Cultural anthropology

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Cultural anthropology is also often called social anthropology or socio-cultural anthropology. The discipline has its roots in the 19th century, when the consolidation of empire, institutionalized exploratory expeditions, and the growing awareness that industrialization was changing societies rapidly all fueled a growing interest in understanding 'humankind' as a whole. Early theoretical orientations in the field included comparing the essences of cultures to make broad statements about human beings, as well tracking the spread of cultural traits or explaining them in terms of function or responses to the environment. The emphasis on fieldwork that evolved in the 1920s and 30s remains, and experience is a vital, if contested, touchstone of the discipline. Symbolism is seen as a major part of all cultures, and the rationalist mind/ body dichotomy is being challenged. Anthropologists also now believe that one should understand or discuss a culture in its own context and terms. This movement, often glossed as cultural relativism, is used in debates about political correctness and inclusion.

Past orientations

Ethnology was a popular field of study in the late 19th century for European men who did not travel at all, but collected vast amounts of (often unverifiable) information from those who did, about the appearance, myths, habits, religions, food, family and social structure of societies other than their own. Most of these 'armchair anthropologists' are forgotten, but some compiled truly prodigious records, or developed overarching theories about societies and race, such as J.G. Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, and E.B. Taylor.

The interest in similar practices in different parts of the world was discussed from two standpoints. Diffusionists like Grafton Elliot Smith argued that cultural traits spread out from an original source, while others like Lewis Henry Morgan believed that each culture came up with certain behavior independently, and often saw this as a process of cultural evolution.

Modern anthropology

Bronislaw Malinowski, who worked on the Trobriand Islanders and Franz Boas, who worked on Native North Americans, were great proponents of fieldwork, though Malinowski interpreted his results in terms of functionalism, while Boas moved away from essentialising to relativism.

Fieldwork and its cognate, writing ethnography have stayed with anthropology, and theoretical interests have included kinship, exchange, linguistics, gifts, initiation rites, Marxism, and feminism as well as Claude Lévi-Strauss's influential structuralism. Anthropologists with such orientations include Mary Douglas, Pierre Bourdieu, Marvin Harris, Ernest Gellner, Marcel Mauss, and Victor Turner.

Postmodern anthropology

Anthropologists now study the negotiations between private, or local, or ethnic group concerns, and public, national and transnational, and globalizing interests. They produce political, historical, medical, and economic readings of culture and cultural interactions. Sidney Mintz, Aihwa Ong, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Michael Taussig, Arjun Appadurai, are all part of this movement. Culture theory is influential, as is the work of Michel Foucault, and cultural phenomena are discussed in terms of discourse. Reflexive ethnography, advocated by James Clifford and George Marcus acknowledges that every utterance, including the anthropologist's own, comes from a context. Gender and race are taken as constructs, not as 'natural'. Anthropologists propose that the only 'natural' thing about culture is that it happens, and some find western societies of as much interest as exotic Others, eg, Philippe Bourgois, Emily Martin.