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.

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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 "questions."


The Concept of Culture   (the first 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 conceptualization of and for a world, all of which is understood as reality," their stories of themselves.   Let me outline some of its key features:

  1. 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 Juggling and outline

    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.

  2. 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)
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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)
  6. 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 
  7. 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
  8. 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 holistic approach.

Anthropology seeks out and integrates the knowledge of its "Four Sub-fields."  e.g., The Kingdom of Blind Men and the Elephants

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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."
  4. 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.  

  1. Initiation of the Project:   Where do you begin?  The importance of "collaboration" and asking the right questions.
  2. 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 the "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.
  3. Participant Observation: How do you gain an understanding of another culture?  One key method involves use of "participant-observations."  It was a formal technique pioneered by Franz Boas (1852-1942) and Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942).   It entails 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.    Some of the advantages include:
  4. 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.
  5. Sampling: Who do you interview?   The use of the "snowball" technique.
  6. Archival: In addition to "live," first-hand" techniques, ethnographers use written records and documents.   Archival materials allow access to an "historic context."
  7. 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."  Discussion on the techniques for "constructing" and "interpreting" cultural "texts" can also be found at Eye Juggling: Interpreting a TextNote: 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 Eden Interpretation.
    1. As a text, describe the event, activity, ceremony, art form, conversation, etc., in great detail - "thick description."
    2. Isolate the key symbols (words, actions, visual expressions) of that text.
    3. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. You will be able to enhance your skills in critical, interpretative, and reflective thinking.
  4. 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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