Anthropology, the study of all aspects of human life and culture. Anthropology examines such topics as how people live, what they think, what they produce, and how they interact with their environments. Anthropologists try to understand the full range of human diversity as well as what all people share in common.
Anthropologists ask such basic questions as: When, where, and how did humans evolve? How do people adapt to different environments? How have societies developed and changed from the ancient past to the present? Answers to these questions can help us understand what it means to be human. They can also help us to learn ways to meet the present-day needs of people all over the world and to plan how we might live in the future.
Much of the work of anthropologists is based on three key concepts: society, culture, and evolution. Together, these concepts constitute the primary ways in which anthropologists describe, explain, and understand human life.
Society and Culture
Two interrelated anthropological concepts, society and culture, are crucial to understanding what makes humans unique. In its general sense, a society consists of any group of interacting animals, such as a herd of bison. But human societies often include millions or billions of people who share a common culture. Culture refers to the ways of life learned and shared by people in social groups. Culture differs from the simpler, inborn types of thinking and behavior that govern the lives of many animals. The people in a human society generally share common cultural patterns, so anthropologists may refer to particular societies as cultures, making the two terms somewhat interchangeable.
Culture is fundamentally tied to people’s ability to use language and other symbolic forms of representation, such as art, to create and communicate complex thoughts. Thus, many anthropologists study people’s languages and other forms of communication. Symbolic representation allows people to pass a great amount of knowledge from generation to generation. People use symbols to give meaning to everything around them, every thought, and every kind of human interaction.
Tree of Human Evolution
Fossil evidence indicates that the first humans evolved from ape ancestors at least 6 million years ago. Many species of humans followed, but only some left descendants on the branch leading to Homo sapiens. In this slide show, white skulls represent species that lived during the time period indicated; gray skulls represent extinct human species.
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Most anthropologists also believe that an understanding of human evolution explains much about people’s biology and culture. Biological evolution is the natural process by which new and more complex organisms develop over time. Some anthropologists study how the earliest humans evolved from ancestral primates, a broader classification group that includes humans, monkeys, and apes. They also study how humans evolved, both biologically and culturally, over the past several million years to the present.
Humans have changed little biologically for the past 100,000 years. On the other hand, today’s worldwide culture, characterized by the rapid movement of people and ideas throughout the world, is only a few hundred years old. Today’s global-scale culture differs vastly from that of the small-scale societies (nonindustrialized societies, with small populations) in which our ancestors lived for hundreds of thousands of years. Understanding these kinds of societies and their cultures can help us make more sense of how people cope with life in today’s culturally diverse and complex world.
FIELDS OF ANTHROPOLOGY
Because anthropology is a very broad field of study, anthropologists focus on particular areas of interest. In the United States, anthropologists generally specialize in one of four subfields: cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, archaeology, and physical anthropology. Each of the subfields requires special training and involves different research techniques. Anthropology departments in colleges and universities in the United States usually teach courses covering all of these subfields.
In many other countries it is common for the subfields to be found in their own academic departments and to be known by different names. For example, in Britain and other parts of Europe, what Americans call cultural anthropology is commonly called social anthropology or ethnology. Also in Europe, archaeology and the field of linguistics (including what American anthropologists study as linguistic anthropology) are often considered as fields distinct from anthropology.
Cultural anthropology involves the study of people living in present-day societies and their cultures. Cultural anthropologists study such topics as how people make their living, how people interact with each other, what beliefs people hold, and what institutions organize people in a society. Cultural anthropologists often live for months or years with the people they study. This is called fieldwork. Some must learn new, and sometimes unwritten languages, and this may require extra training in linguistics (the study of the sounds and grammar of languages). Cultural anthropologists commonly write book-length (and sometimes shorter) accounts of their fieldwork, known as ethnographies.
Linguistic anthropology focuses on how people use language in particular cultures. Those who practice this form of anthropology have a substantial amount of training in linguistics. Linguistic anthropologists often work with people who have unwritten (purely spoken, or oral) languages or with languages that very few people speak. Linguistic anthropological work may involve developing a way to write a formerly unwritten language. Cultures often use these written versions to teach their children the language and thus keep it in use. Some linguistic anthropologists specialize in reconstructing dead languages (languages no longer in use) and their connections to living languages, a study known as historical linguistics.
Archaeology focuses on the study of past, rather than living, human societies and culture. Most archaeologists study artifacts (the remains of items made by past humans, such as tools, pottery, and buildings) and human fossils (preserved bones). They also examine past environments to understand how natural forces, such as climate and available food, shaped the development of human culture. Some archaeologists study cultures that existed before the development of writing, a time known as prehistory. The archaeological study of periods of human evolution up to the first development of agriculture, about 10,000 years ago, is also called paleoanthropology. Other archaeologists study more recent cultures by examining both their material remains and written documents, a practice known as historical archaeology.
Forensic anthropologists specialize in the analysis of human corpses or remains for legal investigations. In this photo, a forensics team working for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia examine human remains on a hillside near Srebrenica in northeastern Bosnia. Forensic analysis helps investigators determine how large numbers of civilians died in the Yugoslav Wars of Succession (1991-1995), information needed to convict those responsible for the killings.
Physical anthropology, also known as biological anthropology, concentrates on the connections between human biology and culture. Some physical anthropologists, like some archaeologists, study human evolution. But physical anthropologists focus on the evolution of human anatomy and physiology, rather than culture. Areas of particular interest include the evolution of the brain, especially the areas of the brain associated with speech and complex thought; of the vocal apparatus necessary for speech; of upright posture; and of hands capable of making and using tools. Physical anthropologists work from the belief that humans are primates. Primatology, the study of the behavior and physiology of nonhuman primates, is a specialized area of interest within physical anthropology.
Some physical anthropologists specialize in forensic science, the study of scientific evidence for legal cases. Forensic anthropologists, with their knowledge of human anatomy, sometimes get called upon by law enforcement officials to identify the sex, age, or ancestry of human remains found at crime scenes or uncovered by excavations. Forensic anthropologists also have exhumed mass graves in cases of genocide, the crime of mass murder usually associated with wars. In some cases, anthropologists have provided evidence used in war crimes trials to convict guilty parties.
ANTHROPOLOGY AND OTHER SOCIAL SCIENCES
Anthropology shares certain interests and subjects of study with other fields of social science, especially sociology, psychology, and history, but also economics and political science. Anthropology also differs from these fields in many ways.
Like sociology, anthropology involves the study of human society and culture. But anthropology began as the study of small-scale tribal societies, large-scale chiefdoms, and ancient civilizations, and later moved to include global-scale societies. Sociology, on the other hand, has always emphasized the study of modern and urbanized societies. Anthropology involves the comparison of different societies in order to understand the scope of human cultural diversity. Sociology, on the other hand, frequently examines universal patterns of human behavior.
Anthropology also examines certain aspects of human psychology. Anthropology studies how people become enculturated—shaped by their culture as they grow up in a particular society. Through enculturation, people develop culturally accepted ideas of what behavior is normal or abnormal and of how the world works. Anthropology examines how people’s patterns of thought and behavior are shaped by culture and how those patterns vary from society to society. By contrast, psychology generally focuses on the universal characteristics of human thought and behavior, and studies these characteristics in individual people.
The study of history is also a part of anthropology. In its formal sense, the term history refers only to periods of time after the invention of writing. Anthropologists often study historical documents to learn more about the past of living peoples. Historical archaeologists, who specialize in the study of historical cultures, also study written documents. But all anthropologists primarily study people, their societies, and their cultures. Historians, on the other hand, primarily study written records of the past—from which they cannot learn about human societies that had or have no writing. See also History and Historiography.
In addition, anthropology examines some topics also studied in economics and political science. But anthropologists focus on how aspects of economics and politics relate to other aspects of culture, such as important rituals. Anthropologists who specialize in the study of systems of exchange in small-scale societies may refer to themselves as economic anthropologists.
UNDERSTANDING HUMAN DIVERSITY
Anthropologists have particular ways of approaching their studies. They compare differences among human societies to get an appreciation of cultural diversity. They also study the full breadth of human existence, past and present. In addition, anthropologists try to appreciate all peoples and their cultures and to discourage judgments of cultural superiority or inferiority.
Most anthropological studies involve making comparisons. Only through comparison can anthropologists learn about the uniqueness of particular cultures as well as the characteristics that people in all cultures share.
For example, comparison has helped anthropologists learn about the variety of ways in which people classify their kinship relations. People of European descent, as well as various Eskimo and Inuit groups, regard all children of their parents’ siblings as “cousins.” But in many other cultures, people may regard some of those same relations as the equivalent of a European or Eskimo “brother” or “sister.” See also Kinship and Descent.
Anthropologists also study how culture has evolved, and continues to evolve, by comparing cultural traits among different groups of people, both past and living. Patterns of similarity and increasing complexity over time can be seen in such cultural traits as forms of language or types of tools. These patterns indicate when and where cultural innovation has occurred and how ideas and people have moved around the world.
A linguistic anthropologist, for instance, might trace the development and spread of new words or forms of grammar through history. A cultural anthropologist might look for the same kinds of trends and changes in the organization of families in societies of different scale or economic system. Archaeologists, as well, often study trends of styles in artifacts, such as types of pottery.
By comparing humans with other animals, and particularly other primates, anthropologists can learn about the uniqueness of humans as a species. For instance, unlike other primates, humans commonly use language; use fire; adorn themselves with clothing, jewelry, or body markings; manufacture and decorate objects; and have beliefs about the supernatural.
Comparison also reveals what humans and nonhuman primates have in common. Most primates, including humans, share many biological characteristics, such as relatively large brains, grasping hands, acute vision and depth perception, and teeth designed to eat a variety of foods. Many primates, particularly our closest biological relatives, the chimpanzees, are highly intelligent and social animals like people. Anthropologists believe that many of the characteristics shared by humans and nonhuman primates, but not found in other animals, were probably also shared by our earliest ancestors.
Some physical anthropologists study human genetics, the science of biological heredity. By comparing genetic differences among contemporary human populations, anthropologists try to understand when various populations branched off from a common ancestor, and how each population has adapted to its environment (see Race). For instance, anthropological research suggests that highly pigmented, or dark, skin evolved in the tropics as a protection against intense sunlight. Lighter, unpigmented skin most likely evolved in temperate climates to absorb more light, which is crucial for the body’s ability to make vitamin D.
Comparative genetic research has also shown that despite genetic differences, all humans are extremely closely related. Such research suggests that all humans probably share a common ancestor who lived as recently (in evolutionary terms) as 150,000 to 200,000 years ago.
A cross-cultural perspective allows anthropologists to step back and view human cultural and biological development with relative detachment. As recently as the late 19th century, sociologists and early anthropologists believed that cultural development meant progress—a series of improvements in human life marked by inventions and discoveries. However, as anthropologists studied more cultures, their research suggested that cultural developments are not always advantageous, but that every cultural group lives in a way that works well for many of its people.
For example, anthropological research has revealed how the technology of food production changed over the past 15,000 years. All people once made their living by hunting and foraging using tools of stone, wood, and bone. Subsequently, some societies moved to gardening and herding, then to plow agriculture using metal tools, and then to industrial factory production using machinery powered by internal combustion engines.
Many people think of the evolution of food production as a story of progress and improvement. But archaeological evidence shows that the first development of agriculture, as early as 9000 bc in the Middle East, may have hurt people's health. These early farmers, who settled in villages, became dependent on a very limited diet of harvested crops as opposed to the varied and nutritious diet available to them as nomadic foragers.
Examining Many Perspectives
Because anthropology examines human culture from so many perspectives, anthropologists commonly characterize their discipline as holistic, meaning all-encompassing. The holistic approach of anthropological research can provide insight into complex contemporary problems.
Studies of the connections among human ecology, biology, and culture in small-scale societies have given anthropologists insights on large-scale, even worldwide, problems. Anthropologists have studied how small-scale hunter-gatherer, gardening, and farming societies manage to make a living without destroying species of plants or animals, or ruining the soil or water. Their findings may provide new approaches to urgent global environmental problems, such as deforestation and the loss of biological diversity. Anthropologists have learned, for instance, about gardening methods that allow patches of forest to grow back after land has been used for planting and harvesting crops.
Studies of small-scale societies have also provided much information about the importance of various species of plant and animal life to human survival. For instance, anthropologists with knowledge of entomology (the study of insects) have learned how people in small-scale societies have developed food production techniques that allow them to grow healthy crops without artificial fertilizers or pesticides. These techniques benefit insect species that help fertilize plants and help eliminate unwanted animal pests.
Physical anthropologists, along with physicians and other researchers, have also conducted health and nutritional surveys on many relatively self-sufficient societies. For instance, they have analyzed the health of peoples living throughout the Amazon rain forest. This research has consistently shown that people native to the Amazon typically are in excellent physical condition and eat a varied and nutritious diet.
Anthropological studies of hunter-gatherers, such as the San people of the Kalahari Desert, has revealed that they enjoy great amounts of leisure time, despite their need to provide themselves daily with food, shelter, and other basic necessities. Anthropologists have made similar findings in studies of people in other small-scale societies. Such people appear to have far more leisure time than do most people living in urban, industrialized societies.
Anthropological research has also shown that the key to people’s well-being in most small-scale societies centers on their relationship with their environments. For instance, anthropologists trained in botany and linguistics have found that individuals living in many small groups throughout the Amazon use hundreds of rain forest plants for medicine, food, and cosmetics. These societies have long maintained a successful way of life, satisfying their needs according to what the forest can sustainably provide.
Drawing on their knowledge of small-scale societies, anthropologists also now study large-scale urban societies in an attempt to understand the long-term significance and potential impacts of cultural change. Paleoanthropological research has shown that all people lived in small-scale societies for about 99 percent of human existence. With their holistic perspective on cultural evolution and diversity, anthropologists question the ability of rapidly growing urban, industrialized societies to manage the growth of human populations and the potential overuse of natural resources.
Avoiding Cultural Bias
An anthropologist tries to understand other cultures from the perspective of an insider—that is, as someone living within the culture. This technique, known as cultural relativism, helps anthropologists to understand why people in different cultures live as they do. Anthropologists work from the assumption that a culture is effective and adaptive for the people who live in it. In other words, a culture structures and gives meaning to the lives of its members and allows them to work and prosper.
Assuming the insider’s perspective presents a challenge, because most people, including anthropologists, harbor some ethnocentrism, the belief that their own culture makes the most sense or is superior. Ethnocentrism somewhat resembles and sometimes occurs with racism, the belief that some groups of people are genetically superior to others. Ethnocentrism and racism make it difficult to view other people and cultures objectively, according to their own merits. By trying to break the barriers of culturally and racially bound perspectives, anthropologists aim to reduce ethnocentrism and racism and the misunderstandings that they cause.
Anthropological research gives a view of human physical and cultural development that challenges many people’s common beliefs. For example, research by physical anthropologists demonstrates conclusively that humans do not fall into sharply defined races. Although many people have tried to identify the characteristics of pure human races, anthropologists have shown that all human populations contain variability and that all people differ from each other very little genetically. In addition, the most easily observed physical variations—in skin color, facial features, and body form—are only a miniscule portion of the almost endless variety of differences that make every person unique.
Anthropologists use both objective (scientific) and subjective (interpretive) methods in their research. As scientists, anthropologists systematically collect information to answer specific research questions. They also document their work so that other researchers can duplicate it. But many anthropologists also conduct informal kinds of research, including impromptu discussions with and observations of the peoples they study. Some of the more common types of anthropological research methods include (1) immersion in a culture, (2) analysis of how people interact with their environment, (3) linguistic analysis, (4) archaeological analysis, and (5) analysis of human biology.
Bronislaw Malinowski, a Polish-born British anthropologist, established methods of modern cultural anthropological research in his study of the people of the Trobriand Islands, near Papua New Guinea. An actor recites an excerpt from Malinowski’s 1922 book about these people, Argonauts of the Western Pacific.
(p) 1998 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved./Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis
Researchers trained in cultural anthropology employ a variety of methods when they study other cultures. Traditionally, however, much anthropological research involves long-term, direct observation of and participation in the life of another culture. This practice, known as participant observation, gives anthropologists a chance to get an insider’s view of how and why other people do what they do.
Polish-born British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski was the first anthropologist to document a detailed method of participant observation. Malinowski spent two years living with the people of the Trobriand Islands, part of Papua New Guinea, between 1915 and 1918. He learned the Trobriand language and explored the people’s religion, magic, gardening, trade, and social organization. He later published a series of books describing all aspects of Trobriand life. Malinowski's work became a model of research methods for generations of anthropologists.
Just as Malinowski did, most anthropologists today learn local languages to help them gain an insider’s view of a culture. Anthropologists commonly collect information by informally asking questions of the people with whom they live.
Often anthropologists will find individuals within the society being studied who are especially knowledgeable and who are willing to become so-called informants. Informants typically enjoy talking with a sympathetic outsider who wishes to interpret and record their culture. Informants and anthropologists may also form teams in which the informants work as anthropologists. While informants often provide much useful information, anthropologists also have to take into account the biases that people typically have in explaining their own cultures.
In some cases, anthropologists may use interviews to record extensive life histories of individuals with whom they have good relationships. Older people usually volunteer to tell their life stories, often because they have seen many changes since their youth and enjoy telling of past experiences and lessons learned. Such stories can provide valuable insights on how cultures change.
Anthropologists also commonly construct genealogies (diagrams of kinship relations) and maps to show how the people in communities are related to one another, how people organize themselves in groups, and how people and groups interact with each other. These research tools can provide a way for anthropologists to see cultural patterns and complexities of daily life that would otherwise be difficult to discern or comprehend.
Many anthropologists combine cultural research with studies of the environments in which people live. Human ecology examines how people interact with their natural environments, such as to make a living. Anthropologists may collect large amounts of data about features of a culture’s environment, such as types of plants and animals, the chemical and nutritional properties of medicines and foods, and climate patterns. This information can provide explanations for some characteristics of a people’s culture.
For instance, in the 1960s American anthropologist Roy Rappaport analyzed the ecological significance of a ritual cycle of peace and warfare among the Tsembaga people of Papua New Guinea. Rappaport found that the Tsembaga and neighboring groups would maintain peace for periods of between 12 and 20 years. During these periods, the people would grow sweet potato gardens and raise pigs. The people would also guard areas of land they had previously gardened but which were now unused and believed to be occupied by ancestor spirits. When the presence of too many pigs rooting up gardens and eating sweet potato crops became a nuisance, the Tsembaga would feast on the pigs, perform a ritual to remove spirit ancestors from old gardens, and then lift the ban on warfare. The lifting of the ban allowed the Tsembaga to capture abandoned lands from other groups. This regulation of warfare coincided with the amount of time it took for abandoned gardens to regain their fertility, and so made good ecological sense.
Linguistic anthropologists, as well as many cultural anthropologists, use a variety of methods to analyze the details of a people’s language. The practice of phonology, for example, involves precisely documenting the sound properties of spoken words. Many linguistic anthropologists also practice orthography, the technique of creating written versions of spoken languages. In addition, most study the properties of grammar in languages, looking for the rules that guide how people communicate their thoughts through strings of words.
Language reveals much about a people’s culture. Anthropologists have studied such topics as how different languages assign gender to words, shape the ways in which people perceive the natural and supernatural worlds, and create or reinforce divisions of rank and status within societies.
For instance, many of the peoples native to North America conceive of time as a continual cycle of renewal, a concept quite different from the European belief that time only moves forward in a progression from the past to the future. Linguists have found that many Native American languages, such as that of the Hopi of the North American Southwest, include grammatical constructions for saying that something exists in a state of “becoming,” even though it does not yet actually exist. English and other European languages cannot as easily express such an idea, nor can most Europeans or Americans of European descent truly understand it.
Archaeologists use specialized research methods and tools for the careful excavation and recording of the buried remains of past cultures. Remote sensing involves the use of airplane photography and radar systems to find buried sites of past human cultures. Rigorous methods of excavation allow archaeologists to map the precise locations of remains for later analysis. Seriation, the practice of determining relative age relationships among different types of artifacts based on their shapes and styles, helps archaeologists learn how past cultures changed and evolved. Archaeologists also use a variety of dating methods involving chemical and other types of scientific analysis to reveal the age of buried objects up to millions of years old.
In addition, some archaeologists have training in cultural anthropology, and they may use cultural research to help them interpret what they find buried in the ground. For example, people in many small-scale societies continued to make tools of stone into the 20th century, and some still know how. By watching these people make their tools, archaeologists have learned how to interpret patterns of chipped pieces of stone buried in the ground.
Physical Anthropological Research
Physical anthropologists often rely on rigorous medical scientific methods for at least part of their research, in addition to more general observational methods. All physical anthropologists have detailed knowledge of human skeletal anatomy. Paleoanthropologists and forensic anthropologists can construct extremely detailed descriptions of people’s lives from only measurements of bones and teeth. These researchers typically analyze the chemical or cellular composition of bones and teeth, patterns of wear or injury, and placement in or on the ground. Such analyses can reveal information about the sex, age, work habits, and diet of a person who died long ago.
Some physical anthropologists specialize in epidemiology, the study of disease and health among large groups of people. In addition to studying diseases themselves, physical anthropologists focus on cultural causes and preventions of disease. They may study such specific medical topics as nutrition and gastrointestinal function, human reproduction, or the effects of drugs on brain and body function. For instance, physical anthropologists working in San Francisco, California, studied how the beliefs and practices of homosexual and bisexual men factored into the spread of the AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) virus in the 1980s. This information helped in the design of effective health education programs to reduce the spread of the disease.
Physical anthropologists studying human genetics use sophisticated laboratory techniques to analyze human chromosomes and DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the structures through which people inherit traits from their parents. With these techniques, researchers have identified human populations that have genetic predispositions to specific diseases, such as types of cancer. This knowledge has promoted increased focus on the use of preventive measures among people with higher risk for disease.
DOCUMENTING AND PRESENTING RESEARCH
Whatever kind of work they do, anthropologists share an interest in making the findings of anthropological research available as widely as possible. Many anthropologists work as professors in colleges and universities. In addition to teaching, they publish results of their research in scholarly books and journals. Others write popular books and magazine articles, produce films, lecture to nonacademic audiences, or work in museums organizing exhibits and maintaining collections.
Academic anthropologists often present their work in a highly technical style, narrowly focused for specialists in the particular subfields of anthropology. Historically, anthropologists conducted field research in order to produce an ethnography, a book or long article that describes many aspects of a particular culture.
Early ethnographies attempted to describe entire cultures. For example, in 1946 American anthropologists Clyde Kluckhohn and Dorothea Leighton published a study on the culture of the Navajo (also spelled Navaho), Native Americans of the Southwestern United States. The book, called The Navajo, covered a wide variety of topics about the Navajo, including their prehistory, history, economic activities, physique, clothing, housing, health, kinship, religious life, language, worldview, and relations with outsiders.
Ethnographies also sometimes focus on a single aspect of a culture. Bronislaw Malinowski's ethnography Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922) dealt primarily with the interisland trading system of the Trobriand Islanders. Malinowski demonstrated, in great detail, how the ritual exchange of items such as jewelry, food, clothing, and weapons among trading partners was central to the entire culture.
Some ethnographies written between the 1920s and the 1960s discussed the history of a culture and described how it changed over time. But many classic anthropological texts of this period were written in a timeless ethnographic present, describing a culture as though it had always existed in the same way, and always would. This style represented a trend in anthropology known as functionalism, in which anthropologists analyzed cultures as if all the parts of a culture fit and worked neatly together. The functionalist model of cultural integrity portrayed cultures as being stable and unchanging.
Later anthropologists became more concerned with the dynamics of culture change. It became clear by the 1960s that the world and all its cultures were changing in dramatic ways. Contemporary ethnographies often focus on change, especially changes brought about by global cultural contact, urbanization, and people’s increasing exposure to and dependence on mass-produced goods, services, and images (as from films or advertisements).
A contemporary anthropologist may write an ethnography from the perspective of a single individual within a culture. Others may write stories or poems. Many try to write using the voices of people they study, and some encourage informants to write their own ethnographies. Anthropologists always give copies of their books or articles to the people they study.
Often, the people that anthropologists study have strong feelings about how they are portrayed to the rest of the world. Professional anthropologists must therefore exercise great care in how they conduct and present their work. Anthropological research also has the potential to disrupt a people’s way of life and bring problems into their societies. Anthropologists try to avoid introducing new ideas, technologies, or even food items into the societies they study, because to do so can make people want things that cannot be readily obtained.
Anthropologists also have ethical obligations to those who fund their research activities as well as to students and the interested public who may want to learn from their work. As a basic rule, anthropologists only conduct research openly, honestly, and with the approval of the people they study. In the United States, federally funded projects and research conducted through a public university might face a formal review procedure to make sure that the rights and safety of human subjects are protected.
Today, anthropologists are also obliged to share their research results with the people who helped produce it and to acknowledge the assistance those people give. Anthropologists do not normally pay for specific information, but they may compensate some of the people they study for their time and effort put in as field assistants or informants.
In rare cases a researcher might decide not to work with a particularly isolated and self-sufficient group because to do so might unavoidably introduce disease and open the way for exploitation by other outsiders. Small, self-sufficient societies may have difficulty defending themselves against more powerful groups. For example, information from anthropological work can familiarize governments and businesses with small-scale societies living in remote regions. This information can convince state and business interests to negotiate with the people of such societies about using their land for such projects as road or dam building, mining, or large-scale farming. These so-called development projects can cause great hardships for people who live off the land.
Anthropologists must practice particularly great care if they work directly for governmental or commercial agencies whose political or economic interests could conflict with the interests of the people being studied. For example, in the 1970s and 1980s the Brazilian government hired anthropologists to pacify people who lived in the rain forest and who were being forcibly relocated to make way for the Trans-Amazon Highway. While some anthropologists considered this work unethical, others felt they could help negotiate with the government to minimize damage to the peoples living in the highway’s future path.
Most anthropologists take a position of cultural relativism when making decisions on issues of ethics and rights. This position calls for respect for all cultural differences and opposes culture change imposed on one society by another. Anthropologists know that people derive their individual identity and sense of dignity from their own cultures. This ethical stance reflects the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (drafted in 1994), both of which recognize cultural practices as basic human rights.
This does not mean, however, that anthropologists believe all cultural practices are necessarily good. Extreme relativism, which anthropologists avoid, could condone such acts as the Holocaust or other instances of mass ethnocide (the killing of people of a particular ethnic group). Many cultures may foster practices that clearly harm some individuals. Such practices include infanticide (the killing of infants), the burning of people thought to be witches, and the surgical modification of women’s sexual organs (known as female genital mutilation). Anthropologists might speak out against such practices, but generally they believe that change should come from within a culture and not be imposed from outside it.
Archaeologists have other ethical concerns to consider. Archaeological excavations may unearth sensitive or sacred remains of past cultures with living descendants. Such remains might include the bones of dead ancestors or ancient religious offerings.
Archaeologists respect the claims of cultural groups to ownership of their ancestors’ cultural and physical remains, and work to prevent unauthorized removal of such materials by commercial collectors. They also commonly hand over most or all of their finds to the rightful owners or to museums of the countries in which excavations took place. Sometimes, however, an archaeologist may argue that certain excavated materials have such great scientific importance that they should be analyzed before being returned or reburied.
HISTORY OF ANTHROPOLOGY
Anthropology traces its roots to ancient Greek historical and philosophical writings about human nature and the organization of human society. Anthropologists generally regard Herodotus, a Greek historian who lived in the 400s bc, as the first thinker to write widely on concepts that would later become central to anthropology. In the book History, Herodotus described the cultures of various peoples of the Persian Empire, which the Greeks conquered during the first half of the 400s bc. He referred to Greece as the dominant culture of the West and Persia as the dominant culture of the East. This type of division, between white people of European descent and other peoples, established the mode that most anthropological writing would later adopt.
The Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, who lived in the 14th century ad, was another early writer of ideas relevant to anthropology. Khaldun examined the environmental, sociological, psychological, and economic factors that affected the development and the rise and fall of civilizations. Both Khaldun and Herodotus produced remarkably objective, analytic, ethnographic descriptions of the diverse cultures in the Mediterranean world, but they also often used secondhand information.
During the Middle Ages (5th to 15th centuries ad) biblical scholars dominated European thinking on questions of human origins and cultural development. They treated these questions as issues of religious belief and promoted the idea that human existence and all of human diversity were the creations of God.
Beginning in the 15th century, European explorers looking for wealth in new lands provided vivid descriptions of the exotic cultures they encountered on their journeys in Asia, Africa, and what are now the Americas. But these explorers did not respect or know the languages of the peoples with whom they came in contact, and they made brief, unsystematic observations.
The European Age of Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries marked the rise of scientific and rational philosophical thought. Enlightenment thinkers, such as Scottish-born David Hume, John Locke of England, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau of France, wrote a number of humanistic works on the nature of humankind. They based their work on philosophical reason rather than religious authority and asked important anthropological questions. Rousseau, for instance, wrote on the moral qualities of “primitive” societies and about human inequality. But most writers of the Enlightenment also lacked firsthand experience with non-Western cultures.
Imperialism and Increased Contact with Other Cultures
Origins of Anthropology
The modern study of anthropology had its origins in the European exploration and colonization of lands in the Americas, Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. European contacts with vastly different peoples sparked an interest in understanding and explaining human diversity, the goals of anthropology.
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With the rise of imperialism (political and economic control over foreign lands) in the 18th and 19th centuries, Europeans came into increasing contact with other peoples around the world, prompting new interest in the study of culture. Imperialist nations of Western Europe—such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, France, and England—extended their political and economic control to regions in the Pacific, the Americas, Asia, and Africa.
The increasing dominance of global commerce, capitalist (profit-driven) economies, and industrialization in late-18th-century Europe led to vast cultural changes and social upheavals throughout the world. European industries and the wealthy, elite classes of people who owned them looked to exotic foreign lands for sources of labor and goods for manufacturing. In addition, poorer Europeans, many of whom were displaced from their land by industrialization, tried to build new lives abroad. Several European countries took over the administration of foreign regions as colonies (see Colonialism and Colonies). See also Capitalism.
Europeans suddenly had a flood of new information about the foreign peoples encountered in colonial frontiers. The colonizing nations of Europe also wanted scientific explanations and justifications for their global dominance. In response to these developments, and out of an interest in new and strange cultures, the first amateur anthropologists formed societies in many Western European countries in the early 19th century. These societies eventually spawned professional anthropology.
Anthropological societies devoted themselves to scientifically studying the cultures of colonized and unexplored territories. Researchers filled ethnological and archaeological museums with collections obtained from the new empires of Europe by explorers, missionaries, and colonial administrators. Physicians and zoologists, acting as novice physical anthropologists, measured the skulls of people from various cultures and wrote detailed descriptions of the people’s physical features.
Toward the end of the 19th century anthropologists began to take academic positions in colleges and universities. Anthropological associations also became advocates for anthropologists to work in professional positions. They promoted anthropological knowledge for its political, commercial, and humanitarian value.
The Beginnings of Modern Anthropology
In the 19th century modern anthropology came into being along with the development and scientific acceptance of theories of biological and cultural evolution. In the early 19th century, a number of scientific observations, especially of unearthed bones and other remains, such as stone tools, indicated that humanity’s past had covered a much greater span of time than that indicated by the Bible (see Creationism).
In 1836 Danish archaeologist Christian Thomsen proposed that three long ages of technology had preceded the present era in Europe. He called these the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. Thomsen's concept of technological ages fit well with the views of Scottish geologist Sir Charles Lyell, who proposed that the earth was much older than previously believed and had changed through many gradual stages.
Caricature of Charles Darwin
When Charles Darwin published The Descent of Man in 1871, he challenged the fundamental beliefs of most people by asserting that humans and apes had evolved from a common ancestor. Many critics of Darwin misunderstood his theory to mean that people had descended directly from apes. This caricature of Charles Darwin as an ape appeared in the London Sketch Book in 1874.
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In 1859 British naturalist Charles Darwin published his influential book On the Origin of Species. In this book, he argued that animal and plant species had changed, or evolved, through time under the influence of a process that he called natural selection. Natural selection, Darwin said, acted on variations within species, so that some variants survived and reproduced, and others perished. In this way, new species slowly evolved even as others continued to exist. Darwin’s theory was later supported by studies of genetic inheritance conducted in the 1850s and 1860s by Austrian monk Gregor Mendel. Evolutionary theory conflicted with established religious doctrine that all species had been determined at the creation of the world and had not changed since.
English social philosopher Herbert Spencer applied a theory of progressive evolution to human societies in the middle 1800s. He likened societies to biological organisms, each of which adapted to survive or else perished. Spencer later coined the phrase 'survival of the fittest' to describe this process. Theories of social evolution such as Spencer’s seemed to offer an explanation for the apparent success of European nations as so-called advanced civilizations.
Anthropological Evolutionary Theories
Sir Edward Burnett Tylor was a pioneer of cultural anthropology in Britain. Tylor gave one of the first anthropological definitions of culture in his book Primitive Culture (1871). Here an actor recites Tylor’s definition of culture.
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During the late 1800s many anthropologists promoted their own models of social and biological evolution. Their writings portrayed people of European descent as biologically and culturally superior to all other peoples. The most influential anthropological presentation of this viewpoint appeared in Ancient Society, published in 1877 by American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan.
Morgan argued that European civilization was the pinnacle of human evolutionary progress, representing humanity’s highest biological, moral, and technological achievement. According to Morgan, human societies had evolved to civilization through earlier conditions, or stages, which he called Savagery and Barbarism. Morgan believed these stages occurred over many thousands of years and compared them to geological ages. But Morgan attributed cultural evolution to moral and mental improvements, which he proposed were, in turn, related to improvements in the ways that people produced food and to increases in brain size.
Morgan also examined the material basis of cultural development. He believed that under Savagery and Barbarism people owned property communally, as groups. Civilizations and political states, he said, developed together with the private ownership of property. States thus protected people’s rights to own property. Morgan's theories coincided with and influenced those of German political theorists Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. Engels and Marx, using a model like Morgan’s, predicted the demise of state-supported capitalism. They saw communism, a new political and economic system based on the ideals of communality, as the next evolutionary stage for human society.
Like Morgan, Sir Edward Tylor, a founder of British anthropology, also promoted the theories of cultural evolution in the late 1800s. Tylor attempted to describe the development of particular kinds of customs and beliefs found across many cultures. For example, he proposed a sequence of stages for the evolution of religion—from animism (the belief in spirits), through polytheism (the belief in many gods), to monotheism (the belief in one god).
In 1871 Tylor also wrote a still widely quoted definition of culture, describing it as “that complex whole that includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of a society.” This definition formed the basis for the modern anthropological concept of culture.
Cultural Evolution, Colonialism, and Social Darwinism
The colonial nations of Europe used ethnocentric theories of cultural evolution to justify the expansion of their empires. Writings based on such theories described conquered peoples as “backward” and therefore unfit for survival unless colonists “civilized” them to live and act as Europeans did. This application of evolutionary theory to control social and political policy became known as social Darwinism.
Theories of cultural evolution in the 19th century took no account of the successes of small-scale societies that had developed long-term adaptations to particular environments. Nor did they recognize any shortcomings of European civilization, such as high rates of poverty and crime.
Furthermore, while many proponents of cultural evolution suggested that the people in small-scale societies were biologically inferior to people of European descent, no evidence actually supported this position. But not all anthropologists believed in this type of cultural evolution. Many actually rejected all evolutionary theory because others misused and abused it.
New Directions in Theory and Research
Anthropology emerged as a serious professional and scientific discipline beginning in the 1920s. The focus and practice of anthropological research developed in different ways in the United States and Europe.
The Influence of Boas
German-American anthropologist Franz Boas, a professor at Columbia University in New York City for 37 years, helped pioneer modern anthropology. He advocated the theories that there is no pure race and that no race is superior to any other.
CorbisIn the 1920s and 1930s anthropology assumed its present form as a four-field academic profession in the United States under the influence of German-born American anthropologist Franz Boas. Boas wanted anthropology to be a well-respected science. He was interested in all areas of anthropological research and had done highly regarded fieldwork in all areas except archaeology. As a professor at Columbia University in New York City from 1899 until his retirement in 1937, he helped define the discipline and trained many of the most prominent American anthropologists of the 20th century. Many of his students—including Alfred Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead—went on to establish anthropology departments at universities throughout the country.
American anthropologist Margaret Mead spent many years studying how culture influences individual personality. Mead lived among the Samoan people during 1925 and 1926 to observe their way of life and the types of personalities common in their cultural group. Her 1928 book, Coming of Age in Samoa, provoked a great debate among sociocultural anthropologists regarding the proper method and interpretation of field research. Mead’s approach to studying groups of people, which focused on the individual people and groups with whom she lived, earned her much criticism from anthropologists who believed that research must rely more directly on statistical research and the incorporation of cross-cultural and testable hypotheses.
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Boas stressed the importance of anthropologists conducting original fieldwork to get firsthand experiences with the cultures they wished to describe. He also opposed racist and ethnocentric evolutionary theories. Based on his own studies, including his measurement of the heads of people from many cultures, Boas argued that genetic differences among human populations could not explain cultural variation.
Boas urged anthropologists to do detailed research on particular cultures and their histories, rather than attempt to construct grand evolutionary stages for all of humankind in the tradition of Morgan and Tylor. Boas’s theoretical approach became known as historical particularism, and it forms the basis for the fundamental anthropological concept of cultural relativism.
Émile Durkheim, one of the fathers of sociology, utilized scientific methods to approach the study of society and social groups. His work influenced the school of anthropology known as functionalism. Durkheim believed that individuals should be considered within the context of the society in which they live.
THE BETTMANN ARCHIVE
Many other anthropologists working in Boas’s time, mostly in Europe, based their research on the theories of 19th-century French sociologist Émile Durkheim. Like Sir Edward Tylor, Durkheim was interested in religions across cultures. But he was not interested in the evolution of religion. Durkheim instead proposed that religious beliefs and rituals functioned to integrate people in groups and to maintain the smooth functioning of societies.
Durkheim’s ideas were expanded upon by Bronislaw Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, two major figures in the development of modern British anthropology beginning in the 1920s and 1930s. Their approach to understanding culture was known as structural functionalism, or simply functionalism.
A typical functionalist study analyzed how cultural institutions kept a society in working order. For example, many studies examined rites of passage, such as initiation ceremonies. Through a series of such ceremonies, groups of children of the same age would be initiated into new roles and take on new responsibilities as they grew into adults. According to functionalists, any unique characteristics of the rites of passage of a particular society had to do with how initiation ceremonies worked in the function of that society.
Functionalists based their approach to doing fieldwork on their theories. They lived for long periods with the people they studied, carefully recording even very small details about a people’s culture and social life. The resulting ethnographies portrayed all aspects of culture and social life as interdependent parts of a complex model. Functionalist research methods became the blueprint for much anthropological research throughout the 20th century.
During the first half of the 20th century, many anthropologists conducted functionalist ethnographic studies in the service of colonial governments. This research allowed colonial administrators to predict what would happen to an entire society in response to particular colonial policies. Administrators might want to know, for instance, what would happen if they imposed taxes on households or on individuals.
French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss based his understanding of culture on studies of people’s languages and recurring patterns of thought and behavior. His cultural theories are associated with the anthropological movement known as structuralism.
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In the 1950s French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss developed an anthropological theory and analytic method known as structuralism. He was influenced by the theories of Durkheim and one of Durkheim’s collaborators, French anthropologist Marcel Mauss. Lévi-Strauss proposed that many common cultural patterns—such as those found in myth, ritual, and language—are rooted in basic structures of the mind.
He wrote, for instance, about the universal tendency of the human mind to sort things into sets of opposing concepts, such as day and night, black and white, or male and female. Lévi-Strauss believed such basic conceptual patterns became elaborated through culture. For example, many societies divide themselves into contrasting but complementary groups, known as moieties (from the French word for “half”). Each moiety traces its descent through one line to a common ancestor. In addition to many shared ritual functions, moieties create a system for controlling sex and marriage. A person from one moiety may only marry or have sexual relations with a person from the other moiety.
Cultural Materialism and Cultural Ecology
In the 1960s, American anthropologists such as Julian Steward, Roy Rappaport, and Marvin Harris began to study how culture and social institutions relate to a people’s technology, economy, and natural environment. All of these factors together define a people’s patterns of subsistence—how they feed, clothe, shelter, and otherwise provide for themselves.
Economic and ecological approaches to understanding culture and societies are known as cultural materialism or cultural ecology. Harris, for instance, analyzed the religious practice in India of regarding cows as sacred. He suggested that this religious practice developed as a cultural response to the value of cows as work animals for farming and other essential tasks and as a source of dung, which is dried as fuel.
In the 1970s many anthropologists, including American ethnologist Clifford Geertz and British ethnologist Victor Turner, moved away from ecological and economic explanations of people’s cultures. Instead, these anthropologists looked for the meanings of particular cultural symbols and rituals within cultures themselves, an approach known as symbolic anthropology.
Symbolic anthropological studies often focus on one particularly important ritual or symbol within a society. Anthropologists using this approach attempt to demonstrate how this one symbol or ritual shapes or reflects an entire culture. Geertz, for example, attempted to show how the culture of the people of Bali, Indonesia, could be understood by examining the important Balinese ritual of staging and betting on cockfights.
By the early 1990s anthropology had become a very diverse field with numerous areas of specialization. For example, the American Anthropological Association, one of the discipline’s most important professional organizations in the United States, includes sections focused on such specific topics as agriculture, consciousness, education, the environment, feminism, film and photography, museums, nutrition, politics and law, psychology, urban issues, and work. Other groups focus on geographic areas, including Africa, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and North America. Specialization within anthropology has become so important that many academic departments have begun questioning the need to teach about the original four subfields.
New research agendas have also emerged, and several new trends in world culture have dramatically changed anthropology. Independent, self-sufficient cultures—the focus of traditional anthropology—have virtually disappeared. In addition, the world faces increasing problems of poverty, violence, and environmental degradation. In response to these trends, many anthropologists have shifted their attention to studying urban culture and the workings of global culture. Much new research examines the dynamics of global commerce and the international exchange of ideas, beliefs, and cultural practices.
Beginning in the 1980s a series of new ideas, collectively called postmodernism, also raised questions about some of anthropology’s fundamental methods and objectives. As a result, some anthropologists have moved into a new area of research sometimes known as cultural studies. Others have continued to use more traditional anthropological research methods to solve problems associated with cross-cultural conflicts. This type of work is known as applied anthropology.
Postmodernism and Cultural Studies
Postmodernism describes the philosophy of examining the nature of meaning and knowing, although academics in many fields have debated over its precise definition. Postmodernists question the validity of the faith in science and rationalism that originated during the Enlightenment and that became associated with the philosophy known as modernism. They also question whether anthropology is, or should be, a science. Because all knowledge is necessarily shaped by culture, they argue, anthropologists cannot be objective in their research.
In response to this argument, some anthropologists have turned to simply studying and writing about the effects of the influence of culture on their own perspectives, and on the perspectives of all people. While much of this work is still done in anthropology departments, it has also become a distinct area of research known as cultural studies. Some see cultural studies as a new discipline, separate from anthropology. Others regard it as the newest phase of anthropological theory.
Critics of traditional anthropology view it as a form of colonialism and exploitation. This notion has gained ground as anthropologists have studied the history of their own discipline and reexamined the relationship between the development of anthropology and colonialism. Moreover, traditional anthropology has always been dominated by the ideas, research, and writing of white Europeans and Americans. This, too, is changing, as increasing numbers of people from diverse cultural backgrounds are working in anthropology and cultural studies.
Researchers working in cultural studies have also redefined culture. They tend to view culture as something that people continually negotiate over with each other, rather than as something they share. This view makes sense to a generation of anthropologists who grew up in the 1960s in the United States and Europe. During that time, young people challenged the cultural traditions of their parents and questioned such important problems as racism, sexism, and the violence of modern warfare. They also began to view some of the world’s worst problems—such as ethnic violence, poverty, and environmental destruction—as legacies of the colonial era that also gave rise to anthropology.
Many researchers in cultural studies have worked to deconstruct (take apart to analyze and critique) traditional ethnographies and other types of anthropological research. Their analyses demonstrate that a good deal of this older research might have misrepresented or negatively affected the cultures described. The practice of critiquing early anthropological work requires no special anthropological training or fieldwork. Thus, the field of cultural studies includes people schooled in such diverse topics as literature, gender studies, sociology, and history.
Some anthropologists have reacted against the antiscience critiques of postmodernism. They reject the position that scientific research cannot teach us anything about the nature of the world or humanity. But critiques of traditional anthropological practices may improve the quality of anthropological work by making researchers even more conscious about the methods they use.
World Congress of Indigenous Peoples
In 1992 indigenous peoples from around the world gathered in the town of Kari-Oca outside of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at the World Congress of Indigenous Peoples. They drafted documents and signed petitions stating their shared views on respect for land and natural resources, world economic development, and the rights of indigenous cultural groups to determine their own futures.
Antonio Ribeiro/Liaison Agency
Since the 1960s, anthropologists have increasingly applied their special research skills and cross-cultural insights to try to solve important world problems. Applied anthropology involves helping cultural groups, organizations, businesses, and governments solve a wide range of problems.
Applied anthropology developed with the end of colonialism. Many colonies gained their independence within two decades after the end of World War II in 1945. International political and economic agencies began employing anthropologists to promote the development of new forms of industrial and agricultural production in these newly independent countries. This work, known as development anthropology, often involved helping small, self-sufficient societies adjust to the changes brought by development projects.
Many small societies of indigenous peoples who were threatened by development projects began to organize themselves collectively. The term indigenous peoples refers to those who have inhabited and made their living directly off the same land for hundreds or thousands of years. By the 1970s, indigenous groups had begun to come together in order to defend their rights to land and natural resources.
In response, many anthropologists shifted from being advocates for development to providing support for indigenous groups. People who were once the subjects of anthropological study now hire anthropologists to work for them. For example, Native American tribes and nations have employed archaeologists, linguistic anthropologists, and cultural anthropologists to help them document and protect their cultural heritage. Some Native Americans have also become anthropologists themselves to help their own tribal groups.
Archaeological analysis can help support people’s claims to land and natural resources by demonstrating that their ancient ancestors lived, hunted, fished, or buried their dead in a particular place. Cultural anthropologists and archaeologists may also provide testimony in legal cases to defend the integrity of indigenous groups. Linguistic anthropologists can prepare teaching materials and texts for previously unwritten languages. These materials can help teach children to continue to speak their native languages in the face of cultural change.
Anthropologists have also become increasingly interested in examining and trying to lessen the causes and consequences of injustice, violence, and poverty wherever it occurs. For instance, physical anthropologists have supported international human rights organizations by helping to excavate and identify the remains of the victims of political and ethnic mass killings. They have also helped to identify the perpetrators of such killings in a number of countries, including Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia.
Governments in many parts of the world support the business of large agricultural companies that convert subsistence farmers into wageworkers to produce crops for export. Cultural anthropologists and physical anthropologists specializing in nutrition and health have gathered evidence showing that these changes have led to increased rates of poverty, malnutrition, and infant mortality. In the United States, anthropologists have examined the human impacts of factory closings and wage reductions as companies have shifted their operations overseas (see Multinational Corporation). Anthropologists hope the results of this research will convince governments and businesses to consider the potential negative effects of their actions.
As commerce and cross-cultural exchange create a new global-scale culture, anthropologists hope to learn how social power and decision making are organized around the world. They want to ensure that people remain free to live according to unique cultural beliefs and practices, safe from the control of powerful commercial and political interests.
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John H. Bodley