The Anthropological Perspective: What Makes It Unique?
The concept of culture is anthropology's key concept. Besides the culture concept, however, anthropology also has various other distinctive ways of thinking about the world or about human cultures and societies. Of course this is true of any academic discipline, each of which is guided by certain models or premises concerning the world and how it approaches the phenomena it studies.
I would like to discuss four main perspectives, each of which are not only central to the discipline of anthropology, but also make it unique among the social sciences. These include its: cross-cultural or comparative emphasis, its evolutionary/historical emphasis, its ecological emphasis and its holistic emphasis.
1. A cross-cultural or comparative approach is central to anthropological understanding. This emphasis also makes anthropology unique among the social sciences. Unlike sociologists, psychologists, economists and political scientists, anthropologists look beyond the confines of our own society and compare it to the beliefs and practices of other societies, past and present. Where a sociologist, for example, may attempt to explain social organization with reference only to their own society, an anthropologist would almost invariably go on to compare and contrast our own patterns of social organization with other societies.
This comparative emphasis is important. It helps anthropologists to avoid equating "human nature," for example, with the peculiarities of our own contemporary society. Quite simply, just because we all take some belief or style of behavior for granted in the present, does not mean human beings everywhere, or throughout human history, would have agreed. As John Bodley (1999) puts it, an examination of the wide diversity of other societies encourages anthropologists "to view their own culture through an outsider's eyes." In other words, studying other cultures with very different understandings of the world, very different customs and styles of life, leads to what anthropologists refer to as "defamiliarization."
Defamiliarization refers to the process through which you develop an ability to look at our own culture as though it were a foreign culture through the study of other societies. That is, extensive cross-cultural study allows one to think more critically about one's own culture, and to understand that many aspects of one's own beliefs or ways of doing things, which we all take for granted on a daily basis, are actually not only completely arbitrary, but also far from universal throughout human history, or even in the present day in many cases.
Many others of our practices or beliefs are actually very recent phenomena. This is something which is reemphasized by anthropology's second emphasis.
2. The second major emphasis which is distinctive of anthropology as a social science is its evolutionary/historical approach. This approach, coming from archeology and physical anthropology, focuses upon both the biological and cultural evolution of human beings and of human societies. It is also one of the reasons why a four subfields approach is so important to the discipline as a whole.
An evolutionary/historical approach is "diachronic." In other words, it is focused upon the understanding of and description of patterns of change over time. This approach provides time depth to an anthropological perspective which, along with its cross-cultural emphasis, helps to put contemporary society and contemporary patterns of social development into an historical context.
The third and fourth major emphases which are distinctive of anthropology as a social science-which are very closely related to one another-are its focus upon:
3. an ecological approach, which views human societies or cultures within the context of larger natural systems and,
4. an holistic approach, which is very closely related to an ecological approach philosophically.
In fact, anthropology was the first social science to begin to incorporate ecological insights into its studies of human behavior and society. Ecology has been part of the discipline at least since the 1960s. Anthropology also remains the only social science which continues to incorporate ecology in a significant and integral way (even though all anthropologists wouldn't agree that we should be ecological). So if you are interested in learning about how socio-cultural systems /interact/ with natural or ecological systems, anthropology has the longest history of studying this problem.
The reason so many anthropologists are also ecologists is not difficult to understand. The simple reason is that, as sciences, both ecology and anthropology are "holistic."
As a philosophical principle, "holism" simply refers to the assumption that no complex entity can be considered to be no more than the sum of its parts. Holism in anthropology, then, is the assumption that any given aspect of human life is to be studied with an eye to the way it is /related/ to other aspects of human life. In other words, holism is a synonym for a relational emphasis; an emphasis upon studying the /relationships/ among all aspects of culture-rather than "whole" cultures.
Anthropology's holistic emphasis is also the main reason that it was the social science that most readily adopted an ecological approach. After all, ecology defines itself as the study of the /relationships/ among living organisms, and between living organisms and the inorganic environment. A holistic and anthropological approach simply takes the same premise, and applies it to the study of humanity and human societies.
Of course, anthropology doesn't focus only upon the relationships between human societies and their organic and inorganic environments, but also upon the social relations among the members of societies, the relationships between societies, and the relationships between various aspects of culture. For example, the relationships between particular patterns of subsistence, particular technologies, particular economic and political systems, and particular ideologies, or patterns of belief.
From an anthropological perspective, these various systems are not only /related/ to one another, they are also seen as /integrated/ with one another. In other words, all of the various cultural institutions or systems more-or-less fit with one another, or mutually support one another (with a reasonable degree of conflict admittedly inherent in many social systems).
Thus, following a relational understanding of holism and ecology, what we are studying is the relationships between things, rather than dividing them up into bits for separate study. And this is a premise which both ecology and anthropology share, which may explain why anthropology is the social science which has made the most use of an ecological approach. Because of the discipline's holistic or relational emphasis, anthropologists were, in a sense, "pre-adapted" to an ecological approach at a theoretical level, even before ecological issues began to become important.
There has, however, been a general trend towards /specialization/ within other disciplines, ever since the advent of modern science. The trend has been towards narrowly focused disciplines in which experts end up knowing "more and more about less and less," as the saying goes.
Anthropology bucks this trend. As does ecology. This is because both anthropologists and ecologists are /generalists/ rather than specialists. Indeed, even when anthropologists study any particular aspect of culture-such as political systems for example-we are always looking at the way they are /related/ to other aspects of culture.
In fact, the holistic and ecological emphasis of much contemporary anthropology can only make the discipline's insights more and more relevant as ecological issues continue to become more important in contemporary society.
References, additional readings:
John H. Bodley (1999) "Victims of Progress," Mayfield Publishing Company.
Richard H. Robbins (2005) "Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism," Pearson.