different forms in Europe and in the United States. European "social anthropologists" focused on observed social behaviors and on "social structure", that is, on relationships among social roles (e.g. husband and wife, or parent and child) and social institutions (e.g. religion, economy, and politics).

American "cultural anthropologists" focused on the ways people expressed their view of themselves and their world, especially in symbolic forms, such as art and myths. These two approaches frequently converged and generally complemented one another. For example, kinship and leadership function both as symbolic systems and as social institutions. Today almost all socio-cultural anthropologists refer to the work of both sets of predecessors, and have an equal interest in what people do and in what people say.

Ethnography dominates socio-cultural anthropology. Nevertheless, many contemporary socio-cultural anthropologists have rejected earlier models of ethnography as treating local cultures as bounded and isolated. These anthropologists continue to concern themselves with the distinct ways people in different locales experience and understand their lives, but they often argue that one cannot understand these particular ways of life solely from a local perspective; they instead combine a focus on the local with an effort to grasp larger political, economic, and cultural frameworks that impact local lived realities. Notable proponents of this approach include Arjun Appadurai, James Clifford, George Marcus, Sidney Mintz, Michael Taussig and Eric Wolf.

A growing trend in anthropological research and analysis is the use of multi-sited ethnography, discussed in George Marcus's article, "Ethnography In/Of the World System: the Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography"]. Looking at culture as embedded in macro-constructions of a global social order, multi-sited ethnography uses traditional methodology in various locations both spatially and temporally. Through this methodology, greater insight can be gained when examining the impact of world-systems on local and global communities.

Also emerging in multi-sited ethnography are greater interdisciplinary approaches to fieldwork, bringing in methods from cultural studies, media studies, science and technology studies, and others. In multi-sited ethnography, research tracks a subject across spatial and temporal boundaries. For example, a multi-sited ethnography may follow a "thing," such as a particular commodity, as it is transported through the networks of global capitalism.

Multi-sited ethnography may also follow ethnic groups in diaspora, stories or rumours that appear in multiple locations and in multiple time periods, metaphors that appear in multiple ethnographic locations, or the biographies of individual people or groups as they move through space and time. It may also follow conflicts that transcend boundaries. An example of multi-sited ethnography is Nancy Scheper-Hughes's work on the international black market for the trade of human organs. In this research, she follows organs as they are transferred through various legal and illegal networks of capitalism, as well as the rumours and urban legends that circulate in impoverished communities about child kidnapping and organ theft.

Sociocultural anthropologists have increasingly turned their investigative eye on to "Western" culture. For example, Philippe Bourgois won the Margaret Mead Award in 1997 for In Search of Respect, a study of the entrepreneurs in a Harlem crack-den. Also growing more popular are ethnographies of professional communities, such as laboratory researchers, Wall Street investors, law firms, or information technology (IT) computer employees.[6]

Related topics

See also


  1. ^ Tylor,Edward. 1920 [1871]. Primitive Culture. New York: J.P. Putnam’s Sons.1.
  2. ^ Sherratt, Andrew V. "Gordon Childe: Archaeology and Intellectual History", Past and Present, No. 125. (Nov., 1989), pp. 151–185.
  3. ^ Rosaldo, Renato. Culture and Truth. 1993. Beach Press.
  4. ^ Campbell, D.T. (1983) The two distinct routes beyond kin selection to ultrasociality: Implications for the Humanities and Social Sciences. In: The Nature of Prosocial Development: Theories and Strategies D. Bridgeman (ed.), pp. 11-39, Academic Press, New York
  5. ^ Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs and Steel.
  6. ^ Dissertation Abstract [1]

External links


Study guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

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Towards a Future in Cultural Anthropology

From Cultural Conservation and Participant Observation to Cultural Creation and Creative Participation

By Dr. Volker Dahlheimer (2008)

The aftermath of Globalization leaves the anthropological-cultural world not merely in pieces, as one of the most accepted anthropological analysts of the time, Clifford Geertz, postulates, but in dust: A seemingly atomized, incoherent mesh of individuals, who can’t be attributed to a specific ethnic background anymore, and who are barely representative members of the nation-states which issue their passports. By all traditional measurements, this conglomeration of individualized humans should not be able to organize its life in any orderly way. A closer look at the life-organizing forces of today reveals a growing strength of market powers as used by global business and a dwindling contribution to life-structuring issues from political and social aggregates.

Ethnic groups as independent formations (if ever they could be considered as such) have become obsolete since colonialization. In the wake of globalization - the term used for the after-effects of a development that has been powered by the seemingly unlimited chance to spread out, nation states are rapidly losing their life-formatting influence. But the planet is limited, and so is the growth of all organizations running on materialistic underpinnings.

When we apply any analysis of the recent conditions of this planet (with humans as a major factor) to the known concepts of culture, the results are disastrous. Without societal offers for identification as a valid member of a social entity, and, logically following, no security promise for the future, this condition of disconnectedness from any organized stability whatsoever can only lead to a fatal conclusion. A “survival of the fittest”- future seems inevitable.

Surprisingly, the world doesn’t actually look like this.

But what’s been happening? What is the new undiscovered organizational structure, which keeps things from falling apart into a dog-eat-dog society? Cultural theories can’t offer an explanation, nor do politics provide a satisfying answer. Natural sciences, the oracles of our last few hundred years of existence, turn their heads towards the catastrophic results of their parent societies and how to handle them, with few optimistic predictions, so far. And what of the Cultural Sciences? What is their outlook and how do they justify their right of existence, if their field of work, organized human society, doesn’t present itself as such anymore?

For the Cultural-Anthropologist, or for the Ethnologist, extinction might be on the horizon – approaching at a speed concurrent with the vanishing of their subjects. How much longer will it be possible to satisfy any money-provider with rational innovations that, preferably, pay flattering tribute to the self-ascribed god like standings of the actual human race? Plainly spoken: Who will need Ethnologists, if there are no more ethnic novelties, no more ethnic boundaries and ethics?

Let’s try to tackle this task with the tools of our own trade. What if new cultural ethics are emerging? Maybe they come with different ethnic boundaries. So what? And how much greater can an ethnological novelty be than news about the emergence of a new cultural group, perhaps a new cultural level or even an evolutionary step in its cultural iteration.

There exists just such a group revealing itself to anyone, who is willing to see it. Sociologist Paul H. Ray and psychologist Sherry Ruth Anderson dubbed it the Cultural Creatives, and I believe the name is apt. Creativity isn’t a thing that can be organized. Global modern society arrived at its current point by means of organizing its relationship to its surroundings. With no more physical growth possible society is now facing the challenge of organizing in relation to itself. It – I should say - we are doing it as we speak. But we don’t notice it happening through our scientific observing eye, which is used to capture a purely material world; rather we assume by indirect empirical phenomena the possibility that a non-materialistic reality might be in existence. The tools for measurement are lacking. But human intuition serves to make it palpable. Intuitive knowledge cannot be transferred into objective matter, which would be required by the sciences, but still it can be felt. Humans have probably always felt it, but the easy option of materialistic life-organization has prohibited it from gaining much importance during the period we call Modernism. Forced to deal with the consequences of a situation, in which inner relations to one’s self with its analog connection to its environment become dominant again over the modernist dichotomy and relativistic relationship towards a surrounding. As a result more people pay more respect to their feelings and intuitions. And their lives are oriented to intuition-based knowledge once again rather than to a static, materialistic reception of the environment. This viewpoint is not abandoned either, but, “worked through” and “transcended”, now to be used as a wonderful tool whenever needed.

This change on the cultural playground of the early 2000’s is palpable- feelable– for anybody who is willing to make the practical experience himself. And practical experience comes through creative participation with this life on earth, rather than through indirect and empirical participant observation, which is, unfortunately, still the most prominent tool of the cultural anthropologist. Creative participation means more than the collecting of evidence; it means creating and acknowledging its own cultural footprint, as well. The creative participant is entering into a situation with an inherent risk - the risk of becoming a part of the things that are going on around him and which are co-created by his or her presence. There is no convenient non-responsible observer position left anymore, but an interwoven entanglement with all and in everything – and this entanglement makes one able to feel what reality is about- even if one cannot put it into words, on film or even express it in thought.

In such an entangled position it makes no sense to separate ones own fate and feelings from the fate and feelings of others. Those times are over, if, indeed, we ever really witnessed them before. For science to draw a true picture of true reality; of the culture one is living in, it is necessary to accept a way of recognizing the world in a more than materialistic manner. A “wind-chill-factor” of sorts needs to be built in into the static observations of today’s theories, which are stuck in their own limited acceptance of dynamism. The only appropriate approach towards cognition of culture-in-the-making seems to be through Creative Participation, where a separation between the observer and the observed is completely voided for good, where feelings and realities are shared practically and equally by all.

Cultural Anthropology with its overlapping fields of interest into all sciences on campus, its “field-experience” for discovering a cultural merge first hand, and its ties to development politics, cultural exchange and education programs worldwide might be predestined to explore into a reality, which isn’t measurable, countable, or even describable - but in existence and palpable all around us.


  • MARCUS George E.,Beyond Malinowski and after Writing Culture: On the future of cultural anthropology and the predicament of ethnography.The Australian journal of anthropology, 2002, vol. 13 ISSN 1035-8811


Up to date as of January 23, 2010

From Wikibooks, the open-content textbooks collection

Anthropology is the holistic and scientific study of humanity. Cultural Anthropology focuses on the study of contemporary human cultures, their beliefs, myths, values, practices, technologies, economies and other domains of social and cognitive organization. The detailed descriptions of culture, or ethnography, are based upon a methodology of primary data collection through participant observation with living human populations.

This textbook aims to provide an introduction to the field of cultural anthropology. The initial chapters introduce the concept of culture and review the historical, theoretical and methodological influences on the field. Chapters four through twelve discuss the major domains of the study of culture; symbolism, communication, ritual, production, healing, rights, reproduction, kinship, conflict and globalization. These chapters provide ethnographic examples (both etic and emic perspectives) and case studies to support the central concepts in each chapter. Additional case studies are available via the Anthrobase website and others can be developed in wikibook format and integrated through links in this book.

Part of the Social Sciences Bookshelf

Table of Contents

Grape workers.jpg
  1. Introduction to Anthropology and Culture Development stage: 75% (as of Mar 12, 2009)
  2. History of Anthropological Theory Development stage: 50% (as of Mar 12, 2009)
  3. Anthropological Methods Development stage: 75% (as of Mar 12, 2009)
  4. Communication and Language Development stage: 100% (as of Mar 12, 2009)
  5. Play, Sport and Arts Development stage: 25% (as of Mar 12, 2009)
  6. Ritual and Religion Development stage: 100% (as of Mar 12, 2009)
  7. Production, Inequality and Development Development stage: 75% (as of Mar 12, 2009)
  8. Health and Healing Development stage: 75% (as of Mar 12, 2009)
  9. Human Rights Development stage: 75% (as of Mar 12, 2009)
  10. Marriage, Reproduction and Kinship Development stage: 75% (as of Mar 12, 2009)
  11. Social Stratification, Power and Conflict Development stage: 75% (as of Mar 12, 2009)
  12. Globalization and Migration Development stage: 50% (as of Mar 12, 2009)
  • Ethnographic Case Studies
    • Anthrobase is an online searchable, open source database of full text ethnographies. Nearly 100 of them are in English [1]

Print Version

Download the entire book as a PDF File. This can be done in two ways, you can either right click on the link "PDF File Edition 1.0" and choose "Save target as", this saves the PDF on your computer for viewing at any time; alternatively left click on the link: PDF File Edition 1.0.

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To Do

General Tasks

  1. Repair and reformat references using <ref>Citation</ref> intext citation format and insert =References= {{reflist}} at bottom of each chapter
  2. Divide and move # Production, Inequality and Development Development chapter into 'Chapter on Production and inequality' and 'Chapter on development (ch 12?)
  3. Edit and improve quality of chapter content.
  4. Create PDF

Chapter specific tasks, revisions and needed additional content

Ritual & Religion Chapter

  1. Clean up and shorten table of contents
  2. Re-write priest & priestess section
  3. possible deletion of "Vaschnavism"
  4. Re-write lengthy Judaism and Christianity sections
  5. Clarify "Cargo Cult"
  6. Clarify "African Religions"
  7. Possible shortening of "Pastafarian" section
  8. Move "Additional-Information-Taiwanese People and Culture" to more appropriate place

Social groups chapter

  1. Black and White Relations- I want to see how other races in other countries deal with each other.
  2. Integrate content or links to An introduction to antiracist activism for teachers and students

Health, Healing & Human Rights Chapter

  1. Move "Cultural imperialism" chapter to globalization chapter

Globalization & Migration Chapter

  1. Clarify on "How Globalization Affects the Five Modes of Production" -more critical thought needed
  2. Clarify on section "Globalization of Hip-Hop"


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