What Is Cultural Anthropology?

Aden Pattern Pith Helmet
We don’t wear these anymore.

The stereotypical image of a cultural anthropologist is someone who studies strange people in far-off lands. Cultural anthropologists are known to speak a couple of languages, slip between cultures like Santa Claus down chimneys, and tell wild (if sometimes oddly low-key) stories of far off lands.

But in the new world of near-instant travel and even faster communication, that doesn’t really even begin to describe what cultural anthropologists do. We’re all exposed to the Other now. The Other is not some strange and exotic thing, it’s just a part of life.

So what do anthropologists do all day? Mostly, they try to understand people by watching them live and work in groups. And those groups work together using a set of “tools” called culture. Except culture’s not just a set of tools. Culture is the meta-tool. It’s so ubiquitous, most times we don’t even know we’re in it.

If culture’s so big, how the heck do we even look at it?

Chopping Culture to Pieces

Anthropological theory usually starts by breaking down culture into mental categories. For example, we might make the divisions: Ethnicity, Language, Economy, Politics, Kinship, Gender, and Religion.

A quick look at that list will show that it doesn’t quite cover everything, and a lot of things fit into multiple categories. If a leader is always a man (or woman) in culture X, then does that fit into politics? Religion? Gender? It turns out, we can look at the same thing in several ways.

Worse, there comes a moment when we realize that these categories are based on our own culture — they’re tools we use to help ourselves understand, not actual, natural categories with an a priori existence.

It’s a humbling moment when we discover that these word-tools are actually a part of our own culture. Still, for understanding culture and its basic processes, they’re a good start. The starting place of the Western discipline of anthropology has to be Western culture. It is necessary, but it would be a shame to forget why we did it in the first place.

Development of Social Theory

Each and every area of study in anthropology has its own extensive theories, and not all of it agrees with itself. In many of the social sciences, that is often the case. How can this be?

Most people know more about psychology than they do about anthropology. For a moment, then, think about psychology and its various approaches to understanding people. While modern psychological practice and theory (take Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Cognitive Psychology) do, in a sense, descend from the work of Sigmund Freud, it would be ridiculous to argue that we’ve just built on his ideas.

Instead, as Western culture’s knowledge has grown, psychologists have actually swept away some parts of Freud’s theories. In fact, we could probably break his theories into two categories: things that we think are true without questioning them, and things that we think are passé. We all “know” that the things that happen in childhood shape who we become (I hear that was his idea) but we think the id, ego, and superego might just be too simple a structure to describe us.

The same pattern holds true in anthropology, as it has developed over the past century and a half. We no longer believe that the first people developed culture as a way of figuring out which kids went with which father in a matriarchal society (MotherRight, J. J. Bachofen, 1861). Anthropologists no longer theorize that cultures develop through linear stages from band to nation-state. [We stole that construct from Neoplatonism, as mentioned here.]

Yet cultural anthropologists know culture is something that is learned. Moreover, it’s learned in such a way that it forms the basis of our experience of the world. We know that our area of study is as fundamental to human experience as human biology — almost mystical in its implications.

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