Anthropology – approaches and methodologies   no comments

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Picking up where I left off last week, I will now present the different approaches and methodologies of anthropology as a discipline.

We have already seen that social and cultural anthropology – also known as ethnography – as a discipline endeavours to answer the questions of what is unique about human beings, or how are social groups formed, etc. This clearly overlaps with many other social sciences. For all the authors reviewed, what distinguishes anthropology from other social sciences is not the subject studied, but the discipline’s approach to it. For Peoples and Bailey (2000, pp. 1 and 8), anthropological approach to its subject is threefold:

  • Holistic
  • Comparative
  • Relativistic

The holistic perspective means that ‘no single aspect of human culture can be understood unless its relations to other aspects of the culture are explored’. It means anthropologists are looking for connections between facts or elements, striving to understand parts in the context of the whole.

The comparative approach, for Peoples and Bailey (2000, p. 8) implies that general theories about humans, societies or cultures must be tested comparatively- ie that they are ‘likely to be mistaken unless they take into account the full range of cultural diversity’ (Peoples & Bailey 2000, p. 8).

Finally the relativistic perspective means that for anthropologists no culture is inherently superior or inferior to any other. In other words, anthropologists try not to evaluate the behaviour of members of other cultures by the values and standards of their own. This is a crucial point which can be a great source of debate when studying global issues, such as the topic we will discuss on the global digital divide.  And it is why I will spend one more week reviewing literature on anthropology before moving on to the other discipline of management – to see how anthropology is general applied to more global contexts. I will then try to provide a discussion on the issues engendered by the approaches detailed above.

So for Peoples and Bailey these three approaches are what distinguish anthropology from most other social sciences. For Monaghan and Just, the methodology of anthropology is its most distinguishable feature. Indeed they emphasise fieldwork – or ethnography – as what differentiates anthropology from other social sciences (Monaghan & Just 200, pp. 1-2). For them ‘participant observation’ is ‘based on the simple idea that in order to understand what people are up to, it is best to observe them by interacting intimately over a longer period of time’ (2000, p. 13). Interview is therefore the main technique to elicit and record data (Monaghan & Just 2000, p. 23). This methodological discussion is similarly found  in Peoples & Bailey and Eriksen (2010, p.4) defines anthropology as ‘the comparative study of cultural and social life. Its most important method is participant observation, which consists in lengthy fieldwork in a specific social setting’. This particular methodology also poses the issues of objectivity, involvement or even advocacy. I will address these next week after further readings on anthropological perspectives in global issues, trying to assess the tensions between the global and particular, the universal and relative and where normative endeavour stand among all these.


Eriksen, T. H. (2010) Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology 3rd edition, New York: Pluto Press

Monaghan, J. and Just, P. (2000) Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Peoples, J. and Bailey, G. (2000) Humanity: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, 5th ed., Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning

Written by Jennifer Welch on October 29th, 2012

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