Cultural Anthropology

Cultural Anthropology Theories

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Anthropology is the study of peoples around the world, across cultures, and throughout time, all the way back to the time before people appeared on our planet. Traditionally, it is focused either on cultures of the past, or in exotic settings quite different from the background of the anthropologists. This has given the discipline the reputation of studying other cultures from an ethnocentric perspective, with scientist subconsciously holding up their own culture as the ideal. Today, anthropology is becoming more inclusive, digging through modern garbage dumps as well as ancient burial grounds.

Cultural anthropology studies human societies from the external point of view of artifacts (such as tools, technology, housing, toys, clothing and artwork), rituals and practices (such as religion, economy, medicine, games).  It also delves through the inner treasury of values, ideas, stories and common assumptions which hold society together. Anthropologists use a variety of theoretical approaches and research methods to understand the global diversity of the living communities.

In recent years, anthropologists have tried to avoid judgmental classifications while recognizing common patterns and types of societies that can be observed throughout history. Theories help to organize the huge amount of data into a coherent whole. They act like road maps, helping researchers orient themselves in the flood of facts, ideas, beliefs, and opinions.

Some of the common theories of cultural anthropology are:

Cultural Materialism asserts that sociocultural phenomena are not the product of random change, ideas, or social structures, but rather from pressures between a population and its economy, technology, and environment. Human social life is a response to practical problems. This perspective originated with Karl Marx, and was refined by anthropologists such as Marvin Harris (1927 - 2006). The scientific method is all important in this approach..

Cultural Particularism, associated with Franz Boas (1858 - 1942), relies on detailed data collection and objective observation to study each culture in itself, independently of any larger theoretical context.

Cultural Functionalism understands society and culture as a living organism. It is considered useless to study a part independently of its function in the whole. All cultural traits are perceived as human adaptations to survive in the environment. Function is the way that cultural structure serves individual and group needs. Human choices are always determined by self-interest and the needs of the group. This school of thought was originated by Alfred Radcliffe-Brown (1881 - 1955)

Structuralist approaches explore how culture and society are structured, and how those structures affect human development and identity. Claude Levi-Strauss (1908 - ?) promoted the idea that every culture can be understood in terms of binary oppositions which are not mutually exclusive but are ultimately resolved through custom, ritual, and myth. This approach grew from the philosophy of Hegel who explains life in terms of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.

Feminist approaches to anthropology focus on gender and the power issues related to it. The first wave, from about 1850 to 1920, sought to include women's voices in ethnography. Subsequently, feminists made the distinction between sex, which is a biological fact, and gender, which is culturally defined. Margaret Mead (1901 - 78) was prominent in this phase. Since the 1980's, feminist anthropologist have combated biological determinism, taking into account new work in endocrinology and physiology. It is becoming increasingly apparent that gender differences which were thought to be the product of socialization have a biological basis.

Interpretive approaches to cultural anthropology are the most nebulous, and also the most interesting. According to theorists such as Clifford Geertz (1926 - 2006), the most important question to ask about any cultural structure is "What does it mean?" Geertz drew on history, psychology, philosophy and literary criticism to analyze and decode the meaning of rituals, art, belief systems, and other "symbols" that defined the cultural "web of meaning." "Believing with Max Weber that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning," Geertz wrote in his 1973 book, "The Interpretation of Cultures"

Despite our love affair with the scientific method, perhaps all our theories are ultimately a search for meaning.
Sources and resources:
Theories of cultural anthropology
What is culture?

More about this author: Christine G.

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