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( rough lecture transcript, not for publication)
E20 Lecture 1 Jan 31, 2002
This first lecture will deal with some general questions about the nature of anthropology as a discipline and a little of its history, the various sub fields of anthropology (of which this course in cultural anthropology is just one) and if we have time some general and enduring problems which arise when one group of human beings try to figure out what is going on with other groups of human beings (or themselves, for that matter).
When I tell people I am an anthropologist, probably the most common query is " Have you been on any digs lately"? " Find any dinosaurs or old bones?" And my reply is that I am not a digging anthropologist, although I have done it when I was a student. And anthropology has nothing to do with dinosaurs.
The way I formerly finessed this question is to say that I am sort of a male Margaret Mead, but many students today have never heard of Margaret Mead. She died over 20 years ago and we need her insights more than ever today.
But if the questioner has heard of Mead, I say that I do (more or less) what she is known for doing: going off to the islands and living with the natives. Trying to understand what we call their culture ("way of life")" and then trying to write about it in ways that might some sense to a reader in our culture.
Although many if not most cultural anthropologists today do research in complex modern societies and cities or with peasants with one foot in the so called global economy, and today not very many go to islands or remote cultural outposts populated by "tribes" in far parts of the globe (there aren’t too many of those left). It is perfectly possible to do ethnographic (which is research aimed as describing another way of life as fully as needed) among specialized cultural worlds in our own society, such as medical students, or large corporations, or heroin users, or "bag ladies", or whatever.
But the discipline of cultural anthropology is still I think very much tied to those halcyon ideal days of working with presumably isolated "primitive" tribes in some distant outpost. [All this is highly relative : the idea of any culture being "primitive" or "isolated" is something we will have to examine in this course].
A little bit about myself. As kid my
Dad would take me to the Chicago Natural History Museum. I was usually more
interested in the anthropology exhibits than beetles or stuffed polar
bears. I spent a high school summer junior
year in a Mexican village in Morelos. I had some interests in biology
and toyed for a while about being
a physician and like a lot of adolescents I had fantasies about being a
musician. I enjoyed travel, foreign
languages, and writing and anthropology seemed to beckon. I began serious study at
Then went off to do field
work. My interests by this time had drifted to
I spent over two and a half years
on a rather remote island in the southern
The discipline of anthropology as
practiced in the
Actually, there is a good bit of sense to it all, but the unity of the whole field is probably more intelligible to anthropologists themselves than to outsiders.
Etymologically, of course, anthropology means "the study of man", but that does not tell you much. There are obviously any number of other disciplines which would also claim to be doing the same thing.
The term anthropology in
Like everything else in culture (and the study of anthropology is part of our culture) some of this makes logical sense, and some of it only makes sense if you understand its history. When the pie of knowledge was being carved up in the middle of the 19th century, and the university came to begin to look like what it looks like today with different departments of this and that, the organization of academic disciplines was based on a logic which might have seemed more reasonable at the time than it does now.
[Example: prehistoric archaeology is usually thought of as part of anthropology. But the archaeology of the classical urban civilizations of Mesopotamia, Rome, Greece, Egypt, China, etc, are often separate disciplines -- except, the classical civilizations of Meso- America and Peru which are usually studied within anthropology—a lot of this is just a question of who got there first, and academic territory]
Anthropology in Relation to Other Human Sciences
In saying that anthropology is literally " the study of man", we do not mean that it pretentiously tries to do everything at once. Other disciplines do have specialized tasks, which are only approximated in anthropology itself.
One important characteristic of anthropology is basic: it is firmly in the “natural history” tradition . The “natural historian” looks at the natural world as it is in itself with no (or very little) experimentation, or manipulation of the data as it is
The major differences between anthropology
and the other human disciplines lie in the initial assumptions they make about human
beings. Many other social scientists might
characterize what they do somewhat differently, but in general:
-- man is a choice making animal in a context of scarcity.
"Economizing" behavior assumes scare means to achieve certain fixed
ends. Most economists concentrate on ‘economizing" behavior within
so-called modern capitalist societies. Economists like to think they are the
most prestigious of the social sciences because they are more precise and
scientific ( I doubt it), but it is more likely the result of the fact that in
advanced capitalist (and socialist) societies the "economy" tends to
cannibalize everything it touches. Economists tend to be asked for their
opinions on things considered important to us, and they are often listened to.
2. Psychology -- man as sentient
emotional conscious animal, who like all animals engages in something called “behavior”. Psychology is not generally a part of natural
history and it
certain is more experimental.
3. Sociology - man as social
animal, interacting with others in social groups. Sociology and cultural
anthropology have a lot in common, and many of the early pioneers made
contributions to both fields. Sociologists
are far more focused on contemporary western society, and are usually less
comparative than anthropologists, but there are many exceptions.
4. Political science -- man as an
animal interested in domination of others, that is, power and all its
ramifications, and the complex specialized institutions which have emerged
to deal with power, especially in so-called “modern” societies.
5. History -- man as animal in the
grips of past events, located in time.
6. Geography -- man as animal located in space, both in relation to actual physical environment, but also other groups. (Geography, like anthropology and psychology is both a natural science and a social science)
7. Linguistics -- man as a language using animal
Anthropology does not really start off by defining man as anything in particular, other than he is an animal with the capacity for culture, or more correctly, an animal whose biology literally requires that he invent and sustain a good part of his own environment, that is, culture.
Culture can perhaps best be
initially defined as " the man made part of the environment."
And insofar as anthropologists have a definition of "man" or "humans" (homo sapiens sapiens) it would be "Man is a speaking ,language using, symbol making, social animal interacting with his fellows within a framework of standards of conduct learned from (and shared with) others.”
[A related point here: remember
that "other" means also one’s own self insofar as one can be an other
to oneself (ever had an argument with yourself, talked to yourself, criticized
yourself from the point of view of someone else?). Human beings have
"selves". But I want to be very clear what I mean by this. I mean
only that humans have the capacity to step outside themselves and act toward
themselves as if they were the "other". We can look at ourselves from
the perspective of others, evaluate and judge our own conduct as if we were
judging others, take the perspective and role of others, sympathize with them,
etc. This fact, simple and banal as it may appear, has enormous consequences
for understanding human conduct. Now it used to be thought that humans were the
only animal that could do this, but it now appears that most of our higher
primate cousins (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas,
orangutans, and perhaps some others) are capable of a definite, if rudimentary,
self-awareness of the sort we have. Suffice it to say at this point that the
capacity for self awareness among humans is made much more complicated and
interesting by the presence of fully developed speech based language and other
kinds of symbolism.
The Sub Fields of Anthropology:
Physical or biological anthropology
Cultural or social anthropology
l. "Man is an animal" -- physical anthropology. Physical anthropology has a number of sub specialties itself: human paleontology ( the study of fossil men and the evolution of man), comparative primatology ( comparison of man with his nearest evolutionary "relatives" monkeys and apes (chimps, bonobos, orangutans, gorillas, gibbons), including the study of primate social behavior), and studies of human races. Actually, racial anthropology is of far less importance now than it was fifty years ago, mainly because the concept of "race" itself no longer has much scientific relevance, although it continues as an important idea in our culture. “Race” today is pretty much studied within the context of population genetics -- variations in the gene pool within and between more or less discreet populations.
A word on “Race”
When I was a kid my father used to
take me to the Chicago Natural History Museum, where the had something called
the "Hall of Mankind" where there were these hundred or so huge
magnificent bronze sculptures representing various diverse races and sub races,
and sub-sub races: Nilotic Negroes, from East Africa,
Chinese, Malays, Pygmies, Nordic Europeans, Dinaric
Europeans, Australian aborigines, Native Americans of all sort, Polynesians,
and so forth. And one was left with the impression that these represented fixed
and immutable types of human beings ( they have since
updated this exhibit).
There is no question that there are physical differences between different populations of humans, but the problem is whether it is sensible to lump certain characteristics together and call them a "race", when there is no reason to suppose that the characteristics really "belong" together. The older notion of race also tended to emphasize certain characteristics and ignore others. Humans are what has been called a "free ranging species" -- that is, we move around a lot and there is lots of inbreeding between populations through time so it is very hard, indeed impossible, to identify fixed types which do not shade into other types, as biological entities.
[However, "race" as a
social and cultural category is a different matter. In the
Let us take an apparently silly and trivial example (silly and trivial examples are often useful to make a point). Why should skin color, height, presence or absence of an eye fold, shape of the head, hair type, eye color, nose shape, jaw prominence, etc. be taken as important racial traits, while type of earwax is ignored? Why not classify mankind into two races: the "dry crumbly earwax" people, and the "soft, wet, earwax people".(Among Chinese .98 have dry earwax, among American whites the figure is .16 and among blacks it is .06) In fact, of course, skin color is taken as the preeminently important "racial" characteristic for mainly social reasons which have little to do with biology. Skin color is easily identified at a distance, while ear wax is not.
Additional example: another
difference between populations which is easy to ignore for social reasons was
the differences in the odoriferous compounds secreted by the apocrine glands in the skin. Among whites these are mainly
in the armpits and genitals, among blacks in abdomen and chest, and Orientals
scarcely at all. Europeans are quite odoriferous, and N. Europeans (Germans and
other so called "Nordics" ) are really among
the smelliest of all humans. In
So much for
2. "Man is a symbol making
animal with the capacity for vocal speech" -- anthropological linguistics.
Linguistics is also a separate discipline in many places in the
3. "Man is a social animal
interacting with his fellows within an idiom of culture"- socio-cultural
Having mentioned race, language, and culture, it is important to remember that these concepts a hundred years ago were often very muddled and mixed up, not only among ordinary folk but even among respected academics. At the beginning of the century many, if not most, respected scientists and the public saw the human species as divided into a number of identifiable fixed races, each of which possessed distinctive cultures and were associated with related languages. Furthermore, these race-language-culture units were ranked along some scale of superiority and inferiority, advanced and primitive, complex and simple, etc. And guess who was on top?
Sometime around 1910 or so a well known English biologist (Francis Galton) made the "discovery" that the inferior races were outbreeding the superior ones. What to do?
Well this ultimately led to a
movement called "eugenics" in the
[Aside: A dirty little secret
about Adolph Hitler: much of the ideology of the Nazi movement about race
purification was based on American sources. Early Nazis actually looked to the
Anyway, many American anthropologists, particularly the founding father of American anthropology, Franz Boas, were in the forefront of disproving this naïve association of race, language and culture as causally interconnected. Now it is certainly true that at any particular time a certain racial type might be associated with a particular culture and a particular language—but this was an historical accident, a coincidence. Go back a few hundred years and things were often different, or go forward another hundred years and things might be different again. Boas and his many students demonstrated this by meticulous studies of the great diversity of American Indians, in which you find many distinct racial types having the same or similar cultures, or peoples with very diverse languages sharing very similar cultures, or peoples with the same language having very different cultures, and so on.
Now all of this may strike you
today as pretty obvious and banal, but I cannot overestimate how muddled the
concepts of race, language and culture were just one hundred years ago. (And to
some extent still are – the 1990 Census classified people as (
if I remember correctly) as White, Black, Hispanic, Asian and Pacific
islander, Native American, or Eskimo-Aleut. This is really mixing apples and
oranges as it were - race, language, ethic identity and place of origin. Which
box do you check if you are a dark skinned Puerto Rican born in
One other offshoot of this
race-language-culture mix-up as it developed in the late 19th and
early 20th centuries was the subtle idea that the obvious place for
exhibiting the material artifacts and art of the "lesser" races was
to be in the newly emerging natural history museums. Now museums had been
around since before the civil war, but as mixed bags of
"curiosities", some genuine and some fake, run by P.T Barnum types.
At the end of the 19th century, a more scientifically oriented and
better funded natural history museum appeared (
If you enter the
Upstairs last time I was there
(they may have since changed it) there was a room devoted to Japanese culture,
including a compete tea ceremony room with artifacts.
But right in the next rooms you found scenes with stuffed animals, and dinosaur
bones, and collections of rocks. One wonders what a Japanese tourist might have
thought of all this? Imagine an American going to
Of course, if we were building all
the museums from scratch again today, I suspect that we would put all those
totem poles and carved masks in a proper art museum, but that isn’t the way
they were thinking a hundred years ago -- it apparently seemed sensible that
stuff made by inferior natural people (in German the term was naturrvolken) belong in natural history museums, and
stuff made by civilized people belonged elsewhere. But most of the early American
anthropologists, particularly Boas and his students were in the forefront of
confronting and criticizing these notions.
Back to Cultural Anthropology
The essence of method in socio-cultural anthropology is the experience of fieldwork : going off and living with the natives as it were, both participating in their culture (as much as possible or as much as they will let you) and at the same time maintaining the objective stance of the observer. This is usually called “participant observation. “
The fieldwork experience is at bottom an experience of being a stranger in the fullest sense of the word. A stranger is a person who is both near and far at the same time: physically near, often emotionally near, but nonetheless not fully a part of the group and therefore in some deep sense far from the group in social distance.
Living in another culture which is radically different from your own is a bit like being a baby all over again, but unlike a baby you do have some basis for interpreting what you see and hear going on. The problem is that initially it is almost always wrong. Gradually, of course, you begin to get it right.
What makes a good ethnographic fieldworker? Hard to say. Certainly one important characteristic in my opinion is the capacity to tolerate ambiguity, particularly in interpersonal situations (Fieldwork is probably not to be recommended for the obsessive-compulsive or the overly anxious). I’ve seen Peace Corp volunteers who were so traumatized by culture shock (constantly having to deal with situations you simply do not understand) that they literally became physically ill with extreme depression.
Anthropologists doing fieldwork in
an alien culture are the prototypical strangers: in but not of the culture they
are living in. But there are also problems of readjustment when the
anthropologist comes back, because having had the experience of trying to live
in another culture in some real sense he remains a stranger in his own. Reverse
culture shock: the process or readjusting to one's own culture.
Q: Is there is difference between what sociologists do, and anthropological approaches?
A: That is a good question. There is a lot of overlap and there are many ethnographically oriented sociologists. There is sometimes more reliance on formal methods of research such as using questionnaires and the like. Cultural anthropologists rarely use questionnaires except for very specific purposes. Certainly a questionnaire rarely tells you anything really interesting without being supplemented by some serious participant observation.
Questionnaire methods, which are often used by pollsters and sociologists, thus present some problems, Not that they do not have their use in some circumstances.
Example: Say we are interested in doing a little ethnographic study of the lives and world of what we might call "urban foragers" -- those (presumably) homeless persons who scavenge for returnable bottles in people’s trash. There is a cultural world out there which in many significant respects is very different from ours. We could spend the rest of the hour trying to design a questionnaire designed to elicit information which we might think is important: is there a "community" of scavengers? Where do they meet? Do they divide up territories? How? How does one decide which neighborhoods to hit? What are the risks – the police, angry householders, gangs, etc? How does one decide what bag is likely to yield a good "harvest"? How do you optimize results given a finite amount of time? Is there a trading system for redemption("I’ll give you my ten Heinekens for your nine Cokes")? Do people enjoy the activity for its own sake or would they rather be doing something else? We could go on and on trying to anticipate the kinds of things which might be meaningful to ask. We then design our questionnaire and every member of the class finds one "urban forager’ and administers the questionnaire. We then compare results. Perhaps some of the information would be interesting, but I would predict that the really interesting stuff would be missed by such a method. The only way to do it, it seems to me, is to go out and hang with the people, follow them around, participate in their lives as best one can, ask the occasional question, and hopefully, slowly, a perspective on their world would emerge.
The Comparative method
Well, we have briefly talked about
these various subfields of anthropology.
The common thread in all these activities is that anthropology is always
a comparative study: that is everything is understood in some relation to the
range of variability which the phenomenon presents itself. In a word (perhaps
paradoxically) anthropology attempts to study things not only in terms of what
they are but also in terms of what they are not. In cultural anthropology, this
means that study is always conducted in a cross-cultural framework.
The idea in this regard is that by analyzing the social practices, customs, values, ideas, norms, etc (all of which are usually just called culture by anthropologists) which are radically different from our own we will gain two kinds of knowledge: l) a greater understanding of our own culture in the context of the range of human variability of which it is only on example, and 2) some general perspective on humanity as a whole.
Ruth Benedict ( one of the students of Boas) used to talk about the "great arc of human variability" - the idea being that one cannot understand any part of the arc without some appreciation of the whole.
Example: If the only religions we knew about were our own (Christianity for most of you) and say, Buddhism and Islam, we would have a rather distorted view of the possibilities available to the human religious imagination. For, although those three religions are quite different, in fact when viewed from the perspective of all human religious variability, they are quite similar. Similarity and difference, therefore, are relative to your point of comparison, and that is the reason anthropologists want to explore the total range of human variability as keenly as they can. For example, all these religions have some idea of what happens to the individual personality after death. Many religions do, but there are a few that do not, and this fact is important, because it tells us that belief in a life after death is not intrinsically a human characteristic. Also, all these religions are "salvation" religions : the present life is miserable and stinks, but salvation will come in the afterlife when everything will be just fine. Of the hundreds of traditional religions known to anthropology, this is just one possible belief in a very big range of diversity.
The main task of cultural anthropology is to account for and explain the range of variability in social and cultural forms taking the greatest range of data available. Anthropologists often seem to be fascinated by what appear to us to be bizarre and weird customs. And for good reason. Whenever a premature or overhasty generalization is made by someone about supposed immutable characteristics of human nature, the classic reply of the anthropologists is” But not among the Bingo-Bango”.
Now this comparative perspective which seemingly emphasizes the apparently bizarre and weird can easily lead the unwary to assume that anthropologists argue that there are no limits to human variability. This is nonsense. One of the tasks of understanding the "great arc of variability" as it were is to understand just where the limits are.
[ Note on word "primitive": Because of
European belief in idea of progress, primitive has come to be a derogatory word
implying a backward state or lack of development. Many anthropologists do not
like to use the word for this reason. When anthropologists do use the word it
is usually in the context of "simple". Now actually, it is much
easier to use the word in relation to technology than say religion. We can say
that a digging stick is a simple tool as compared with a computer, but can we
say that the Crow Indian idea of a personal guardian spirit is a "simple"
religious idea as compared with the idea of virgin birth? ]
Most anthropologists prefer the terms small scale, or non-literate (if applicable) when talking of so called primitive societies.
Next week we will talk more fully about just what ethnographic fieldwork involves and see a film about the original research done in the Trobriands by Malinowski.
To anticipate, one of the most basic problems of good field research involves what might be called "the translation of untranslatable words".
The ethnographer always discovers that a proper understanding of what is going on among the "natives" involves figuring out the meaning of certain crucial words (or phrases or metaphors) which embody very complex and subtle ideas, and which seem to constantly pop up in conversation. The Tausug use the word sipug to talk about all sorts of weighty matters. My first tentative translation of sipug was "shame" – and that is not wrong- but certainly incomplete. It is a very subtle concept which permeates just about everything they do. There is no English equivalent – hence "the translation of untranslatable words" is always a problem. Try for example to explain the word "freedom" in American culture as used in everyday conversation, by politicians, by newscasters, etc., in a way that might make sense to a peasant from Bangladesh.
Anyway, read this charming and perceptive little piece by Howard Becker "How I Learned What a Crock Was". Becker studied medical students and in the course of his “hanging out” he noticed they often used the word “crock” to refer to some patients -- this was an observation which absolutely could not have been discovered by a questionnaire. He then tried to tease out the various complex meanings of the term as it was used in that social world. http://www.soc.ucsb.edu/faculty/hbecker/crocks.html
Also, for the next couple weeks work through chapters 1-3 of the Haviland text. There is also a set of study questions for the Haviland text.