The culture area concept was developed in the early 1900s, at a time when American anthropology was in its infancy. Franz Boas and his students were collecting enormous amounts of data about the “disappearing” native cultures of North America. There was no framework for organizing this data, however. The concept of the culture area was first applied by ethnologist Clark Wissler in order to provide a theoretical framework for the information being generated. A culture area was defined as a geographical/cultural region whose population and groups share important common identifiable cultural traits, such as language, tools and material culture, kinship, social organization, and cultural history. Therefore, groups sharing similar traits in a geographical region would be classed in a single culture area. This concept has been vociferously criticized over the last century. The notion of the culture area has been viewed as being ethnocentric because it ignores adaptation or biology and appears to rely on diffusion as an explanation for similar cultural traits (especially inventions) in a single geographic area. The underlying idea of this concept is that by spatially tracing traits, it is possible to understand the history of an institution. By defining the idea of a “culture core,” or the group in the culture area that produces the most complex traits and then shares those with other nearby groups, this concept provided a powerful explanatory tool. This concept, as defined, is therefore very selective in the kinds of traits on which it focuses. As a result, local and regional differences are virtually ignored, and the concept of independent invention was often discarded. An additional criticism is that anthropologists cannot agree on the number of culture areas and how groups should be classified within those divisions. The current division of culture areas tends to be the most popular; however, there are certainly variations on this scheme: Arctic, Subarctic, Pacific Northwest, Northeast, Southeast, Great Plains, Southwest, Plateau, Great Basin, and California. This was readily apparent in archaeology, where culture areas were seen as archaeological equivalents to ethnographic “cultures” and this concept was used to narrowly define and explain similarities in material culture of the past. Similarly, museums organized data, catalogued artifacts, and created displays based on this concept.
Despite its apparent faults, anthropologists continue to use the culture area concept. As an explanatory tool, this concept falls short; however, the concept still provides a mechanism for organizing a multitude of data. In addition, the idea of a culture area certainly illustrates the interaction between neighboring groups of people. Comparisons of groups within and between culture areas allow anthropologists and archaeologists to examine those common environments and historical processes that may link groups or and create similarities and differences between them. The culture area concept also provides a common language for anthropologists working in a particular area. It is often the case that studies are focused by region, and the literature will be equally focused. In addition, research questions and theoretical issues tend to link anthropologists working in a particular culture area. This concept has therefore both divided and united anthropologists.
- Erickson, P. A., & Murphy, L. D. (2003). A history of anthropological theory (2nd ed.). Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press.
- Kroeber, A. L. (1931). The culture-area and age-area concepts of Clark Wissler. In S. A. Rice (Ed.), Methods in social sciences (pp. 248-265). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Trigger, B. G. (1989). A history of archaeological thought. Oxford: Cambridge University Press.