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Some trace the concept of anthropology, an academic discipline devoted to understanding every aspect of humans and their societies, to the Greek culture from which its name, anthropos (human being) and logos (knowledge), derives. According to Merwyn S. Garbarino in Sociocultural Theory in Anthropology: A Short History (1983), it is the breadth of anthropology’s coverage, and its ability to combine the categories and interests of other fields like economics, political science, social psychology, sociology and even biology that brands it as unique—a holistic approach to “the study of …[humankind] the animal and …[humankind] the social being through time and space” (Garbarino 1983, p. 2).
Anthropology is very much rooted in European intellectual traditions (Herodotus’s descriptions of other societies in the fifth century BCE), Europe’s expansion as a colonial power (Marco Polo’s ethnographic details of the court of Kubla Khan in Peking around 1275), and the rise of imperialism. The Enlightenment was a time of profound and systematic inquiry into the nature of humans (cast during that time as the nature of man), and the ideas of Enlightenment scholars shaped many of the core questions that still direct anthropology in the early-twenty-first century. Building upon the approaches of natural history, the precursor to what is now called science, scholars like Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke attempted to explain human social and cultural variation by seeking to uncover the natural laws that governed the rational order of the universe. The logic behind Newton’s Principia Mathematics and Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, two of the most influential works of the time, could best be summarized as follows: “The universe was rationally ordered, and laws could be discovered that explained the motions of the planets and the behavior of people” (Garbarino 1983, p. 12, emphasis original). These principles were thought to be the key to answering two questions about humans as social creatures and human cultural and biological variation: “Why do people behave the way they do?” and “What causes human diversity?” The theories developed in anthropology were attempts to answer these two questions about human behavior and observable differences in societies and in human phenotypes using natural science methodology.
Colonial contact with non-complex, non-industrial other societies gave Europeans the understanding that such societies were primitive because they did not mimic European society. By the nineteenth century, social theorists, like anthropologists, adhered to a “doctrine of progress,” according to editors W. L. Partridge and E. M. Eddy in Applied Anthropology in America (1978). As they described it, “Throughout centuries of progress, the modern, ‘superior,’ ‘moral,’ social life of nineteenth century industrialism was believed to have developed from ‘primitive,’ ‘immoral,’ ‘childlike’ societies” (p. 7). Anthropologists believed that by studying such societies, one could trace the progress from so-called primitive societies to their own contemporary status, always holding European social development as the ideal. The two theoretical camps that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century were those who interpreted non-western societies through a lens of unilinealism, and argued that “all societies passed through a single evolutionary process,” and those who professed a belief in diffusionism, an attempt to explain “the spread of a cultural item from its place of origin to other places” (King and Wright 2003).
Underpinning these theories, and many of the other ideas that would shape anthropology, was the belief in cultural evolution, led by Herbert Spencer. He believed “evolution to be one of the fundamental processes in the universe” (McGee and Warms 2000, p. 7). Charles Darwin also cited Spencer’s work in his theory on biological evolution. At the close of the nineteenth century, Europeans dominated the development of anthropological theories and practices: from Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–1881) and Edward Burnett Tylor (1832–1917) to Sir James Fraser (1854–1941); Karl Marx, whom Garbarino argues did not do “competent anthropology” (Garbarino 1983, p. 39); his collaborator and benefactor, Friedrich Engels; and Émile Durkheim.
Some of these great theorists, such as Fraser and Tylor, had never conducted field research, drawing their generalizations from the ethnographies of anthropologists who conducted ethnographic fieldwork as well as from the nonscholarly observations and descriptions of missionaries and travelers. In England and France, sociocultural anthropologists remained separate from those studying archaeology and physical anthropology, and colonialism, fueled by theories of unilineal evolutionism, further reinforced ethnocentric views that so-called primitive societies were at a lower scale of development than those in Europe. Durkheim’s use of the cross-cultural approach to understand “social development, suicide, religion, and above all, social cohesion,” moved French sociology into the realm of anthropology, and Durkheim is claimed by the discipline today as a key figure (Garbarino 1983, p. 38).
The Emergence of American Cultural Anthropology
Cross-cultural comparison, the culture concept, cultural relativism (introduced by Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brede and de Montesquieu [1689–1755], generally referred to as Montesquieu), the professionalization of data collection (including William H. R. Rivers’s genealogical method used to trace descent and describe kinship patterns as a window onto understanding general social relations), and critiques of unilineal evolutionist approaches to explaining sociocultural variation were all part of the emerging field of anthropology. Also part of it was a belief among “British and American anthropologists … that good ethnographic information would help government personnel avoid mistakes that might be not only costly but also painful and destructive to native peoples” (Garbarino 1983, p. 44). This cozy relationship between colonial administrators and anthropology, such as the Royal Anthropological Institute’s training center for colonial administrators, would come back at the end of the century to haunt anthropology, produce a distrust between former colonial people and the discipline in the so-called Third World or the Global South, and give anthropology the unfortunate, but accurate for the period in question, moniker—“child of imperialism and colonialism” (Garbarino 1983, p. 44).
In the United States, at the American Museum of Natural History, a transplanted German, Franz Boas, embarked on the Jesup North Pacific Expedition (1897–1902). The data he collected affirmed the value of anthropologists doing their own research rather than relying on the reports of others. “He encouraged his students to collect as many ethnographic data as possible—total recovery was his goal” (Garbarino 1983, p. 48). Boas turned his back on the tendencies prevalent in the discipline: sweeping and broad generalizations and comparisons. Rather, he stressed to his students that they accumulate large bodies of data using a holistic approach before venturing toward any conclusions. What set Boas apart from his peers was that “while evolutionists had searched for similarities, …[he] looked for diversity.” He also paid close attention to history, “believing that each society could be understood only in light of its particular past” (Garbarino 1983, p. 48). In his 1920 essay, “The Methods of Ethnology,” Boas summed up his critique of the flawed logic of both evolutionism and diffusionism in the following way: “These methods are essentially forms of classification of the static phenomena of culture according to two distinct principles, and interpretations of these classifications as of historical significance, without, however any attempt to prove that this interpretation is justified” (Boas 2000, p. 135).
According to McGee and Warms’s discussion of Boas in their history of anthropological theory, Boas “pioneered the concept of cultural relativism in anthropology.” Further, his approach of historical particularism emphasized the discipline’s holism, and drew upon the study of “prehistory, linguistics, and physical anthropology” (McGee and Warms 2000, p.131). Boas’s desire to introduce scientific rigor to this emerging academic field and his quest for holism were directly responsible for academic American anthropology acquiring the four-field signature of cultural (social) anthropology, archaeology (or prehistory), biological (or physical) anthropology, and linguistics anthropology (Miller 2004, p. 2). This holistic approach would distinguish American anthropology, going forward, from its European progenitors. Boas also brought to this emerging discipline a new “agenda for social reform” as well as theories of race that challenged the prevailing status quo beliefs. He believed that environment and nurturing were significant factors in human development. In his 1940 essay, “Anthropological Study of Children,” Boas noted, “Some observations have been made that illustrate the influence of environment, not only upon growth of the bulk of the body but also upon some of the forms that develop very early in life” (Boas 1982, p. 101). Boas’s students were the first generation of formally trained academic American anthropologists, and many would become leading figures in the discipline— Alfred Kroeber, Robert Lowie, Edward Sapir, and Ruth Benedict. Subsequent students included Margaret Mead and Zora Neale Hurston.
American anthropology continues to embrace holism, and although the four-field approach, the culture concept, and cultural relativism have drawn sharp criticism and debate, they remain cornerstones of the discipline’s distinctiveness. American anthropology’s history of contributing to social reform has also attracted new thinkers that include women, nonwhite, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered anthropologists. Their contributions include ongoing interrogations of evolutionist theories, positivism, modernization, critiques of ethnocentrism, homophobia, sexism, and racism, both in the society and within the academy, and challenges to the scientific validity of the concept of race, while acknowledging the power of social race. Their interpretive approaches and use of identity politics support methodologies quite different from the empiricism that H. Russell Bernard (1998) claims is ubiquitous to the discipline. These characteristics, along with the persistence of the four-field approach, and a long-standing tension between humanism and science, continue to distinguish American anthropology from its British and French cousins
- Bernard, H. Russell. 1998. Handbook of Methods in Cultural Anthropology. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
- Boas, Franz. (1920) 2000. The Methods of Enthology. In Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History, eds. R. Jon McGee and Richard L. Warms, 2nd ed. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing.
- Boas, Franz. (1940) 1982. Anthropological Study of Children. In Race, Language, and Culture, ed. Franz Boas, 94–102. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Eddy, Elizabeth M., and William L. Partridge, eds. 1978. Applied Anthropology in America. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Garbarino, Merwyn S. (1977) 1983. Sociocultural Theory in Anthropology: A Short History. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
- King, Gail, and Meghan Wright. 2003. Diffusionism and Acculturation. http://www.as.ua.edu/ant/Faculty/murphy/diffusion.htm.
- McGee, R. Jon, and Richard L.Warms. 2000. Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History, 2nd ed. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing.
- Miller, Barbara D. 2004. Cultural Anthropology. 3rd ed. Boston: Pearson Education.
- Partridge, William L., and Elizabeth M. Eddy. 1978. The Development of Applied Anthropology in America. In Applied Anthropology in America, eds. Elizabeth M. Eddy and William L. Partridge, 3–45. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Titiev, Mischa. 1959 Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. New York: Henry Holt.
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