What is Anthropology Part 2: Theories and Fields   no comments

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

“The raw material of anthropology – people, societies, cultures – is constituted differently from that of the natural and quantitative sciences, and can be formalised only with great difficulty…” (Eriksen, 2004, p 77). “[Anthropology’s approach] can be summed up as an insistence on regarding social and cultural life from within, a field method largely based on interpretation, and a belief (albeit variable) in comparison as a source of theoretical understanding” (Eriksen, 2004, p 81). Theory provides criteria by which to categorise data and to judge is significance. Anthropology applies theory to social and cultural data.

Fundamental questions

1. What is it that makes people do whatever they do?

2. How are societies or cultures integrated?

3 To what extent does thought vary from society to society, and how much is similar across cultures?

Anthropological theory is deeply tied to observation. Differences in approaches by region: US researchers favour linguistics and psychology and British favour sociological explanations (via politics, kinship and law).


There are 4 main theoretical underpinnings of Anthropological theory:

1. Structural-functionalism – A R Radcliffe-Brown: Demonstrating how societies are integrated. Person as social product. Ability of norms and social structure to regulate human interaction. Social structure defined as the sum of mutually defined statuses in a society.

2. Cultural-materialism – Ruth Benedict (1887-1948): Cultures and societies have ‘personality traits’.

Dionysian = extroverted, pleasure seeking, passionate and violent;

Apollonian = introverted, peaceful and puritanical;

Paranoid = members live in fear and suspicion of each other. Culture expressed seamlessly in different contexts – from institutional to personal levels.

Margaret Mead (1901 – 1978): sought to understand cultural variations in personality. Her highly influential work on child-rearing, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) demonstrated that personality is shaped through socialisation.

3. Agency and society

Raymond Firth: Persons act according to their own will.

Pierre Bourdieu: Interested in the power differences in society distributed opportunities for choice unequally. Knowledge management: Doxa = what is self-evident and taken for granted within a particular society; Habitus = embodied knowledge, the habits and skills of the body which are taken for granted and hard to change; Opinion = everything that is actively discussed; Structuring structures = the systems of social relations within society which reduce individual freedom of choice. Important to understanding the causes that restrict free choice.

4. Structuralism – Theory of human cognitive processes.

Lévi-Strauss: the human mind functions and understands the world through contrasts in the form of extreme opposites with an intermediate stage (‘triads’). Cross-cultural studies of myth, food, art classification and religion. Based on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s observation in La pensée sauvage: “…in order to study Man, one must learn to look from afar; one must first observe differences in order to to discover attributes”.  Post-structuralism more in favour today.

5. Primacy of the material – Strongly influenced by historical materialism (Marx). Gives primacy to material conditions of individuals above individual agency or how the mind works.

Two approaches within this area: those that favour economic conditions and those that give primacy to technological and ecological factors.

Julian Steward/Leslie White: Societies grow in complexity as a result of technological and economic change. Change happens in the ‘cultural core’ of technology, ecological adaption and property relations. The ‘rest of culture’ (e.g. religion, art, law etc) is more or less autonomous.

Gregory Bateson (Margaret Mead’s husband and one of the founders of cybernetics – i.e self-regulating systems) – all systems have properties in common: reaction to feedback (or lack of feedback) gives rise to repercussions which ensures the continuing re-imaging of the system.

6. Geertzian hermeneutics – interpretation of the world from the natives point of view.

Clifford Geertz: Thick description = a great deal of contextual description to elicit understanding of data. “…research primarily consists of penetrating, understanding and describing culture systematically the way it is experienced locally – not to explain it in terms of comparison…structuralist, materialist, or otherwise.”

Culture is expressed through shared, public symbols (communication) – so guessing the workings of the minds of those under scrutiny is unnecessary.

7. Eclecticism – a combined approach which recognises the complexity of the world and which attempts to “grasp both the acting individuals and the systemic properties constraining them”.


1. Reciprocity – the conduct of exchange, fundamental to sociality, crucial to human life.
a) Marcel Mauss – Gift-giving. The Gift (Essai sur le don, 1925). Three roles in gift-giving: obligation to give, obligation to receive and obligation to return the gift. Simplistic evolutionary view of society: i) Universal gift-giving fundamental to social integration (historical) ii) Institutions take on gift-giving role. iii) Marginal role for gift-giving in modern, alienating, capitalist societies. Exchange does not need to be economically profitable. “All economies have a local, moral, cultural element” (Eriksen, 2004, p 88). (Remnants of historical obligation are witnessed in round buying in pubs, dinner party invitations, circulation of second-hand children’s clothing among family and friends, voluntary community work, and Christmas. The potlatch institution (Boas) – where tribes seek to out-do each other in their extravagant wastefulness.

b) Karl Polanyi – Integration: reciprocity, redistribution and market principle. A radical critique of capitalism, directly relevant to ‘economic anthropology’. Rejects the view that people primarily strive to maximise utility (even if it happens at the expense of others). Psychological motivations are influenced by personal gain, consideration for others and the need to be socially acceptable. “Reciprocity is the ‘glue’ that keeps societies together” (Eriksen, 2004, p 91).

c) Marhsall Sahlins – 3 forms of reciprocity: balanced (e.g. tit-for-tat trade – close proximity ), generalised (gift-giving – family and friends), and negative (attempt to gain benefit without cost – strangers). Shows how “morality, economics and social integration are interwoven” (Eriksen, 2004, p 92).

d) Annette Weiner (Inalienable Possessions, 1992) – some things cannot be exchanged or given away as gifts, e.g. “…talismans, knowledges, [secret] rites which confirm deep-seated identities and their continuity through time” (Maurice Godlier, 1999). Cultural identity could be seen as an ‘inalienable possession’.

e) Daniel Miller (Theory of Shopping, 1998) – Sacrifice: women in buying at supermarkets purchase for others to form a relationship with them, and consider the views of others when buying for themselves.

f) Matt Ridley (The Origins of Virtue, 1996) – mathematical models show that cooperation ‘pays off’ in the long run.

2. Kinship – basis of social organisation. Not just family, but local community and work relations.

a) Lewis Henry Morgan – traditional societies thoroughly organised on kinship and descent.

b) Fortes and Evans-Pritchard – acephalous (‘headless) societies in Africa based on kinship-based social organisation. Segmentary system that expands and shrinks according to need – deeply influential in anthropology.

c) Lévi-Strauss – Alliance and reciprocity in kinship relations. Marriage in traditional societies is group-based and forms long-term reciprocity.

d) ‘Modern’ society – tension between family, kinship and personal freedom. Kinship is important in determining career opportunities

3. Nature

a) Inner nature – humans shaped by society and history, but with objective, universal human needs (Malinowski, Lévi-Strauss).

b) External nature – relationship between ecology and society, options are limited by environmental conditions, technology and population density.

c) Nature as a social construction – humans create representations of nature, which is often unspoken or not reflected upon – tacit knowledge.

d) Sociobiology – human actions cannot be be understood as pure adaption. “Research aims to establish valid generalisations about the mind as it has evolved biologically”.

4. Thought – people say what they think or express it through their acts, rituals or public performances.

a) Rationality – Evans-Pritchard’s 3 types of knowledge: i) mystical knowledge based on the belief in invisible and unverifiable forces; ii) commonsensical knowledge based on everyday experience; iii) scientific knowledge based on the tenets of logic and experimental method. Important, possibly unanswerable questions: i) is it possible to translate from one system of knowledge to another without distorting it with ‘alien’ concepts? ii) does a context-independent or neutral language exist to describe systems of knowledge? iii) do all humans reason in fundamentally the same way? Study of Technology and Science (STS) – science and technology as cultural products.

b) Classification and pollution – different people classify and subdivide them in different ways. Mary Douglas: classification of nature and the human body reflects society’s ideology about itself. What ‘pollution’, i.e. food prohibition, tells us about society.

c) Totemism – a form of classification whereby individuals or groups have special (often mythical) relationships to nature. Lévi-Strauss’ distinction between bricolage (associational, non-linear thought) and ‘engineering’ (logical thought).

d) Thought and technology

5. Identification a) The social b) Relational and situational identifications c) Imperative and chosen identities d) Degrees of identification e) Anomolies

Mind map: http://www.mindmeister.com/250242069

Written by Tim O'Riordan on November 13th, 2013

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