Anthropological Theory


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.

The way you frame the questions asked in the quest to understand the human experience will inevitably influence the answers you come up with. Knowing your "theory," the hows and whys of the particular framing of the questions asked, is thus an essential prerequisite in the study of the human condition. In other words, know what "baggage" you bring with you on your travels. Once you are aware of it, discard that which is inappropriate and wear that which best allows you to transverse the ridges and valleys. Use your "theory" to assist you, not blind you, in revealing the meaning of the cultural landscape you are about to travel.

Margaret Mead

Go to the following theories:

  1. Evolutionist

  2. Diffusionist

  3. Pyscholanalytic

  4. Historical-Particularism

  5. Functionalist (societal)

  6. Functionalist (individual)

  7. Structuralist

  8. Interpretivist

  9. Contructivist

Nature of Theories

What is "theory?" The following three points were in part stimulated by the important book by Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, second edition, 1970.

  1. "Theory" is itself a construction about "reality," i.e., agreed upon by those who are participating in that discipline, a consensus view. The theories we are going to review are "anthropological constructions of reality."

  2. As a construction, "theory" is based upon: a) the current intellectual climate and style - the belief and orientations of those who construct the theories, as well as b) a reaction to or continuation of prior models, theories, or paradigms - attempting to strengthen or challenge them as fallacious. A theory is based upon the particular history within that discipline.

  3. As an abstract model or paradigm, a "theory" is necessarily not the reality of that which it seeks to represent. "Theory" is not the reality itself. To assume such would be to commit the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness."

These three points are fundamentally premised on a "positivist" epistemology. The "post-modern" perspectives of the "Interpretivists" and "Constructivists" will alter the premise that dichotomizes the relationship between "theory" and "reality."

KEY: With regard to the various theories discussed, ask yourself were you fit, what sorts of questions make sense to you and why do they make sense? What are the problems and shortcomings of each theory? And what is your own theory?

As each of these theories addresses a broad spectrum of anthropological topics, issues and concerns, this particular outline will only focus on how each frames questions revolving around "religion," "mythology," and "world view," topics that we will deal with initially in this course.


    Edward Tylor
  1. Evolutionist - exemplified by Edward Tylor (1832 - 1917). Tylor was a Quaker, with no formal university training, who traveled Mexico from 1855-56, began publishing his theories in 1871. In 1896 became the first professor of new field of anthropology at Oxford University. He asked two basic questions: What was the earliest forms of religion, i.e., the origins religion and why are there other forms of religion present, i.e., why is there diversity? Key points:

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  2. Diffusionist - as exemplified by Wilhelm Schmidt (1868 - 1954). Though he did not conduct field work himself, Schmidt was responsible for the field work training of a large number of Catholic missionaries. The culmination of his research was the 12 volume (each volume some 800-900 pages) Origins of the Idea of God, 1908-1930s. Like Tylor, Schmidt asked two basic questions: What was the earliest form of religion - origins? and, why are other forms of religion present - diversity? But he came up with opposite conclusions, based on an entirely different mechanism for culture change. Key points:

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  3. Sigmund Freud
  4. Psychoanalytical - as exemplified by Sigmund Freud (1856 - 1939) (not an anthropologist per se, but heavily influenced them). "A brilliant Jewish atheist" whose major source of field work were his well-to-do neurotics of a puritan, sexually repressed, urban middle-class Vienna patients. Freud refocused the discussion and level of analysis away from society to the individual and innate psychological struggles that in turn become manifested in society. He asked, how do we mediate and control our basic psychological instincts, which can be selfish and destructive? Key points:

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  5. Franz Boas
  6. Historical-Particularism - as exemplified by Franz Boas (1858 - 1942) German-born and educated in physics, his doctorate was on the color of ocean water in the arctic, which brought him to Central Eskimo and later the northwest coastal Indians. Boas' scientific training would help focus his research on the empirical details of ethnography. Unlike previous theorists, Boas reacted against the "grandiose armchair theories and theorist," many of whom were overtly racist in nature. He challenged the "comparative method," "psychic unity," "universal laws," "environmental, geographic or economic determinism," "prime movers" as causes of culture change, i.e., no nomothetic laws. And Boas stressed the need for solid, intensive and long-term field work, i.e., ground research in a particular history and its description. With this emphasis, Boas was responsible for training a large following of ethnographers, including Kroeber, Lowie, Spier, Wissler, Mead, Radin, Bunzel, Sapir, Benedict, Herskovits, Hoebel, and is thus considered the "Father of American Anthropology." Main point:

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  7. Emile Durkheim
  8. Functionalist (societal focus - sometimes termed "structural functionalist") - as exemplified by Emile Durkheim (1858 - 1917) and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881 - 1955) No single individual has had greater impact on the social sciences and anthropology than Durkheim. Born into long line of French rabbis and educated in Old Testament and Hebrew studies, he never-the-less became an agnostic. Durkheim tried University life but dropped out, only finally to return and graduate second from the bottom. But by the 1890s, he had established himself, by publishing such monumental works as Division of Labor in Society (1893) and Suicide (1897) and Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1915). He also experienced tremendous tragedy - World War I. All his students, except one killed, but including his own brilliant son, were killed. The "war to end all wars" wiped out one of the most promising classes of intellectual minds. Durkheim never recovered, dying at age 59. But his legacy would not die, continued among such British Anthropologists as Radcliffe-Brown, Fortes, Nadel, and later American anthropologists such as Redfield, Eggan, Tax and Nash.

    Durkheim's fundamental questions revolved around: what keeps society together? What maintains social solidarity? How does the individual support society? He refocused the discussion from the psychology and "superego"- the interior - to the exterior - social solidarity. Key points:

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  9. Bronislaw Malinowski
  10. Functionalist (individual focus) - as exemplified by Bronislaw Malinowski (1884 - 1942) (often grouped along with structural-functionalist) Malinowski was noted for his field work among the Trobriand Islanders, the research of which appeared in such classic works as Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1961). Question asked: like Durkheim, concern for how things function and not temporally ordered or their origins, but turned question around - how does society support the individual? And specifically, what reduces an individual's anxiety of the uncertain? Key points:

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  11. Claude Levi-Strauss
  12. Structuralist - as exemplified by Claude Levi-Strauss (1908 - ) One of the leading and most respected intellectuals of our age, extensively published: Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949), Totemism (1963), The Savage Mind (1966) The Raw and the Cooked (1969), The Story of Lynx (1995). For Levi-Strauss, his basic questions revolved around: what are the human patterns of thought that bring order to world? And how does man deal with chaos? Main points:

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  13. Clifford Geertz
  14. Interpretivist - as exemplified by Clifford Geertz (1926 - 2006) Among his most important works are The Religion of Java (1960) and The Interpretation of Cultures (1973). Geertz asks: what does "religion" mean for the participants of a particular religion? And how do I best access that meaning and accurately present it? Main points:

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  16. Constructivist - as exemplified by James Clifford (1945 - ) Among his important works are The Predicament of Culture (1988) and with George Marcus Writing Culture (1986). Questions asked: (perhaps taking a cue from the cultures studied and premise that we create the worlds we participate in - "model for"), what is "reality"? how do we come to know and describe another culture, especially given the participatory role of the anthropologist and reader of the finished text? Key points:

Each theoretical paradigm offers, given the particular questions it poses, a distinct way to approach and understand the human experience. Having just surveyed each and thus with a better appreciation of your own theoretical orientation, you are now ready to travel and explore the diverse landscape of human cultural expression and offer your own interpretations of its meanings and significances.

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