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Essay / Ask SAPIENS

What Is Cultural Anthropology?

Cultural anthropologists seek to understand the dizzyingly diverse ways people live today, including how they think, act, create, struggle, make meaning, and organize their societies.
On a sunny day, two people sit on stools under an awning made of wood and cloth. They are facing each other, and one holds a clipboard.

Cultural anthropologists often conduct interviews as part of their fieldwork research.

Koen Dekeyser/Flickr

WHAT IS CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY?

Cultural anthropology—like anthropology’s other fields of archaeology, linguistic anthropology, and biological anthropologystudies humans and what it means to be a human. [1] In academic institutions in Europe and some other parts of the world, the discipline of social anthropology, which focuses on social institutions and relations, is far more common than cultural anthropology. The two overlap significantly but are not synonymous and come from different intellectual traditions. The term “sociocultural anthropology,” which combines the two, is also now commonly used in many parts of the world. What makes cultural anthropology different is that it looks specifically at the things humans do, believe, experience, and create.

Cultural anthropology asks many questions: What do people think? How do they live? What makes a family? What economic and spiritual practices do people engage in? What makes people feel they are different from one another, and how do these perceived differences emerge in ideas about race, gender, or geographic origin? How do people create social structures and understand power? Why do people eat what they eat? How do they use language? What do they do in their leisure time? How do they interact with animals, plants, and wider environments? And how do all these identities, practices, and relationships affect how people see themselves as humans?

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These starting points lead to the more fundamental questions of cultural anthropology: What does it mean to live life as a human being in the world? Why do people around the world live so differently—and what do they have in common? And how can examining human diversity reveal alternative possibilities of how to be human and how to imagine our shared futures?

To explore these questions and arrive at some answers, cultural anthropologists rely on in-depth research among communities. They often engage with these groups for years or even decades. Because anthropology is considered a science (hence the “-ology”), it requires data to make claims. Anthropologists can’t simply say something is a certain way without this data, so they go into the “field”—that is, a place in the world where humans are doing human things—and collect it in a process called fieldwork.

WHAT DO CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGISTS STUDY?

Some scientific disciplines use large data sets to find societal patterns or replicate lab findings to arrive at supposed universal facts. On the other hand, cultural anthropologists tend to focus on specific social contexts. They study how people think and act within these settings. Cultural anthropologists do not seek to ultimately solve humanity’s greatest mysteries through conducting fieldwork research. Rather, they aim to make sense of the complicated ways people make meaning in their lives.

Throughout the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, this research primarily consisted of anthropologists (usually from Europe or North America) going to a single field site (usually a village or town in Latin America, Africa, Asia, or Oceania) and examining local knowledge and practices. In recent decades, these ideas about who can practice anthropology and where the “field” is located have expanded and diversified.

Today an anthropologist’s field may include following global commodity chains, looking at how cellphones are changing social relations, or diving into social media platforms used by people across the world. Cultural anthropologists study the ways different contemporary societies face complex issues, such as mental health in Indonesia, policing in Kenya, and waste management in Hong Kong.

Some issues faced by local populations reflect worldwide problems. Therefore, anthropologists also study the politics around global climate change, refugee movements, and the social effects of economic surplus and austerity, among other topics. Cultural anthropology even reaches into areas where human experiences overlap with technologies and nonhuman animals. Researchers study topics ranging from AI-driven robot soldiers, to cross-species organ transplants, to people’s relationships with macaque monkeys and landmine-detecting military rats.

WHAT ARE THE CORE PRINCIPLES OF CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY?

The ways anthropologists understand and study culture have changed much since the formal discipline began around 150 years ago. Throughout these shifts and evolutions, a few foundational concepts and practices have become central to cultural anthropology. These include the concept of “culture,” the value placed on holistic approaches, the ideal of “cultural relativism” in opposition to “ethnocentrism,” and comparison.

Key Concepts

Culture: Non-anthropologists may think of “culture” as synonymous with fine arts or fancy cuisine. Anthropologists have a different understanding of the term. Cultural anthropologists roughly define culture as all the beliefs, practices, symbols, and rules of groups of people. This culture can be written, passed down verbally, spread through practice, or never even mentioned (but followed nonetheless).

Much like the concept itself, anthropologists’ relationship to culture as a way of conceptualizing human groups has changed over time. Cultural anthropologists now emphasize that cultures are unstable and unbounded. Indeed, within any group or society, culture is socially constructed and constantly contested and remade by its members. Culture is influenced by wider economic, sociopolitical, and environmental shifts. Some anthropologists even reject the idea that groups of people can be defined by distinct cultures, arguing that the concept oversimplifies the differences and connections between peoples.

Holism: Cultural anthropologists approach and understand things “holistically.” This means they try to see situations and practices as part of a bigger picture. People often view their own lives as part of a linear progression—this event caused that event, which then caused this other event, et cetera. Cultural anthropology fights against this tendency. Instead, it tries to grasp the multiple connected forces of power, identity, history, geography, belief, social relationships, and so on in even the smallest practices, expressions, or activities.

Cultural relativism: Cultural relativism is perhaps best understood by starting with its opposite: ethnocentrism. An ethnocentric attitude views one’s own culture as not only “better” than other cultures but as “normal” or “natural.” This perspective makes all other cultures abnormal and unnatural (or at least weird). Cultural relativism (also referred to as “cultural relativity”) opposes this stance. It has the goal of trying to understand cultural features—such as morals, rules, and beliefs—from that culture’s own viewpoint. This principle allows anthropologists to resist the immediate urge to dismiss certain practices as immoral or odd. Instead, cultural relativism lets researchers explore how these practices connect to the whole (see holism above) without all the ethnocentric baggage.

It is also important to note, though, that anthropologists draw their own ethical lines. Most anthropologists use relativistic thinking as a guide for how to approach difference. But this does not mean they do not speak out—or even take action—against morally unjust practices or structures. Anthropologists often battle inequalities in their own communities and in the communities they research.

Comparison: Anthropology has been a comparative discipline since its inception in the 19th century. In its early days, some anthropologists engaged in deeply troubling scientific racism, or ranking groups by race or geographic origin to claim one “culture” was more or less “civilized” than another. Often, these comparisons were used to justify colonialism, slavery, and other unjust systems and institutions.

Over time, most anthropologists came to challenge overtly prejudicial understandings of some societies as “savage” or “primitive”; however, efforts to “decolonize” the discipline and reckon with this history are ongoing. Today when cultural anthropologists make use of comparison, what they deem significant is how groups differ or change across time and space. They want to understand what those differences and changes can tell us about the richness of human diversity.

WHAT IS ETHNOGRAPHY?

The term “ethnography” is used to describe both a practice and a material product. When a cultural anthropologist is in the field, they engage in what is called ethnographic research, or “doing ethnography” (the practice). An ethnography (the product) is the end result of this in-depth ethnographic research; it is usually a detailed book about a certain group of people in a specific place and time. [2] While a written ethnography is still the standard for the field, anthropologists are also increasingly producing other ethnographic media, such as documentary films, sonic ethnographies, ethnographic poetry, and even ethnographic graphic novels. So, anthropologists do ethnography in order to write an ethnography.

For many anthropologists, an important aspect of doing ethnographic fieldwork is the understanding they will be in the field for an extended period. This can be as short as a few months but often extends to many years. Unlike most other sciences, anthropologists enter the field with guiding questions rather than a hypothesis. They then allow fieldwork to reveal answers to their questions, frequently posing new questions in the process.

Anthropologists depend on personal relationships with “interlocutors”—what they often call the folks they are engaging with. These relationships can take time and effort to form, especially if an anthropologist is not already embedded in the society they are studying. Also, different practices might arise with seasonal changes; in special circumstances like births, deaths, or weddings; or in response to conflict, natural disasters, or the introduction of a new technology. This makes long-term study preferable. Only with this level of exposure, open-mindedness, and commitment can an anthropologist see cultures more holistically.

Over this long, entrenched period, cultural anthropologists may write field notes and/or field poems, conduct interviews, draw maps, construct charts of kinship and power relations, record stories and biographical narratives, trace networks of communication, and investigate many other sources of cultural information. Even if the anthropologist was previously familiar with this group, they pay close attention to see patterns that may have escaped day-to-day notice. But doing ethnography does not simply mean hanging out with a group of people and writing a lot about them. Rather than passively observing, most cultural anthropologists practice “participant observation.”

WHAT IS PARTICIPANT OBSERVATION?

Participant observation is exactly what it sounds like—anthropologists observe and write notes, take pictures, audio/video recordings, et cetera, while also participating in the cultures they are studying. On a fundamental level, this means living among their interlocutors in the same communities, sometimes even the same dwellings. This also means that an anthropologist must prepare beforehand by trying to learn the language(s) spoken there (if they speak a different language) before entering the field.

The anthropologist not only lives with but also works, plays, eats, dances, celebrates, mourns, and even drinks with their interlocutors. This includes everyday activities, like herding reindeer in Norway, helping prevent wildfires in California, eating guinea pig in Peru, or childrearing in Arizona. This becomes complicated in a specifically thorny way when the anthropologist is already a member of the society being studied, as they will continue to do all these daily, supposedly “unremarkable” activities but as a group member and also as an anthropologist.

HOW CAN CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY HELP US UNDERSTAND THE WORLD TODAY?

Cultural anthropological research addresses the pressing issues and life experiences of humans. For contemporary humans on Earth, this includes studying processes such as global warming. For instance, how are people around the world cleaning up their carbon with sustainable agriculture, or how does an increase in hurricanes expose social inequality? Anthropologists are also increasingly looking at technology: How are cellphones, social media, and artificial intelligence affecting people’s lives?

Many anthropologists today also look at the ways historically unjust systems of power have influenced how people live now. This ranges from the treatment of incarcerated deaf people to anti-Blackness in Cuba and in Brazil to anti-Asian bias in the U.S. Cultural anthropologists often focus on how people can work to dismantle unjust systems. In recent years, many anthropologists have also turned their focus on the COVID-19 pandemic—looking at changes across many aspects of life, from educational systems, to death rituals, to collegiate sports.

Anthropologists, like other scholars, share these research insights through writing books and articles, teaching, and giving public lectures. They also engage in other pursuits to share knowledge, like public-facing podcasts or ethnographic fiction, often alongside other collaborators, including their interlocutors. In many cases, the products of anthropology that were once largely anthropologists talking and writing about their subjects of study are beginning to resemble collaborative projects with interlocutors.

WHAT JOBS CAN YOU GET WITH A CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY DEGREE?

You might immediately think that a degree in cultural anthropology can only lead to a career as an anthropology professor. These jobs do exist (though they are increasingly hard to come by), but most anthropologists work in an “applied anthropology” position. That is, they use the theory and training of anthropology to aid in other fields such as humanitarianism and international development, journalism, public health, and cultural heritage. These applied anthropologists can work for corporations, governments, or nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations.

Not all cultural anthropology undergraduate majors go on to become professional anthropologists, of course. But training in cultural anthropology fosters skills such as critical, ethical, and relativistic thinking; the ability to collaborate; and excellent written and verbal communication that are essential to many occupations.

Employers tend to value anthropology majors because they “get” people. They often hire anthropology majors for positions in advertising, marketing, human resources, user experience, or research design—jobs that depend on insight into human behaviors. This is especially prevalent now, when businesses are increasingly looking to foster inclusivity and diversity in the workplace. In fact, for anthropologists, the employment rate is projected to increase by 6 percent between 2021 and 2031.

IS CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY USEFUL?

Yes.

Humans live an ever-changing and precarious existence. We have questions—about the world, one another, and ourselves. Cultural anthropology seeks answers to those very questions. And in that way, yes, it is extremely useful.

Cultural anthropology shows us why the idea of “pristine wilderness” is a myth and illustrates the danger of bans on gun violence research. It explores sovereignty on Mars, reveals the links between oracles and digital algorithms, and imagines post-coal futures. It even seriously considers whether people in the Western philosophical tradition are wrong about almost every single thing they think they know!

If that last prospect terrifies you, maybe cultural anthropology is not for you. If you find it exciting, welcome.

Devin Proctor is a cultural anthropologist who specializes in digital anthropology, studying identity and group construction in online spaces. He earned his Ph.D. from George Washington University and works as an assistant professor of anthropology at Elon University. Proctor is currently working on projects that address the process of radicalization into online white power extremism and those that trace misinformation and memorialization during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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