Anthropology Explained—Part 1: Definitions

A friend of mine recently asked me to explain the fields of anthropology and ethnography. It occurred to me then, that you, my readers, might find it interesting as well. While all my blogs are not strictly ethnographic, they are always informed by my perspective as an anthropologist, as a student of human behavior—especially when that behavior is dancing. I don’t post as often as other bloggers because I need to get it right (professional pride, plus I am a teacher); I need to say it correctly (personal pride, I’m also a writer) and because I actually like to do the research (nerd pride?).

But I digress. We were discussion anthropology.

Lets begin with some definitions. First, you should know the difference between “society” and “culture.” When our scholarly disciplines were being developed and divided over 100 years ago, Sociologists were assigned to studying the Western world and Anthropologists to the Rest of the world’s cultures (The West and the Rest, as they used to say). Nineteenth and early 20th century Sociologists studied “civilized” society, (big quotes on that word civilized) by way of its institutions of economy, law, and social welfare; Anthropologists studied “primitive” (more big quotes) practices of kinship, rites of passage, and ritual. (We know better now, that the world isn’t divided up into civilized and primitive groups with all the pejorative assumptions that creates.) Today, with anthropologists studying locally (I did my fieldwork in Santa Cruz) and sociologists exploring its subject globally, its harder to tell the two fields apart (except, of course, at the level of institutional politics and funding). We now share common theories and practices. Nonetheless, society and culture are not exactly the same thing.

SOCIETY can be defined as a collective of people who share a group identity and organization. Sociologists study how humans arrange themselves in tribes or nation-states, or by class or religious groups.

CULTURE takes in the realm of people’s symbolic lives like ritual, kinship, communication. What do humans do inside their tribes or religious groups; how do they behave as members of social structures? It is may hard to grasp the difference immediately; it was for me. As with most concepts, it is only through repeated encounters with the ideas or words that our brains build up a clearer picture. To help make the concept of “culture” clearer, here are a few classic definitions:

1871 Edward B. Tylor: “Culture…is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, customs and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

1957 Ward Goodenough: “A society’s culture consists of whatever it is one has to know or believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members.” (Note that he doesn’t say we all agree on the rules; just that we know what they are and how to work them.)

1966 Clifford Geertz: Culture is “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life”

As you can see, even the experts struggle with defining this really slippery idea. Here’s a nice summation, a working definition as ‘twer:

Culture is a range of actions viewed as acceptable by the society which are learned and transmitted to each generation, and shared to a greater or lesser degree with all members of the society.

ANTHROPOLOGY is the study of human culture everywhere and throughout time. Anthropologists seek to produce reliable knowledge about people, their behavior and actions, their products and their meaning. They seek to discover the things that make cultures different from one another as well as what they have in common. In our efforts to accomplish this, we examine humans as a species, its ancestors and its near relatives, its past and its present. The field of anthropology is often divided into four fields under which there are innumerable subfields.

This is Part 1 of a 3 Part Series
Look for Part 2: The Four Fields of Anthropology

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