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What Is Cultural Anthropology?

Cultural Anthropology. What the heck is it? It’s certainly not the most popular or profitable college major out there. So why the heck am I doing a whole blog post on it? Why not talk about financial tips or basic political information? Rest assured – that stuff is currently being saved for future posts, so don’t get discouraged. Without further ado, let’s jump right in!

Cultural anthropology is defined as the branch of anthropology concerned with the study of human societies & cultures and their development. It often involves a method of participant observation (a.k.a., “fieldwork” due to it involving the anthropologist to spend a lengthy period of time at a designated research location), interviews, and surveys. Over the course of history, different cultures have developed because humans, who learn culture through enculturation & socialization, learn both processes differently depending on which physical location they live in. Humans developing vastly different cultures (Asian versus Europe/the U.S., Europe/the U.S. versus the Middle East, Europe/the U.S. versus Africa, North America versus South America, etc. if you need examples) has also pointed to how people adapt to environments in non-genetic ways.

This particular field of anthropology began in the 1800s when people wanted to better understand why and how people though of certain cultures as “civilized” while other cultures where “savage” and “uncultured.” Much of the development of cultural anthropology as a field took place in European countries where colonialism was deeply rooted and the driving force for outward exploration. Many anthropologists were also interested in the differences in beliefs and cultural practices of each culture, and how & why they varied, as well as how they spread from culture to culture. Early anthropologists theorized that each culture had to pass through specific stages in the same order to be defined as civilized or uncivilized, but later anthropologists discarded this theory since it “doesn’t fit empirical facts.”

Franz Boas, a famous anthropologist, helped to establish the principle of cultural relativism, which is the idea that “civilization [isn’t] absolute … but relative” – meaning that “our ideas & concepts are true only so far as our civilization goes.” Boaz and his students helped to establish the practice of ethnography in order to remove the limits of their own ethnocetrism so that they could better understand cultures that weren’t their own.

Franz Boas, a famous anthropologist, helped to establish the principle of cultural relativism, which is the idea that “civilization [isn’t] absolute … but relative” – meaning that “our ideas & concepts are true only so far as our civilization goes.” Boaz and his students helped to establish the practice of ethnography in order to remove the limits of their own ethnocetrism so that they could better understand cultures that weren’t their own. And the theoretical approaches don’t stop there – cultural anthropology also includes feminism, cultural materialism, culture theory, actor-network theory, functionalism, interpretive theory, political economy, practice theory, structuralism theory, post-structuralism theory, and systems theory. (A lot, right?)

So why is all of this important?

Well, in addition to the growing level of globalism in today’s society, there has been a recent rise in nationalism and cultural pride in a number of nations around the world. Although cultural anthropology grew from a colonial interest in other cultures, it’s transformed into a way of becoming more open-minded and accepting of other cultures as well as learning their history, how they developed, and how they interact with & affect the world.

Learning about cultural anthropology and how to work with people from different cultures can help to fight the rise of hate crimes, racism, and cultural appropriation around the world. While this post barely scratches the surface on the field of cultural anthropology, the best way to incorporate it into everyday life is to remember that not every culture has the same values. Sometimes, when it comes to learning about other cultures & how they view the world, it’s best to leave your own judgements and values to the side while listening to other people describe their own cultures’ way of life.

Basically: don’t be racist. Listen with an open heart and be willing to learn. It’s not going to hurt society; in fact, it might just help it move forward.

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Briana Maddox View All →

As an recent college graduate who studied media studies and anthropology in college, Briana Maddox enjoys learning about different cultures, traditions, holidays, historical figures, experiences, and opinions. With a vested interest in sharing such learning experiences, Briana created Life & Anthropology in the hopes of helping other people gain a better understanding and working knowledge of such topics.

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