Anthropology, the study of humanity seen from the perspective of social and cultural diversity, was established as an academic discipline in the mid-nineteenth century. At the time, broad, evolutionist perspectives were predominant, but would be eclipsed in the early twentieth century by the cultural relativism introduced by Franz Boas and the fieldwork revolution championed by Bronislaw Malinowski. During the twentieth century, anthropology became a diverse pursuit ranging from intensive functionalist studies of small-scale societies to ambitious modeling of the human mind, interpretive approaches and ecological accounts. Toward the end of the century, Marxist, feminist, and postcolonial critiques led to a heightened sensitivity toward methodological and ethical issues, and a major preoccupation in the early twenty-first century has consisted in accounting for the impact of globalization on local communities. In this intensely interconnected world, where formerly influential theoretical paradigms have collapsed, anthropology remains committed to comparison and ethnographic fieldwork, applying methods initially developed to study tribal society to research on complex societies.
Early attempts at accounting for cultural variation and human universals, the subject matter of anthropology, include ancient Greek geography and history, Renaissance and early modern travelogues, and philosophical treatises from the European Enlightenment. They fell short of being scientific because of inherent bias, lack of theoretical sophistication, and, frequently, poor empirical material. In the nineteenth century, theorists such as Henry Lewis Morgan, Henry Maine, and Edward Tylor developed ambitious evolutionist theories of culture, implying a hierarchical view of cultures. Modern anthropology emerged in the early decades of the twentieth century, when a new generation of scholars, notably Franz Boas, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, Bronislaw Malinowski, and Marcel Mauss, rejected evolutionism replacing it with cultural relativism, also refining research methodologies and methods of comparison. In the decades following World War II, new approaches such as structuralism, cultural ecology, and neo- Marxism appeared, and anthropology grew and diversified, branching into various specializations including psychological and medical anthropology, eventually moving increasingly toward the study of modern phenomena such as nationalism and consumption, yet retaining its commitment to the intensive, fieldwork-based study of social life in local settings.
Social or cultural anthropology can be defined, loosely and broadly, as the comparative science of culture and society, and it is the only major discipline in the social sciences that has concentrated most of its attention on non-Western people. Although many of the classic problems investigated by anthropologists are familiar to the European history of ideas, the subject as it is known today emerged only in the early twentieth century, became institutionalized at universities in the Western world in midcentury, and underwent a phenomenal growth and diversification in the latter half of the century.
Foundations and Early Schools
Interest in cultural variation and human universals can be found as far back in history as the Greek city-state. The historian Herodotos (fifth century BC) wrote accounts of ‘barbarian’ peoples to the east and north of the peninsula, comparing their customs and beliefs to those of Athens, and the group of philosophers known as the Sophists were perhaps the first philosophical relativists, arguing (as many twentieth-century anthropologists later did) that there can be no absolute truth because, as one would put it today, truth is contextual. Yet their interest in cultural variation fell short of being scientific, chiefly because Herodotos lacked theory while the Sophists lacked empirical material.
Centuries later, scholarly interest in cultural variation and human nature reemerged in Europe because of the new intellectual freedom of the Renaissance and questions arising from European overseas exploits. Michel de Montaigne (sixteenth century), Thomas Hobbes (seventeenth century), and Giambattista Vico (eighteenth century) were among the thinkers of the early modern era who tried to account for cultural variability and global cultural history as well as dealing with the challenge from relativism. Eighteenth-century philosophers such as Locke, Hume, Kant, Montesquieu, and Rousseau developed theories of human nature, moral philosophies, and social theories, taking into account an awareness of cultural differences. The early German romantic Herder challenged Voltaire’s universalistic vision by arguing that each people (Volk) had a right to retaining its own, unique values and customs – in a manner reminiscent of later cultural relativism romanticism. Indeed, by the end of the eighteenth century, several of the general questions still raised by anthropologists had already been raised: Universalism vs relativism (what is common to humanity; what is culturally specific), ethnocentrism vs cultural relativism (moral judgments vs neutral descriptions of other peoples), and humanity vs the rest of the animal kingdom (culture vs nature). Twentieth- century anthropology has taught that these and other essentially philosophical problems are best investigated through the detailed study of living people in existing societies through ethnographic fieldwork, and by applying carefully devised methods of comparison to the bewildering variety of ‘customs and beliefs.’ It would take several generations after Montesquieu’s comparative musings about Persia and France, in his Lettres persanes, before anthropology achieved this mark of scientific endeavor.
The first general theories of cultural variation to enjoy a lasting influence were arguably those of two men trained as lawyers: Henry Maine (1822–88) in Britain and Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–82) in the United States. Both presented evolutionist models of variation and change, where Western European societies were seen as the pinnacle of human development. In his Ancient Law (1861), Maine distinguished between status and contract societies, a divide which corresponds roughly to later dichotomies between traditional and modern societies, or, in the late nineteenth-century German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies’ terminology, Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society); status societies are assumed to operate on the basis of kinship and myth, while individual merit and achievement are decisive in contract societies. Although simple contrasts of this kind have regularly been severely criticized, they continue to exert a certain influence on anthropological thinking.
Morgan’s contributions to anthropology were wide ranging and, among other things, he wrote a detailed ethnography of the Iroquois. His evolutionary scheme, presented in Ancient Society (1877), which influenced Marx and Engels, distinguished between seven stages (from lower savagery to civilization). His materialist account of cultural change influenced Marx and Engels. His pioneering work on kinship divided kinship systems into a limited number of types, and saw kinship terminology as a key to understanding society. Writing in the same period, the historian of religion Robertson Smith and the lawyer J.J. Bachofen offered, respectively, theories of monotheistic religion and of the (wrongly assumed) historical transition from matriliny to patriliny.
An untypical scholar in the otherwise evolutionist Victorian era, the German ethnologist Adolf Bastian (1826–1905) reacted against simplistic typological schemata. Drawing inspiration from Herderian romanticism and the humanistic tradition in German academia, Bastian wrote prolifically on cultural history, avoiding unwarranted generalizations, yet he held that all humans have the same pattern of thinking, thus anticipating structuralism.
The leading British anthropologist of the late Victorian era was Edward Tylor (1832–1917), whose writings include a famous definition of culture (dating from 1871), seeing it as the sum total of collective human achievements (thus contrasting it to nature). Tylor’s student James Frazer (1854–1941) published the massive and very influential Golden Bough (1890, rev. ed. 1911–15), an ambitious comparative study of myth and religion.
Intellectual developments outside anthropology in the second half of the nineteenth century also had a powerful impact. Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, first presented in his Origin of Species from 1859, would both be seen as a condition for anthropology (positing that all humans are closely related) and, later, as a threat to it (arguing the primacy of the biological over the cultural). The emergence of classic sociological theory in the works of Comte, Marx, and Tönnies, and later Durkheim, Weber, Pareto, and Simmel, provided anthropologists with general theories of society, although their applicability to non-European societies continues to be disputed.
The quality of the data used by the early anthropologists was variable. Most of them relied on written sources, ranging from missionaries’ accounts to travelogues of varying accuracy. The need for more reliable data began to make itself felt. Expeditions and systematic surveys now provided researchers around the turn of the twentieth century with improved knowledge of cultural variation, which eventually led to the downfall of the ambitious theories of unilineal evolution characteristic of nineteenth-century anthropology.
An Austro-German specialty proposed both as an alternative and a complement to evolutionist thinking was diffusionism, the doctrine of the historical diffusion of cultural traits. Never a part of the mainstream outside of the Germanspeaking world, elaborate theories of cultural diffusion continued to thrive, particularly in Berlin and Vienna, until after World War II (Gingrich, 2005). As there were serious problems of verification associated with the theory, it was condemned as speculative by anthropologists committed to fieldwork and, furthermore, research priorities were to shift from general cultural history to intensive studies of particular societies.
In spite of theoretical developments and methodological refinements, the emergence of anthropology, as the discipline is known today, is rightly associated with four scholars working in three countries in the early decades of the twentieth century: Franz Boas in the United States, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown and Bronislaw Malinowski in the United Kingdom, and Marcel Mauss in France.
Boas and Cultural Relativism
Boas (1858–1942), a German migrant to the United States, who had briefly studied anthropology with Bastian, carried out research among Eskimos and Kwakiutl Indians in the 1890s. In his teaching and professional leadership, he strengthened the ‘four-field approach’ in American anthropology, which still sets it apart from European anthropology, including both cultural and social anthropology, physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics. Although cultural relativism had been introduced more than a century before, it was Boas who made it a central premise for anthropological research. Against the evolutionists, he argued that each culture had to be understood in its own terms and that it would be scientifically misleading to rank other cultures according to a Western, ethnocentric typology gauging ‘levels of development.’ Boas also promoted historical particularism, the view that all societies or cultures had a unique history that could not be reduced to a category in some universalistic scheme. On related grounds, Boas argued incessantly against the claims of racist views of human diversity.
Perhaps because of his particularism, Boas never systematized his ideas in a theoretical treatise. Several of his students and associates nevertheless did develop general theories of culture, notably Ruth Benedict, Alfred Kroeber, and Robert Lowie. His most famous student was Margaret Mead (1901– 78). Although her best-selling books on Pacific societies have been criticized for being superficial, she used material from non-Western societies to raise questions about gender relations, socialization, and politics in the West, and Mead’s work indicates the potential of cultural criticism inherent in the discipline.
One of Boas’ most remarkable associates, the linguist Edward Sapir (1884–1939), formulated, with his student Benjamin Lee Whorf, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, which posits that language determines cognition. Consistent with a radical cultural relativism, the hypothesis implies that, for example, the Hopi perceive the world in a fundamentally different way from Westerners, due to differences in the structure of their respective languages. A controversial perspective from the beginning, the hypothesis has nonetheless continued to be discussed in linguistics and linguistic anthropology.
The Two British Schools
While modern American anthropology had been shaped by the Boasians and their relativist concerns, as well as the perceived need to record native cultures before their anticipated disappearance, the situation in the major colonial power, Great Britain, was different. The degree of complicity between colonial agencies and anthropologists is debatable, but the very fact of imperialism was an inescapable premise for British anthropology until after World War II.
The man who is often hailed as the founder of modern British social anthropology was a Polish immigrant, Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942), whose fieldwork for over 2 years in the Trobriand Islands (1914–18) set a standard for ethnographic data collection that is still largely unchallenged. Malinowski argued the need to learn the local language properly and to engage in everyday life, in order to see the world from the actor’s point of view and to understand the interconnections between social institutions and cultural notions. Malinowski placed an unusual emphasis on the acting individual, seeing social structure not as a determinant of but as a framework for action, and he wrote about a wide range of topics, from garden magic, economics, and sex to the puzzling kula trade. Although he dealt with issues of general concern, he nearly always took his point of departure in his Trobriand ethnography, demonstrating a method of generalization very different from that of the previous generation with its scant local knowledge.
The other major British anthropologist of the time was A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881–1955). An admirer of Durkheim’s sociology, Radcliffe-Brown did relatively little fieldwork himself, but aimed at the development of a ‘natural science of society’ where universal laws of social life could be formulated. His theory, known as structural functionalism, saw the individual as unimportant, emphasizing instead the social institutions (kinship, norms, politics, etc.). Most social and cultural phenomena were seen as functional in the sense that they contributed to the maintenance of the overall social structure.
Despite their differences in emphasis, both British schools had a sociological concern in common (which they did not share with most Americans), and tended to see social institutions as functionally integrative. Both rejected the wide-ranging claims of diffusionism and evolutionism, and yet, the tension between structural explanations and actor-centered accounts remains strong in British anthropology even today.
Malinowski’s students included Raymond Firth, Audrey Richards, and Isaac Schapera, while Radcliffe-Brown, in addition to enlisting E.E. Evans-Pritchard and Meyer Fortes – arguably the most powerful British anthropologists in the 1950s – on his side, taught widely, and introduced structural functionalism to several foreign universities. British interwar anthropology was characteristically oriented toward kinship, politics, and economics, with Evans-Pritchard’s masterpiece The Nuer (1940) demonstrating the intellectual power of a discipline combining detailed ethnography, comparison, and elegant models. Later, his models would be criticized for being too elegant to fit the facts on the ground – a very Malinowskian objection.
No fieldwork-based anthropology developed in the Germanspeaking region, and German anthropology was marginalized after World War II. In France, the situation was different. Already in 1902, Durkheim had published, with his nephew Marcel Mauss (1872–1950), an important treatise on primitive classification; in 1908, Arnold van Gennep published Les Rites de Passage, an important analysis of initiation rites, and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl elucidated a theory, later refuted by both Evans- Pritchard, Mauss, and others, on the ‘primitive mind,’ which he held to be ‘prelogical.’ New empirical material of high quality was being produced by thorough observers such as Maurice Leenhardt in New Caledonia and Marcel Griaule in West Africa.
Less methodologically purist than the emerging British traditions and more philosophically adventurous than the Americans, interwar French anthropology, under the leadership of Mauss, developed a distinct flavor, witnessed in the influential journal L’Année Sociologique, founded by Durkheim and edited by Mauss after Durkheim’s death in 1917. Drawing on his vast knowledge of languages, cultural history, and ethnography, Mauss, who never did fieldwork himself, wrote several learned, original, compact essays ranging from gift exchange (Essai sur le Don, 1924) to the nation, the body, and the concept of the person. Mauss’ theoretical position was complex. He believed in systematic comparison and the existence of recurrent patterns in social life at all times and in all places, yet he often defended relativist views in his reasoning about similarities and differences between societies.
Not a prolific writer, Mauss exerted an enormous influence on later French anthropology through his teaching. Among his students and associates were most of the major French anthropologists at the time, and the three leading postwar scholars in the field – Louis Dumont, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Georges Balandier – were all deeply indebted to Mauss.
Some General Points
The transition from evolutionist theory and grand syntheses to more specific, detailed, and empirically founded work, in reality amounted to an intellectual revolution. The work of Tylor and Morgan had been relegated to the mists of history by the mid-twentieth century, and the discipline had been taken over by small groups of scholars who saw intensive fieldwork, cultural relativism, the study of single societies, and rigorous comparison as its essence. Today, the academic institutions, the conferences, and the learned journals all build on the anthropology of Boas, Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, and Mauss. This is to a great extent also true of the anthropological traditions of other countries (Vermeulen and Roldán, 1995), including India, Australia, Mexico, Argentina, the Netherlands, Spain, and Scandinavia. Soviet/Russian and East European anthropologies have followed different itineraries, retaining a connection with the German tradition, where Volkskunde (ethnology, studies of rural folk culture in one’s own society) was distinguished from Völkerkunde (literally the study of peoples, that is other cultures). In Russia, there had existed a rich tradition of empirically based anthropological research since the early nineteenth century, and twentieth century Soviet anthropology combined Völkerkunde and Marxist influence in original ways (see Eriksen and Nielsen, 2012), but there was little contact with the Western mainstream until the end of Communism (but see Gellner, 1980).
Anthropology in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century
The numbers of anthropologists and institutions devoted to teaching and research in the field grew rapidly after World War II. The discipline diversified. New specializations such as psychological anthropology, political anthropology, and the anthropology of ritual emerged, and the geographical foci of the discipline multiplied: whereas the Pacific had been the most fertile area for theoretical developments in the 1920s, and Africa had played a similar part in the 1930s and 1940s, while the preoccupation with North American Indians had been stable throughout, the 1950s saw a growing interest in the ‘hybrid’ societies of Latin America and the Caribbean as well as the anthropology of India and South-East Asia, and the New Guinean highlands became similarly important in the 1960s. Such shifts in spatial emphasis had consequences for theoretical developments, as each region posed its own peculiar problems.
From the 1950s, the end of colonialism also affected anthropology, both in a banal sense – it became more difficult to obtain research permits – and more profoundly, as the subject–object relationship between the observer and the observed became problematic as the traditionally ‘observed’ peoples increasingly had their own intellectuals and spokespersons who frequently objected to Western interpretations of their way of life.
The first major theory to emerge after World War II was Claude Lévi-Strauss’ structuralism. Lévi-Strauss (1908–2009) developed an original theory of the human mind, drawing on structural linguistics, Mauss’ theory of exchange, and Lévy- Bruhl’s theory of the primitive mind (which Lévi-Strauss opposed). His first major work, Les Structures Elémentaires de la Parenté (The Elementary Structures of Kinship, 1949), introduced a grammatical, formal way of thinking about kinship, with particular reference to systems of marriage (the exchange of women between groups). Lévi-Strauss later expanded his theory to cover totemism, myth, and art. Never uncontroversial, structuralism had an enormous impact on French intellectual life far beyond the confines of anthropology. In the English-speaking world, the reception of structuralism was delayed, as Lévi-Strauss’ major works were not translated until the 1960s, but he had his admirers and detractors from the beginning. Structuralism was criticized for being untestable, positing as it did certain unprovable and unfalsifiable properties of the human mind (most famously the propensity to think in terms of contrasts or binary oppositions), but many saw Lévi-Strauss’ work, ultimately committed to human universals, as an immense source of inspiration in the study of symbolic systems such as knowledge and myth.
A different, and for a long time less influential, brand of structuralism was developed by Louis Dumont (1911–99), an Indianist and Sanskrit scholar who did fieldwork both in the Aryan north and the Dravidian south. Dumont, closer to Durkheim than Lévi-Strauss, argued in his major work on the Indian caste system, Homo Hierarchicus (1969), for a holistic perspective (as opposed to an individualistic one), claiming that Indians (and by extension, many nonmodern peoples) saw themselves not as ‘free individuals’ but as actors irretrievably enmeshed in a web of commitments and social relations, which in the Indian case was clearly hierarchical.
Most later, major French anthropologists have been associated with Lévi-Strauss, Dumont, or Balandier, the Africanist whose work in political anthropology simultaneously bridged gaps between France and the Anglo-Saxon world and inspired both neo-Marxist research and applied anthropology devoted to development.
Reactions to Structural Functionalism
In Britain and her colonies, the structural functionalism now associated chiefly with Evans-Pritchard and Fortes was under pressure after the war. Indeed, Evans-Pritchard himself repudiated his former views in 1949, arguing that the search for ‘natural laws of society’ had been shown to be futile and that anthropology should fashion itself as a humanities discipline rather than a natural science. Retrospectively, this statement has often been quoted as marking a shift ‘from function to meaning’ in the discipline’s priorities; Kroeber expressed similar views in the United States. Others found other paths away from what was increasingly seen as a conceptual straitjacket. Edmund R. Leach, whose Political Systems of Highland Burma (1954), suggested a departure from functionalist orthodoxies, notably Radcliffe-Brown’s dictum that social systems tend to be in equilibrium and Malinowski’s view of myths as integrating ‘social charters,’ would later be a promoter and critic of structuralism in Britain. Leach’s contemporary Raymond Firth proposed a distinction between social structure (the statuses in society) and social organization, which he saw as the actual process of social life, whereby choice and individual whims were related to structural constraints. Later in the 1950s and 1960s, several younger social anthropologists, notably F.G. Bailey and Fredrik Barth, followed Firth’s lead as well as the theory of games (a recent development in economics) in refining an actor-centered perspective on social life. Max Gluckman, a former student of Radcliffe-Brown and a close associate of Evans-Pritchard, also abandoned the strong holist program of the structural functionalists, reconceptualizing social structure as a loose set of constraints, while emphasizing the importance of individual actors. Gluckman’s colleagues included several important Africanists such as A.L. Epstein, J. Clyde Mitchell, and Elizabeth Colson. Working in southern Africa, this group pioneered urban anthropology and ethnicity studies in the 1950s and 1960s.
Neo-Evolutionism, Cultural Ecology, and Neo-Marxism
The number of anthropologists has always been larger in the United States than anywhere else, and the discipline was always diverse there. Although the influence from the Boasian cultural relativist school remains strong, other groups of scholars have also made their mark. From the late 1940s, a resurgent interest in Morgan’s evolutionism led to the formulation of neoevolutionist and materialist research programs. Julian Steward, a student of Robert Redfield (who had been a student of Radcliffe-Brown), proposed a theory of cultural dynamics distinguishing between ‘the cultural core’ (basic institutions such as the division of labor) and ‘the rest of culture’ in a way strongly reminiscent of Marx. Steward led research projects among Latin American peasants and North American Indians, encouraging a focus on the relationship between culture, technology, and the environment. Leslie White held more deterministic materialist views, but also – perhaps oddly – saw symbolic culture as a largely autonomous realm. Among the major scholars influenced by White, Marvin Harris has strengthened his materialist determinism, while Marshall D. Sahlins in the 1960s made the move from neoevolutionism to a symbolic anthropology influenced by structuralism.
Cultural ecology sprang from the teachings of Steward and White, and represented a rare collaboration between anthropology and biology. Especially in the 1960s, many such studies were carried out, including, notably, Roy Rappaport’s Pigs for the Ancestors (1968), an attempt to account for a recurrent ritual in the New Guinean highlands in ecological terms. The upsurge of Marxist peasant research, especially in Latin America, in the 1970s, was also clearly indebted to Steward.
The appearance of radical student politics in the late 1960s, which had an impact on academia until the early 1980s, had a strong, if passing, influence on anthropology. Of the more lasting contributions, the peasant studies initiated by Steward and furthered by Eric Wolf, Sidney Mintz, and others must be mentioned, along with French attempts, represented in the very sophisticated work of Maurice Godelier and Claude Meillassoux, at synthesizing Lévi-Straussian structuralism, Althusserian Marxism, and anthropological comparison. Although Marxism and structuralism eventually became unfashionable, scholars – particularly those engaged in applied work – continue to draw inspiration from Marxist thought.
Symbolic and Cognitive Anthropology
More true to the Boasian legacy than the materialist approaches, studies of cognition and symbolic systems developed and diversified in the United States. A leading theorist was Clifford Geertz (1926–2006), who wrote a string of influential essays advocating hermeneutics (interpretive method) in the 1960s and 1970s. While his originality as a theorist can be questioned, his originality as a writer is obvious, and Geertz ranks as perhaps the finest writer of contemporary anthropology. Marshall Sahlins is, with Geertz, the foremost proponent of cultural relativism today, and has published a number of important books on various subjects (from Mauss’ theory of exchange to sociobiology and the death of Captain Cook), consistently stressing the autonomy of the symbolic realm, thus arguing that cultural variation cannot be explained by recourse to ecology, technology, or biology.
In Britain, too, interest in meaning, symbols, and cognition grew after the war, especially from the 1960s (partly due to the belated reception of Lévi-Strauss). British anthropology had hitherto been strongly sociological, and two important scholars who fused the legacy from structural functionalism with the study of symbols and meaning were Mary Douglas (1921– 2007) and Victor Turner (1920–83). Taking his cue from van Gennep, Turner, a former associate of Gluckman, developed a complex analysis of rituals among the Ndembu of Zambia, showing their functionally integrating aspects, their meaningful aspects for the participants, and their deeper symbolic significance. Douglas, a student of Evans-Pritchard, famous for her Purity and Danger (1966), analyzed the human preoccupation with dirt and impurities as a way of thinking about the boundaries of society and the nature/culture divide. Prolific and original, Douglas is a major defender of a reformed structural functionalism.
Against all these (and other) perspectives regarding how ‘cultures’ or ‘societies’ perceive the world, anthropologists emphasizing the actor’s point of view have argued that no two individuals see the world in the same way and that it is preposterous to generalize about societies. The impact of feminism has been decisive here. Since the 1970s, feminist anthropologists have identified often profound differences between male and female worldviews, indicating how classic accounts of ‘societies’ really refer to male perspectives on them as both the anthropologist and the main informants tended to be male. For example, in a restudy of Trobriand society, Annette Weiner (1976) showed that Malinowski’s famous work was incomplete and ultimately misleading as he had failed to observe important social processes confined to females. Feminism also influenced anthropology by emphasizing the need for a critical reflexivity addressing the methodological and epistemological issues arising from the ethnographer’s identity as, for example, a man or a woman.
Anthropology and the Contemporary World
Since the pillars of modern anthropology were erected around the World War I, the former colonies became independent, ‘natives’ got their own educated elites (including social scientists), economic and cultural globalization led to the spread of capitalism and consumer culture, and transcontinental migration blurred the boundaries between the traditional ‘us’ and ‘them.’ This situation entailed new challenges for anthropology that were met in various ways – revealing continuities as well as breaks with the past.
A late field to be incorporated into anthropology, but one that became the largest single area of interest from the 1970s, was the study of identity politics, notably ethnicity and nationalism. Since the publication of several important texts around 1970 (by, inter alia, Barth and Abner Cohen in Europe, and George DeVos in the United States), anthropological ethnicity studies investigated the interrelationship between ethnic identity and ethnic politics, and explored how notions of cultural differences contribute to group identification. Since the publication of several important texts on nationalism in the early 1980s (by Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson, and others), this also became an important area for anthropologists. Ethnicity and nationalism are partly or wholly modern phenomena associated with the state, and thus denote a departure from the former mainstay of anthropology, the study of nonmodern small-scale societies. While ethnicity and (especially) nationalism could not be studied through participant observation only (other kinds of data are required), it was evident that anthropologists who engaged in this field remained committed to the classic tenets of the discipline; ethnographic fieldwork, comparison, and a systemic view of social reality. Also, the study of identity politics emerged as an interdisciplinary field where anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and political scientists profited from each other’s expertise.
Other modern phenomena also received increased attention in anthropology from the 1970s, including consumption, ‘subcultures,’ wagework, and migration. The boundary between the ‘Western self’ and the ‘non-Western other’ became blurred. Anthropological studies of Western societies became common, and Europe was established as an ethnographic region along with West Africa, South Asia, and so on. Even anthropologists working in traditional settings with classic topics increasingly had to see their field as enmeshed, to a greater or lesser extent, in a global system of communication and exchange.
Because of the increased penetration of the formerly tribal world by capitalism and the state, and accompanying processes of cultural change, there was a growing demand for a reconceptualization of culture in the 1980s and 1990s, and scholars such as Ulf Hannerz and Marilyn Strathern developed fluid concepts of culture seeing it as less coherent, less bounded, and less integrated than the Boasian and Malinowskian traditions implied.
Some scholars saw the postcolonial situation as sounding the death knell of anthropology: Since the ‘primitive’ was gone, and the former informants were now able to identify and describe themselves (they no longer needed anthropologists to do it), the science of cultural variation seemed to have lost its raison d’être. Following the lead of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), an influential critique of Western depictions of the ‘East,’ and often inspired by Michel Foucault, they saw anthropology as a colonial and imperialist enterprise refusing non-Western peoples a voice of their own and magnifying the distance between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this view had many followers, some of whom abandoned empirical research, while others tried to incorporate the autocriticism into their work. Yet others saw these pessimistic views as largely irrelevant, since anthropology had always been fraught with similar tensions, to which each new generation found its solutions. In this regard, it must be pointed out that the earlier feminist critique of anthropology, far from repudiating the subject, led to its enriching by adding new implements to its toolbox and new dimensions to its worldview. The same could be said of the reconceptualizations of culture that arguably offered an improved accuracy of description.
The Situation at the Turn of the Millennium
Over the course of the twentieth century, anthropology became a varied discipline with a strong academic foothold in all continents, although its centers remained in the English- and French-speaking countries. It was still possible to discern differences between American cultural anthropology, British social anthropology, and French ethnologie, but the discipline was more unified than ever before – not in its views, but in its approaches. Hardly a part of the world had not now been studied intensively by scholars engaging in ethnographic fieldwork, but since the world changes, new research is always called for.
Specializations proliferated, ranging from studies of ethnomedicine and the body to urban consumer culture, advertising, and cyberspace. Although the grand theories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – from unilinear evolutionism to structuralism – had been abandoned, new theories claiming to provide a unified view of humanity were being proposed; for example, new advances in evolutionary psychology and cognitive science offered ambitious general accounts of social life and the human mind, respectively. The problems confronting earlier generations of anthropologists, regarding, for example, the nature of social organization, of knowledge, of kinship, and of myth and ritual, remained central to the discipline although they were explored in new empirical settings by scholars who were more specialized than their predecessors.
Anthropology has thrived on the tension between the particular and the universal; between the intensive study of local life and the quest for general accounts of the human condition. Is it chiefly a generalizing science or a discipline devoted to the elucidation of the unique? The general answer is that anthropologists ultimately do study society, culture, and humanity, but that in order to do so, they must devote most of their energies to the study of societies, cultures, and humans. As long as their mutual differences and similarities are not fully understood, there will be an intellectual space in the world for anthropology or, at least, a discipline like it.
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