Short Essay on Cultural Anthropology

The diverse traditions of anthropology in the domain of cultural anthropology and social anthropology are very successfully elaborated by Eriksen. His narration, which is a little lengthy, goes as under:

Anthropology is a large and diversified subject, which is practised somewhat differently in different countries, although it retains its dis­tinctive character everywhere. Since the Second World War, the core areas have been Great Britain, the US, France and Australia.

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British anthropology, which is generally spoken of as social anthropology and which also enjoys a strong position in Scandinavia and India, emphasizes the study of social processes and is thus close to social anthropology. The British social anthropologist Edmund Leach (1982) once charac­terized this subject as a comparative micro-sociology.

In the US, we tend instead to speak of cultural anthropology, and in general the sociological underpinning characteristic has been less dominant there. Instead, lin­guistics and pre-history have informed American anthropology in different ways.

Several important specializations such as cultural ecology, linguistic anthropology and various approaches in psycho­logical and interpretive or hermeneutic anthropology were devel­oped in the US.

Eriksen has also discussed the anthropological tradition prevailing in France. There, after the Second World War, cultural anthropology has been replaced by structuralism.

This brand of structural anthro­pology is proposed by Claude Levi-Strauss, Louis Dumont and the distinguished structuralists such as Marxist Maurice Godelier and oth­ers. Eriksen further informs that in South America, Italy and the Iberian Peninsula, and partly in Belgium and the Netherlands, the French orientation is strong.

If we elaborate further the anthropological traditions at the re­gional level in each country and continent, we would identify a number of variations.

Actually, the discipline of social-cultural an­thropology has emerged out of the local needs and processes. However, for a broader analysis, we put the traditions of anthropol­ogy as discussed above in a capsule form below:

It is interesting to note that the orientation to physical anthropol­ogy in all parts of the world is the same. However, in social-cultural anthropology different orientations have emerged.

In India, which was influenced by British social anthropology, as a part of colonial im­perialism cultural, linguistic and ethnic anthropology have not developed?

Basically, social-cultural anthropology has three branches: (1) cultural anthropology, (2) ethnology, and (3) social anthropology. The former two constitute the tradition of the USA and France. India and the other South Asian countries have the tradition of social an­thropology.

We now dwell on the definition of cultural anthropology as given by the eminent American anthropologists. In USA stress on cultural anthropology is laid with the objective that man is more-than-merely- organic man. He is cultural also. By knowing the culture of the society, we can better understand civilization irrespective of time and place.

It is with this purpose in mind that cultural anthropologists study ‘other cultures’ of the world. The American cultural anthropol­ogy also includes archaeology, that is, the science of what is old in the domain of this discipline. Similarly, stress on culture study has also created ethnology the science of people as a speciality in USA.

Eriksen, in his book Small Places, Large Issues, has provided the etymology of the concept of cultural anthropology. According to him, ‘culture’ originates from the Latin word colere which means to cultivate. He defines cultural anthropology as below:

Cultural anthropology thus means knowledge about ‘cultivated hu­mans’, that is, knowledge about those aspects of humanity which are not natural, but which are related to that which is acquired.

It must be admitted that the word ‘culture’ is very complicated. In 1952, Clyde Kluckhohn and Alfred Kroeber presented 161 different definitions of culture. It is not possible to consider the majority of these definitions here.

In a broader way, it could be said that anything which is acquired by members of society is culture. And, cultural an­thropology is concerned with all these acquired attributes.

Herskovits has defined cultural anthropology in a very precise way. He observes:

Cultural anthropologists study the ways man has devised to cope with his natural setting and his social milieu; and how bodies of cus­tom are learned, retained, and handed down from one generation to the next.

Herskovits’ definition makes a clear differentiation from physical anthropology. Whatever material and non-material things man has de­vised, constitute the subject matter of cultural anthropology. The works of man as Herskovits argues include traditions, folkways, social institutions and other social networks.

Thus, a survey of definitions of cultural anthropology given by American anthropologists indicates that all that is considered as cultural anthropology includes besides cultural orientation, social orientation too. For cultural anthropolo­gists social system is a part of society. Culture cannot emerge without a social system. They are two sides of the same coin. David Bidney has argued this point at a greater length. He says:

Social anthropology and cultural anthropology are then understood as two branches of a common discipline of anthropology concerned with the study of man and his cultures in society.

For cultural anthropology the subject matter consists both of so­cial institutions and the culture.