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Cultural Anthropology

Cultural anthropology, a major division of anthropology that deals with the study of culture in all of its aspects and that uses the methods, concepts, and data of archaeology, ethnography and ethnology, folklore, and linguistics in its descriptions and analyses of the diverse peoples of the world.

Definition And Scope

Etymologically, anthropology is the science of humans. In fact, however, it is only one of the sciences of humans, bringing together those disciplines the common aims of which are to describe human beings and explain them on the basis of the biological and cultural characteristics of the populations among which they are distributed and to emphasize, through time, the differences and variations of these populations. The concept of race, on the one hand, and that of culture, on the other, have received special attention; and although their meaning is still subject to debate, these terms are doubtless the most common of those in the anthropologist’s vocabulary.

Anthropology, which is concerned with the study of human differences, was born after the Age of Discovery had opened up societies that had remained outside the technological civilization of the modern West. In fact, the field of research was at first restricted to those societies that had been given one unsatisfactory label after another: “savage,” “primitive,” “tribal,” “traditional,” or even “preliterate,” “prehistorical,” and so on. What such societies had in common, above all, was being the most “different” or the most foreign to the anthropologist; and in the early phases of anthropology, the anthropologists were always European or North American. The distance between the researcher and the object of his study has been a characteristic of anthropological research; it has been said of the anthropologist that he was the “astronomer of the sciences of man.”

Anthropologists today study more than just primitive societies. Their research extends not only to village communities within modern societies but also to cities, even to industrial enterprises. Nevertheless, anthropology’s first field of research, and the one that perhaps remains the most important, shaped its specific point of view with regard to the other sciences of man and defined its theme. If, in particular, it is concerned with generalizing about patterns of human behaviour seen in all their dimensions and with achieving a total description of social and cultural phenomena, this is because anthropology has observed small-scale societies, which are simpler or at least more homogeneous than modern societies and which change at a slower pace. Thus they are easier to see whole.

What has just been said refers especially to the branch of anthropology concerned with the cultural characteristics of man. Anthropology has, in fact, gradually divided itself into two major spheres: the study of man’s biological characteristics and the study of his cultural characteristics. The reasons for this split are manifold, one being the rejection of the initial mistakes regarding correlations between race and culture. More generally speaking, the vast field of 19th-century anthropology was subdivided into a series of increasingly specialized disciplines, using their own methods and techniques, that were given different labels according to national traditions. The Table shows the terminology current in North America and in continental Europe.

Terminology of Anthropolgical Disciplines in North America and Continental Europe