Assimilation or Cultural Relativism



Chapter Outline


Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you should be able to:

1. Define anthropology as a discipline.

2. Enumerate and define the subdivisions of anthropology.

3. Outline the history of anthropology.

4. Discuss the research methods of anthropo- logical research.

5. Explain the causes of culture shock.

6. Analyze the values of cultural relativism.

7. Identify the uses of cross-cultural comparison.

8. Explain the basic ethical questions of anthro- pological research.

9. Explain the different concepts used in an anthropological analysis of culture.

10. Explain the difference between humanistic and scientific approaches to culture.

Anthropology: A Definition 1

1.1 The Breadth of Anthropology

• The Four Traditional Subfields • Anthropology as Science and Humanity • Etic Versus Emic Perspectives • The Holistic Perspective • Breadth in Time and Space

1.2 The History of Cultural Anthropology

• The Evolutionary Period • The Empiricist Period • The Functionalist Period • The Contemporary Period • The Period of Specialization

1.3 Methods of Anthropological Research

• Participant Observation • The Fieldwork: A Case Study • Cross-Cultural Comparison • Ethics in Anthropological Research

1.4 Cultural Differences

• Culture Shock • Ethnocentrism • Cultural Relativism

1.5 Employment in Anthropology

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CHAPTER 1Section 1.1 The Breadth of Anthropology

This chapter explains what anthropology is, the history of the discipline, how anthropologists gather information about human customs, how different anthro- pologists analyze culture, and how anthropology has evolved as a discipline.

1.1 The Breadth of Anthropology

A nthropology is the general study of humans and their ways of life. Anthropology is broader in scope than are any of the other fields that study human beings or human customs. Traditionally, anthropologists might specialize in one of the four

classic subdivisions of the field: cultural anthropology, archaeology, linguistic anthropol- ogy, and biological anthropology.

The Four Traditional Subfields Cultural anthropology is the study of the similarity and diversity of human ways of life (cultures) and of the reg- ularities in how culture functions. Archaeology is the study of cultures of the past, or of the past of existing cultures, by reconstructing ways of life from the remains of the material things that people left behind in the course of living. Linguistic anthro- pology is the study of the character- istics of language, the relationship between language and culture, and how people use language in every- day life. Biological anthropology is the study of the origin of the human species and our relationship to other primates, variations in human biology around the world, and how human biology makes culture possible. In recent decades, many anthropologists have become increasingly involved in using the theoretical knowledge and findings of the field to solve real-world problems. This kind of practical application is done within applied anthropology, which is sometimes seen as the fifth major subdivision within the discipline of anthropology, and one that often bridges two or more subdivisions.

Despite the fact that an anthropologist might specialize in one of these five subdivisions, he or she typically has some training in each of them, and the subfields remain connected to one another within the larger field of anthropology. This interconnectedness exists, in part, by virtue of the fact that anthropologists in each of the subfields understand that the topics studied in the other subfields cannot be ignored, even while they focus on their own specialties. For example, a colleague of mine clearly identified her specialty as “bio- logical anthropology,” and all of her work emphasized such things as human evolution and contemporary variation in the bones that make up the human skeleton. Nevertheless,

iStockphoto/Thinkstock Archaeologists use the physical remains of past societies to reconstruct a picture of what life looked like for ancient peoples.

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CHAPTER 1Section 1.1 The Breadth of Anthropology

her application of these interests included an awareness of how cultural differences in customs affect the body—for example, the traditional use of kayaks among Eskimos and Inuits of the far north led to lower-back problems (due to greater stress experienced when fishing from kayaks, which placed the lower limbs at right angles to the torso). Her aware- ness of such cultural influences on the human skeleton also made it possible for her to put her knowledge to use in forensic work for the local police when skeletons were turned up. This was not limited to reconstructing “racial” characteristics or determining the cause of death from evidence on the skeletal remains. It also included her ability to make valid inferences from evidence (such as the stresses that influenced bone development) about whether the person had engaged in heavy labor or had lived a more sedentary lifestyle.

Anthropology as Science and Humanity Classified by subject matter, cultural anthropology is one of the humanities, so anthro- pologists share some of the interests of philosophers, literary and art critics, translators, and historians. Classified by aspiration, it is a human science and shares a great deal with sociology, psychology, political science, economics, linguistics, geography, paleontology, and biology. This distinctive breadth remains a hallmark of anthropology today. As cul- tural anthropologist E. R. Wolf (1964) noted over 50 years ago, anthropology uniquely bridges the gulf between the sciences and the humanities. At the same time, there is a long-standing tension between humanistic and scientific approaches in anthropology that can fracture the discipline. For example, in 1998, Stanford University’s anthropol- ogy department split into two departments: “anthropological sciences” and “cultural and social anthropology.” They merged again in 2007, rejoining the scientific and humanistic aspects that characterize the discipline as a whole.

The humanistic aspect of anthropology stems from our desire to know and understand other cultures. Anthropologists with a humanistic orientation approach the study of cul- tures as translators who try to make the symbols of one culture understandable in terms of those of another. They attempt to portray and interpret the customs, values, worldview, or art of one culture so that they can be appreciated by readers accustomed to a different language and way of viewing life.

While much of culture exists in the symbolic realm of ideas—the beliefs, feelings, and ideologies that can be studied and interpreted for their own sake—there is also a practical aspect of culture that makes it possible for a people to survive physically. Each culture, as a system of common understandings, serves as a form of social bonding and also as the action plan by which a human society interacts with its natural environment to ful- fill its survival needs. Anthropologists whose interests lean toward the scientific goal of explaining and predicting human behavior emphasize the practical influences of social life, human biological and psychological needs, technology, and the environment in their descriptions of how the symbolic or ideological elements of culture arise. Their concern is for isolating the factors that give rise to the diverse cultures of the world and for devel- oping models that show how these factors determine the form that a culture develops. In sum, the scientific approach searches for mechanistic, cause-and-effect explanations of how particular cultures have developed their distinctive qualities, and for causes of cultural universals, characteristics that are found in all cultures with a focus on the role culture plays in human adaptation to the environment and survival.

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CHAPTER 1Section 1.1 The Breadth of Anthropology

More generally, the main objective of science, which includes scientific facts, hypotheses, methodologies, and theories, is to explain: to answer such questions as why, when, and what. Scientific theories attempt to explain how nature works, or why people behave as they do. The main method that scientists—and scientifically oriented anthropologists— use is called the scientific method. This method is a deductive approach: It is a “top- down” approach whereby one begins with a theory and, based on this theory, develops a falsifiable and testable hypothesis about a given phenomenon. A hypothesis is a pro- posed explanation that can be shown to be right or wrong through scientific testing (e.g., observation or experimentation). After confirming or denying the original hypothesis, the scientist then makes statements, or construct new theories, about the particular phe- nomenon being studied. Whereas deductive approaches are considered to be scientific, inductive—or “bottom-up”—approaches are associated more with humanistic research. Using an inductive approach, one begins with observations, makes a hypothesis based on those observations, and eventually offers a set of conclusions or develops a theory.

Although they differ considerably, both deductive and inductive approaches aim to develop a theory—a generally accepted, reliable explanation that has been arrived at through observation and testing. Even though theories are seen as established explana- tions, they are not considered to be the “Truth.” Theories are not necessarily or irrevocably true; rather, they are explanations that have not yet been disproven, but may be disproven in the future. Indeed, scientific theories of the past have often been overturned in the face of new discoveries, which generate new theories. For example, in geology, George Lyell (1866–1951) developed his theory of uniformitarianism: the idea that the Earth was formed by slow-moving forces, which have been operating for a long time. His theory replaced the formerly accepted theory of catastrophism: the idea that abrupt changes cre- ated and altered the Earth’s surface. In anthropology, the theory of unilineal cultural evo- lutionism—the notion that all cultures progress through the same set of social stages— was replaced by theories of multilineal evolution and cultural relativism, which recognize that different cultures have distinct social trajectories (see Section 1.4: Cultural Differences).

In some ways, the scientific and humanistic strands of anthropology are associated with the different subfields: Many archaeologists, physical anthropologists, and some linguis- tic anthropologists use more scientific approaches, whereas many cultural anthropolo- gists and other linguistic anthropologists use more humanistic approaches (although there are exceptions). Further, despite the fact that science-oriented and humanistic- oriented anthropologists differ in terms of their aims, methodologies, and approaches, they share a common interest in using systematic observation to better understand the human condition.

Etic Versus Emic Perspectives The dual quality of anthropology (the scientific attempt to explain cultures as patterned, rule-based systems and the humanistic desire to understand and interpret other cultures as systems of meanings) manifests itself in another way that makes anthropology broader than the physical sciences. Cultural anthropologists who either describe or interpret a particular culture must choose between what we call an etic and an emic viewpoint.

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CHAPTER 1Section 1.1 The Breadth of Anthropology

An etic description or analysis—that is, an outsider’s or observer’s allegedly “objective” account—creates a model of a culture by using cross-culturally valid categories, which anthropologists have found to be generally useful for describing all cultures. Etic models invariably describe each culture in ways that seem alien to its own participants but that facilitate comparisons between cultures and the discovery of universal principles in the structure and functioning of cultures. According to Marvin Harris (1968, p. 575), “Etic statements are verified when independent observers using similar operations agree that a given event has occurred,” and etic models are valid insofar as they accurately predict the behavior of the native participants of a culture.

An emic description or analysis—that is, an insider’s or native’s meaningful account— may be written for outsiders but portrays a culture and its meanings as the insider under- stands it. As Charles Frake (1964) has pointed out, such a model may incorrectly predict the actual behavior of the people whose culture it describes and still be valid—so long as the native member of that culture is equally surprised by the error. Clifford Geertz (1926– 2006) was a symbolic anthropology whose work exemplifies the emic approach. He argued that the anthropologist should strive to interpret the “native’s point of view” by under- standing the distinct terms, experiences, and symbolic systems that matter to the people whom the anthropologist is studying (Geertz 1973, p. 58).

This distinction between an insider’s and an out- sider’s perspective is, of course, irrelevant in a field such as physics or chemistry, as the things those scientists study have no viewpoint of their own to be explained. So, although ways of life can be studied from the viewpoint of an outside observer, just as one can study the behavior of planets or chemicals, cultural anthropologists also have the option of pursuing the humanistic goal of explaining a way of life as those who live by it explain it. In doing so, they make this way of life more easily understood by people for whom the culture being explained would otherwise seem alien and strange. For this reason, cultural anthropologists who write emic studies of other cultures have been seen as cultural translators, similar to translators of languages.

The difference between using cross-culturally useful categories and categories that are mean- ingful from the point of view of the culture being described can be illustrated by my own research of Mormon religious culture. A typical Mor- mon worship meeting begins with a hymn and a prayer followed by “Ward Business.” The first two of these three regular activities would read-

ily be acknowledged by those present if they were to be referred to by an anthropologist with the cross-culturally useful label of “rituals.” However, the third—”Ward Business”— is more problematic. It involves members of the congregation showing their assent to

Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock An etic description of culture attempts to describe it in a way that is meaningful to people outside of that culture. Conversely, an emic analysis describes culture in a way that is significant for those inside the culture.

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CHAPTER 1Section 1.1 The Breadth of Anthropology

changes in who will fill positions (such as “Sunday School teacher”) by a show of hands by members of the congregation, which members themselves sometimes refer to as a “vote.” However, dissent in this “voting” process is a rare occurrence, and it is clearly not a polling of the members that is intended to determine the majority position. The univer- sal (or near universal) show of hands is so routine that an anthropologist, using etic termi- nology, might simply refer to this process as a “ritual” in the Mormon worship service. In my experience however, Mormons themselves typically find that term does not represent their own way of thinking about the process. For them, the word “ritual” seems better suited to their overt acts of worship, such as the group prayer and hymn singing. And the common usage of Mormon idiom itself—”Ward Business” and “voting”—both have a more secular connotation than does the word “ritual.” So while an etic discussion of Mor- mon worship services might apply the word “ritual” to this part of the meeting because of its highly predictable interplay between the leader who is conducting the services and the members of the congregation, an emic discussion would restrict the word “ritual” to the more worship-oriented parts of the meeting. In passing, my own use of the words “congregation” and “worship service” are themselves etic terms because the equivalent Mormon words would be “Ward” and “Sacrament Service” (although English-speaking Mormons would certainly recognize my terms from their common use by members of other religious denominations).

The Holistic Perspective In studying culture, using either a scientific or a humanistic approach, cultural anthro- pologists take a broader perspective than do other disciplines that study human behavior and social life. This broader perspective is a form of “systems theory,” which emphasizes how each cultural trait influences and is influenced by other parts of a culture, or, simi- larly, how a culture influences and is influenced by its natural environment. That is, cul- tural anthropologists treated cultures as systems rather than just a collection of customs and beliefs. This emphasis on the interconnectedness of the parts of a culture is referred to as holism. Holism is an approach to explaining how each part of a way of life interre- lates with other parts of that way of life. For instance, an anthropologist who is interested in human economic life is likely to study how the economic customs of a society interact with that society’s physical environment, political system, religious customs, family pat- terns, or even its artistic endeavors. Holism is all about tying diverse parts of a way of life into a comprehensive system.

The Cultural Ecology of Tsembaga Maring Rituals

One approach to cultural anthropology is known as cultural ecology. Its holistic approach focuses on the adjustment of ways of life to different habitats. It is assumed that culture is an adaptive mecha- nism, and that those customs that improve a society’s ability to adapt to its environment are most likely to survive over time. Anthropologist Julian Steward (1955) proposed a model for the study of cultural ecology as a method for discovering the origin of cultural traits that are specific to particular environments. Although he contrasted this with the use of an ecological perspective to discover general laws of biological or social adaptation to any cultural or environmental situation, the general idea of adaptation is shared by all ecological perspectives. Given the similar concern for adaptation


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CHAPTER 1Section 1.1 The Breadth of Anthropology

Breadth in Time and Space In addition to being more holistic than other fields, anthropology tends to be broader in the sources of information that it collects and analyzes. For instance, instead of basing their insights solely on the study of European and North American societies, anthropolo- gists study people in all parts of the world in both simple and complex societies. Thus, examples in this text will be drawn from societies as diverse as the Ituri forest pygmies, the Great Basin Shoshone, and the pastoral Bedouin of Jordan.

In addition to studying people in different places, anthropologists also study different temporal periods to learn as much as possible about societies of the distant past, as well

The Cultural Ecology of Tsembaga Maring Rituals (continued)

to environments that biologists apply to evolution, it is not surprising that cultural ecologists such as Andrew Vayda and Roy Rappaport (1968) have included the interaction of both culture and biol- ogy in their description of single adaptive systems. Thus, cultural ecologists view culture as part of a larger system that includes the natural environment and its interaction with human and animal populations and human customs.

Rappaport’s (1967, 1968) analysis of the Tsembaga Maring people of New Guinea has become a classic illustration of the cultural ecological approach. The Tsembaga were tropical forest horticul- turalists who grew taro, yams, sweet potatoes, and manioc, and raised pigs. The root crops were a daily staple for the Tsembaga diet, but pigs were eaten only in ceremonial events that formed part of a longer cycle of warfare and peace between neighboring villages. When the size of the herds was small, the pigs were easy to care for. They foraged for themselves during the day, and their rooting in the gardens actually aided in the cultivation of the soil.

As the herds grew, however, increasing proportions of garden crops were expended on feeding pigs. Finally, after a period of about 11 years, the costs of maintaining the herds became so great that the adult pigs began to be slaughtered in ceremonies that marked the beginning of a period of warfare between neighboring villages. The fighting continued for a period of weeks until one of the villages was routed. Its survivors abandoned their homes and sought refuge with their kin in other villages. At the end of each war, the major ceremonial slaughter of pigs occurred, as the winners gave thanks to their ancestors for their victory and rewarded with gifts of meat the allies who had helped. The size of the herds returned to manageable numbers, and a truce remained in effect between the victors and the vanquished until the herds had once again grown large enough that they had to be culled.

Rappaport believed that the Tsembaga pig ceremonies supported the long-term balance between the human population and the food supply. Alliances were more easily formed by villages that could demonstrate their ability to support herds large enough to attract supporters, who then would be rewarded during the pig slaughter ceremonies. So, the Tsembaga were motivated not to cull their herds as a source of protein throughout the year. Since the ceremonial slaughter was an integral part of the warfare process, conflicts between villages happened only periodically in a cycle that pre- vented human population growth from overtaxing the available land resources, and that geographi- cally redistributed those who survived, while their garden plots returned to nature and regenerated.

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CHAPTER 1Section 1.2 The History of Cultural Anthropology

as about life in contemporary societies. The artifacts—that is, material things made by human beings—and fossil remains of ancient peoples are studied for clues to how people lived in the past in the hope that the knowledge gained will help us understand how we became what we are today.

1.2 The History of Cultural Anthropology

Cultural anthropology had its roots in the 18th-century Enlightenment era and later became a formal discipline in 19th-century Victorian times, when the primary focus of the field was how cultures evolved from simple foraging beginnings to the com- plex social institutions that industrialization was making possible in the Victorian period. This was the period during which the role of religion in determining the curriculum was replaced by a science and research-oriented curriculum. And it was in this period that the first professorships in anthropology were established.

The Evolutionary Period In the 18th century, Enlightenment philosophers began to consider the establishment of a science of human society. In contrast with the religiously based ways of thinking about the world’s human societies, Enlightenment scholars laid the foundations for an approach based on empirical knowledge and the application of the scientific method to a study of human social life. The discipline of anthropology arose in this context.

New shipbuilding techniques in the 1500s launched a period of commercial expansion- ism that culminated in the establishment of a worldwide network of trade as European nations established colonies in resource-rich places throughout the world. Europeans’ contact with the distant and seemingly exotic places that they came to dominate both politically and economically gave rise to a new perception of their own dominance in the world hierarchy they had established. Out of the contrast that Europeans saw between their own industrialized, urban societies and smaller-scale foraging, gardening, and non- industrialized agricultural societies grew the idea that cultures had evolved from simple beginnings to more complex civilizations. This concept of cultural evolutionism became the dominant view among Enlightenment scholars.

Later, in the 19th century, archaeology also provided support for the idea that ways of life had evolved over time. Excavation of the remains of prehistoric human groups showed that earlier human societies used simpler tools and lived in smaller, less sedentary com- munities than later human societies. Cultural anthropologists of this era readily adopted the Victorian emphasis on science, and their dominant concern became the question of how cultures or cultural institutions (such as politics, economics, family life, or religion) had evolved. For instance, in 1871 Sir Edward Burnett Tylor published Primitive Culture, in which he developed a theory of the evolution of religion and discussed the concept of survivals, remnants of earlier social customs and ideas that could be used as evidence for reconstructing the evolutionary past of societies. In 1883, Tylor became the first anthro- pologist to hold a position at a university and to gain respect as a professional scientist. Anthropology as a professional field of study was born.

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CHAPTER 1Section 1.2 The History of Cultural Anthropology

In 1877 an American contemporary of Tylor, Lewis Henry Morgan, published another strong argument for the evolution of culture, Ancient Society, a book that remains influ- ential (though highly disputed) to this day. Morgan contended that societies evolved through a series of three stages—Savagery, Barbarism, and Civilization—and that con- temporary “primitive” societies represented vestiges or remnants of precivilized ways of life. Morgan applied the term Savagery to the stage of cultural evolution at which people survived on wild foods alone. Barbarism arose when humans invented pottery and began to domesticate plants and animals; Civilization was the product of the invention of writ- ing, urbanization, and the shift from kinship to class systems as the organizing principle of human groups. His argument that all societies eventually progress through these three stages was later refuted by anthropologists in the 20th century.

The anthropologists of the Victorian era attempted to move beyond reliance on earlier social philosophers by integrating the new knowledge about non-European societies that colonialism had brought to Europe. But, at this time, anthropologists were largely orga- nizers of information and knowledge that they had not produced themselves. In attempt- ing to create a science of culture, they had to rely on information that came from nonpro- fessional sources such as colonial administrators, missionaries, and those who carried out the trade in those foreign areas. In short, the base of information they had to work with was often tainted by a tendency of those who described non-European cultures to portray them as strange, exotic, and “uncivilized.”

The Empiricist Period American anthropology developed its own distinctive flavor at the beginning of the 20th century under the leadership of Franz Boas. Boas reacted strongly against the theories of the cultural evolutionists who preceded him. Although research of the world’s vari- ous societies carried out by anthropologists was not completely absent from the work of previous anthropologists, their speculative models tended to rely on secondhand infor- mation. Boas particularly criticized them for “armchair theorizing”—building grandiose theories based on speculation rather than on actual firsthand research.

Originally trained in physics (receiving his doctorate in 1881), Boas brought to the field of anthropology a scientific emphasis on empiricism. Boas was an empiricist who viewed science as a discipline dedicated to the recording of fact. In this vein, he taught his stu- dents that the careful collection of accurate information about other ways of life was as important as the building of theory. During his career, Boas published over 700 articles dealing with topics as diverse as changes in the bodily form of descendants of Ameri- can immigrants, Native American mythology, geography, and the relationships between language and thought. Boas stressed the importance of firsthand research by …