Identity (Post 2 – Basic Anthropology)   no comments

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My reading this week has focused on gaining a basic understanding of some of the underlying concepts on anthropology, before I turn to look at Identity from this point of view. I have started by reading “Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology” by Thomas Hylland Eriksen, from which some of the elementary points I have gained are described below.

One of the primary issues described immediately is that of ethnocentrism which occurs when a researcher examines a subject from only the point of view of their own background, and will therefore only describe it from their own culture’s perspective. This can lead to the researcher believing that their own cultural group may be superior to the group which they are researching, as they are only looking at it in comparison to what they are familiar with (pages 6-7). In contrast to this, cultural realism would state that “Cultures are qualitatively different and have their own unique inner logic”, and that ranking can not be used to distinguish different societies. Ultimately, cultural realism would believe that as long as something makes sense in a particular context, then it is as good as everything else, and it is not likely that this is followed by anyone completely outside of their line of work (page 7).

The book then began to cover a brief overview of the history of anthropology, and one concept immediately struck me as having relevance towards Identity, but according to the book it has never been part of the mainstream anthropological thinking outside of Germany. Diffusionism, “the doctrine of the historical diffusion of cultural traits”, seems to have been left behind after the First World War when studies on societies where taken without looking into the historical development of those societies (page 13). In terms of Identity, I believe there must be something in this area about the historical basis of a culture’s identity, so it is something I will investigate – the globalisation theory is reminiscent of diffusionism and “attempts to understand the ways in which modern mass communications, migration, capitalism and other ‘global’ phenomena interact with local conditions” and will also be worth looking at.

The final concept I will cover in this post is ethnography, which aims to develop a thorough understanding of the culture or society being investigated (page 24). It is the fundamental research gathering technique used by anthropology, and is generally where differences can be drawn with other social sciences as the study will generally cover a long period of time. The author uses a good analogy to differentiate anthropological views and historical views: “Anthropology may be described as the process whereby one wades into a river and explores it as it flows by, whereas historians are forced to study the dry riverbed.” However it is stressed that the two should not be seen as mutually exclusive, throwing weight behind my theory that looking at diffusionism may be of value in this study (page 33).

Now that I have at least some understanding of the basic concepts behind anthropology, I will this week begin to look a bit more at how Identity is seen from this discipline, and what other areas of the subject I will need to look at.

Written by Chris P on November 2nd, 2010

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