Chapters 1 & 2: The Essence of Anthropology
WHAT IS ANTHROPOLOGY?
“Anthropology is the study of humankind in all times and places (3).” It is the study of humanity, including our prehistoric origins and contemporary biological, linguistic and cultural diversity. It arose in Europe when early thinkers pondered the questions of where we come from, how we got the way we are and why we share so many similarities and differences.
THE ANTHROPOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE
- Anthropology focuses on interconnections, relationships, and interdependencies in all cultures.
- Anthropology has several unique aspects, including a holistic perspective, reflexivity, or the anthropologist maintaining an awareness of their own cultural background and how this might shape their research and it tries to avoid the use of culture-bound theories and ethnocentrism.
ANTHROPOLOGY AND ITS FIELDS
Anthropology consists of four sub-fields: Biological, cultural, linguistic and archaeology. Each subfield has its own sub-specialties. Applied anthropology is the application of anthropological knowledge, skills and data to real-world problems. All four subfields have applied areas. Many contemporary problems we address involve one or more subfields.
- Biological anthropology, (physical anthropology), studies humans as biological organisms, including evolution and present day variation.
- Molecular Anthropology studies genes and genetic relationships.
- Paleoanthropology is the study of human origins, our predecessors and evolution.
- Primatology is the study of living and fossil non-human primates.
- Human Growth, Adaptation and Variation studies the biological mechanisms of our growth, the impact of the environment on the growth process, our adaptations to our environments as well as biological differences.
- Forensics (applied) involves the identification of bodies for legal purposes.
- Cultural anthropology studies the patterns of behavior and thought among living people. Cultural anthropologists describe culture, cross-cultural variation and cultural change.
- Culture is a “society’s shared and socially transmitted ideas, values and perceptions, which are used to make sense of experience and generate behavior (8).” Culture is learned, it is not biologically transmitted, and no group has more culture than another. Enculturation is the process by which culture is learned and transmitted.
- One main type of cultural anthropology is ethnography, a detailed description of a particular culture based on fieldwork (on site research).
- The other type of cultural anthropology is ethnology, a type of cross-cultural research that allows for comparisons between cultures by which we can develop theories.
- Applied anthropology is the term used to describe cultural anthropology that is done to help solve or prevent problems or influence policy.
- Linguistic anthropology studies human languages.
- Language is a set of symbols used to convey meaning. It is shared among a group and learned. Humans have verbal and non-verbal language.
- There are three major fields of linguistics: Descriptive, historical and sociolinguistics. The first describes and catalogs languages, the second explores the histories and relationships among languages and the third explores the links between society and language.
- Discourse (applied)studies how language is used in everyday life.
- Archaeology is the study of past human cultures through the recovery of cultural remains.
- Prehistoric (before writing) archaeology studies cultures from before written history
- Historic archaeology focuses on societies in existence since writing began (6000 ya).
- Cultural Resource Management is an applied area of archaeology and carries out surveys of cultural resources that may be affected by development and construction.
ANTHROPOLOGY, SCIENCE, AND THE HUMANITIES
Anthropology is unique because it focuses on a broader range of time & topics than other fields.
- Some view anthropology as a science, as it forms a hypothesis and then tests it to see if it is correct. Scientific approaches often use quantitative, or numerical, data.
- Others view anthropology as a humanistic approach, an attempt to subjectively understand other cultures. Humanistic approaches are often described as qualitative, or relying on verbal descriptions and narratives, rather than on numbers.
In order to overcome the influence of their own culture on their research, anthropologists fully immerse themselves in their research and data. In this way, patterns become clearly visible. All anthropologists conduct fieldwork. One common aspect among all four subfields in fieldwork is culture shock, or feelings of loneliness and anxiety upon shifting from one culture to another.
Some fieldwork methods are characteristic of archaeology and paleoanthropology because of their focus on the past. Because cultural and linguistic anthropology focus on living cultures, they share many basic fieldwork methods.
Studying the Past
- Fossils are, “the preserved remains of plants or animals of the past (18).” It is primarily paleoanthropologists that study fossils. We usually find fossils in rocks and it is usually the hard parts of an organism (bones or teeth) that become fossilized (when chemicals from the surrounding sediments replace the materials in bones).
- When early humans existed there were very few of them. The chances that a human skeleton was preserved are very small. To be fossilized, bones need to be quickly covered, thus, when burials began around 90,000 years ago, the fossil record improves. Most fossils and artifacts have been displaced from their rocky burial by erosion and are found on the surface.
- An artifact is, “any object fashioned or altered by humans (18).” They are the cultural remains of the past, not the organisms themselves. Archaeologists study artifacts. Artifacts are important because they are the key markers of culture and humanity.
Discovering Fossils and Artifacts through Fieldwork
The first step is to locate objects so we have a place to conduct fieldwork, known as a site, a place that contains archaeological or fossil remains. A site we think might be promising must then be surveyed to figure out if extensive excavation is worthwhile. Next comes excavation, or recovering objects by removing the surrounding materials.
- Site identification is dependent upon when in the human past we are researching. If you are looking for early human sites, then you must look in Africa.
- If you are looking for more recent sites, then you can use archival materials or oral histories. Aerial photography, ground penetrating radar, metal detectors and satellite images can also be used to find soil marks or middens. The most common means of finding sites or localities is chance. Oftentimes construction of roads, buildings and dams unearths a site.
Mapping is the first step. You divide the site into smaller cubes using a grid system based on a datum point. Excavation can now begin. Small trowels, brushes and dental tools are commonly used because excavation is essentially controlled destruction. Any soil removed from a pit is sifted to make sure no small objects are missed. Everything that is found and excavated is carefully recorded. Its location in the larger site and within the pit are recorded, it is drawn, described and photographed. Researchers also use programs that include GPS so an object’s coordinates can be entered directly into a map.
Dating Fossils & Artifacts
In order to create the proper interpretations for fossils and artifacts we must have accurate dates for them.
- Absolute Dating refers to assigning chronometric dates to an object. Dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating, uses the knowledge that trees produce new rings every year. Radiocarbon dating (C14) measures the amount of carbon 14 in organic materials. Because we know the rate of decay of this atom we can accurately date back to 40,000 years ago.
- Relative dating determines the age of an object by placing it in a chronological sequence. Stratigraphy, or studying layers of sediment, allows researchers to state whether something is older or younger than something else by where it was located within the layers of soil. Older objects are lower in a pit, younger ones are closer to the surface. Seriation is used to arrange artifacts based on their styles.
Studying the Present
The first step in fieldwork occurs at home. It is choosing a research topic. Once a topic has been decided on, library research is done to learn about that culture. Researchers will also try to learn the language before going to the field.
In the Field
Once in the field, establishing rapport, or a trusting relationship with the study population, is crucial. Most anthropologists work with key informants (consultants), members of the culture being studied who can provide information and help the researcher understand what they are seeing and experiencing.
- The main field method is participant observation, living among a culture and actively participating in it while observing it.
- Because observation and participation do not provide all the data needed, we conduct formal and informal interviews. Informal interviews are usually open-ended conversations had while participating in daily life. Formal interviews are usually more structured question and answer sessions where notes or recordings are made. Early on, questions are usually open-ended, while later on, once we better understand the culture, questions become more closed and pointed, soliciting specific data.
- Fieldnotes are the main means by which cultural anthropologists record their findings. Fieldnotes used to all be handwritten. As technology has grown smaller and cheaper, other methods such as recording devices, cameras or computers have been substituted for handwritten notes. But many of us continue to use handwritten fieldnotes.
Most of us collect more data than we can ever use, so sorting through it and figuring out what is important is a huge task. This is when analysis and interpretation come into play.
- There is no set way to analyze descriptive data. Most of us search for themes that arise in our data. Sometimes we have a rough idea of a research question and can identify important data. There is software that allows you to enter your notes and then tag them with keywords on which you can search. Quantitative data can be analyzed using statistical software.
- The results of fieldwork are often written into ethnographies, a book that describes a culture.
ANTHROPOLOGY’S COMPARATIVE METHOD
A key benefit of anthropology is being able to take various ethnographies and conduct cross-cultural comparisons. This process allows us to discover cultural universals, find out whether a given practice or event occurs anywhere else, and to refute a previously held theory.
Ethics refers to rules about behavior and what is right and wrong. While ethics was not very important in the early years of anthropology, it has grown in relevance. The American Anthropological Association, the main professional association of our discipline, created a code of ethics that covers research, teaching and application.
ANTHROPOLOGY AND GLOBALIZATION
Globalization refers to the worldwide interconnectedness among people, cultures, nations and economies. The processes of globalization have significantly altered the way anthropologists conduct research and the way we think about the communities with whom we work. Anthropology in a world of globalization now has to ask questions like: How are non-Western cultures impacted by globalization? Does globalization lead to all cultures becoming more alike? Are economic processes helping or hurting the world’s poor?