Cultural Anthropology Research Paper Topics

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Writing an anthropology research paper? This list of cultural anthropology research paper topics provides some ideas for narrowing down your topic to a successful and manageable one. This page also explores the subject of cultural anthropology. Browse other anthropology research paper topics for more inspiration.

200+ Cultural Anthropology Research Paper Topics

Agricultural revolution
Altamira cave
Anthropology of war
Aotearoa (New Zealand)
Ape culture
Australian aborigines
Bride price
Caste system
Celtic Europe
Chachapoya Indians
Characteristics of culture
Childhood studies
Class societies
Complex Societies
Copper Age
Cross-cultural research
Cultural adaptation
Cultural conservation
Cultural constraints
Cultural convergence
Cultural ecology
Cultural relativism
Cultural traits
Cultural tree of life
Culture and personality
Culture area concept
Culture change
Culture of poverty
Culture shock
Darkness in El Dorado controversy
Division of labor
Egalitarian societies
El Ceren
Eskimo acculturation
Ethnographic fieldwork
Ethnographic writing
Extended family
Feasts and Festivals
Folk culture
Folk speech
Folk speech
Forms of family
French structuralism
Great Wall of China
Guarani Nandeva Indians
History of Anthropology
Hopi Indians
Huari [Wari]
Human competition and stress
Human life cycle
Inoku Village
Intensive agriculture
IQ tests
Iron Age
Kinship and descent
Kinship terminology
Kula ring
!Kung Bushmen
Language and culture
Lascaux cave
Manioc beer
Mbuti Pygmies
Miami Indians
Modal personality
Native Peoples of Central and South America
Native Peoples of the Great Plains
Native Peoples of the United States
Northern Iroquoian Nations
Nuclear family
Objectivity in ethnography
Oldowan culture
Omaha Indians
Oral literature
Orality and anthropology
Pacific rim
Pacific seafaring
People’s Republic of China and Taiwan
Peyote rituals
Plant cultivatiion
Political organizations
Political science
Population explosion
Qing, the Last Dynasty of China
Rank and status
Rank Societies
Rites of passage
Role and status
San Bushmen
Secret societies
Segmentary lineage systems
Sex identity
Sex roles
Sexual harassment
Slash-and-burn agriculture
Social structures
Sudanese society
Taj Mahal
Textiles and clothing
Tierra del Fuego
Tlingit culture
Transcultural psychiatry
Urban legends
Vanishing cultures
Venus of Willendorf
Verification in ethnography
Work and skills
Yabarana Indians
Zuni Indians

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Cultural Anthropology Definition

Cultural Anthropology Research Paper TopicsCultural anthropology is the study of human patterns of thought and behavior, and how and why these patterns differ, in contemporary societies. Cultural anthropology is sometimes called social anthropology, sociocultural anthropology, or ethnology. Cultural anthropology also includes pursuits such as ethnography, ethnohistory, and cross-cultural research.

Cultural anthropology is one of the four subdisciplines of anthropology. The other subdisciplines include biological anthropology, archaeology, and linguistic anthropology. Some anthropologists include a fifth subdiscipline, applied anthropology, although other anthropologists see applied anthropology as an approach that crosscuts traditional subdisciplinary boundaries rather than as a subdiscipline itself. In the United States, the subfields tend to be unified: Departments of anthropology include all of the sub-fields within their academic structures. In Europe, however, subdisciplines often reside in different academic departments. These differences between American and European anthropology are due more to historical than philosophical differences in how the discipline developed.

The central organizing concept of cultural anthropology is culture, which is ironic given that culture is largely an abstraction that is difficult to measure and even more difficult to define, given the high number of different definitions of the concept that populate anthropology textbooks. Despite over a century of anthropology, the most commonly used definition of anthropology is Edward Burnett Tylor’s, who in 1871 defined culture as “that complex whole that includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by [humans] as members of a society.”

Tylor’s definition is resonant with contemporary anthropologists because it points to some important, universally agreed-upon aspects of culture, even though it does not satisfactorily define what culture is. Teachers of cultural anthropology often cite culture as a constellation of features that work together to guide the thoughts and behaviors of individuals and groups of humans. Aspects of culture often seen in introductory classes include: (1) Culture is commonly shared by a population or group of individuals; (2) cultural patterns of behavior are learned, acquired, and internalized during childhood; (3) culture is generally adaptive, enhancing survival and promoting successful reproduction; and (4) culture is integrated, meaning that the traits that make up a particular cultural are internally consistent with one another.

Nevertheless, anthropologists differ greatly in how they might refine their own definition of the culture concept. Anthropologists also differ in how they approach the study of culture. Some anthropologists begin with the observation that since culture is an abstraction that exists only in the minds of people in a particular society, which we cannot directly observe, culture must be studied through human behavior, which we can observe. Such an approach is often termed an objective, empiricist, or scientific approach and sometimes called an etic perspective. By etic, anthropologists mean that our understanding of culture is based upon the perspective of the observer, not those who are actually being studied.

Other anthropologists, while recognizing that culture is an abstraction and is difficult to measure, nevertheless hold that a worthy goal of anthropologists is to understand the structure of ideas and meanings as they exist in the minds of members of a particular culture. Such an approach is often labeled subjective, rationalist, or humanistic, and sometimes called an emic approach. By emic, anthropologists mean that the central goal of the anthropologist is to understand how culture is lived and experienced by its members.

Although these two approaches have quite different emphases, cultural anthropologists have traditionally recognized the importance of both styles of investigation as critical to the study of culture, although most anthropologists work only within one style.

How Cultural Anthropology Differs From Sociology

In many colleges and universities in the United States, sociology and anthropology are included under the same umbrella and exist as joint departments. This union is not without justification, as cultural anthropology and sociology share a similar theoretical and philosophical ancestry. In what ways is cultural anthropology different?

Cultural anthropology is unique because its history as a discipline lies in a focus on exploration of the “Other.” That is, the anthropologists of the 19th century took a keen interest in the lives and customs of people not descended from Europeans. The first anthropologists, E. B. Tylor and Sir James Frazer among them, relied mostly on the reports of explorers, missionaries, traders, and colonial officials and are commonly known as “armchair anthropologists.” It was not long, however, before travel around the globe to directly engage in the investigation of other human societies became the norm. The development of cultural anthropology is directly tied to the colonial era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The late 19th century was an era in which evolutionary theory dominated the nascent social sciences. The armchair anthropologists of the period were not immune from the dominant paradigm, and even scholars like Lewis Henry Morgan, who worked extensively and directly with American Indians, developed complicated typologies of cultural evolution, grading known cultures according to their technological accomplishments and the sophistication of their material culture. As is to be expected, Europeans were invariably civilized, with others categorized as being somewhat or extremely primitive in comparison. It was only as anthropologists began to investigate the presumably primitive societies that were known only through hearsay or incomplete reports that it was realized that such typologies were wildly inaccurate.

In the United States, the development of anthropology as a field-based discipline was driven largely by westward expansion. An important part of westward expansion was the pacification and extermination of the indigenous Native American cultures that once dominated the continent. By the late 1870s, the Bureau of American Ethnology was sponsoring trips by trained scholars, charged with recording the life-ways of American Indian tribes that were believed to be on the verge of extinction. This “salvage ethnology” formed the basis of American anthropology and led to important works such as James Mooney’s Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, published in 1896, and Edward Nelson’s The Eskimo about Bering Strait, published in 1899.

In Britain, some of the earliest investigations of aboriginal peoples were conducted by W. H. R. Rivers, C. G. Seligmann, Alfred Haddon, and John Meyers, members of the 1898 expedition to the Torres Straits. The expedition was a voyage of exploration on behalf of the British government, and for the anthropologists it was an opportunity to document the lives of the indigenous peoples of the region. This work later inspired Rivers to return to the Torres Straits in 1901 to 1902 to conduct more extensive fieldwork with the Toda. By the 1920s, scientific expeditions to remote corners of the world to document the cultures of the inhabitants, geology, and ecology of the region were commonplace. Many of these expeditions, such as the Steffansson-Anderson Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913 to 1918, have since proven invaluable, as they recorded the cultures of people only recently in con-tact with the European societies that would forever alter them.

Cultural anthropology, therefore, has its roots as a colonial enterprise, one of specializing in the study of small-scale, simple, “primitive” societies. This is, however, not an accurate description of contemporary cultural anthropology. Many anthropologists today work within complex societies. But the anthropology of complex societies is still much different than sociology. The history of working within small-scale, isolated cultural settings also led to the development of a particular methodology that is unique to cultural anthropology.

The fieldwork experiences of anthropologists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were critical for the development of anthropology as a rigorous, scientific discipline. How does an outsider accurately describe cultural practices and an understanding of the significance of those practices for members of the culture studied? Achieving these goals meant living with and participating in the lives of the people in the study culture. It is this balance between careful observation and participation in the lives of a group of people that has become the cornerstone of modern cultural anthropology.

Called participant observation, the method is the means by which most of an anthropologist’s information about a society is obtained. Anthropologists often use other methods of data collection, but participant observation is the sole means by which anthropologists can generate both emic and etic understandings of a culture.

There are, however, no straightforward guidelines about how one actually goes about doing participant observation. Cultural settings, personal idiosyncrasies, and personality characteristics all ensure that fieldwork and participant observation are unique experiences. All anthropologists agree that fieldwork is an intellectually and emotionally demanding exercise, especially considering that fieldwork traditionally lasts for a year, and often longer. Participant observation is also fraught with problems. Finding the balance between detached observation and engaged participation can be extremely difficult. How does one balance the two at the funeral of a person who is both key informant and friend, for example? For these reasons, the fieldwork experience is an intense rite of passage for anthropologists starting out in the discipline. Not surprisingly, the intense nature of the fieldwork experience has generated a large literature about the nature of fieldwork itself.

Part of the reason for lengthy fieldwork stays was due to a number of factors, including the difficulty of reaching a field site and the need to acquire competence in the local language. However, as it has become possible to travel to the remotest corners of the globe with relative ease, and as anthropologists pursue opportunities to study obscure languages increasingly taught in large universities, and as it is more difficult to secure research funding, field experiences have generally become shorter. Some anthropologists have abandoned traditional participant observation in favor of highly focused research problems and archival research, made possible especially in areas where significant “traditional” ethnographic field-work has been done.

A second research strategy that separates cultural anthropology from other disciplines is holism. Holism is the search for systematic relationships between two or more phenomena. One of the advantages of lengthy periods of fieldwork and participant observation is that the anthropologist can begin to see interrelationships between different aspects of culture. One example might be the discovery of a relationship between ecological conditions, subsistence patterns, and social organization. The holistic approach allows for the documentation of systematic relationships between these variables, thus allowing for the eventual unraveling of the importance of various relationships within the system, and, ultimately, toward an understanding of general principles and the construction of theory.

In practical terms, holism also refers to a kind of multifaceted approach to the study of culture. Anthropologists working in a specific cultural setting typically acquire information about topics not necessarily of immediate importance, or even interest, for the research project at hand. Nevertheless, anthropologists, when describing the culture they are working with, will often include discussions of culture history, linguistics, political and economic systems, settlement patterns, and religious ideology. Just as anthropologists become proficient at balancing emic and etic approaches in their work, they also become experts about a particular theoretical problem, for which the culture provides a good testing ground, and they become experts about the cultural area, having been immersed in the politics, history, and social science of the region itself.

History of Cultural Anthropology

The earliest historical roots of cultural anthropology are in the writings of Herodotus (fifth century BCE), Marco Polo (c. 1254-c. 1324), and Ibn Khaldun (1332—1406), people who traveled extensively and wrote reports about the cultures they encountered. More recent contributions come from writers of the French Enlightenment, such as eighteenth century French philosopher Charles Montesquieu (1689-1755). His book, Spirit of the Laws, published in 1748, discussed the temperament, appearance, and government of non-European people around the world. It explained differences in terms of the varying climates in which people lived.

The mid- and late nineteenth century was an important time for science in general. Influenced by Darwin’s writings about species’ evolution, three founding figures of cultural anthropology were Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881) in the United States, and Edward Tylor (1832-1917) and James Frazer (1854-1941) in England. The three men supported a concept of cultural evolution, or cumulative change in culture over time leading to improvement, as the explanation for cultural differences around the world. A primary distinction in cultures was between Euro-American culture (“civilization”) and non-Western peoples (“primitive”). This distinction is maintained today in how many North American museums place European art and artifacts in mainstream art museums, while the art and artifacts of non-Western peoples are placed in museums of natural history.

The cultural evolutionists generated models of progressive stages for various aspects of culture. Morgan’s model of kinship evolution proposed that early forms of kinship centered on women with inheritance passing through the female line, while more evolved forms centered on men with inheritance passing through the male line. Frazer’s model of the evolution of belief systems posited that magic, the most primitive stage, is replaced by religion in early civilizations which in turn is replaced by science in advanced civilizations. These models of cultural evolution were unilinear (following one path), simplistic, often based on little evidence, and ethnocentric in that they always placed European culture at the apex. Influenced by Darwinian thinking, the three men believed that later forms of culture are inevitably superior and that early forms either evolve into later forms or else disappear.

Most nineteenth century thinkers were “armchair anthropologists,” a nickname for scholars who learned about other cultures by reading reports of travelers, missionaries, and explorers. On the basis of readings, the armchair anthropologist wrote books that compiled findings on particular topics, such as religion. Thus, they wrote about faraway cultures without the benefit of personal experience with the people living in those cultures. Morgan stands out, in his era, for diverging from the armchair approach. Morgan spent substantial amounts of time with the Iroquois people of central New York. One of his major contributions to anthropology is the finding that “other” cultures make sense if they are understood through interaction with and direct observation of people rather than reading reports about them. This insight of Morgan’s is now a permanent part of anthropology, being firmly established by Bronislaw Malinowski (18841942).

Malinowski is generally considered the “father” of the cornerstone research method in cultural anthropology: participant observation during fieldwork. He established a theoretical approach called functionalism, the view that a culture is similar to a biological organism wherein various parts work to support the operation and maintenance of the whole. In this view a kinship system or religious system contributes to the functioning of the whole culture of which it is a part. Functionalism is linked to the concept of holism, the perspective that one must study all aspects of a culture in order to understand the whole culture.

The “Father” of Four-Field Anthropology

Another major figure of the early twentieth century is Franz Boas (1858-1942), the “father” of North American four-field anthropology. Born in Germany and educated in physics and geography, Boas came to the United States in 1887. He brought with him a skepticism toward Western science gained from a year’s study among the Innu, indigenous people of Baffin Island, Canada. He learned from that experience the important lesson that a physical substance such as “water” is perceived in different ways by people of different cultures. Boas, in contrast to the cultural evolutionists, recognized the equal value of different cultures and said that no culture is superior to any other. He introduced the concept of cultural relativism: the view that each culture must be understood in terms of the values and ideas of that culture and must not be judged by the standards of another. Boas promoted the detailed study of individual cultures within their own historical contexts, an approach called historical particularism. In Boas’s view, broad generalizations and universal statements about culture are inaccurate and invalid because they ignore the realities of individual cultures.

Boas contributed to the growth and professionalization of anthropology in North America. As a professor at Columbia University, he hired faculty and built the department. Boas trained many students who became prominent anthropologists, including Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. He founded several professional associations in cultural anthropology and archaeology. He supported the development of anthropology museums.

Boas was involved in public advocacy and his socially progressive philosophy embroiled him in controversy. He published articles in newspapers and popular magazines opposing the U.S. entry into World War I (1914-1918), a position for which the American Anthropological Association formally censured him as “un-American.” Boas also publicly denounced the role of anthropologists who served as spies in Mexico and Central America for the U.S. government during World War I. One of his most renowned studies, commissioned by President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), was to examine the effects of the environment (in the sense of one’s location) on immigrants and their children. He and his research team measured height, weight, head size and other features of over 17,000 people and their children who had migrated to the United States. Results showed substantial differences in measurements between the older and younger generations. Boas concluded that body size and shape can change quickly in response to a new environmental context; in other words, some of people’s physical characteristics are culturally shaped rather than biologically (“racially”) determined.

Boas’ legacy to anthropology includes his development of the discipline as a four-field endeavor, his theoretical concepts of cultural relativism and historical particularism, his critique of the view that biology is destiny, his anti-racist and other advocacy writings, and his ethical stand that anthropologists should not do undercover research.

Several students of Boas, including Mead and Benedict, developed what is called the “Culture and Personality School.” Anthropologists who were part of this intellectual trend documented cultural variation in modal personality and the role of child-rearing in shaping adult personality. Both Mead and Benedict, along with several other U.S. anthropologists, made their knowledge available to the government during and following World War II (1939-1945). Benedict’s classic 1946 book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword was influential in shaping U.S. military policies in post-war Japan and in behavior toward the Japanese people during the occupation. Mead likewise, offered advice about the cultures of the South Pacific to the U.S. military occupying the region.

The Expansion of Cultural Anthropology

In the second half of the twentieth century cultural anthropology in the United States expanded substantially in the number of trained anthropologists, departments of anthropology in colleges and universities, and students taking anthropology courses and seeking anthropology degrees at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral level. Along with these increases came more theoretical and topical diversity.

Cultural ecology emerged during the 1960s and 1970s. Anthropologists working in this area developed theories to explain cultural similarity and variation based on environmental factors. These anthopologists said that similar environments (e.g., deserts, tropical rainforests, or mountains) would predictably lead to the emergence of similar cultures. Because this approach sought to formulate cross-cultural predictions and generalizations, it stood in clear contrast to Boasian historical particularism.

At the same time, French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (b. 1908) developed a different theoretical perspective influenced by linguistics and called structuralism. Structuralism is an analytical method based on the belief that the best way to learn about a culture is by analyzing its myths and stories to discover the themes, or basic units of meaning, embedded in them. The themes typically are binary opposites such as life and death, dark and light, male and female. In the view of French structuralism these oppositions constitute an unconsciously understood, underlying structure of the culture itself. Levi-Strauss collected hundreds of myths from native peoples of South America as sources for learning about their cultures. He also used structural analysis in the interpretation of kinship systems and art forms such as the masks of Northwest Coast Indians. In the 1960s and 1970s French structuralism began to attract attention of anthropologists in the United States and has had a lasting influence on anthropologists of a more humanistic bent.

Descended loosely from these two contrasting theoretical perspectives—cultural ecology and French structuralism—are two important approaches in contemporary cultural anthropology. One approach, descended from cultural ecology, is cultural materialism. Cultural materialism, as defined by its leading theorist Marvin Harris (1927-2001), takes a Marxist-inspired position that understanding a culture should be pursued first by examining the material conditions in which people live: the natural environment and how people make a living within particular environments. Having established understanding of the “material” base (or infrastructure), attention may then be turned to other aspects of culture, including social organization (how people live together in groups, or structure) and ideology (people’s way of thinking and their symbols, or superstructure). One of Harris’ most famous examples of a cultural materialist approach is his analysis of the material importance of the sacred cows of Hindu India. Harris demonstrates the many material benefits of cows, from their plowing roles to the use of their dried dung as cooking fuel and their utility as street-cleaning scavengers, underlay and are ideologically supported by the religious ban on cow slaughter and protection of even old and disabled cows.

The second approach in cultural anthropology, descended from French structuralism and symbolic anthropology, is interpretive anthropology or intepretivism. This perspective, championed by Clifford Geertz (1926-2006), says that understanding culture is first and foremost about learning what people think about, their ideas, and the symbols and meanings important to them. In contrast to cultural materialism’s emphasis on economic and political factors and behavior, interpretivists focus on webs of meaning. They treat culture as a text that can only be understood from the inside of the culture, in its own terms, an approach interpretivists refer to as “experience near” anthropology, in other words, learning about a culture through the perspectives of the study population as possible. Geertz contributed the concept of “thick description” as the best way for anthropologists to present their findings; in this mode, the anthropologist serves as a medium for transferring the richness of a culture through detailed notes and other recordings with minimal analysis.

Late Twentieth and Turn of Century Growth

Starting in the 1980s, several additional theoretical perspectives and research domains emerged in cultural anthropology. Feminist anthropology arose in reaction to the lack of anthropological research on female roles. In its formative stage, feminist anthropology focused on culturally embedded discrimination against women and girls. As feminist anthropology evolved, it looked at how attention to human agency and resistance within contexts of hierarchy and discrimination sheds light on complexity and change. In a similar fashion, gay and lesbian anthropology, or “queer anthropology,” has exposed the marginalization of gay and lesbian sexuality and culture in previous anthropology research and seeks to correct that situation.

Members of other minority groups voice parallel concerns. African American anthropologists have critiqued mainstream cultural anthropology as suffering from embedded racism in the topics it studies, how it is taught to students, and its exclusion of minorities from positions of power and influence. This critique has produced recommendations about how to build a non-racist anthropology. Progress is occurring, with one notable positive change being the increase in trained anthropologists from minority groups and other excluded groups, and their rising visibility and impact on the research agenda, textbook contents, and future direction of the field.

Another important trend is increased communication among cultural anthropologists worldwide and growing awareness of the diversity of cultural anthropology in different settings. Non-Western anthropologists are contesting the dominance of Euro-American anthropology and offering new perspectives. In many cases, these anthropologists conduct native anthropology, or the study of one’s own cultural group. Their work provides useful critiques of the historically Western, white, male discipline of anthropology.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, two theoretical approaches became prominent and link together many other diverse perspectives, such as feminist anthropology, economic anthropology, and medical anthropology. The two approaches have grown from the earlier perspectives of cultural materialism and French structuralism, respectively. Both are influenced by postmodernism, an intellectual pursuit that asks whether modernity is truly progress and questions such aspects of modernism as the scientific method, urbanization, technological change, and mass communication.

The first approach is termed structurism, which is an expanded political economy framework. Structurism examines how powerful structures such as economics, politics, and media shape culture and create and maintain entrenched systems of inequality and oppression. James Scott, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Arthur Kleinman, Veena Das, and Paul Farmer are pursuing this direction of work. Many anthropologists use terms such as social suffering or structural violence to refer to the forms and effects of historically and structural embedded inequalities that cause excess illness, death, violence, and pain.

The second theoretical and research emphasis, derived to some extent from interpretivism, is on human agency, or free will, and the power of individuals to create and change culture by acting against structures. Many anthropologists avoid the apparent dichotomy in these two approaches and seek to combine a structurist framework with attention to human agency.

The Concept of Culture

Culture is the core concept in cultural anthropology, and thus it might seem likely that cultural anthropologists would agree about what it is. Consensus may have been the case in the early days of the discipline when there were far fewer anthropologists. Edward B. Tylor (1832-1917), a British anthropologist, proposed the first anthropological definition of culture in 1871. He said that “Culture, or civilization … is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (Kroeber and Kluckhohn 1952, p. 81). By the 1950s, however, an effort to collect definitions of culture produced 164 different definitions. Since that time no one has tried to count the number of definitions of culture used by anthropologists.

In contemporary cultural anthropology, the theoretical positions of the cultural materialists and the interpretive anthropologists correspond to two different definitions of culture. Cultural materialist Marvin Harris defines culture as the total socially acquired life-way or life-style of a group of people, a definition that maintains the emphasis on the holism established by Tylor. In contrast, Clifford Geertz, speaking for the interpretivists, defines culture as consisting of symbols, motivations, moods, and thoughts. The interpretivist definition excludes behavior as part of culture. Again, avoiding a somewhat extreme dichotomy, it is reasonable and comprehensive to adopt a broad definition of culture as all learned and shared behavior and ideas.

Culture exists, in a general way, as something that all humans have. Some anthropologists refer to this universal concept of culture as “Culture” with a capital “C.” Culture also exists in a specific way, in referring to particular groups as distinguised by their behaviors and beliefs. Culture in the specific sense refers to “a culture” such as the Maasai, the Maya, or middle-class white Americans. In the specific sense culture is variable and changing. Sometimes the terms “microculture” or local culture are used to refer to specific cultures. Microcultures may include ethnic groups, indigenous peoples, genders, age categories, and more. At a larger scale exist regional or even global cultures such as Western-style consumer culture that now exists in many parts of the world.

Characteristics of Culture

Since it is difficult to settle on a neat and tidy definition of culture, some anthropologists find it more useful to discuss the characteristics of culture and what makes it a special adaptation on which humans rely so heavily.

Culture is based on symbols

A symbol is something that stands for something else. Most symbols are arbitrary, that is, they bear no necessary relationship to that which is symbolized. Therefore, they are cross-culturally variable and unpredictable. For example, although one might guess that all cultures might have an expression for hunger that involves the stomach, no one could predict that in Hindi, the language of northern India, a colloquial expression for being hungry says that “rats are jumping in my stomach.” Our lives are shaped by, immersed in, and made possible through symbols. It is through symbols, especially language, that culture is shared, changed, stored, and transmitted over time.

Culture is learned

Cultural learning begins from the moment of birth, if not before (some people think that an unborn baby takes in and stores information through sounds heard from the outside world). A large but unknown amount of people’s cultural learning is unconscious, occurring as a normal part of life through observation. Schools, in contrast, are a formal way to learn culture. Not all cultures throughout history have had formal schooling. Instead, children learned culture through guidance from others and by observation and practice. Longstanding ways of enculturation, or learning one’s culture, include stories, pictorial art, and performances of rituals and dramas.

Cultures are integrated

To state that cultures are internally integrated is to assert the principle of holism. Thus, studying only one or two aspects of culture provides understanding so limited that it is more likely to be misleading or wrong than more comprehensively grounded approaches. Cultural integration and holism are relevant to applied anthropologists interested in proposing ways to promote positive change. Years of experience in applied anthropology show that introducing programs for change in one aspect of culture without considering the effects in other areas may be detrimental to the welfare and survival of a culture. For example, Western missionaries and colonialists in parts of Southeast Asia banned the practice of head-hunting. This practice was embedded in many other aspects of culture, including politics, religion, and psychology (i.e., a man’s sense of identity as a man sometimes depended on the taking of a head). Although stopping head-hunting might seem like a good thing, it had disastrous consequences for the cultures that had practiced it.

Cultures Interact and Change

Several forms of contact bring about a variety of changes in the cultures involved. Trade networks, international development projects, telecommunications, education, migration, and tourism are just a few of the factors that affect cultural change through contact. Globalization, the process of intensified global interconnectedness and movement of goods, information and people, is a major force of contemporary cultural change. It has gained momentum through recent technological change, especially the boom in information and communications technologies, which is closely related to the global movement of capital and finance.

Globalization does not spread evenly, and its interactions with and effects on local cultures vary substantially, from positive change for all groups involved to cultural destruction and extinction for those whose land, livelihood and culture are lost. Current terms that attempt to capture varieties of cultural change related to globalization include hybridization (cultural mixing into a new form) and localization (appropriation and adaptation of a global form into a new, locally meaningful form).

Ethnography and Ethnology

Cultural anthropology embraces two major pursuits in its study and understanding of culture. The first is ethnography or “culture-writing.” An ethnography is an in-depth description of one culture. This approach provides detailed information based on personal observation of a living culture for an extended period of time. An ethnography is usually a full-length book.

Ethnographies have changed over time. In the first half of the twentieth century, ethnographers wrote about “exotic” cultures located far from their homes in Europe and North America. These ethnographers treated a particular local group or village as a unit unto itself with clear boundaries. Later, the era of so-called “village studies” in ethnography held sway from the 1950s through the 1960s. Anthropologists typically studied in one village and then wrote an ethnography describing that village, again as a clearly bounded unit. Since the 1980s, the subject matter of ethnographies has changed in three major ways. First, ethnographies treat local cultures as connected to larger regional and global structures and forces; second, they focus on a topic of interest and avoid a more holistic (comprehensive) approach; and third, many are situated within industrialized/post-industrialized cultures.

As topics and sites have changed, so have research methods. One innovation of the late twentieth century is the adoption of multi-sited research, or research conducted in more than one context such as two or more field sites. Another is the use of supplementary non-sited data collected in archives, from Internet cultural groups, or newspaper coverage. Cultural anthropologists are turning to multi-sited and non-sited research in order to address the complexities and linkages of today’s globalized cultural world. Another methodological innovation is collaborative ethnography, carried out as a team project between academic researchers and members of the study population. Collaborative research changes ethnography from study of people for the sake of anthropological knowledge to study with people for the sake of knowledge and for the people who are the focus of the research.

The second research goal of cultural anthropology is ethnology, or cross-cultural analysis. Ethnology is the comparative analysis of a particular topic in more than one cultural context using ethnographic material. Ethnologists compare such topics as marriage forms, economic practices, religious beliefs, and childrearing practices, for example, in order to discover patterns of similarity and variation and possible causes for them. One might compare the length of time that parents sleep with their babies in different cultures in relation to personality. Researchers ask, for example, if a long co-sleeping period leads to less individualistic, more socially connected personalities and if a short period of co-sleeping produces more individualistic personalities. Other ethnological analyses have considered the type of economy in relation to frequency of warfare, and the type of kinship organization in relation to women’s status.

Ethnography and ethnology are mutually supportive. Ethnography provides rich, culturally specific insights. Ethnology, by looking beyond individual cases to wider patterns, provides comparative insights and raises new questions that prompt future ethnographic research.

Cultural Relativism

Most people grow up thinking that their culture is the only and best way of life and that other cultures are strange or inferior. Cultural anthropologists label this attitude ethnocentrism: judging other cultures by the standards of one’s own culture. The opposite of ethnocentrism is cultural relativism, the idea that each culture must be understood in terms of its own values and beliefs and not by the standards of another culture.

Cultural relativism may easily be misinterpreted as absolute cultural relativism, which says that whatever goes on in a particular culture must not be questioned or changed because no one has the right to question any behavior or idea anywhere. This position can lead in dangerous directions. Consider the example of the Holocaust during World War II in which millions of Jews and other minorities in much of Eastern and Western Europe were killed as part of the German Nazis’ Aryan supremacy campaign. The absolute cultural relativist position becomes boxed in, logically, to saying that since the Holocaust was undertaken according to the values of the culture, outsiders have no business questioning it.

Critical cultural relativism offers an alternative view that poses questions about cultural practices and ideas in terms of who accepts them and why, and who they might be harming or helping. In terms of the Nazi Holocaust, a critical cultural relativist would ask, “Whose culture supported the values that killed millions of people on the grounds of racial purity?” Not the cultures of the Jewish people, the Roma, and other victims. It was the culture of Aryan supremacists, who were one subgroup among many. The situation was far more complex than a simple absolute cultural relativist statement takes into account, because there was not “one” culture and its values involved. Rather, it was a case of cultural imperialism, in which one dominant group claimed supremacy over minority cultures and proceeded to change the situation in its own interests and at the expense of other cultures. Critical cultural relativism avoids the trap of adopting a homogenized view of complexity. It recognizes internal cultural differences and winners/losers, oppressors/victims. It pays attention to different interests of various power groups.

Applied Cultural Anthropology

In cultural anthropology, applied anthropology involves the use or application of anthropological knowledge to help prevent or solve problems of living peoples, including poverty, drug abuse, and HIV/AIDS. In the United States, applied anthropology emerged during World War II when many anthropologists offered their expertise to promote U.S. war efforts and post-war occupation. Following the end of the war, the United States assumed a larger global presence, especially through its bilateral aid organization, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). USAID hired many cultural anthropologists who worked in a variety of roles, mainly evaluating development projects at the end of the project cycle and serving as in-country anthropologists overseas.

In the 1970s cultural anthropologists worked with other social scientists in USAID to develop and promote the use of “social soundness analysis” in all government-supported development projects. As defined by Glynn Cochrane, social soundness analysis required that all development projects be preceded by a thorough baseline study of the cultural context and then potential redesign of the project based on those findings. A major goal was to prevent the funding of projects with little or no cultural fit. The World Bank hired its first anthropologist, Michael Cernea, in 1974. For three decades, Cernea influenced its policy-makers to pay more attention to project-affected people and their culture in designing and implementing projects. He promoted the term “development induced displacement” to bring attention to how large infrastructure projects negatively affect millions of people worldwide and he devised recommendations for mitigating such harm.

Many cultural anthropologists are applying cultural analysis to large-scale institutions (e.g., capitalism and the media) particularly their negative social consequences, such as the increasing wealth gap between powerful and less powerful countries and between the rich and the poor within countries. These anthropologists are moving in a new and challenging direction. Their work involves the study of global—local interactions and change over time, neither of which were part of cultural anthropology’s original focus. Moreover, these cultural anthropologists take on the role of advocacy and often work collaboratively with victimized peoples.

Anthropologists are committed to documenting, understanding, and maintaining cultural diversity throughout the world as part of humanity’s rich heritage. Through the four-field approach, they contribute to the recovery and analysis of the emergence and evolution of humanity. They provide detailed descriptions of cultures as they have existed in the past, as they now exist, and as they are changing in contemporary times. Anthropologists regret the decline and extinction of different cultures and actively contribute to the preservation of cultural diversity and cultural survival.


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