- Essays in Anthropology: Variations on a Theme.
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A Book Review on Robert Spaemann´s Essays in Anthropology: Variations on a Theme – SANITY
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Endangered Species. Boas first articulated the idea in " Boas believed that the sweep of cultures, to be found in connection with any sub-species, is so vast and pervasive that there cannot be a relationship between culture and race. Whether or not these claims require a specific ethical stance is a matter of debate. This principle should not be confused with moral relativism. Cultural relativism was in part a response to Western ethnocentrism.
Ethnocentrism may take obvious forms, in which one consciously believes that one's people's arts are the most beautiful, values the most virtuous, and beliefs the most truthful. Boas, originally trained in physics and geography , and heavily influenced by the thought of Kant, Herder, and von Humboldt, argued that one's culture may mediate and thus limit one's perceptions in less obvious ways. This understanding of culture confronts anthropologists with two problems: first, how to escape the unconscious bonds of one's own culture, which inevitably bias our perceptions of and reactions to the world, and second, how to make sense of an unfamiliar culture.
The principle of cultural relativism thus forced anthropologists to develop innovative methods and heuristic strategies. Boas and his students realized that if they were to conduct scientific research in other cultures, they would need to employ methods that would help them escape the limits of their own ethnocentrism.
One such method is that of ethnography : basically, they advocated living with people of another culture for an extended period of time, so that they could learn the local language and be enculturated, at least partially, into that culture. In this context, cultural relativism is of fundamental methodological importance, because it calls attention to the importance of the local context in understanding the meaning of particular human beliefs and activities.
Thus, in Virginia Heyer wrote, "Cultural relativity, to phrase it in starkest abstraction, states the relativity of the part to the whole. The part gains its cultural significance by its place in the whole, and cannot retain its integrity in a different situation. Lewis Henry Morgan — , a lawyer from Rochester , New York , became an advocate for and ethnological scholar of the Iroquois. His comparative analyses of religion, government, material culture, and especially kinship patterns proved to be influential contributions to the field of anthropology.
Like other scholars of his day such as Edward Tylor , Morgan argued that human societies could be classified into categories of cultural evolution on a scale of progression that ranged from savagery , to barbarism , to civilization. Generally, Morgan used technology such as bowmaking or pottery as an indicator of position on this scale.
Franz Boas — established academic anthropology in the United States in opposition to Morgan's evolutionary perspective. His approach was empirical, skeptical of overgeneralizations, and eschewed attempts to establish universal laws. For example, Boas studied immigrant children to demonstrate that biological race was not immutable, and that human conduct and behavior resulted from nurture, rather than nature.
Influenced by the German tradition, Boas argued that the world was full of distinct cultures, rather than societies whose evolution could be measured by how much or how little "civilization" they had. He believed that each culture has to be studied in its particularity, and argued that cross-cultural generalizations, like those made in the natural sciences , were not possible.
In doing so, he fought discrimination against immigrants, blacks, and indigenous peoples of the Americas. The so-called "Four Field Approach" has its origins in Boasian Anthropology, dividing the discipline in the four crucial and interrelated fields of sociocultural, biological, linguistic, and archaic anthropology e. Anthropology in the United States continues to be deeply influenced by the Boasian tradition, especially its emphasis on culture. Boas used his positions at Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History to train and develop multiple generations of students.
His first generation of students included Alfred Kroeber , Robert Lowie , Edward Sapir and Ruth Benedict , who each produced richly detailed studies of indigenous North American cultures. They provided a wealth of details used to attack the theory of a single evolutionary process. Kroeber and Sapir's focus on Native American languages helped establish linguistics as a truly general science and free it from its historical focus on Indo-European languages. The publication of Alfred Kroeber 's textbook Anthropology marked a turning point in American anthropology.
After three decades of amassing material, Boasians felt a growing urge to generalize. This was most obvious in the 'Culture and Personality' studies carried out by younger Boasians such as Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. Influenced by psychoanalytic psychologists including Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung , these authors sought to understand the way that individual personalities were shaped by the wider cultural and social forces in which they grew up.
Though such works as Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa and Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword remain popular with the American public, Mead and Benedict never had the impact on the discipline of anthropology that some expected. Boas had planned for Ruth Benedict to succeed him as chair of Columbia's anthropology department, but she was sidelined by Ralph Linton , and Mead was limited to her offices at the AMNH.
In the s and mids anthropology tended increasingly to model itself after the natural sciences. Some anthropologists, such as Lloyd Fallers and Clifford Geertz , focused on processes of modernization by which newly independent states could develop.
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Others, such as Julian Steward and Leslie White , focused on how societies evolve and fit their ecological niche—an approach popularized by Marvin Harris. Economic anthropology as influenced by Karl Polanyi and practiced by Marshall Sahlins and George Dalton challenged standard neoclassical economics to take account of cultural and social factors, and employed Marxian analysis into anthropological study. Structuralism also influenced a number of developments in s and s, including cognitive anthropology and componential analysis.
In keeping with the times, much of anthropology became politicized through the Algerian War of Independence and opposition to the Vietnam War ;  Marxism became an increasingly popular theoretical approach in the discipline.
Since the s issues of power, such as those examined in Eric Wolf 's Europe and the People Without History , have been central to the discipline. In the s books like Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter pondered anthropology's ties to colonial inequality, while the immense popularity of theorists such as Antonio Gramsci and Michel Foucault moved issues of power and hegemony into the spotlight.
Jean and John Comaroff produced a whole generation of anthropologists at the University of Chicago that focused on these themes.
Also influential in these issues were Nietzsche , Heidegger , the critical theory of the Frankfurt School , Derrida and Lacan. Many anthropologists reacted against the renewed emphasis on materialism and scientific modelling derived from Marx by emphasizing the importance of the concept of culture. Authors such as David Schneider , Clifford Geertz , and Marshall Sahlins developed a more fleshed-out concept of culture as a web of meaning or signification, which proved very popular within and beyond the discipline.
Essays in Anthropology: Variations on a Theme
Geertz was to state:. Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. Geertz's interpretive method involved what he called " thick description. The interpretation of those symbols must be re-framed for their anthropological audience, i. These interpretations must then be reflected back to its originators, and its adequacy as a translation fine-tuned in a repeated way, a process called the hermeneutic circle.
Geertz applied his method in a number of areas, creating programs of study that were very productive.
His analysis of "religion as a cultural system" was particularly influential outside of anthropology. David Schnieder's cultural analysis of American kinship has proven equally influential. In the late s and s authors such as James Clifford pondered ethnographic authority, in particular how and why anthropological knowledge was possible and authoritative.
They were reflecting trends in research and discourse initiated by feminists in the academy, although they excused themselves from commenting specifically on those pioneering critics. This was part of a more general trend of postmodernism that was popular contemporaneously. Modern cultural anthropology has its origins in, and developed in reaction to, 19th century ethnology , which involves the organized comparison of human societies.
Scholars like E. Tylor and J. Frazer in England worked mostly with materials collected by others — usually missionaries, traders, explorers, or colonial officials — earning them the moniker of "arm-chair anthropologists". Participant observation is one of the principle research methods of cultural anthropology.
It relies on the assumption that the best way to understand a group of people is to interact with them closely over a long period of time.