Cultural Anthropology

Culture Anthropology Boaz Sociology Generations Competency

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     In order to begin any discussion on cultural competence, one must look backwards and analyze the behaviors of previous generations. While working to best understand why people act a certain way in the present, it is necessary to study the behaviors and actions of those who lived before us. When the topic comes to understanding human behavior on a broad level, looking into the past requires a working knowledge of anthropolgy.

     In its simplest form, anthropology is defined as the knowledge or study of human beings. The science has been split into four fields, and the one most closely related to our topic is cultural anthropology, also called social anthropology or socio-cultural anthropology. In a sense, these anthropologists make the argument that culture is based on human nature and that people are capable of classifying expereinces, encoding classifications in a symbolic manner and teaching their findings to others. In short, culture is learned, and because of this, people living in different places have different cultures. Part of the conflict with different groups of people involves the strain between one living in his ordinary (local) world versus his struggle to exist in the global (universal) society.

     The origins of this branch of anthropology fall to the early 19th century with the study of ethnology. Ethnology systematically compares different human societies. Ethnologists were concerned with the idea of why people living in different parts of the world behaved in different ways. It was believed by the early theorists that beliefs and practices were passed from one group to another, either directly or indirectly. Some believed that they spread from one place to another, although the explanation of how as never fully developed. There were beliefs in a cultural evolution, complete with several stages.


     Much of these theories were rejected in the 20th century with the advance of ethnography. By definition, ethnography is “a methodology that sprang in the first instance of anthropology and anthropological theory has been adopted by symbolic interactionism and adapted to its own purposes” (Crotty, 1998). Ethnography put the researcher squarely among the culture being studied. The key word is immersion. In ethnography, the anthropologist lives inside of another society for a consideable period of time.

     The practice was advanced by Franz Boas. Boas, a German scientist, observed and participated in the social and cultural life of Arctic Eskimos as part of his fieldwork on Baffin Island in Canada. The experience changed Boas’ outlook and turned him from a “scientist’s view of cognition to an historian’s view of culture.” (Crotty, p. 76) In his view, cultures were “irreducable and incomparable.” Through his influence, Boas was credited with helping cultural relativism succeed in dominating American anthropology. 

     Boas continued - “culture is not to be criticised. One is to observe it as closely as possible, attempt to take the place of those within the culture and search out the insider’s perspective.”

    Others contributed to the cause. Although ethnography was born to anthropology, the study was adopted (and adapted) by sociology. (Crotty, p.76) British educational researcher Martyn Hammersley is an advocate for ethnography and defines it this way.

All in the Symbolism

      One notable concept forwarded by the American cultural anthropologists was that of symbolic interactionism. Clifford Geertz wrote of  “a system of significant symbols.” (Crotty, p. 53). The thought process behind this suggests that humans require a great deal of stimulation and continuous learning - of language and other symbolic systems - to maintain even normal human functioning. (Barrett, 1984). Without meaningful symbolic communication, even normal mental functions cannot be aroused. One example of this is noted in Barrett’s piece entitled “The Meaning of Culture.” In it, a newspaper account from 1973 is rehashed. The article centers around a 13-year-old girl who had been held captive in her home for most of her life. The girl, Susan Wiley, was discovered by social workers and studied while a plan for rehabilitation was developed.

     Wiley was deformed, incapable of speaking, and wore diapers. Her muscle development was retarded from lack of exercise and she walked with a stoop. Her mental capacity equalled that of a 12-to-18 month infant. The reasoning behind these deficiencies and deformities was determined to be her lack of social contact during her developing years. Other children, who were neglected and later found showed similar shortcomings. In each case, the absence of social stimuli and communications were seen as causal reasons.

     Geertz defines significant symbols as “the meaningful symbols that constitute culture as an indispensable guide to human behavior.” Geertz continues “without them (symbols), we would not be clever savages like in Lord of the Flies. We would not be nature’s noblemen, who in Enlightenment thought lurk beneath the trappings of culture. We would not be intrinsically talented apes who had somehow failed to find themselves, as classical anthropological theory seems to imply. We would be unworkable monstrosities.” (Geertz, 1973)    

Starts At Birth

     The bottom line is that we are products of our environment. Most of our customary behavior is shaped by observation, by initiation, or by instruction at the hands of other members of the group. (Barrett, p. 54).

     Most of these characteristics are formed in the first three years of life and the process begins at birth. Customs are learned. For example, does the family eat with forks or chopsticks? What language is spoken in the home? At what age are babies trained to crawl, walk, and toilet train? The particular society in which one is reared determine the answers to theses questions and many others like them. Many of these practices have been developed for generations and will continue to passed on for future generations. The techniques and practices are ingrained in each society.

     Another sociologist, Emile Durkheim was one of the first to write about the influence from the great power that society exercised over every individual. He wrote of the education of children that begins from the womb. Durkheim describes how babies are taught how to eat, drink and sleep at certain hours, how they are taught to clean themselves, how to remain calm, how to obey and to exert pressure, how to show respect and give consideration for others.

     According to Durkheim, the reason why children are so vulnerable to this type of training is that they have no choice. Acknowledging that children do not like to be toilet trained or fed, or dressed, Durkheim also notes that babies will cry as a defense mechanism, bit come to realize that their wailing and howling tantrums will be exerted with no effect. When the child realizes that the “world” is against him, he will comply. This is the reason why it takes less than three years for the core of a child’s cultural tradition to emerge. It is not brainwashing, but rather the fact remains that the child has developed stereotypes gestures and salutations that are peculiar to that society.  (Barrett, p. 56). One anthropologist liked to refer to it as a “blueprint for all of life’s activities” (Kluckhorn, 1949).

     Predictability is also important in studying cultural behavior. As humans, we are creatures of habit. This is made easier because we are expected to follow rules and regulations, whether they are local, federal, or familial. While we follow our improtant rues, we also assume that others in society will do likewise. A good example of trust in other people comes from an analysis of car traffic. Almost all drivers have little difficulty stopping at the proper red light, but why should we assume that every other driver is following suit? We have an inherent expectation that others will observe the same rules that we adhere to, simply because these behaviors have been instilled in us during the process of earning one’s driver license.

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