Cultural anthropology is one of four or five fields of anthropology (the holistic study of humanity). It is the branch of anthropology that examines culture as a meaningful scientific concept.
Cultural anthropologists study cultural variation among humans, collecting data about the impact of global economic and political processes on local cultural realities. Anthropologists use a variety of methods, including participant observation, interviews, and surveys. Their research is often called fieldwork because it involves the anthropologist spending an extended period of time at the research location, called a field site. These stays usually last one year during graduate studies, but can be as short as a few weeks, or as long as a lifetime
One of the earliest articulations of the anthropological meaning of the term “culture” came from Sir Edward Tylor who writes on the first page of his 1897 book: “Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” The term “civilization” later gave way to definitions by V. Gordon Childe, with culture forming an umbrella term and civilization becoming a particular kind of culture.
The anthropological concept of “culture” reflects in part a reaction against earlier Western discourses based on an opposition between “culture” and “nature“, according to which some human beings lived in a “state of nature”. Anthropologists have argued that culture is “human nature,” and that all people have a capacity to classify experiences, encode classifications symbolically (i.e. in language), and teach such abstractions to others.
Since humans acquire culture through the learning processes of enculturation and socialization, people living in different places or different circumstances develop different cultures. Anthropologists have also pointed out that through culture people can adapt to their environment in non-genetic ways, so people living in different environments will often have different cultures. Much of anthropological theory has originated in an appreciation of and interest in the tension between the local (particular cultures) and the global (a universal human nature, or the web of connections between people in distinct places/circumstances).
The rise of cultural anthropology occurred within the context of the late 19th century, when questions regarding which cultures were “primitive” and which were “civilized” occupied the minds of not only Marx and Freud, but many others. Colonialism and its processes increasingly brought European thinkers in contact, directly or indirectly with “primitive others.” The relative status of various humans, some of whom had modern advanced cultures that included engines and telegraphs, while others lacked anything but face-to-face communication techniques and still lived a Paleolithic lifestyle, was of interest to the first generation of cultural anthropologists.
Parallel with the rise of cultural anthropology in the United States, social anthropology, in which sociality is the central concept and which focuses on the study of social statuses and roles, groups, institutions, and the relations among them, developed as an academic discipline in Britain. An umbrella term socio-cultural anthropology makes reference to both cultural and social anthropology traditions.
 A brief history
Modern cultural anthropology has its origins in, and developed in reaction to, 19th century “ethnology“, which involves the organized comparison of human societies. Scholars like E.B. Tylor and J.G. Frazer in England worked mostly with materials collected by others – usually missionaries, traders, explorers, or colonial officials – this earned them their current sobriquet of “arm-chair anthropologists”.
Ethnologists had a special interest in why people living in different parts of the world often had similar beliefs and practices. In addressing this question, ethnologists in the 19th century divided into two schools of thought. Some, like Grafton Elliot Smith, argued that different groups must somehow have learned from one another, however indirectly; in other words, they argued that cultural traits spread from one place to another, or “diffused”.
Other ethnologists argued that different groups had the capability of creating similar beliefs and practices independently. Some of those who advocated “independent invention”, like Lewis Henry Morgan, additionally supposed that similarities meant that different groups had passed through the same stages of cultural evolution (See also classical social evolutionism). Morgan, in particular, acknowledged that certain forms of society and culture could not possibly have arisen before others. For example, industrial farming could not have been invented before simple farming, and metallurgy could not have developed without previous non-smelting processes involving metals (such as simple ground collection or mining). Morgan, like other 19th century social evolutionists, believed there was a more or less orderly progression from the primitive to the civilized.
20th-century anthropologists largely reject the notion that all human societies must pass through the same stages in the same order, on the grounds that such a notion does not fit the empirical facts. Some 20th-century ethnologists, like Julian Steward, have instead argued that such similarities reflected similar adaptations to similar environments (see cultural evolution).
Others, such as Claude Lévi-Strauss (who was influenced both by American cultural anthropology and by French Durkheimian sociology), have argued that apparently similar patterns of development reflect fundamental similarities in the structure of human thought (see structuralism). By the mid-20th century, the number of examples of people skipping stages, such as going from hunter-gatherers to post-industrial service occupations in one generation, were so numerous that 19th-century evolutionism was effectively disproved.
In the 20th century, most cultural (and social) anthropologists turned to the crafting of ethnographies. An ethnography is a piece of writing about a people, at a particular place and time. Typically, the anthropologist lives among people in another society for a considerable period of time, simultaneously participating in and observing the social and cultural life of the group.
Numerous other ethnographic techniques have resulted in ethnographic writing or details being preserved, as cultural anthropologists also curate materials, spend long hours in libraries, churches and schools poring over records, investigate graveyards, and decipher ancient scripts. A typical ethnography will also include information about physical geography, climate and habitat. It is meant to be a holistic piece of writing about the people in question, and today often includes the longest possible timeline of past events that the ethnographer can obtain through primary and secondary research.
Bronisław Malinowski (who conducted fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands and taught in England) developed this method, and Franz Boas (who conducted fieldwork in Baffin Island and taught in the United States) promoted it. Boas’s students drew on his conception of culture and cultural relativism to develop cultural anthropology in the United States. Simultaneously, Malinowski and A.R. Radcliffe Brown´s students were developing social anthropology in the United Kingdom. Whereas cultural anthropology focused on symbols and values, social anthropology focused on social groups and institutions. Today socio-cultural anthropologists attend to all these elements.
Although 19th-century ethnologists saw “diffusion” and “independent invention” as mutually exclusive and competing theories, most ethnographers quickly reached a consensus that both processes occur, and that both can plausibly account for cross-cultural similarities. But these ethnographers also pointed out the superficiality of many such similarities. They noted that even traits that spread through diffusion often were given different meanings and function from one society to another.
Accordingly, these anthropologists showed less interest in comparing cultures, generalizing about human nature, or discovering universal laws of cultural development, than in understanding particular cultures in those cultures’ own terms. Such ethnographers and their students promoted the idea of “cultural relativism“, the view that one can only understand another person’s beliefs and behaviors in the context of the culture in which he or she lived or lives.
In the early 20th century, socio-cultural anthropology developed in different forms in Europe and in the United States. European “social anthropologists” focused on observed social behaviors and on “social structure”, that is, on relationships among social roles (e.g. husband and wife, or parent and child) and social institutions (e.g. religion, economy, and politics).
American “cultural anthropologists” focused on the ways people expressed their view of themselves and their world, especially in symbolic forms, such as art and myths. These two approaches frequently converged and generally complemented one another. For example, kinship and leadership function both as symbolic systems and as social institutions. Today almost all socio-cultural anthropologists refer to the work of both sets of predecessors, and have an equal interest in what people do and in what people say.
Ethnography dominates socio-cultural anthropology. Nevertheless, many contemporary socio-cultural anthropologists have rejected earlier models of ethnography as treating local cultures as bounded and isolated. These anthropologists continue to concern themselves with the distinct ways people in different locales experience and understand their lives, but they often argue that one cannot understand these particular ways of life solely from a local perspective; they instead combine a focus on the local with an effort to grasp larger political, economic, and cultural frameworks that impact local lived realities. Notable proponents of this approach include Arjun Appadurai, James Clifford, George Marcus, Sidney Mintz, Michael Taussig and Eric Wolf.
A growing trend in anthropological research and analysis is the use of multi-sited ethnography, discussed in George Marcus’s article, “Ethnography In/Of the World System: the Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography”]. Looking at culture as embedded in macro-constructions of a global social order, multi-sited ethnography uses traditional methodology in various locations both spatially and temporally. Through this methodology, greater insight can be gained when examining the impact of world-systems on local and global communities.
Also emerging in multi-sited ethnography are greater interdisciplinary approaches to fieldwork, bringing in methods from cultural studies, media studies, science and technology studies, and others. In multi-sited ethnography, research tracks a subject across spatial and temporal boundaries. For example, a multi-sited ethnography may follow a “thing,” such as a particular commodity, as it is transported through the networks of global capitalism.
Multi-sited ethnography may also follow ethnic groups in diaspora, stories or rumours that appear in multiple locations and in multiple time periods, metaphors that appear in multiple ethnographic locations, or the biographies of individual people or groups as they move through space and time. It may also follow conflicts that transcend boundaries. An example of multi-sited ethnography is Nancy Scheper-Hughes‘s work on the international black market for the trade of human organs. In this research, she follows organs as they are transferred through various legal and illegal networks of capitalism, as well as the rumours and urban legends that circulate in impoverished communities about child kidnapping and organ theft.
Sociocultural anthropologists have increasingly turned their investigative eye on to “Western” culture. For example, Philippe Bourgois won the Margaret Mead Award in 1997 for In Search of Respect, a study of the entrepreneurs in a Harlem crack-den. Also growing more popular are ethnographies of professional communities, such as laboratory researchers, Wall Street investors, law firms, or information technology (IT) computer employees
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