An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology

Studying people and cultures around the world

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Cultural anthropology, also known as sociocultural anthropology, is the study of cultures around the world. It is one of four subfields of the academic discipline of anthropology. While anthropology is the study of human diversity, cultural anthropology focuses on cultural systems, beliefs, practices, and expressions.

Did You Know?

Cultural anthropology is one of the four subfields of anthropology. The other subfields are archaeology, physical (or biological) anthropology, and linguistic anthropology.

Areas of Study and Research Questions

Cultural anthropologists use anthropological theories and methods to study culture. They study a wide variety of topics, including identity, religion, kinship, art, race, gender, class, immigration, diaspora, sexuality, globalization, social movements, and many more. Regardless of their specific topic of study, however, cultural anthropologists focus on patterns and systems of belief, social organization, and cultural practice.

Some of the research questions considered by cultural anthropologists include:

  • How do different cultures understand universal aspects of the human experience, and how are these understandings expressed?
  • How do understandings of gender, race, sexuality, and disability vary across cultural groups?
  • What cultural phenomena emerge when different groups come into contact, such as through migration and globalization?
  • How do systems of kinship and family vary among different cultures?
  • How do various groups distinguish between taboo practices and mainstream norms?
  • How do different cultures use ritual to mark transitions and life stages?

History and Key Figures

Cultural anthropology’s roots date back to the 1800s, when early scholars like Lewis Henry Morgan and Edward Tylor became interested in the comparative study of cultural systems. This generation drew on the theories of Charles Darwin, attempting to apply his concept of evolution to human culture. They were later dismissed as so-called “armchair anthropologists,” since they based their ideas on data collected by others and did not personally engage first-hand with the groups they claimed to study.

These ideas were later refuted by Franz Boas, who is widely hailed as the father of anthropology in the U.S. Boas strongly denounced the armchair anthropologists’ belief in cultural evolution, arguing instead that all cultures had to be considered on their own terms and not as part of a progress model. An expert in the indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest, where he participated in expeditions, he taught what would become the first generation of American anthropologists as a professor at Columbia University. His students included Margaret Mead, Alfred Kroeber, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ruth Benedict.

Boas’ influence continues in cultural anthropology’s focus on race and, more broadly, identity as forces that are social constructed and not biologically based. Boas fought staunchly against the ideas of scientific racism that were popular in his day, such as phrenology and eugenics. Instead, he attributed differences between racial and ethnic groups to social factors.

After Boas, anthropology departments became the norm in U.S. colleges and universities, and cultural anthropology was a central aspect of study. Students of Boas went on to establish anthropology departments across the country, including Melville Herskovits, who launched the program at Northwestern University, and Alfred Kroeber, the first professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley. Margaret Mead went on to become internationally famous, both as an anthropologist and scholar. The field grew in popularity in the U.S. and elsewhere, giving way to new generations of highly influential anthropologists like Claude Lévi-Strauss and Clifford Geertz.

Together, these early leaders in cultural anthropology helped solidify a discipline focused explicitly on the comparative study of world cultures. Their work was animated by a commitment to true understanding of different systems of beliefs, practice, and social organization. As a field of scholarship, anthropology was committed to the concept of cultural relativism, which held that all cultures were fundamentally equal and simply needed to be analyzed according to their own norms and values.

The main professional organization for cultural anthropologists in North America is the Society for Cultural Anthropology, which publishes the journal Cultural Anthropology.

Methods

Ethnographic research, also known as ethnography, is the primary method used by cultural anthropologists. The hallmark component of ethnography is participant observation, an approach often attributed to Bronislaw Malinowski. Malinowski was one of the most influential early anthropologists, and he pre-dated Boas and the early American anthropologists of the 20th century.

For Malinowski, the anthropologist’s task is to focus on the details of everyday life. This necessitated living within the community being studied—known as the fieldsite—and fully immersing oneself in the local context, culture, and practices. According to Malinowski, the anthropologist gains data by both participating and observing, hence the term participant observation. Malinowski formulated this methodology during his early research in the Trobriand Islands and continued to develop and implement it throughout his career. The methods were subsequently adopted by Boas and, later, Boas’ students. This methodology became one of the defining characteristics of contemporary cultural anthropology.

Contemporary Issues in Cultural Anthropology

While the traditional image of cultural anthropologists involves researchers studying remote communities in faraway lands, the reality is far more varied. Cultural anthropologists in the twenty-first century conduct research in all types of settings, and can potentially work anywhere that humans live. Some even specialize in digital (or online) worlds, adapting ethnographic methods for today’s virtual domains. Anthropologists conduct fieldwork all around the world, some even in their home countries.

Many cultural anthropologists remain committed to the discipline’s history of examining power, inequality, and social organization. Contemporary research topics include the influence of historical patterns of migration and colonialism on cultural expression (e.g. art or music) and the role of art in challenging the status quo and effecting social change.

Where Do Cultural Anthropologists Work?

Cultural anthropologists are trained to examine patterns in daily life, which is a useful skill in a wide range of professions. Accordingly, cultural anthropologists work in a variety of fields. Some are researchers and professors in universities, whether in anthropology departments or other disciplines like ethnic studies, women’s studies, disability studies, or social work. Others work in technology companies, where there is an increasing demand for experts in the field of user experience research.

Additional common possibilities for anthropologists include nonprofits, market research, consulting, or government jobs. With broad training in qualitative methods and data analysis, cultural anthropologists bring a unique and diverse skill set to a variety of fields.

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