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Anthropology - Biological Anthropology, Archaeology, Linguistics, Sociocultural Anthropology, Bibliography

culture subfields cultural learning

As an academic discipline, anthropology is somewhat less than two centuries old, but speculations, if not rigorous scientific theories, about where we human beings came from and how to account for the physical and cultural differences that distinguish our communities and nations from one another probably began during prehistory.

In the United States (but not in most other academic settings, for example, in Europe or Asia), the discipline is conventionally divided into four main subfields: biological (or physical) anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and sociocultural anthropology. The history and current state of each subfield will be discussed in this entry, as well as how they have influenced one another during the last two-hundred-odd years. Although they will be described separately, the four subfields form the logos of anthropos, the broad science that studies the human species.

The concept that unites these four subfields is culture. The earliest systematic formulation of the anthropological concept of culture was articulated by Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1832–1917) in the first sentence of his pioneering book, Primitive Culture (1871): "Culture, or Civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." This entry will use an updated version of Tylor's definition put forth by Daniel G. Bates and Elliot M. Fratkin: "Culture, broadly defined, is a system of shared beliefs, values, customs, and material objects that members of a society use to cope with their world and with one another, and that are transmitted from generation to generation through learning" (1999, p. 5). The work of biological anthropologists seeks—among other things—to discover how, when, and why our remote ancestors evolved the physiological capacity for culture; archaeologists attempt to trace the evolution of culture and seek to reconstruct the nature of prehistoric (as well as historic and contemporary) cultures from the material objects they left behind; linguists describe the principal symbolic system—language—through which cultural learning occurs; and socio-cultural anthropologists are concerned with the nature of culture per se and the myriad factors that shaped (and continue to shape) its contemporary manifestations.

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