Anthropology is the study of people, society, and culture through all time and everywhere around the world. Three of its main characteristics are an ongoing debate between evolutionism and cultural relativism, the use of cross-culture comparison, and ethnographic research based on “participant observation.”
Anthropology shares certain basic characteristics with her sister disciplines of biology, history, sociology, political science, and economics. These characteristics arise from a common Enlightenment heritage. One is an emphasis on collecting information by means of the human senses, rather than from revelation or authority. A second is the interplay between general understandings, usually labeled theory, and specific information, sometimes called data, used as evidence to support or to challenge a general understanding. And a third is the expectation that general understandings will change and improve as information becomes more complete.
These characteristics have not gone totally unchallenged in recent times. Influential thinkers sometimes come to be regarded as beyond criticism, their pronouncements deemed authoritative and not open to debate. In the anthropology of the 1970s, Karl Marx was deemed to be such an authority, and critics seemed to be worthy of excommunication. This phase passed with the fall of the Soviet Union. More recently, from the 1990s, the Enlightenment foundation has been attacked on philosophical grounds by postmodernism, which rejects knowledge gained through the senses and any formulations of general knowledge, and replaces them with analytic deconstruction and subjective expressionism and political commitment. This self-identified “experimental” phase has not as yet established a substantive alternative to Enlightenment anthropology, and so its offspring remains unknown.
With this background in mind, let us turn to the characteristics that distinguish anthropology from her sister disciplines. I will present this discussion in terms of three characteristics: first, the theoretical debate between evolutionism and cultural relativism; second, the analytical device of cross-cultural comparative analysis; and third, the methodological strategy of “participant observation.”
Evolutionism and Relativism
During its emergence in the 19th century, anthropology was inspired by and absorbed the dominant “master discourse” of the time, evolutionism. The place was Great Britain, and the circumstance was imperial and colonial expansion, and contact and engagement with other peoples and other cultures. Models of evolution, originally conceived in geology and biology, which were being applied by foundation sociologists to the stunning, transformational social changes in Britain and Europe during the 18th century and continuing into the 19th, were applied by foundation anthropologists, in some cases the same scholars who were founding sociology, to cultural differences of peoples around the world.
As with biological evolutionism generally, anthropological evolutionism posited higher and lower levels of accomplishment, of development, of human and social existence. Particular societies and cultures around the world could be identified according to their level of achievement; in one scheme, the levels, each defined by technology and social arrangements, were labeled “savagery,” “barbarism,” or “civilization.” Even the theoretical alternative of dif-fusionism, which stressed borrowing rather than internal development and identified centers of creations and secondary recipients, was consistent with the comparative spirit.
Evidence relevant to placing particular peoples and cultures was diverse: biological for racial differences, linguistic for language differences, archaeological for historical differences, literary for historical differences with classical and other literate societies, and cultural for current patterns. However, during the 19th century, most anthropologists were “armchair anthropologists,” relying on first- or secondhand reports from others for their information or “data.” The most prominent anthropologist of his time, Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, when asked if he had met any of the “savages” of whom he had spoken, famously (these days: incorrectly) replied “Heaven forbid, Madam.”
The early 20th century brought with it a reaction against and shift away from evolutionism, particularly in sociocultural anthropology. This resulted (at least in part) from firsthand contact by anthropologists with the cultures under study by anthropologists, which led to three new emphases: first, the study of cultures in all (or at least more) of their great complexity and richness, instead of as illustrations of a few general and abstract categories; second, the study of cultures as wholes, as opposed to the recording of one or two traits or characteristics; and, third, the study of cultures on their own terms, without applying external criteria of evaluation, which is what we mean by cultural relativism.
This development can be seen in the work of Bronislaw Malinowski and Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, who established British social anthropology, with its emphasis on social relations, and Boas, who established New World cultural anthropology, with its focus on conventional knowledge. These schools, in addition to sharing the points mentioned above, differed on some points: In Britain, social anthropology developed more or less independently of archaeology and prehistory, linguistics, and physical-biological anthropology, while in the New World, Boas championed “four-field” anthropology, the continuing association of archaeology, linguistics, physical anthropology, and cultural anthropology. And, while some British social anthropologists advocated and attempted comparison and generalization, Boas favored a more particularistic and relativisitic approach, emphasizing historical and descriptive accounts of particular cultures.
Subsequent theoretical developments in 20th- and 21st-century anthropology can be read, at least in part, as a debate between the cultural relativism established in early sociocultural anthropology and the evolutionism rooted in the 19th century. A constant side dialogue with prehistoric archaeology, which more consistently maintained the evolutionary approach (although some contemporary archaeologists disdain the term) kept the evolutionary tradition easily within reach. In New World cultural anthropology, the evolutionary approach was resuscitated twice in the mid-20th century, once by the influential University of Michigan evolutionary school and two decades later by the emergence of a major movement of Marxist anthropology, Marx of course having been a major 19th-century evolutionary thinker. Cultural relativism strode back with interpretive anthropology and more recently postmodernism, which extends cultural relativism to epistemological relativism and thus advocates particularity and subjectivity.
Thus, it appears that a central characteristic of anthropology is its ongoing, and apparently endless, debate between evolutionism and relativism.
Comparison is a basic element in human thinking, whether in juxtaposing instances or cases for purposes of evaluation (“This tea is better than that”) or in order to establish concomitant variations (“This color makes me look healthy”; “That color makes me look sick”). Anthropology’s sister disciplines constantly engage in comparative analysis: “Members of the middle class are a, b, and c, while members of the working class are d, e, and f.” “Businesses with a unionized labor force must do x, y, and z, while those without do m, n, and o.”
What sets anthropology apart is its emphasis on cross-cultural comparison. Even particularists cannot avoid cross-cultural comparison, for even description requires categories that indicate similarity and difference. Whether explicit or implicit, cross-cultural comparison is always present in anthropology, for we can hardly avoid thinking of the cultures we study as similar to or different from our own and others we know of. Margaret Mead was quite explicit in Coming of Age in Samoa, comparing girls’ puberty in Samoa with girls’ adolescence in America. Bronislaw Malinowski in Sex and Repression in Savage Society compares the oedipal complex in patriarchal Europe with that in the matrilineal Trobriands. Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture is a paradigmatic example of particularistic comparison, which, while identifying general types, remains at the descriptive level, disdaining the search for concomitant variations.
Comparison is the main analytic tool of anthropology, because, unlike laboratory scientists, anthropologists cannot pursue their studies with experiments. Nor are the statistical exercises of the economist usually available to the anthropologist, who commonly works in or on societies in which systematic collection of economic data did not or do not exist. Nor are the surveys of the sociologist and political scientist usually feasible, and even if they were, they would simply add grist for the comparative mill. Cross-cultural comparison provides anthropologists with a wider field of view, both in space and time, than that of the sister disciplines, which commonly limit their studies to one or a few similar societies. The breadth of anthropology, thanks to cross-cultural comparison, is one of its main strengths.
The primary methodological strategy of cultural anthropology is participant observation, immersion
among the people being studied and engagement with them through taking part in their activities and discussing with them their activities. Direct observation and face-to-face conversation with the people under examination are central elements in ethnographic fieldwork, which is the other label used for participant observation. This direct engagement is necessary because the first goal of ethnographic field-work is to understand the culture and society from the point of view of the people themselves—to understand it as they do.
Reconstructing from the past obviously precludes this strategy. Archaeologists and prehistorians must rely upon the remains from past cultures, whether material such as bones and buildings or documentary from written records, as sources of information for the inferences required for drawing a picture of the culture. And anthropology’s sister disciplines prefer short-term, formal measures, with sociologists favoring questionnaire surveys, political scientists questionnaires or organizational charts, and economists aggregate statistical data.
Participant observation has both strengths and limitations. One limitation is that working face-to-face with a handful of people, whether in one community or in a “multiple site” study, makes it difficult to know how representative the people, and thus the information gleaned from and about them, is of any larger population and culture. Another limitation is that “contact” and “engagement” with the people under study are vague terms requiring no particular technique and no mandated precision. The result can easily be strong sentiments and vague impressions. On the other hand, participant observation can make possible an intimate knowledge based on repeated observation and on triangulation, the drawing on multiple sources of information to test and retest understanding. And careful attention to local perspectives can reduce misinterpretation, which is a great risk with formal measures predesigned by outsiders. In short, one of the great strengths of anthropology is that participant observation brings the researcher closest to the people, or rather, to some people.
The spirit and substance of anthropology have been formed and expressed in the pursuit of and the debate between evolutionism and cultural relativism, in the analytic exercise of cross-cultural comparison, and in the practice of fieldwork by means of participant observation.
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- Kuper, A. (1996). Anthropology and anthropologists: The modern British school (3rd ed.). London: Routledge.
- Salzman, P. C. (2001). Understanding culture: An introduction to anthropological theory. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.