What is Anthropology? Part 1: Introduction   no comments

Posted at 10:28 am in Sociology

Eriksen, T. H., 2004. What is Anthropology. London: Pluto Press.

Although they “cast their net far and wide” (to provide context for observations), the work of the anthropologist is undertaken primarily through close interaction with individuals and the groups they live within. In-depth, structured interviews are used extensively and the key research method is ‘participant observation’ – the goal being to extensively record everyday experiences.

Concepts and theoretical approaches
Observation and reporting is influenced by the interplay between theories, concepts and methodologies.

Key concepts:
1. Language The human perception of the world is primarily shaped by language. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis proposes that language is a strong indicator of the world view that different groups inhabit. Studying the language structure (e.g. predominant use of grammar) can provide a good understanding of a particular groups’ everyday concerns.

2. Theories of the person
a) Egocentric. Person as a unique individual, whole and indivisible; responsible for the decisions they take.
b) Sociocentric. Person as a part of a community, who is a re-creation of an earlier human entity and has a pre-ordained role as a member of a social strata within the community (caste). A persons life is decided by fate and destiny (karma and dharma).
c) Ancestor-centric. Person as a unique individual with personal responsibility, but guided by ancestral spirits.
d) Relational. Person is primarily understood through their relationship with others.
e) Gender. The social construction of male/female distinctions, often described through the idiom of female oppression. Perception of oppression is based on personal appreciation. Male domination of formal economy is prevalent, with women exerting “considerable” informal power. Societies experiencing change often demonstrate conflict and tensions through gender and generational relations.

3) Theories of society
Often related to nation state. But each state contains communities, ethnic groups, interest groups, people who work or live together for a long time and have moral relationship. This presents a tension between ‘face-to-face’ society and abstract national society, where face-to-face societies have more permeable boundaries than state, and the state may be perceived as oppressive, corrupt, or remote.
a) Henry Maine (1861):
i) Status societies. Persons have fixed relationships to each other, based on birth, background, rank and position.
ii) Contract societies. Voluntary agreements between individuals, status based on personal achievement. Perceived as more complex than status societies.
b) Ferdinand Tönnies (1887):
i) Gemeinschaft (community). People belong to group with shared experiences and traditional obligations.
ii) Gesellschaft (society). Large-scale society. Driven by utilitarian logic, where the role of family and local community has been taken over by state and other powerful institutions.
These simple dichotomies are no longer followed by anthropologists as distinct boundaries within society are mutable. Power within a state may reside in political elite, but in ethnically plural states, the ethnic leadership may hold sway, or in poorly integrated states, local and kinship grouping may hold greater power than state politicians.

When setting out a study subject, anthropologists describe the scale of the subject (e.g. web use among teenagers in urban Europe).

4) Theories of culture
Possibly the most complex area in anthropology. The classic concept of culture is based on cultural relativism, which has been discredited due to its use to promote particular group claims, discriminate against minorities and promote aggressive nationalism. The key intellectual architect of apartheid was anthropologist, Werner Eiselen (Bantu Education Act, 1953).
a) No definition that all anthropologists agree on. A L Kroeber and Clyde Kluckholn (1952) – Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions describes and analyses 162 different definitions of culture.
The concept of ‘multicultural society’ indicates that culture has a different meaning to society – although there are similarities between them and are often used as synonyms for each other.
b) E B Tylor (1871). ‘Culture in its widest ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society’.
c) Clifford Geertz (1960s). Interpretive Anthropology – shared meanings through public communications.
d) Objections to concept of culture:
i) Culture as plural can be seen as something that divides humanity, as the attention shifts from uniqueness of humanity to the differences between groups. (Boas – cultural relativism, Malinowski – field methodology, focus on single societies). Expressions of culture are unique and variable – but refer to universal, shared humanity.
ii) Problem of boundaries, internal variation and change. Delineating culture is problematic as there is considerable variation – often more so within groups than between groups.
iii) Mixed cultural forms and transnational flows of culture makes it more difficult to draw boundaries between cultures. Ulf Hannerz (1992) describes culture as flowing, dynamic process rather than static entity – culture as a global web of networks with no absolute boundaries, with nodes of varying density which are more or less stable.
iv) Inaccurate and vague nature of culture. Term used glibly to mean many different things and gives the illusion of insight. To understand what goes on in the world a more nuanced, specific concept is required.

5) Problems of translation
This includes translation of acts as well as language, and is mediated by necessary forms of compression and editing, which implies subjectivity. To understand a group it is not sufficient to simply observe, the anthropologist must learn the meaning and connotations of actions and words. Understanding only comes when a phenomenon is understood and explained in terms of its full meaning and significance to the group under observation – and how it forms part of a continuous whole. The main difficulty comes in translating abstract terms.

Problems: Misrepresentation, inevitable subjectivity of researcher, standard data organisation (gender, class, ethnicity) may not correspond to life-world of observed group.
Criteria for distinguishing good from bad subjectivity:
a) High level of detail.
b) Degree of context provided.
c) Triangulation with related studies.
d) Closeness of researcher to group (e.g. homeblindness).

6) Comparison
A means to clarify the significance of findings through contrasts that reveal similarities with other societies and build on theoretical generalisations. The aim of comparison is to understand the differences as well as the similarities.
a) Translation is a form of comparison – the native language is compared to the anthropologists own.
b) Establish contrasts and similarities between groups.
c) To investigate the possible existence of human universals (e.g. shared concepts of colour) – or to disprove them (e.g male aggression).
d) Quasi-experiment – anthropologists are unable to carry out blind studies, as the results would be inauthentic. Comparisons between two or several societies with many similarities, but with clear differences can provide an understanding of these differences.

7) Holism and context
Within anthropology holism refers to how phenomena are connected to each other and institutions to create an integrated whole, not necessarily of any lasting or permanent nature. It entails identification of internal connections in a system of interaction and communication.
a) Edmund Leach (1954) shows that societies are not in integrated equilibrium, but are unstable and changeable.
b) Fredrik Barth (1960s) transactionalism – a model of analysis which puts the individual at the centre and does not assume that social integration is a necessary outcome of interaction.

Holism has fallen from favour recently as anthropologists now understand that they are studying fragmented groups that are only loosely connected. However contextualisation may have become the key methodology; that is, every phenomenon must be understood within its dynamic relationship with other phenomena. The wider context is key to understanding single phenomena. For example – an anthropologist studying the Internet will explore both the online and offline lives of individuals. The choice of relevant contexts depends on the priorities of the researchers.

Written by Tim O'Riordan on October 23rd, 2013

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