Essay, Research Paper: Anthropology


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Anthropology may be dissected into four main perspectives, firstly physical or biological anthropology, which is an area of study concerned with human evolution and human adaptation. Its main components are human paleontology, the study of our fossil records, and human genetics, which examines the ways in which human beings differ from each other. Also adopted are aspects of human ecology, ethnology, demography, nutrition, and environmental physiology. From the physical anthropologist we learn the capabilities for bearing culture that distinguish us
from other species. Secondly archaeology, which follows from physical
anthropology, reassembles the evolution of culture by examining the physical
remains of past societies. Its difference from physical anthropology being its
concern with culture rather than the biological aspects off the human species.
Archaeologists must assess and analyse their subject culture from accidental
remains, which can only provide an incomplete picture. Thirdly, Anthropological
linguistics is a field within anthropology which focuses upon the relationship
between language and cultural behaviour. Anthropological linguists ask questions
about language and communication to aid the appraisement of society rather than
a descriptive or linguistic assessment. For example Freil and Pfeiffer (1977)
cite an assessment of the Inuit language where there are twelve unrelated words
for wind and twenty-two for snow, showing the difference in significance by
comparison with our own society. The deduction being that wind and snow are more
significant to the Inuit so they scrutinise them more rigorously and can clearly
define them accordingly. This kind of linguistic analysis facilitates a better
understanding of a foreign culture to help place it into context to allow
contrast. Fourthly, social anthropology is the study of human social life or
society, concerned with examining social behavior and social relationships. As
the focus of social anthropology is on patterns of social connection, it is
commonly contrasted with the branch of anthropology that examines culture, that
is, learnt and inherited beliefs and standards of behavior and in particular the
meanings, values and codes of conduct. Cultural anthropology (the study of
culture in its social context) is associated particularly with American
anthropology (specifically, in the United States), and social anthropology with
European, especially British studies, which have tended to be more sociological,
that is, they are more concerned with understanding society. However, culture
and society are interdependent, and today the single term "sociocultural
anthropology" is sometimes used. The social anthropologist uses a number of
cultural ethnographic studies to construct an ethnological study. A social
anthropological definition of culture is given by J.P.Spenley in 'The
Ethnographic Interview' (1979), culture is "the acquired knowledge that
people use to interpret, experience and generate social behaviour". By this
interpretation culture is not the physical characteristics of any society but
the reasoning behind those characteristics, it is a body of implicit and
explicit knowledge shared by a group of people. It is used by people
individually as a map to determine their behaviour in any given situation.
Spendley's definition does not divert from the significance of behaviour,
customs, objects or emotions, these are essential tools for the anthropologist
which allow the interpretation of culture to facilitate the tracking down of
cultural meaning. Ethnographic study is a search to uncover this meaning which
is the root cause of cultural differences and can therefore be seen as the
definition of any culture. There has been considerable theoretical debate by
anthropologists over the most useful attributes that a technical concept of
culture should stress. For example, in 1952 Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn,
American anthropologists, published a list of 160 different definitions of
culture. A brief table of this list next page, shows the diversity of the
anthropological concept of culture. TABLE: Diverse Definitions of Culture:
Topical: Culture consists of everything on a list of topics, or categories, such
as social organization, religion, or economy Historical: Culture is social
heritage, or tradition, that is passed on to future generations Behavioral:
Culture is shared, learned human behavior, a way of life Normative: Culture is
ideals, values, or rules for living Functional: Culture is the way humans solve
problems of adapting to the environment or living together Mental: Culture is a
complex of ideas, or learned habits, that inhibit impulses and distinguish
people from animals Structural: Culture consists of patterned and interrelated
ideas, symbols, or behaviors Symbolic: Culture is based on arbitrarily assigned
meanings that are shared by a society. (John H. Bodley, An Anthropological
Perspective 1994) We tend not to be aware of our cultural meaning expressed
through our cultural norms, we tend to accept as correct our cultural
definitions unless confronted by cultural difference, as Anthony P. Cohen is
quoted in Small Places, Big Issues, "People become aware of their culture
when they stand at its boundaries: when they encounter other cultures, or when
they become aware of other ways of doing things, or merely contradictions to
their own culture". Without ethnographic difference culture itself would
not exist. Difference allows the expression of social identity, yet different
social groups must also possess a degree of commonality to enable them to
interact. The differences and resemblances between cultures offer an opportunity
for assessment of the characteristics which bound a particular society, and the
meanings of those characteristics can be learned through the context of the
particular society or culture. Social anthropologists must assess cultures in
context to truly understand them. The context of any culture or society under
examination needs to be appreciated so that the particular distinctions of that
culture can be properly understood and translated into terms facilitating
ethnographic and ethnological study. Context must be learned by the
anthropologist, generally through prolonged fieldwork to climatise them to the
alien environment and give an opportunity to learn the language, norms and
values of the subject society. An ethnological study will require understanding
of at least two cultures through ethnographic study, thus boiled down to their
pure cultural meanings by study in context, the meanings are exposed for
comparison. Comparison of cultural differences is essential for cultural
expression, comparison is also essential to the anthropologist as it offers
opportunity for study and understanding. By comparison we judge and measure
almost everything in our lives, we require comparison to accurately gain
perspective. Therefore the social anthropologist requires an understanding of at
least two cultures, perhaps another and his own to compare aspects of these
societies while looking for interesting areas for comparison. Social
anthropologists strive to account for actual cultural variation in the world and
to develop a hypothetical perspective on culture and society. The only hope of
achieving these goals is through comparison. For instance, 'The Traveller
Gypsies' by J. Okely (1986) is a study of traveller society which discusses many
of the idiosyncrasies of that culture by applying context and therefore reasons
that the anthropologist exposes genuine differences between the gypsy and the
settled communities. Differences which when compared in context are enticing and
Informative, not only in regard to the traveller culture but by reflection on
the settled community. The gypsy attitude to hygiene and cleanliness for example
has been a source of friction between them and settled communities, yet when
looked at in context of their beliefs, that is, the distinctions they make
between the outer and inner self and their definitions of dirt or 'poluti' are
simply different from the values and practices of the settled community. When
looked at in context and by comparison the actions of the travellers seem much
more rational and in many ways their standards of hygiene are much higher than
those generally found in the settled community. Thus comparison provides
information, puts that information in perspective and allows assessment and
re-assessment of both cultures under comparison. This demonstrates the essential
nature of culture, context and comparison to the social anthropologist when
assessing humanity. They are the essential tools of the trade which allow them
to strip society, analyse and assess its parts to construct a balanced holistic
picture of society. Cultural differences cause conflict and division
continuously all over the world. To deal with this and to enact the required
proper changes necessary to remove the conflict, an accurate assessment and
understanding of culture is required. Appropriate social change should only come
from adequate social assessment and understanding, This is one of the benefits
offered by the social anthropological perspective through its holistic approach.


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