Anthropology and the Study of Culture

Anthropology and the Study of Culture

Week One

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Anthropology – from Greek : anthropos, “human being,” and logos or logia, “reason” / knowledge.

Anthropology is the study of human beings.


Anthropologists study the biological, linguistic, social, historical, and cultural variations of humanity.

Four Fields of Anthropology



Physical or Biological Anthropology

Linguistic Anthropology

Cultural Anthropology

Cultural Anthropology


the comparative study of human society and culture


Culture – the acquired, cognitive and symbolic aspects of existence

Society – the social organization of human life, patterns of interaction and power relations

Thomas Hyland Eriksen (2010)


How Cultural Anthropologists Work

Sustained ethnographic fieldwork, involving


Participant observation

Ethnographic interviews

Life histories

Other techniques, such as mapping, photographing, surveys, archival research





Value of Participant Observation

Are cultures things?

Once upon a time…..


Today, peoples, nations, ethnic groups, and communities are not isolated (if they ever were)…

Hierarchies within groups have always been an issue affecting knowledge and perspective

Even once upon a time, things weren’t so simple as they seemed!


Opt for the adjectival form “cultural” to describe differences, rather than the more static “culture.”


“Culture” emerged as a noun that referred to the nurturing of a natural process (e.g., agriculture) that was then subsequently applied to the “cultivation” of human capacities.


Following that application, “culture” came to mean the activities of those who had been so “cultivated,” thereby distinguishing them from the “uncultured” or the “uncivilized.”


More recently (last 130 years), “culture” came to mean the historical self development of human beings.


Popular notions of culture

Popular notions of “culture” as a specialized form of intellectual and aesthetic practice, called “High Culture,” take certain works (e.g. literary or musical works) as examples of the “greatest” or “highest” achievements of humanity. Examples in the European tradition:

Beethoven and Mozart

Opera or classical music

Van Gogh or Picasso


High Culture: a standard of aesthetic excellence

Culture with a capital “C”: “the intellectual side of civilization”

Defined by‘classic’ European aesthetic forms (opera, ballet, literature, art)

The idea that only certain classes, races, ethnic groups, or educational strata have real “culture” has justified elitism, racism and ethnocentrism.

Anthropological View of culture as “a whole way of life”


Culture is a particular way of life which expresses certain meanings and values not only in art and learning, but also in institutions and ordinary behavior. The analysis of culture, from such a definition, is the clarification of the meanings and values implicit and explicit in a particular way of life, a particular culture. (Raymond Williams 1965)


Anthropological View of culture as “a whole way of life”

“…culture is the learned and shared knowledge that people use to generate behavior and interpret experience”

James Spradley, Conformity and Conflict

“The system of meanings about human experience that are shared by a people and passed on from one generation to another.”

Richard Robbins, Cultural Anthropology

In these definitions, anyone can have culture regardless of their race, class, ethnicity or geographic location and anyone can participate in more than one culture.






Attributes of culture according to anthropologists…







Culture is learned

All children must go through process of enculturation.

Not genetic.

Learned through observation

Learned through being told

Culture is symbolic

Humans have the ability to establish arbitrary relations between signs and what they refer to.

What relationship is there between this sign and stopping? B5vhq3aRNjE


Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)

Structural linguistics and “the arbitrariness of the sign.”

Culture is symbolic

To say that a symbolic link is “arbitrary” is not to say that one can’t find some reason for it.

Example: Argument that kissing arose from act of passing chewed food to an infant.

Nevertheless, why this practice became the symbol of romantic love is historical and cultural; neither necessary nor biological…

Culture is naturalized

We come to feel that our culturally-determined way of doing things is natural, inevitable, and necessary.

It feels strange to do things any other way.

There’s nothing wrong with that – it makes life far more manageable. But it may also be like a set of cultural “blinders”…

Culture is Dynamic

It changes over time and space.


Ex: Relationships to Animals


Why do many of us in the U.S. sleep with and care for dogs and cats, but not pigs, squirrels, rats? In other places, dogs are not so much like “little people in furry suits” (C&C: 3).


Would you eat a frog? A snake? A possum?


What do you think of people who do?




Ex: Conceptions of Feminine Beauty

JaiLalitha and Denise Bidot

Reading Culture

What contrasting messages are conveyed through the two seminar rooms?

Direction of conversation

Control over orientation, body

Flow of information, analysis



Culture can be Explicit or Tacit


Explicit cultural knowledge is knowledge we can talk about and name.

Tacit cultural knowledge is inexplicit or unconscious. It is learned by repeating and following others (Ex: grammar rules and body language)

The Work of the Anthropologist


Try to understand the patterns and meanings that lie beneath the surface of everyday life.

Interpret linguistic and non-linguistic symbols and meanings

It’s a two-way street. Anthropologists study ‘cultural others’ to understand the unfamiliar. At the same time, we reflect on our own cultural framework to make the familiar strange.








Ethnographic Toolkit


Cultural relativism – work to undo “ethnocentrism”


Sustained participant-observation

Thick Description


The Nacirema: Making the Familiar Strange

Magical beliefs and practices of the Nacirema present unusual aspects that exemplify the extremes to which human behavior can go. Many people seem to be either sadistic or masochistic.

These magic ridden people love ritual activities. The focus of their ritual activity is the human body; its appearance and health, as in this society there is a strong aversion to the natural body and its functions

In every house there are shrines where they ritualize over their bodies.

Focal point of the shrine is a box or chest built into the wall in which to keep the many charms and magical potions without which no native believes he/she could live.

Key figures are the medicine man, holy-mouth-man and the listener or witch doctor.

Pathological horror and fascination with mouth, which is viewed as central to most social relationships.

Private and medical mouth rites.

Special women’s rites (like baking their head in an oven)

Latipso Ceremonies led by the medicine man

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