Sample Essay on the Current Approach to Anthropology

A comprehensive definition of anthropology is the study of man and his works; because anthropology centers its attention on man, whether the focus of concern is broad or narrow.

The great range of its subject matter has made it necessary for anthropology to develop special techniques and objectives to give unity to its aims and meth­ods. At the same time, this vary range brings anthropology into relation with many other subjects.

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In Europe, and particularly in England, as stated earlier, anthro­pology invariably means physical anthropology. However, the approach to anthropology in USA is culture-oriented. A.L. Kroeber makes the focus of anthropology in USA very clear:

Of all the social sciences, anthropology is perhaps the most distinc­tively culture-conscious. It aims to investigate human culture as such, at all times, everywhere, in all its parts and aspects and workings.

It looks for generalized findings as to how culture operates-literally, how human beings behave under given cultural conditions-and for the piajor developments of the history of culture.

Recently, David Bidney has tried to integrate the European social system approach to anthropology and the cultural approach to it in USA. He argues that culture stems from social system and that it gives formation to social system.

In reality, social system and culture are in­separable. He suggests that anthropology should study both culture and social system along with the biology of man.

The current approach to the meaning and definition of anthropol­ogy is perhaps best exemplified by the definition given by John Lewis:

Anthropology is the general term for the science of man: the cul­tural, social, physical development and behaviour of man throughout his history. The general term includes the special term, physical an­thropology, human evolution, archaeology, (prehistory), cultural anthropology, social anthropology and linguistic anthropology.

Thus, according to Lewis, anthropology is very comprehensive in its scope and includes an elaborate classification of it. It also integrates system approach and cultural focus.

In his recent publication, Thomas Hylland-Eriksen {Small Places, Large Issues, London, 1995) has defined anthropology in a wider con­text. He writes:

Anthropology tries to account for the social and cultural variation in world, but a crucial part of the anthropological project also consists in conceptualizing and understanding similarities between social sys­tems and human relations.

One very important aspect of anthropology is that it is not con­cerned with the individual man. The investigation of an individual man is the job of a physician. Anthropology is concerned with men in groups, with races and peoples and their happenings and doings.

An­thropologists focus on the composition of races, their biology or organism. Besides biology, they also study the social and cultural as­pects of man and groups. In other words, they try to find out what is biological in man and what is sociological and historical in him. This can be illustrated by a simple example.

We find a Bhil in a village in western India. We see that he has a complexion of olive to copper and dusky brown, he possesses a fine nose. He has an average Indian height. His eyes are full, expressive and dark.

How do we explain these physical features of a Bhil? The answer is ready: He was born so. Cows produce calves, and lions cubs, so a Bhil springs from Bhil and a Gond springs from Gond.

Our Bhil, as we also find, occasionally plays on the flute and sings his folk songs. He also takes a fancy to singing film songs. How do we answer this be­haviour of a Bhil? Is it because of his heredity? No. He has acquired the habit of singing from his containing society. His father surely did not sing. And, definitely he did not have any knowledge of the film song which was alien to him.

As for the specific song, heredity can ob­viously no longer be the cause. It shows that heredity is displaced by tradition, nature by nurture. The efficient forces now are quite differ­ent from those which made his skin black and gave him a fine nose.

“Here then is one distinctive task for anthropology. The interpre­tation of those phenomena into which both innate organic factors and social or acquired factors enter or may enter.”

For instance, the physi­cal characteristics of a Bhil are based on heredity and the tradition or culture as singing folk and film music is acquired-socially and cultur­ally. Anthropology, therefore, studies both biological or organic and socio-cultural factors.

Anthropology has its kit of methods also. For organic or physical anthropology, there is always need for a laboratory. If not laboratory at least investigations have to be made under experimental conditions.

Socio-cultural phenomena have to be taken as they come and labori­ously sifted and resifted afterwards. For this, hard fieldwork is the usual mode to be used by an anthropologist.

Evans-Pritchard has further elaborated the meaning and defini­tion of the general term ‘anthropology’. He very clearly states:

Physical anthropology is that branch of human biology that com­prises such interests as heredity, nutrition, sex differences, the comparative anatomy and physiology of races and the theory of hu­man evolution.

What is important in the above definition is that the study of hu­man biology or heredity is not made at the level of the individual. It focuses on the group and, therefore, Evans-Pritchard talks about com­parative anatomy. For instance, the study of a Bhil in his biology is meaningless for anthropology.

What is meaningful is that the whole racial composition of the Bhil tribe (not individual) constitutes the – theme of anthropology. This emphasis on physiology at the group level was also stressed by Kroeber.

Stress on the study of comparative anatomy has also been made by Herskovits when he says:

Physical anthropologists study such matters as the nature of racial differences, the inheritance of bodily traits, the growth, the develop­ment and decay of the human organism, and the influences of the natural environment on man.

This is the core unity of mankind. But, with the organic, social and cultural processes that men have acquired are of varying charac­teristics. Anthropology studies these variations.

Comparison is the supreme methodological idiom of anthropology. One very important aspect of physical anthropology is the realm of somatology. A.C. Haddon, in his earlier work on anthropology, has discussed the im­portance of somatology.

Actually, the first branch to attract anthropologists was somatology, that is, the physical aspect of man. Perhaps, Blumenbach was first to strike a keynote by recording the shape of the skull and of the face.

Later on, somatology became a sub- specialization of physical anthropology and studied the bodily characteristics of man. Actually, somatology is the biological science of skulls.

At this stage of our discussion and analysis we observe that an­thropology is quite comprehensive in its meaning and has a detailed classification. We will dwell on the classification in the following section. But before we do that, let us close our earlier discussion on the definition and meaning of anthropology with the following broad ob­servations:

(1) Anthropology is a broad social science which includes biology, organicism and social and cultural systems.

(2) It is, therefore, both a biological science and a social-historical sci­ence.

(3) As a biological science it studies physical anthropology, human evolution (the science of fossil man). And, as a social science, it studies social system and culture.

(4) The approach to anthropology in the European continent is ori­ented to human biology. In England, which is a part of the continent, anthropology is generally termed as social anthropol­ogy or ethnology. In USA, however, the approach to anthropology is culture-specific. People there understand anthro­pology by the term ‘cultural anthropology’.

(5) Broadly, anthropology is the science of the study of man. Man is studied in his totality, that is, in his biological, social, cultural as­pects.

(6) Laboratory, fieldwork and comparative methods are the basic tools of an anthropological study.