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The central issue in anthropology is human variation. In the nineteenth century the
guiding idea was that there were significant biological differences between human
populations, and that these biological differences—notably in the development of the
brain—explained variations in rationality, technical sophistication and social complexity.
On one theory, each human ‘race’ had specific inherent capacities and therefore produced
more or less sophisticated cultural forms and social institutions. The Darwinian discourse
suggested, however, that there had been an evolutionary movement from more primitive
to more advanced human types. On this view, there were still some primitive human
populations, closer in every way to the primate ancestors of humanity. There were also
relatively more advanced populations, who had progressed further from this common
point of origin. This suggested that ‘primitive’ peoples—like, it was thought, the
Fuegians, Australian aboriginals, and the South African Bushmen—were physically less
evolved than other humans, lived in a ‘primitive’ society based on kinship and had a
‘primitive’ totemic religion. They were very like our own ancestors, who had lived many
millennia ago. Dead civilizations revealed by archaeology and also many living
populations represented intermediate stages of development between ‘primitive’ and
‘civilized’ peoples.
A major paradigm shift occurred in the first decades of the twentieth century,
associated particularly with the father of American cultural anthropology, Franz Boas
(1858–1942). Boas and his students were among the pioneering critics of racial theory,
and they helped to establish that biological differences between extant human populations
cross-cut the racial classifications; that these racial classifications were crude and
unreliable, being based on a few phenotypical features; and that there were were no
apparent differences in intellectual capacity between populations. It was not race that
caused the differences between cultures. Cultural differences were themselves the main
source of human variation. Anthropologists in the Boasian mould accordingly
distinguished between biological and cultural processes.
Culture was conceived as that part of the human heritage that was passed on by
learning rather than by biological inheritance. There were, however, two very different
views of culture. E.B.Tylor and other evolutionist writers had typically treated culture or
civilization as a single, cumulative attribute of humankind: some communities simply
enjoyed more or less ‘culture’ as they advanced. The Boasian scholars were critical of
these evolutionist speculations, and were more concerned with the differences between
cultures. For them, culture was a distinct historical agency, the cause of variation between
populations and the main determinant of consciousness, knowledge and understanding. In
contradiction to the evolutionists, they insisted that cultural history did not follow any set
course. A culture was formed by contacts, exchanges, population movements. Each
culture was a historically and geographically specific accretion of traits. There was no
necessary course of cultural development, and in consequence cultures could not be rated
as more or less advanced.
If cultural and biological processes were largely independent of each other, the history
of culture could be studied independently of the biological study of human evolution and
variation. Although Boas himself contributed to ‘physical anthropology’ or ‘biological
anthropology’, this became a distinct specialism in the USA. In Europe, physical
anthropology (often confusingly termed ‘anthropology’) developed independently of
what had initially been called ethnology, the study of peoples.
Some influential figures in American anthropology saw human evolution as the
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organizing theme of anthropology and tried to preserve the ‘four fields’ approach, which
linked cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, archaeology and linguistics, but
increasingly the specialisms within anthropology diverged from each other. By the
middle of the twentieth century the intellectual links between the four fields had become
increasingly exiguous. Certainly there is some mutual influence. Archaeology has
increasingly drawn on cultural and social theory, and under the influence of sociobiology
some physical anthropologists have attempted to revive biological explanations for
cultural behaviour. In general, however, cultural anthropology in North America and
social anthropology and ethnology in Europe can be treated in isolation from the other
anthropological disciplines. Cultural anthropology has been more influenced by
developments in the study of language than by biology, and social anthropology has been
particularly influenced by social theory and historiography.
Ethnographic research
Europeans had accumulated a considerable body of information on the peoples of Asia,
the Americas and Africa since the sixteenth century, but the reports were often
unsystematic and unreliable. Since the eighteenth century, scholars had increasingly
concerned themselves with the study of the literary and religious traditions of the east.
Reliable, detailed, descriptions of the peoples beyond the great centres of civilization
were, however, hard to come by, and the universal historians of the Enlightenment had to
rely on scattered and generally unsatisfactory sources. Even the pioneer anthropologists
had to make do with decontextualized and often naïve reports of customs and practices,
but in the last decades of the nineteenth century pioneering ethnographic expeditions
were undertaken by professional scientists, typically surveys of extensive regions.
Metropolitan anthropologists began to organize the systematic collection of ethnographic
information. Their model was the field reports of botanists and zoologists, and the
ethnographies they favoured typically took the form of lists of cultural traits and
techniques, and often included physical measurements and data on natural history.
In the early twentieth century there was a shift to longer, more intensive field studies of
particular cultures. Franz Boas made a long-term study of the native peoples of southern,
coastal British Columbia, collecting a huge archive of vernacular texts from key
informants. Russian scientists made intensive studies of the Siberian peoples, and
European scholars began to publish studies of small societies in the tropical colonies.
Between 1915 and 1918 Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942) engaged in a field study of
the Trobriand Islands in Melanesia, which introduced a new approach to ethnographic
research. He spent two years in the field, working in the Trobriand language, and
systematically recorded not only the idealized systems of rules, values and ceremonies
but also the daily practices of social life. Influenced by the sociology of Durkheim, he
conceived of the Trobrianders as constituting a social system with institutions that
sustained each other and served to meet a series of basic needs. But he did not provide a
merely idealized account of the social order, insisting rather that even in small-scale and
homogeneous communities social practices diverged from the rules and individuals
engaged in strategic behaviour to maximize personal advantage.
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This form of fieldwork, which came to be termed ‘participant observation’, eventually
became the standard mode of ethnographic research. In particular, the British school of
social anthropology exploited the potential of this method and produced a series of
classic ethnographies that may prove to be the most enduring achievement of twentieth
century social and cultural anthropology (see e.g. Firth 1936; Evans-Pritchard 1937;
Malinowski 1922; 1935; Turner 1957). Some regions of Africa, Indonesia, Melanesia and
the Amazon were gradually covered by a set of interlinked ethnographic studies that
provided a basis for intensive regional comparison.
The ethnographies produced between about 1920 and 1970 were typically holistic in
conception. The guiding notion was that the institutions of the society under study formed
an integrated and self-regulating system. As a heuristic device this was undoubtedly
fruitful, since it directed attention to the links between different domains of social and
cultural life and resulted in rounded accounts of communities. However, this perspective
tended to exclude history and social change, and it was not adapted to the investigation of
the effects of the colonial institutions that impinged on local social life. From the 1960s,
ethnographers increasingly began to develop historical perspectives, drawing on oral
traditions as well as archival sources, particularly as more studies were undertaken in
peasant societies in Europe and the Near and Far East.
Comparison and explanation
Ethnography was perhaps the most successful enterprise of social and cultural
anthropology, but what was the purpose of piling up meticulous ethnographies that dealt
mainly with small and remote communities? There were four possible responses to this
challenge. The first, historically, was the evolutionist notion that living so-called
primitive peoples would provide insights into the ways of life of our own ancestors.
Second, drawing on the social sciences (particularly after 1920), many anthropologists
argued that ethnographic research and comparison would permit the development of
genuinely universal social sciences, which embraced all the peoples of the world, and did
not limit themselves to the study of modern western societies. Third, particularly under
the influence of ethnology, and later sociobiology, some anthropologists believed that
comparative ethnography would reveal the elements of a universal human nature. Finally,
humanists, often sceptical about generalizations concerning human behaviour, and
critical of the positivist tradition, argued that the understanding of strange ways of life
was valuable in itself. It would extend our appreciation of what it means to be human,
inculcate a salutary sense of the relativity of values, and extend our sympathies.
The evolutionist faith was that the social and cultural history of humankind could be
arranged in a series of fixed stages, through which populations progressed at different
speeds. This central idea was badly shaken by the critiques of the Boasians and other
scholars in the early twentieth century, but it persisted in some school of archaeology and
was sustained by Marxist writers. There have been attempts to revive a generalized
evolutionist history in a more sophisticated form (e.g. Gellner 1988). There have also
been detailed studies of type cases designed to illuminate evolutionary processes. Richard
Lee (1979) undertook a detailed account of !Kung Bushman economic life, for example,
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with the explicit aim of seeking clues to the way of life of Upper Palaeolithic foraging
populations. His study revealed that the !Kung could sustain a viable way of life using
simply technologies in a marginal environment, and the details of !Kung social and
economic organization were widely referred to as a paradigmatic example of huntergatherer
life now and in the distant past (Lee 1979; Lee and DeVore 1968). An influential
critique has argued that on the contrary the !Kung are to be understood in terms of their
particular modern history. They are the heirs of centuries of contact with Bantu-speaking
pastoralists and with European colonists, and their way of life represents a defensive
adaptation to exploitation (Wilmsen 1989.) Others argued that the culture of the !Kung
could best be understood as a local example of a specific cultural tradition, shared by
pastoralist Khoisan peoples as well as other Kalahari Bushmen groups. These critiques
are reminiscent of the Boasian critiques of the evolutionist theories of their day.
A related tradition was concerned rather with human universals, and with the
relationships between human capacities and forms of behaviour and those of other
primates. Since the mid-1970s the sociobiological movement has given a fresh impetus to
this project, combining the ethological emphasis on human nature with a theory of
selection: institutions (such as the incest taboo) could be explained in terms of their
evolutionary payoff. The social and cultural anthropologists were in general more
impressed with the variability of customs and the speed with which cultures could
change, and objected to the down-playing of cultural variation which this programme
An alternative approach to human universals was offered by the structuralism of
Claude Lévi-Strauss, who argued that common intellectual processes—determined by the
structure of the human mind—underlay all cultural products (see e.g. Lévi-Strauss 1963;
1977). Lévi-Strauss was inspired by structural linguistics, but more recent approaches
draw rather on modern theories of cognition.
Social science approaches were dominant in social and cultural anthropology for much
of the twentieth century, and fitted in with the behaviourist, positivist approaches
favoured more generally in the social sciences. In Europe, the term social anthropology
became current, reflecting the influence of the Durkheimian tradition of sociology.
Ethnographic studies were typically written up in a ‘functionalist’ framework, that
brought out the interconnections between institutions in a particular society. Some were
also influenced by Marxist currents of thought in the 1960s and 1970s. Since the mid-
1980s, individualist sociologies have become more popular, but the structuralist tradition
also persists, and European scholars are more open than formerly to ideas emanating
from American cultural anthropology (see Kuper 1992). Many American anthropologists
were particularly interested in psychology, and a whole specialism developed that
attempted to apply psychological theories in non-western settings. Initially the main
interest was in socialization, but recently there has been more emphasis upon the study of
cognition (D’Andrade 1994).
Attempts were also made to develop typologies of societies, religions, kinship and
political systems, etc. (e.g. Fortes and Evans-Pritchard 1940). In the USA, G.P.Murdock
produced a cross-cultural database to permit the testing of hypotheses about the
relationships between particular variables, such as family form and economy, or between
the initiation of young men and the practice of warfare, and so on (Murdock 1949). There
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is also a long tradition of regional cultural comparison, that takes account of historical
relationships and seeks for local structural continuities.
Boas and his students tended to emphasize the variety of local cultural traditions and
the accidental course of their development. Some of his most creative associates came to
see cultural anthropology as one of the humanities, and this became the dominant cast of
American cultural anthropology in the last decades of the twentieth century. Its leading
exponent is Clifford Geertz, who argued generally that ‘interpretation’ rather than
‘explanation’ should be the guiding aim of cultural anthropology (Geertz 1973).
Anthropologists of this persuasion are sceptical about social science approaches, harbour
a suspicion of typologies, and reject what they describe as ‘reductionist’ biological
theories. A major early influence was the humanistic linguistics of Edward Sapir, but
later other movements in linguistics, hermeneutics and literary theory made converts.
Respect for foreign ways of thinking also induced a critical and reflexive stance. Claims
for the superiority of a western rationalist or scientific view of the world are treated with
grave suspicion (see Clifford and Marcus 1986).
Recent developments
The broad field of anthropology is sustained by its ambition to describe the full range of
human cultural and biological variation. The ethnographic record provides a rich
documentation of the cultural variety of humanity. Archaeology traces the full sweep of
the long-term history of the species. Biological anthropology studies human evolution
and biological variation. The use to which these empirical investigations are put are many
and diverse. Evolutionist approaches attempt to find common themes in the history of the
species; social and psychological anthropologists engage in a dialogue with contemporary
social science, confronting the models current in the social sciences with the experiences
and models of people in a great variety of cultural contexts; and a humanist tradition
aspires to provide phenomenological insights into the cultural experience of other
peoples. Once criticized as the handmaiden of colonialism, anthropology is increasingly a
truly international enterprise, with major centres in Brazil, Mexico, India and South
Africa, where specialists concern themselves mainly with the study of the peoples of their
own countries. In Europe and North America, too, there is a lively movement that applies
the methods and insights of social and cultural anthropology to the description and
analysis of the western societies that were initially excluded from ethnographic
Applied anthropology developed in the 1920s, and was initially conceived of as an aid
to colonial administration. With the end of the European colonial empires, many
anthropologists were drawn into the new field of development studies. Others began to
apply anthropological insights to problems of ethnic relations, migration, education and
medicine in their own societies. As local communities of anthropologists were
established in formerly colonial societies, they too began more and more to concern
themselves with the application of anthropology to the urgent problems of health,
demography, migration and economic development. Medical anthropology is today
probably the largest speciality within social and cultural anthropology, and a majority of
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American PhDs in anthropology are now employed outside the academy.
Adam Kuper
Brunel University
Clifford, J. and Marcus, G. (eds) (1986) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of
Ethnography, Berkeley, CA.
D’Andrade, R. (1995) The Development of Cognitive Anthropology, Cambridge, UK.
Evans-Pritchard, E.E. (1937) Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande of the
Anglo-American Sudan , Oxford.
Firth, R. (1936) We the Tikopia, London.
Fortes, M. and Evans-Pritchard, E.E. (eds) (1940) African Political Systems, London.
Geertz, C. (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures, New York.
Gellner, E. (1988) Plough, Sword and Book: The Structure of Human History, London.
Kuper, A. (1992) Conceptualizing Society, London.
Lee, R. (1979) The !Kung San: Men, Women, and Work in a Foraging Society,
Cambridge, UK.
Lee, R. and DeVore, I. (eds) (1968) Man the Hunter, Chicago.
Lévi-Strauss, C. (1963) Structural Anthropology, New York.
Lévi-Strauss, C. (1977) Structural Anthropology Vol. 11, London.
Malinowski, B. (1922) Argonauts of the Western Pacific, London.
Malinowski, B. (1935) Coral Gardens and their Magic, London.
Murdock, G.P. (1949) Social Structure, New York.
Turner, V. (1957) Schism and Continuity in an African Society: A Study of Ndembu
Village Life, Manchester.
Wilmsen, E. (1989) Land Filled with Flies: A Political Economy of the Kalahari,
Further reading
Borofsky, R. (ed.) (1994) Assessing Cultural Anthropology, New York.
Carrithers, M. (1993) Why Humans have Culture: Explaining Anthropology and Social
Diversity, Oxford.
Kuper, A. (1994) The Chosen Primate: Human Nature and Cultural Diversity,
Cambridge, MA.

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