Anthropology and Its Characteristics
The following materials are key presentation points developed by the instructor during
class lectures. They are not a substitute for student participation in the class lectures,
but a highlighting of the pertinent items considered.
Distinguishing Characteristics of Anthropology
Every human society, each and everyone of us, has certain endemic "unresolved
issues." In the very fact that we possess such questions helps
define our nature as human beings, as there are no other species or beings in existence
that are so burdened - (why we are left with these unanswered questions perhaps relates to
the first set of questions posed). We are a species driven by
- These essential questions include: origins (what did we come
about, the nature of the transformation from one state of being into another, often framed
in terms of "evolution" or "creation"- and as characterized in every
origin account, the transformation is still in process and not completed, the answers to
the essential questions still forthcoming), epistemology (how we come to know and
understand our state of being, our reality, framed in terms of literal, metaphoric and
anagogic approaches), ontology (what is the nature of our being, of reality it self
- what is real - relating to such issues as "time," "space,"
"causation," and "truth"), and entailed within this last question are
a whole series of additional key questions, including, aesthetics (what is beauty),
ecology (what is a relationship with the environment), religion (what is
spirit and divine), love and hate (why are we compassionate toward some humans
while capable of killing others), determinism (do we have free will and choice, as
if so, how do we assume responsibility for our actions), ethics (how are we to
define right from wrong), and power (how do we go about organizing and governing
ourselves given our ecological and ethical codes of conduct).
- The asking and attempting to resolve the various essential questions are interwoven with
each other, forming a relatively consistent pattern, or culture (cosmology
understanding the universe as a whole), expressed in our many and varied
stories of ourselves.
- How a people go about asking and attempting to answer these essential questions defines
the nature of reality for them and subsequently the construction of their reality,
the stories we tell one another.
- Reality is a construction, and is as variable as there are differing ways of asking and
attempting to resolve the essential questions there are multiple realities (reality
is not absolute and given).
- Ultimately, anthropology is the study of how human societies, in a myriad of ways,
throughout time and from all reaches of this planet, have gone about asking these
questions and, in turn, constructing their worlds. It is about
appreciating the varied stories we tell one another. And it is about
how we can take what we know of ourselves and apply to help improve the
human condition and wel-being.
The Concept of Culture (the
distinguishing characteristic -- anthropologist study culture)
The way a people ask and attempt to resolve the various essential questions are
interwoven with each other, forming a relatively consistent pattern, or what is called, "culture."
How a people go about asking and answering, go about doing their culture,
defines the nature of reality for them.
The "culture" of a people is the primary focus of anthropological inquiry.
The construct, "culture," has many definitions and applications.
(See theories) For our purposes, it is defined
as "a system of symbols and their underlying values that provides an experiential and affective
of and for a world, all of which is understood as reality,"
their stories of themselves. Let me outline some of
its key features:
- Symbols - Symbols can be defined as "something that stands for something
else" - which entails elements of: displacement, meaning attached to referent,
transmitted and learned, arbitrary, creative. Symbols liberate humans, that is, us, from
the constraints imposed by the immediate physical reality and allows us to live in a world
of our own fabrication, i.e., the world of culture. See Eye
Possessing an ability to symbolize is generally considered an uniquely human characteristic and
endeavor, a defining attribute, but there are plenty of exceptions to the rule, e.g., chimpanzee
studies, symbolic behaviors exhibited both in
the wild and while learning artificial languages.
- Symbols are patterned and organized into a sort of "grammar," a
"model." As such, culture is both a model of the world (world view) -
explains, interprets, a road map, laying out the territory, and a model for the world
(ethos or values) - guides our behavior, makes choices, establishes motivations, a map
suggesting best roads to take, but also creates new paths to travel.
As such, culture is ideational, not an object, possessing physical
attributes. (See Clifford Geertz)
- Yet culture is as an octopus, disjointed and multifaceted, with ad hoc
"agreements" constantly being negotiated among its players and ultimately
without a singular and systematic pattern, a "model of and for orderly chaos."
e.g., the Rodeo and Medicine Man
- Nevertheless, culture is holistic. Typically, each of its component parts, while
discrete, has some semblance of integration with the others, and as one component is
altered, all other parts are affected, e.g., as family structures change, so too do
economic and political patterns. e.g., Yir Yurant Steel Axes
- Culture is a construction, having its very existence at that moment
of intersection and interaction of those participating. For
example, a "culture scene" could be composed of an assemblage of ritual
participants, each bringing his or her own collection of symbolic
meanings to the interaction, and the cultural scene would thus be changing
given the composition of those assembled. But in addition, that
"cultural scene" could and, if recorded ethnographically, would
necessarily include the anthropologist observing the scene, as well
as the varied audiences of readers who might engage the ethnographic
description of the cultural scene. Each participant - indigenous,
anthropologist and audience - is thus contributing to the construction,
the creation, of culture at each and every moment of
intersection. As such "culture" is an on-going, dynamic process,
and not a fixed object. (See James Clifford)
- And as a construction, given the assemblage of participants, there are
multiple ways of asking and attempting to answer the perennial questions,
resulting in multiple realities, the many and varied ways we tell our
stories of ourselves. The human condition is one of cultural
diversity, rather than cultural uniformity. e.g., Mardu
Aborigines, Balinese, Egyptian peasants, and Euro-American Idahoans
- And given this rich cultural diversity, the job of the ethnographer is to
attempt to seek an emic perspective, i.e., an insider's point of
view, striving to obtain cultural relativism and avoid ethnocentrism.
e.g., Ashanti Golden Stool - "sunsum" and the
Christmas Gift to the Kalahari Kung
- As analytical constructs, "culture" and "society" are not the
mirror reflections of each other. "Culture" represents the symbolic models of
and for "society." "Society," on the other hand, represents the
manifested, behavioral expressions of a people. As such, "culture" is the
primary influence on what we do and become, our actions, our "society, but it is not
the only influence on what we express. Other influences can include "charismatic
leaders," "legal enactment's," climatic changes, and political, economic or
military domination by another society. e.g., Truk Residence Rules
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Holistic Approach (the second distinguishing
characteristic -- anthropologist study culture holistically)
In the anthropological search to understand culture, anthropologists attempt to study
of what it means to be "human" in its most comprehensive and inclusive
expressions - historically, biologically, linguistically, and culturally. It is the study
of all peoples of the past and of the contemporary. The term "anthropology" is
from the Greek word, anthropos, meaning "human" and logia, meaning
"knowledge," i.e, the study and knowledge of humanity. Anthropology is a
Anthropology seeks out and integrates the knowledge of its "Four Sub-fields."
e.g., The Kingdom of Blind Men and the Elephants
- Archaeology, which is the study of the past culture and remains of orality-based
traditions (peoples without written records), known as "prehistoric
archaeology," as well as the study of past cultures with written traditions, known as
"historic archaeology." Archaeologists cooperate with a wide range of
specialists, such as geologists, biologists, and historians.
- Physical Anthropology, which studies human origins and the evolutionary record,
as well as primatology, biological variation, population biology and genetics, forensic
anthropology, study of disease and medical anthropology - epidemiology.
- Linguistics, which studies the structure of languages, known as "descriptive
linguistics," as well as the history of languages - "historical
linguistics." Linguistics also seeks to understand the relation to culture and
thought - "ethnolinguistics."
- Cultural Anthropology
and Ethnography, which studies such topics as kinship, religion, folklore,
political organization, economic and ecological patterns, psychological, urban,
educational, and change thorough time. " Ethnology" is a broad-based comparative
analysis of many cultures, while "ethnography" is an in-depth study of a single
culture. Many cultural anthropologists seek to assist client communities in the face of
various economic, educational, environmental, and health-related challenges, their work
known as "applied anthropology." Focus of this course.
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Field Work (the third distinguishing
characteristic -- anthropologist conduct their studies through direct field work)
Anthropology involves direct and long-term engagement in the lives of those we seek to
understand, whether it be by archaeologists, as they study those who had lived long ago
or ethnographers, as they work among those who are now living. How anthropologists
seek to understand the human experience is as varied as is the human experience itself.
The following outlines but one ethnographic approach. For an
introduction to the anthropological field work approach, see the story of the Tin Shed.
- Initiation of the Project: Where do you begin? The importance of
"collaboration" and asking the right questions.
- Ethical Issues: What are some of the ethical issues associated with researching
and conveying someone else's culture? Issues of "informed consent,"
"permissions," and confidentiality. Key is the Review
Process. Successful ethnographic research projects depend on
"collaborative" involvement with the people who you seek to represent to the
general public. As part of the interpretative process itself, your interviewees need to
participate in the "construction" and review of the "text" at each
phase of its construction, and, most importantly, during and at its "final"
form. Role and importance of Cultural and Intellectual Property
Rights, and community sovereign status. For an example of a Tribal
Review Process and a Cultural
Property Rights agreement.
- Participant Observation: How do you gain an understanding of another culture? One
key method involves use of "participant-observations." It was a
pioneered by Franz Boas (1852-1942) and Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942).
active participation in the events, daily lives and special ceremonials, with an eye on
observing the detail and meaning and then recording the event. It is essential that
"rapport" is established - personal involvement and commitment,
"trust" and "no hidden agenda." One must also learn the local
"language," be it from casual greetings to the entire language itself.
the advantages include:
- gaining an emic view - "insiders doing their thing,"
- revealing more about what people actually do, not just what they'd like to think they do
- ideal vs. actual,
- gaining better access to the rich symbolism and meanings of the cultural events of
people's lives, meanings not always well articulated in the words of interviewees.
- Interviewing: In addition to "participant-observation," ethnographers
use the techniques of semi-structured and unstructured
interviewing. Interviewing allows
you to better record the "stories" of those you seek to understand, in their own
words. You should approach as interview as if you are an "infant," using
"open-ended" questions and the "silent probe," being an "active
listener, and having a "good" tape recorder.
- Sampling: Who do you interview? The use of the "snowball" technique.
- Archival: In addition to "live," first-hand" techniques,
ethnographers use written records and documents. Archival materials allow access to an
- Culture as "text:" As you are gathering information about another
people, how do you go about interpreting its meaning? The information you are gathering
from your observations and interviews is understood as a "text."
the techniques for "constructing" and "interpreting" cultural
"texts" can also be found at Eye
a Text. Note: This discussion is also critical to and should be applied in
fulfilling your second assignment for this course - the "participatory-interpretative
papers." For an outline of the Eye
Juggling Interpretative method and three examples of an interpretation: a. the
Eagle Text and Interpretation, b. Burnt
Face Text and Burnt Face Interpretation,
and c. Genesis Text
and Garden of
- As a text, describe the event, activity, ceremony, art form, conversation, etc., in
great detail - "thick description."
- Isolate the key symbols (words, actions, visual expressions) of that text.
- As indicated by those symbols and the larger cultural context, interpret the underlying
cultural values of the text.
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Multiply Theories (the fourth distinguishing
characteristic -- there are as many ways to study and understand culture,
i.e., theories, as their are ways culture can be constructed in the human experience)
Refer to Theories of Anthropology and their Antecedents
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Purposes of Anthropology
(the fifth distinguishing characteristic -- anthropology seeks to
understand the human conditions throughout time and in the contemporary, and
apply that knowledge to improve the human condition)
During our journey through this course and into anthropology, contrasting ways of
defining humanity and relating to the world will be pursued -
"Tribal-traditional" and "Euro-American" cultural orientations. The
contradistinction of these two orientations will facilitate the primary purposes of this
course and of anthropology. The grand purposes of the anthropological
discipline also correspond with the particular learning
outcomes of this course.
- You will be better able to understand, appreciate and have respect for cultural
diversity, the cultural values of others, facilitating inter-cultural communications and cooperation.
- By juxtaposing what maybe distinct along side what is often veiled, your own cultural values will
can more easily reveal what is closer to home, allowing you to take
greater ownership of your own actions.
- You will be able to enhance your skills in critical, interpretative,
and reflective thinking.
- You will be in a better position to assist others and apply the lessons learned from
anthropology in the service of others - applied or action anthropology. Examples
of such include: forensic anthropology, epidemiology (study of causes of
epidemics and diseases in societies), artifact and burial repatriation,
cultural resource management, and various ethnographic applications.
e.g., Delivery of Health Care to the Crow, Employability of the Unemployed, Environmental
Damage and Reclamation for the Coeur d'Alene
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