Saturday, September 1, 2012

What is Culture?

What is Culture?

The word culture has many different meanings. For some it refers to an appreciation of good literature, music, art, and food. For a biologist, it is likely to be a colony of bacteria or other microorganisms growing in a nutrient medium in a laboratory Petri dish. However, for anthropologists and other behavioral scientists, culture is the full range of learned human behavior patterns. The term was first used in this way by the pioneer English Anthropologist Edward B. Tylor in his book, Primitive Culture, published in 1871. Tylor said that culture is "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." Of course, it is not limited to men. Women possess and create it as well. Since Tylor's time, the concept of culture has become the central focus of anthropology.

Culture is a powerful human tool for survival, but it is a fragile phenomenon. It is constantly changing and easily lost because it exists only in our minds. Our written languages, governments, buildings, and other man-made things are merely the products of culture. They are not culture in themselves. For this reason, archaeologists can not dig up culture directly in their excavations. The broken pots and other artifacts of ancient people that they uncover are only material remains that reflect cultural patterns--they are things that were made and used through cultural knowledge and skills.

Layers of Culture

There are very likely three layers or levels of culture that are part of your learned behavior patterns and perceptions. Most obviously is the body of cultural traditions that distinguish your specific society. When people speak of Italian, Samoan, or Japanese culture, they are referring to the shared language, traditions, and beliefs that set each of these peoples apart from others. In most cases, those who share your culture do so because they acquired it as they were raised by parents and other family members who have it.

The second layer of culture that may be part of your identity is a subculture . In complex, diverse societies in which people have come from many different parts of the world, they often retain much of their original cultural traditions. As a result, they are likely to be part of an identifiable subculture in their new society. The shared cultural traits of subcultures set them apart from the rest of their society. Examples of easily identifiable subcultures in the United States include ethnic groups such as Vietnamese Americans, African Americans, and Mexican Americans. Members of each of these subcultures share a common identity, food tradition, dialect or language, and other cultural traits that come from their common ancestral background and experience. As the cultural differences between members of a subculture and the dominant national culture blur and eventually disappear, the subculture ceases to exist except as a group of people who claim a common ancestry. That is generally the case with German Americans and Irish Americans in the United States today. Most of them identify themselves as Americans first. They also see themselves as being part of the cultural mainstream of the nation.

The third layer of culture consists of cultural universals. These are learned behavior patterns that are shared by all of humanity collectively. No matter where people live in the world, they share these universal traits. Examples of such "human cultural" traits include:
communicating with a verbal language consisting of a limited set of sounds and grammatical rules for constructing sentences

using age and gender to classify people (e.g., teenager, senior citizen, woman, man)

classifying people based on marriage and descent relationships and having kinship terms to refer to
them (e.g., wife, mother, uncle, cousin)

raising children in some sort of family setting

having a sexual division of labor (e.g., men's work versus women's work)

having a concept of privacy

having rules to regulate sexual behavior

distinguishing between good and bad behavior

having some sort of body ornamentation

making jokes and playing games

having art

having some sort of leadership roles for the implementation of community decisions

While all cultures have these and possibly many other universal traits, different cultures have developed their own specific ways of carrying out or expressing them. For instance, people in deaf subcultures frequently use their hands to communicate with sign language instead of verbal language. However, sign languages have grammatical rules just as verbal ones do.

Culture and Society

Culture and society are not the same thing. While cultures are complexes of learned behavior patterns and perceptions, societies are groups of interacting organisms. People are not the only animals that have societies. Schools of fish, flocks of birds, and hives of bees are societies. In the case of humans, however, societies are groups of people who directly or indirectly interact with each other. People in human societies also generally perceive that their society is distinct from other societies in terms of shared traditions and expectations.

While human societies and cultures are not the same thing, they are inextricably connected because culture is created and transmitted to others in a society. Cultures are not the product of lone individuals. They are the continuously evolving products of people interacting with each other. Cultural patterns such as language and politics make no sense except in terms of the interaction of people. If you were the only human on earth, there would be no need for language or government.

There is a difference of opinion in the behavioral sciences about whether or not we are the only animal that creates and uses culture. The answer to this question depends on how narrow culture is defined. If it is used broadly to refer to a complex of learned behavior patterns, then it is clear that we are not alone in creating and using culture. Many other animal species teach their young what they themselves learned in order to survive. This is especially true of the chimpanzees and other relatively intelligent apes and monkeys. Wild chimpanzee mothers typically teach their children about several hundred food and medicinal plants. Their children also have to learn about the dominance hierarchy and the social rules within their communities. As males become teenagers, they acquire hunting skills from adults. Females have to learn how to nurse and care for their babies. Chimpanzees even have to learn such basic skills as how to perform sexual intercourse. This knowledge is not hardwired into their brains at birth. They are all learned patterns of behavior just as they are for humans.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Fields of Anthropology

There are now four major fields of anthropology: biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and archaeology. Each focuses on a different set of research interests and generally uses different research techniques. The methods range from those commonly used by the social sciences and humanities to those of biology and geology. Biological anthropology and archaeology are generally the closest to the biological and physical sciences in methods and approach to learning about the human experience.

Biological Anthropology

Biological (or physical) anthropologists carry out systematic studies of the non-cultural aspects of humans and near-humans. Non-cultural refers to all of those biological characteristics that are genetically inherited in contrast to learned. Near-human is a category that includes monkeys, apes, and the other primates as well as our fossil ancestors. The primary interest of most biological anthropologists today is human evolution--they want to learn how our ancestors changed through time to become what we are today. Biological anthropologists also are interested in understanding the mechanisms of evolution and genetic inheritance as well as human variation and adaptations to different environmental stresses, such as those found at high altitudes and in environments that have temperature extremes.

Biological anthropologists are usually involved in one of three different areas of research: human biology, primatology, or paleoanthropology. Human biology is concerned with learning about human diversity, genetic inheritance patterns, non-cultural adaptations to environmental stresses, and other biological characteristics of our species, Homo sapiens . Primatologists carry out non-human primate studies. This is usually done in a natural setting among wild apes, monkeys, and related animals. They are principally interested in learning about the capabilities and behavior patterns of primates--our closest living relatives. It is likely that the great apes in particular can give us important clues to understanding the lives of our earliest human ancestors over 2 million years ago. Paleoanthropologists recover the fossil record of early humans and their primate ancestors in order to understand the path of our evolution. In doing this, they often work with geologists, paleozoologists, and scientists with other specialties who help them reconstruct ancient environments.

Cultural Anthropology

Cultural (or socio-cultural) anthropologists are interested in learning about the cultural aspects of human societies all over the world. They usually focus their research on such things as the social and political organizations, marriage patterns and kinship systems, subsistence and economic patterns, and religious beliefs of different societies. Most cultural anthropologists study contemporary societies rather than ancient ones. Through the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, the peoples who primarily interested cultural anthropologists were those who lived in small-scale, isolated societies with cultures that were very different from those of Europeans and European Americans. African, American Indian, and Pacific Island societies were often the subject of their research. Today, they are equally likely to study subcultures of modern, large-scale societies such as Southeast Asian Hmong families now living in St. Paul, Minnesota, Mexican neighborhoods in Southern California, or conservative Old Order Amish communities in rural Pennsylvania.

Cultural anthropological research projects are usually designed to learn about the culture of another society through fieldwork and first hand observation in that society. This is ethnography. Later, the work of many ethnographers who wrote about similar cultures is compared to discover what these peoples have in common. This is ethnology. Much of the ethnographic research over the last century has been salvage work. It has been an attempt to record the life ways of previously isolated, mostly small indigenous societies that were in danger of disappearing or have been changed dramatically as a consequence of the spread of political control and culture from the dominant societies. We are living in a period of unprecedented change around the globe, and the rate of change is accelerating as a result of our rapid population growth and technological invention, especially in transportation and communication. All of the completely isolated societies of the past have long since been drawn into the global economy and heavily influenced by the dominant cultures of the large nations. As a consequence, it is likely that 3/4 of the languages in the world today will become extinct as spoken languages by the end of the 21st century. Many other cultural traditions will be lost as well. Cultural and linguistic anthropologists have worked diligently to study and understand this diversity that is being lost.

Linguistic Anthropology

Linguistic anthropologists study the human communication process. They focus their research on understanding such phenomena as the physiology of speech, the structure and function of languages, social and cultural influences on speech and writing, nonverbal communication, how languages developed over time, and how they differ from each other. This is very different from what goes on in an English or a foreign language class. Linguists are not language teachers or professional translators.

Most anthropological linguistic research has been focused on unwritten, non-European languages. Linguists usually begin their study of such a language by learning first hand from native speakers what its rules are for making sounds and meaning from those sounds, including the rules for sentence construction. Linguists also learn about different regional and social dialects as well as the social conventions of speaking the language in different situations.

A hotly debated question in linguistic anthropology since the early 20th century centers on whether or not our languages predispose us to see the environment in specific ways. In other words, are languages filters for reality? For instance, if a language does not have a word for the color orange, can its speakers distinguish orange from red and yellow? The answer to this question is not as simple as it initially seems.


Archaeologists are interested in recovering the prehistory and early history of societies and their cultures. They systematically uncover the evidence by excavating, dating, and analyzing the material remains left by people in the past. Archaeologists are essentially detectives who search through many thousands of pieces of fragmentary pots and other artifacts as well as environmental data in order to reconstruct ancient life ways. In a sense, this makes archaeology the cultural anthropology of the past. Archaeology is also related to biological anthropology in its use of the same methods in excavating and analyzing human skeletal remains found in archaeological sites.

Archaeologists are in a unique position to understand the development of human societies and cultures from those of our distant hunter gatherer ancestors through the ancient civilizations on up to the present. There have been humans for at least 2.5 million years. Only the last 5,500 of these years have been even partly recorded by scribes and historians. As a consequence, well over 99% of the human story lies in the prehistoric past and has been out of reach of historians. Only archaeology can recover it.

No archaeologist is an expert on the antiquity of all regions of the world and all time periods. Classical archaeologists concentrate on the ancient civilizations of the Middle East and the Mediterranean world (Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, and related peoples). Historical archaeologists work on recovering the unrecorded aspects of life in historically more modern societies such as colonial America. Prehistoric archaeologists focus their attention on the more ancient pre-literate societies around the world including those of most early North American Indians. Underwater archaeologists discover and excavate ancient shipwrecks and submerged cities. Zooarchaeologists analyze and interpret the animal remains found in archaeological sites. The training required for each of these and other archeological specialties varies significantly, but they all share an interest in elucidating the lost past.

Overview of Anthropology

Hollywood has given us a peculiar and misleading picture of what anthropology is about. What comes to mind is usually one of two stereotypical images, both of which are inaccurate at best. The first is that of an absent-minded, bookish eccentric who spends his life in odd corners of the world searching out strange customs. The other is the rugged, self-reliant, fictional adventurer archaeologist Indiana Jones in the Raiders of the Lost Ark. The reality is that anthropologists are trained scientists who usually work as university professors or museum curators. Some have jobs in environmental analysis companies or government organizations such as national park services and agencies for indigenous peoples. Other anthropologists work in major corporations and even the police and the military.

Anthropological research covers a wide range of topics and is generally done by teams of scientists rather than lone explorers. Some anthropologists are interested in discovering, through the fossil record and DNA, how we evolved. Some focus on the nature of human biology in order to understand how we adapt to different environmental conditions and how we vary as a species. Some work with the police or the military to identify people from their skeletal remains. Others observe the behavior of monkeys and apes in their natural settings. Still others live in different societies around the world for months or even years to learn their language and to understand their customs and way of life. And, yes, some anthropologists excavate the archaeological remains of ancient cultures to find out what our ancestors did and how they lived.

Often anthropologists work with scientists from other fields of study such as public health, agronomy, zoology, and botany. This interdisciplinary approach to research has become particularly important in understanding the fossil record of early humans and their ancestors as well as the complexities of social interaction and motivations in contemporary cultures around the world.

The word "anthropology" was first used in English as early as 1593. However, anthropology as a distinct academic discipline is comparatively young. Its roots go back to the intellectual Enlightenment of the 18th and early 19th centuries in Europe and North America. As European nations developed colonies in distant parts of the world and Americans expanded west and south into the territories of Indians, it became apparent to them that humanity was extremely varied. Anthropology began, in part, as an attempt by members of scientific societies to objectively record and comprehend this variation. Curiosity about strange people and customs in far off parts of the world is what primarily motivated these early amateur anthropologists. By profession, they most often were naturalists, medical doctors, Christian clerics, or educated explorers. They asked such fundamental questions as whether or not the differences between human cultures are the result of genetic inheritance and if there is a relationship between the size of a human brain and intelligence. As a consequence of this pioneering research, we now understand that the answer to both of these questions is no. Another surprising question that was important at the beginnings of anthropology came from early 19th century antislavery societies, especially in the northern United States. This was the question of whether or not African slaves were as fully human as people from Europe. Today, few if any would doubt that they are. Two centuries ago, however, most people of European ancestry would have disagreed.

It was not until the late 19th century that anthropology finally became a separate academic discipline in American and Western European universities. Today, it is an international science with anthropologists in most nations of the world. They are now asking fascinating new questions about the nature of humanity in all of our varied societies. The answers to many of these questions are the focus of this tutorial series.

The word anthropology comes from the Greek anthropos, meaning human being. Anthropology is a broad scientific study of human culture and biology. It strives to understand what defines us as humans and to explain how we got to be the way we are. History, philosophy, sociology, biology, and some other academic fields are also interested in learning what it means to be human. Anthropologists generally differ in their more inclusive holistic approach--they are interested in learning about both the biological and cultural aspects of humanity around the globe and throughout time. They recognize that the considerable variability of our human experience requires an unbiased cultural relativity approach and cross-cultural comparisons to comprehend it. They also have come to realize that people cannot be understood by studying either their biological makeup or their cultural traditions alone. It is necessary to take into consideration both genetically inherited and learned traits in trying to explain how we have become what we are and how we differ from one another.

When asked what they do, most anthropologists answer that they study cultural anthropology, archaeology, or some other subdiscipline of the field. The scope of anthropology is so broad today, that few if any consider themselves competent in all areas. In a very real sense, anthropology is a bridge between the sciences and the humanities in terms of its research focus and methods. At one extreme, biological anthropologists explore the relatively objective, quantifiable facts of molecular biology and the mechanisms of genetic inheritance and evolution. At the other, cultural anthropologists tackle the highly subjective reality of cultural attitudes, perceptions, and beliefs.

Unifying Concepts of Anthropology

Regardless of their subfield, anthropologists share several major assumptions about humanity. The first is human universalism. This is the view that all people today are fully and equally human. An implication is that people from all societies of the world are intelligent, complex, and interesting to study. It may be surprising that this needs to be stated, but historically it was not widely accepted and still is not in many parts of the world. It has been common for people to consider those from other societies to be somehow different and inferior. Even the enlightened 19th century naturalist Charles Darwin held such views. In his journal of an around the world scientific expedition in the 1830's, he wrote about his encounter with Native Americans at the southern tip of South America. He said, "It was without exception the most curious and interesting spectacle I ever beheld: I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilized man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal... Viewing such men, one can hardly make one's self believe that they are fellow-creatures, and inhabitants of the same world." This sort of ethnocentric belief that other peoples are culturally and even biologically different and inferior in terms of intelligence, physical attractiveness, customs, and morals is still widespread today in even the most tolerant nations. It was incorporated into the German Nazi beliefs during the 1920's and had dreadful consequences in Europe during the 1930's and early 1940's. It led to the labeling of Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs as untermench (literally "under man" or "sub-human"). Once labeled as not quite fully human, it was psychologically a relatively easy step to rationalize their enslavement and extermination. Similar interpretations of other peoples led to several brutal wars of "ethnic cleansing" during the late 20th century, most notably in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo. It is easy to condemn these extreme cases of genocide , but it is important to realize that the ethnocentrism that led to them is found in all societies to some degree, including the United States. It has been conveniently forgotten by many Americans that attitudes about Indians during the 19th century were strongly colored by ethnocentrism. They ranged from considering these indigenous peoples to be simple-minded children who needed protection and education to remorseless savages who had to be exterminated. It is sobering to recall that a common saying in the United States in the last third of the 19th century was "The only good Indian is a dead Indian."

Another common assumption of anthropologists is related to the concept of integration. That is the view that all aspects of a culture are interrelated and that an understanding of any cultural trait or institution requires knowing how it impacts and is in turn impacted by other institutions. For instance, it would not be possible to fully comprehend the movement of the majority of North American women into the work place as full time employees during the second half of the 20th century without taking into consideration such factors as the development and widespread use of effective birth control measures. In addition, wives working full time inevitably led to changes in traditional complementary roles of husbands and wives and was a major factor in the shift in child care from family members to nursery schools and other institutions. These changes, in turn, made it easier for women to enter the work force.

Likewise, human biological traits do not evolve and function in isolation. In order to understand them, it is necessary to grasp how they are interrelated with other genetically inherited characteristics and how environmental factors might select for or against them. For instance, an attempt at understanding the human cardiovascular system (mostly the heart, blood vessels, and blood) would be inadequate without understanding the effect on it of chemicals in the body such as the "fight or flight" hormone adrenaline. This hormone is produced by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys. Within seconds of being injected into the blood, adrenaline can dramatically increase the rate that the heart pumps and cause the lungs to hyperventilate in order to get more oxygen into the blood. An injection of adrenaline occurs naturally as a consequence of signals from the brain, which in turn is responding to dangerous situations in the environment outside of the body. It is clear that there is a complex interrelationship between the cardiovascular system, other parts of the body, and the surrounding environment. It can only be fully understood as an interacting whole.

Another assumption of anthropologists is related to how we have flourished as a species through adaptation. Physically, humans are not particularly impressive members of the animal kingdom. We have relatively thin skin. We don't have claws or long, sharp killing teeth. We can't fly, run fast, or jump far, though we can run farther than any other animal. Many other creatures can kill and eat us. Yet, we are now the unquestionably dominant large animal on land, and our population has grown explosively, especially over the last 10,000 years. While we began as tropical animals and physically continue to be so, we have been able to successfully colonize most environments on our planet. What has made this possible has been our ability to acquire knowledge and create technology to adapt to new environments. Any successful behavior, strategy, or technique for obtaining food and surviving in a new environment provides a selective advantage in the competition for survival with other life forms. For instance, we have learned how to survive the winters in such areas as Northern Canada and Alaska with their extremely cold temperatures by storing food and creating artificial tropical environments in the form of well insulated houses, fires for heating, and clothes. Over thousands of years we also slowly adapt genetically to different climatic conditions. This largely accounts for the variation in human skin color around the globe.

The most important core concept in anthropology is culture. While there have been many definitions of culture, anthropologists usually consider it to be the full range of learned behavior patterns and knowledge acquired by people as members of a society. Culture is not genetically hardwired in--we do not inherit it biologically. We learn it from our parents and other people who are around us as we grow up. Anthropologists have come to realize that what sets our species apart from most, if not all, others is our heavy reliance and even dependence on culture for survival. The progressive human development of cultural knowledge and technology over the last 2.5 million years has allowed us to transform ourselves from relatively insignificant African scavengers of plants and animal carcasses left by large carnivores to a truly global species capable of controlling the fate of all other species. Despite the power that culture gives us, it is a remarkably fragile phenomenon. It is constantly changing and easily lost because it exists almost entirely in our minds. You will learn more about what culture is in the next tutorial in this series.

Research in Anthropology

Anthropology is a dynamic field of study. Important new discoveries are made almost every week. The source of virtually all of this fresh knowledge is field work rather than laboratory experiments. This method of learning and understanding by first-hand observation of people where they live is largely an inheritance from the naturalists of the 19th century. Because of the complexity of humans and their behavior in particular, it is extremely difficult to learn about them in any other way.