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Anthropology - Sociocultural Anthropology

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Sociocultural anthropology, the subfield concerned with culture per se, especially in its many contemporary ethnographic manifestations, commands the attention of the majority of professional anthropologists. Although there are some excellent examples of ethnographic description in antiquity—Herodotus's (484?–425 B.C.E.) account of the ancient Scythians in Book 4 of his History (c. 440 B.C.E.) and Cornelius Tacitus's (55? B.C.E.–after 117 C.E.) detailed account of ancient Germanic-speaking culture, Germania (c. 98 C.E.)—like the other principal subfields of anthropology, sociocultural anthropology began to take shape in the early nineteenth century and is closely linked to colonialism. As Europeans (or people of European heritage) expanded into India, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Oceania, as well as across North America, they found themselves confronting—and eventually dominating—what they called "primitive" cultures. These encounters led to two fundamental questions that dominate anthropology: (1) Why do cultures differ? and (2) Why are some cultures technologically "simple" societies, while others developed more complex, technologically sophisticated societies? Accounting for the differences found among cultures is problematic. For example, while, in some regions, humans live in small-scale societies with very basic technologies and low population densities—what early anthropologists, influenced by colonialism and scientific racism, called "primitive"—in other places, such as the Valley of Mexico, people began millennia ago to develop complex, energy-intensive agricultural technologies that enabled them to congregate in great numbers, build enormous cities and finance the construction of elaborate buildings and works of art, and, in general, to develop what are called "civilizations."

This second question has especially been the province of archaeologists, but it underlies cultural anthropology as well. At its best, cultural anthropology has steadfastly argued for the value of the small-scale and the more environmentally wise "primitive" as culturally significant. At its worst, it has functioned as the "handmaiden of imperialism," either overtly, as when British anthropologists worked for the colonial enterprise in Africa, or indirectly, as purveyors of "exotica" that reinforce the prejudices of urbanites and racial elites regarding the "savagery" of foreigners or of native populations and minorities closer to home.

It is thus no accident that the first great theoretical paradigm in sociocultural anthropology was unilineal evolutionism, the idea that all cultures can be ranked along a grand scale that culminated, of course, with nineteenth-century European and American industrial civilization, the "best of all possible worlds." Darwin's The Origin of Species reinforced this approach to the assessment of cultural differences, in particular the concept of "natural selection." Unilineal evolutionism was predicated on two fundamental axioms: (1) the idea of progress, that the direction of cultural evolution is everywhere from "primitive" to "civilized" and (2) the idea of psychic unity, that all human beings, irrespective of their environment or specific history, will necessarily think the same thoughts and, therefore, progress through the same series of evolutionary stages. Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, who was the first anthropologist to define the concept of culture, was a major contributor to unilineal evolutionism, suggesting a three-stage model for the evolution of religion: animism (a belief that all phenomena are "animated" by unique spirit beings), polytheism, and monotheism, which, he held, is a prime characteristic of advanced civilizations.

The most influential unilineal evolutionist was Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–1881), a successful American lawyer who practiced anthropology as an avocation. In Ancient Society (1877), Morgan posited a three-stage model for the evolution of culture: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. The first two stages, which he labeled, collectively, societas (society), as opposed to civitas (civilization), were each subdivided into three successive substages: lower, middle, and upper. His prime criterion for assigning cultures to one or another of these stages was the character and complexity of their technology. Because they lacked the bow and arrow, a prime technological criterion, Morgan assigned the ancient Hawaiians to "Middle Savagery," despite the fact that they practiced agriculture and had a highly complex social organization.

Although Morgan's emphasis on material culture—tools, weapons, and other artifacts—had a significant influence on a later school of sociocultural anthropology, cultural materialism, he also pioneered the study of kinship systems. By the 1890s, however, the unilineal evolutionists' rigid adherence to paradigms based on incomplete and questionable ethnographic data (largely collected by missionaries, traders, colonial administrators, and so forth) was called into question by a new generation of anthropologists who had spent time in the field. (Most of the unilineal evolutionists were "armchair scholars," although both Tylor and Morgan did have some field experience in their youth, the former in Mexico and the latter among the Seneca, an Iroquois tribe that lived near his home in up-state New York.)

In the United States, the chief critic of what was then called the comparative method in anthropology was Franz Boas, the most influential American anthropologist. A rigorous, scientifically trained German-born scholar, he later switched to anthropology and did extensive fieldwork among the Baffin Island (Canada) Eskimo (or Inuit), as well as the Native Americans of British Columbia. He and other critics of the unilineal approach, many of whom were his students, such as Alfred Louis Kroeber (1876–1960) and Robert Lowie (1883–1957), also called into question unilinealism's fundamental axioms, seriously questioning whether "progress" was in fact universal or lineal and whether it was possible to rank all human cultures according to a single evolutionary scheme. Finally, the Boasians attacked the concept of "psychic unity," suggesting that all cultures are inherently different from one another and that they should be assessed on their own merits and not comparatively. This approach, which stressed empirical field research over "armchair" theorizing, came to be known as historical particularism, and emphasized cultural relativism and diffusion rather than rigid evolutionary sequences. Anthropologists were enjoined to reconstruct the culture-history of particular tribes and societies, but not the evolution of culture per se. Emphasis was also placed on what has been called "salvage ethnography," gathering ethnographic data before the simpler cultures of the world were overwhelmed by Western culture.

Boas left another important legacy: his work as a public intellectual who used his scholarly knowledge to educate the American public about racial equality. For Boas, who had experienced anti-Semitism in his native Germany, this kind of work on the part of intellectuals was crucial if America was to realize its democratic ideals. He inspired many of his students, including Ruth Benedict (1887–1948) and Margaret Mead (1901–1978), to their own forms of public work by his example. He also influenced several important African and Native American intellectuals who left anthropology for other pursuits, most notably the novelist Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960), as well as the Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre (1900–1987), who credits Boas's influence in the preface to his controversial books on race in Brazilian culture.

In Britain, the empirical reaction to Morgan, Tylor, and their colleagues took a different turn. Most early-twentieth-century British anthropologists, such as Bronislaw K. Malinowski (1884–1942), a Polish scholar who immigrated to England to complete his studies, and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881–1955), were largely ahistorical; that is, they advocated a structural–functional, rather than historical, approach to the study of cultures. Their emphasis was primarily, if not in some cases wholly, on the here and now, on the social organization of living human communities and how the elements thereof were functionally interrelated to form integrated wholes. Malinowski, who spent four years (1915–1918) studying the culture of the Trobriand Islanders (near New Guinea), also focused on how social institutions function to serve basic human needs, such as shelter, reproduction, and nourishment. Radcliffe-Brown, who did field work in the Andaman Islands, South Africa, and Australia, drew liberally on the ideas of the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) in his attempts to discover what he called the "social laws" and "structural principles" that govern social organization everywhere. Among them, Boas, Malinowski, and Radcliffe-Brown trained or influenced at least two generations of sociocultural anthropologists on both sides of the Atlantic, from the early 1900s to the threshold of World War II, and, in Radcliffe-Brown's case, for a decade afterward as well.

However, beginning in the late 1930s, a reaction to the essentially antitheoretical stance of the Boasians began to take shape, based on the assumption that all cultures are necessarily adapted to the ecological circumstances in which they exist. The leading advocate of "cultural ecology" was Julian H. Steward (1902–1972), whose book Theory of Culture Change (1955) had a major impact on the discipline. Other scholars, such as Leslie A. White (1900–1975) and British archaeologist V. Gordon Childe (1892–1957), drawing on the Marxist assumption that the "means of production" is everywhere crucial in determining the nature of society, emphasized the primacy of material culture. (Indeed, White consistently described himself as a disciple of Lewis Henry Morgan, whose work had, in turn, influenced Marx's collaborator Friedrich Engels [1820–1895].) These early "neo-evolutionists" of the mid-twentieth century all acknowledged a debt to Marx, but the new materialism in anthropology soon split into two camps: one that emphasized historical materialism, political economy, and the study of imperialism and inequality, and another that repudiated Marx and focused on questions of ecological adaptation and evolution. The former include Eric Wolf, Sidney Mintz, Eleanor Leacock, and John Murra. Mintz's study of the history of sugar and Wolf's timely comparative project on Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century (1999), published in response to U.S. involvement in Vietnam, remain two classic studies from this school. Among the anti-Marxists, the best-known is the late Marvin R. Harris, whose provocative books for the general public argue that apparently "irrational" religious behavior, such as the Hindu refusal to eat meat or Jewish dietary law, can be attributed to biological needs unknown to practitioners.

Neo-evolutionism was not the only post-Boasian development in sociocultural anthropology. Also in the late 1930s, a number of American anthropologists, among them Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Ralph Linton, drew selectively on Freud and other early twentieth-century psychologists and developed the "culture and personality" school, which emphasized the interface among individual personalities and the cultures they share, as well as the "infant disciplines"—weaning and toilet training—and their effects on both the formation of individual personality structures and the nature of particular cultures. Early and harsh toilet training was held to produce "anal" personalities and authoritarian cultures, whereas relaxed attitudes toward sphincter control and related processes produce relaxed social systems. At the start of the twenty-first century this school has few proponents, but psychological anthropology remains a recognized branch of sociocultural anthropology.

In the 1950s, linguistics began to influence an increasing number of anthropologists. If the cultural ecologists and materialists had come to conceive of culture as essentially an adaptive system, their linguistically oriented colleagues were concerned with cognitive systems and shared symbols, with how people attach meaning to the world around them. Initially known as "ethnoscience," this approach has come to be called "cognitive anthropology." Closely related to it are two other approaches also concerned with meaning. One of them, closely identified with the eminent French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, is structuralism. Extremely influential outside of anthropology, especially in France, this school focused on underlying structures of thought based on binary oppositions, like the binary mathematical code used by computers. From simple pairs such as hot / cold or up / down, cultures construct elaborate systems of myth and meaning that shape everything from cooking to kinship, as well as providing answers to questions about life and death. When initially published, his partially autobiographical Tristes tropiques (1955; The sad tropics) in which he recounts his flight from Nazi Germany to find refuge among the tribes of Amazonian Brazil, was perhaps more influential than his dense and difficult works of structural analysis. Later, however, it was criticized for its portrayal of Native Americans as seemingly "outside of history."

In America, a different school of anthropology, "symbolic anthropology," would ultimately prove more influential than structuralism. This approach, which draws on the same linguistic and cognitive models as structuralism, emphasizes emotion and affect in addition to cognition, and looks back to traditional anthropological studies of magico-religious belief systems, especially Durkheim's work. Among the more important contributors to symbolic anthropology have been the British scholars Victor W. Turner and Mary Douglas, and the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Turner's study of the multivalent symbolic meanings of the "milk-tree" in the life of the Ndembu of northwestern Zambia—its milklike sap stands for everything from semen to mothers' milk—remains a classic. In it, he borrows from Arnold van Gennep's (1873–1957) classic work, Les rites de passage (1909; The Rites of Passage), the concept of the "transition" stage in a rite of passage, which Turner rechristened "liminality." Douglas studied the symbolic opposition between what she calls "purity and danger," as exemplified in her brilliant analysis of the food taboos in the Old Testament, which, she argues, reflect a fear of anomalous animals, like the pig, which is neither a browser nor a ruminant. Geertz, who has done extensive fieldwork in Indonesia and Morocco, is famous for his in-depth analysis of the symbolism of cockfighting in Bali, as well as for the concept of "webs of significance," the idea that all human beings are necessarily bound together by intricate symbolic "webs" in terms of which they collectively confront external reality.

In the last two decades, sociocultural anthropology has seen the emergence of the "post-isms": postcolonialism, which examines the impact of neoliberal capitalism on recently decolonized states; poststructuralism, which critiques the work of Lévi-Strauss and other classic structuralists; and, most importantly, postmodernism, a manifestation of a broader intellectual movement in architecture, literature, cinema, and the arts predicated in fair measure on the theories of French scholars Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. Postmodernists question the validity of externally imposed orders, as well as linear analysis and "essentialist" interpretations, and assert that anthropologists should "deconstruct" the cultures they are attempting to understand. Moreover, postmodern ethnographies often focus as much on the ethnographers as they do the communities they have studied, as any cultural account must necessarily include the impact of the investigator on the investigated, and vice versa. This element in postmodernism has been criticized a great deal, especially by materialists such as Sidney Mintz. Among the more prominent postmodernist anthropologists are Stephen A. Tyler, Vincent Crapanzano, and James A. Boon.

In recent years, sociocultural anthropologists—from a variety of perspectives—have been concerned with globalization, transnational communities, such as the African, Indian, and Chinese diasporas, and borderlands, in which the inhabitants freely share culture traits that are otherwise, for the most part, extremely different and seemingly contradictory and integrate them into new, "hybrid" cultures. There has also been increased concern with feminism, especially what has been labeled "third-wave feminism," and with the heretofore often neglected roles women play in shaping cultural norms, as well as the inequality that persists almost everywhere between the sexes. Finally, gay and lesbian, as well as transsexual, studies form a significant element of contemporary sociocultural anthropology, leading to a major reassessment of the concept of "gender" and the extent to which it is socially constructed rather than innate.

This brief overview of the history and current state of the discipline of anthropology, primarily in the United States, has necessarily omitted mention of many specific developments and schools of thought, for example, the Kulturkreis, or "culture-circle" school, centered on Father Wilhelm Schmidt (1868–1954), that took shape in Vienna in the early years of the last century; the impact of Sir James G. Frazer's (1854–1941) The Golden Bough (1890), which seduced Malinowski into completing his studies in England; and the single-diffusionist ideas of G. Elliot Smith (1871–1937). A great many important contributors, to say nothing of specific topical and regional specialties, such as urban anthropology, esthetic anthropology, East Asian anthropology, African anthropology, and so on, have been slighted. Nevertheless, this discussion provides a general description of what anthropology, in its several major dimensions, is about, how it got that way, and the overwhelming importance of the concept of culture to the discipline.


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——. The Mind of Primitive Man. 1911. Reprint, New York: Free Press, 1963.

Boon, James A. Other Tribes, Other Scribes: Symbolic Anthropology in the Comparative Study of Cultures, Histories, Religions, and Texts. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

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Chomsky, Noam. Syntactic Structures. 2nd ed. New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2002. Originally published in 1957.

Crapanzano, Vincent. Hermes' Dilemma and Hamlet's Desire: On the Epistemology of Interpretation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Daniel, Glyn. The Idea of Prehistory. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1964.

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. New York: Modern Library, 1936. Originally published in 1859.

De Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics. Translated and annotated by Roy Harris. London: G. Duckworth, 1983. Originally published in 1907.

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Fossey, Dian. Gorillas in the Mist. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.

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Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Abridged ed. New York: Macmillan, 1922.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books, 1973.

Gennep, Arnold van. Les rites de passage. 1909. Reprint, Paris: A. and J. Picard, 1981.

Goodall, Jane. Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.

Grimm, Jacob. On the Origin of Language. Translated by Raymond A. Wiley. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1984. Originally published in 1851.

Harris, Marvin R. The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture. New York: Crowell, 1968.

Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Robin Waterfield. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Johanson, Donald C., and Maitland A. Edey. Lucy, the Beginnings of Humankind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.

Kroeber, A. L. The Nature of Culture. 1952. Reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

Leach, Edmund R. Claude Lévi-Strauss. New York: Viking, 1970.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology. Translated by Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf. New York: Basic Books, 1963. Originally published in 1958.

Linton, Ralph. The Cultural Background of Personality. New York: Appleton-Century, 1945.

Littleton, C. Scott. "Anthropology's Moral Cosmos: Reinventing Heisenberg's Wheel and the Need for a Postmodern-Materialist Agenda." Cosmos 15 (1999): 111–127.

Lowie, Robert H. The Crow Indians. 1935. Reprint, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1956.

Lubbock, Sir John (Lord Avebury). Prehistoric Times as Illustrated by Ancient Remains and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages. 7th ed. New York: Holt, 1913. Originally published in 1865.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. 1922. Reprint, Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland, 1984.

——. A Scientific Theory of Culture and Other Essays. 1944. Reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1960.

Mead, Margaret. Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization. 1928. Reprint, New York: Morrow, 1961.

Mintz, Sydney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Viking, 1985.

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Morgan, Lewis Henry. Ancient Society, or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization. Chicago: C. H. Kerr, 1877.

——. Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 1970.

Pedersen, Holger. The Discovery of Language: Linguistic Science in the Nineteenth Century. Translated by John Webster Spargo. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1962. Originally published in 1959.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. Structure and Function in Primitive Society: Essays and Addresses. 1952. Reprint, Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1962.

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Smith, G. Eliot. The Diffusion of Culture. London: Watts, 1933. Steward, Julian H. Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972.

Stocking, George W., Jr. The Ethnographer's Magic and Other Essays in the History of Anthropology. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

Stringer, Chris. African Exodus: The Origins of Modern Humanity. New York: Holt, 1997.

Tacitus, Cornelius. The Germania of Tacitus. Translated by Rodney Potter Robinson. Middletown, Conn.: American Philological Association, 1935.

Turner, Victor W. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967.

Tyler, Stephen A. "Post-Modern Ethnography: From Document of the Occult to Occult Document." In Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by James Clifford and George E. Marcus, 122–140. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Tylor, Sir Edward Burnett. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom. 2 vols. London: John Murray, 1871.

White, Leslie A. The Science of Culture: A Study of Man and Civilization. New York: Grove, 1949.

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings. Edited by John B. Carroll. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1956.

C. Scott Littleton

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5 months ago

Hi, thank you for such a beautiful summary. This is a very helpful read to trace the genesis of Sociocultural Anthropology and extremely well-written. My sincere thanks to the author.