Anthropology may be dissected into four main perspectives, firstly physical or biological anthropology, which is an area of study concerned with human evolution and human adaptation. Its main components are human paleontology, the study of our fossil records, and human genetics, which examines the ways in which human beings differ from each other. Also adopted are aspects of human ecology, ethnology, demography, nutrition, and environmental physiology. From the physical anthropologist we learn the capabilities for bearing culture that distinguish us from other species.
Secondly archaeology, which follows from physical anthropology, reassembles the evolution of culture by examining the physical remains of past societies. Its difference from physical anthropology being its concern with culture rather than the biological aspects off the human species. Archaeologists must assess and analyse their subject culture from accidental remains, which can only provide an incomplete picture.
Thirdly, Anthropological linguistics is a field within anthropology which focuses upon the relationship between language and cultural behaviour. Anthropological linguists ask questions about language and communication to aid the appraisement of society rather than a descriptive or linguistic assessment.
For example Freil and Pfeiffer (1977) cite an assessment of the Inuit language where there are twelve unrelated words for wind and twenty-two for snow, showing the difference in significance by comparison with our own society. The deduction being that wind and snow are more significant to the Inuit so they scrutinise them more rigorously and can clearly define them accordingly. This kind of linguistic analysis facilitates a better understanding of a foreign culture to help place it into context to allow contrast.
Fourthly, social anthropology is the study of human social life or society, concerned with examining social behavior and social relationships. As the focus of social anthropology is on patterns of social connection, it is commonly contrasted with the branch of anthropology that examines culture, that is, learnt and inherited beliefs and standards of behavior and in particular the meanings, values and codes of conduct. Cultural anthropology (the study of culture in its social context) is associated particularly with American anthropology (specifically, in the United States), and social anthropology with European, especially British studies, which have tended to be more sociological, that is, they are more concerned with understanding society. However, culture and society are interdependent, and today the single term “sociocultural anthropology” is sometimes used.
The social anthropologist uses a number of cultural ethnographic studies to construct an ethnological study. A social anthropological definition of culture is given by J.P.Spenley in ‘The Ethnographic Interview’ (1979), culture is “the acquired knowledge that people use to interpret, experience and generate social behaviour”. By this interpretation culture is not the physical characteristics of any society but the reasoning behind those characteristics, it is a body of implicit and explicit knowledge shared by a group of people. It is used by people individually as a map to determine their behaviour in any given situation. Spendley’s definition does not divert from the significance of behaviour, customs, objects or emotions, these are essential tools for the anthropologist which allow the interpretation of culture to facilitate the tracking down of cultural meaning. Ethnographic study is a search to uncover this meaning which is the root cause of cultural differences and can therefore be seen as the definition of any culture.
There has been considerable theoretical debate by anthropologists over the most useful attributes that a technical concept of culture should stress. For example, in 1952 Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn, American anthropologists, published a list of 160 different definitions of culture. A brief table of this list next page, shows the diversity of the anthropological concept of culture.
TABLE: Diverse Definitions of Culture:
Culture consists of everything on a list of topics, or categories, such as social
organization, religion, or economy
Culture is social heritage, or tradition, that is passed on to future generations
Culture is shared, learned human behavior, a way of life
Culture is ideals, values, or rules for living
Culture is the way humans solve problems of adapting to the environment or living together
Culture is a complex of ideas, or learned habits, that inhibit impulses and distinguish people from animals
Culture consists of patterned and interrelated ideas, symbols, or behaviors
Culture is based on arbitrarily assigned meanings that are shared by a society.
(John H. Bodley, An Anthropological Perspective 1994)
We tend not to be aware of our cultural meaning expressed through our cultural norms, we tend to accept as correct our cultural definitions unless confronted by cultural difference, as Anthony P. Cohen is quoted in Small Places, Big Issues, “People become aware of their culture when they stand at its boundaries: when they encounter other cultures, or when they become aware of other ways of doing things, or merely contradictions to their own culture”. Without ethnographic difference culture itself would not exist. Difference allows the expression of social identity, yet different social groups must also possess a degree of commonality to enable them to interact. The differences and resemblances between cultures offer an opportunity for assessment of the characteristics which bound a particular society, and the meanings of those characteristics can be learned through the context of the particular society or culture.
Social anthropologists must assess cultures in context to truly understand them. The context of any culture or society under examination needs to be appreciated so that the particular distinctions of that culture can be properly understood and translated into terms facilitating ethnographic and ethnological study. Context must be learned by the anthropologist, generally through prolonged fieldwork to climatise them to the alien environment and give an opportunity to learn the language, norms and values of the subject society.
An ethnological study will require understanding of at least two cultures through ethnographic study, thus boiled down to their pure cultural meanings by study in context, the meanings are exposed for comparison. Comparison of cultural differences is essential for cultural expression, comparison is also essential to the anthropologist as it offers opportunity for study and understanding. By comparison we judge and measure almost everything in our lives, we require comparison to accurately gain perspective. Therefore the social anthropologist requires an understanding of at least two cultures, perhaps another and his own to compare aspects of these societies while looking for interesting areas for comparison. Social anthropologists strive to account for actual cultural variation in the world and to develop a hypothetical perspective on culture and society. The only hope of achieving these goals is through comparison.
For instance, ‘The Traveller Gypsies’ by J. Okely (1986) is a study of traveller society which discusses many of the idiosyncrasies of that culture by applying context and therefore reasons that the anthropologist exposes genuine differences between the gypsy and the settled communities. Differences which when compared in context are enticing and Informative, not only in regard to the traveller culture but by reflection on the settled community. The gypsy attitude to hygiene and cleanliness for example has been a source of friction between them and settled communities, yet when looked at in context of their beliefs, that is, the distinctions they make between the outer and inner self and their definitions of dirt or ‘poluti’ are simply different from the values and practices of the settled community. When looked at in context and by comparison the actions of the travellers seem much more rational and in many ways their standards of hygiene are much higher than those generally found in the settled community. Thus comparison provides information, puts that information in perspective and
allows assessment and re-assessment of both cultures under comparison.
This demonstrates the essential nature of culture, context and comparison to the social anthropologist when assessing humanity. They are the essential tools of the trade which allow them to strip society, analyse and assess its parts to construct a balanced holistic picture of society. Cultural differences cause conflict and division continuously all over the world. To deal with this and to enact the required proper changes necessary to remove the conflict, an accurate assessment and understanding of culture is required. Appropriate social change should only come from adequate social assessment and understanding, This is one of the benefits offered by the social anthropological perspective through its holistic approach.
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