Anthropology is the study of human commonalities and diversity. It seeks answers to questions about the different ways of being human, the commonalities and differences between societies in different parts of the world, the impact of different lifestyles and how these developed over time. The anthropological perspective includes several key components. These include a holistic approach to understanding human behaviour, an emphasis on cultural relativism, and a commitment to participant observation as a method of data collection.
Additionally, anthropologists often focus on the ways in which power structures and social inequalities shape human experience, and they may also examine the intersections between biology and culture.
Overall, the anthropological perspective seeks to understand the diversity of human experiences across time and space while also recognizing the interconnectedness of all aspects of human life.
There are three key components of the anthropological perspective – they are comparative or cross-cultural studies, holism and cultural relativism.
Components of the Anthropological Perspective (1) – Comparative or cross-cultural studies
It is not possible to understand human diversity without studying diverse cultures.
An anthropologist approaches the study of different societies with fresh eyes and an open mind. They seek to understand what holds a society together, what makes it function the way it does, and how it has adapted to its environment –
- What holds a society together.
- What makes it function the way it does.
- How the society has adapted to the environment.
- The main modes of communication within the society.
- How the people’s past has shaped their culture.
Only then will an anthropologist be able to trace the impact of different forces on the formation of human culture.
It is also interesting to note that when one views a situation as an “outsider” one is likely to notice things about the society that the society itself is not consciously aware of and which occur simply because that is the way it has “always” been. Anthropologists who are not enculturated can view a society dispassionately. They are able to ask questions that locals never ask. This makes it possible to identify why it is that people do what they do.
Cross-cultural studies are not only important to identify differences. They also enable anthropologists to identify similarities, enabling them to identify universals in being human.
Components of the Anthropological Perspective (2) – Holism
Anthropologists view culture as a complex web of interdependent and interconnected values, beliefs, traditions, and practices that shape the way people live and interact with one another. Each aspect of a society’s culture influences and interacts with other aspects of the same culture. Therefore, it is impossible to understand a culture in isolation or by examining individual elements in a piecemeal manner. This is why an anthropologist must consider all the components of the anthropological perspective.
When an anthropologist attempts to understand a culture, they must take into consideration the whole culture – its history, customs, language, religion, art, politics and economics – as well as the equilibrium between these different parts. This means that all aspects of the culture must be studied together to get a comprehensive understanding of how they work together to create a functioning society.
For example, an anthropologist studying a traditional agricultural community must examine not only the farming techniques used but also the social organization around agriculture including labour division and gender roles. In this way, one can see how farming practices are intertwined with cultural values such as family structure and social hierarchy, in a manner that makes sense in the environmental (for example fertile lands or arid desert) and historical context of the society.
When embarking on an ethnography the anthropologist must take account of each part of the equation or they risk misunderstanding the whole.
When an anthropologist seeks to understand a culture, they must consider various aspects that influence the way people live and interact with each other. One important aspect is the economics of the culture. This includes examining the mode of production and the relations of production.
The mode of production refers to the way in which goods and services are produced within a society. For example, some societies may rely on subsistence agriculture while others may have industrialized economies with high levels of automation. The mode of production can have profound effects on social organization, power dynamics, and cultural values.
The relations of production refer to the social relationships that exist between people in regards to economic activities such as work and exchange. This includes examining issues such as labour division, property ownership, and access to resources. In some societies, these relationships may be based on kinship ties or communal ownership while in others they may be more individualistic or based on market relationships.
By understanding the economics of a culture, anthropologists gain an understanding of how people make a living, what resources are valued by society, and how wealth is distributed among different groups. They can also better understand how economic activities intersect with other aspects of culture such as religion, politics, and gender roles.
Another important aspect for consideration is the kinship system, which includes the system of descent, marriage practices, and living arrangements after marriage.
The system of descent refers to how people trace their ancestry and inheritance through their family tree. There are several different forms of descent systems such as patrilineal, matrilineal, and bilateral. These systems can have significant impacts on issues such as inheritance rights, social status, and gender roles.
Marriage practices also vary widely across cultures. Some societies practice arranged marriages while others allow individuals to choose their own partners. The rules around who can marry whom depend on factors such as age, social status, religion or ethnicity. Marriage practices may also have an impact on issues such as property ownership and inheritance.
Living arrangements after marriage can also vary widely across cultures. In some societies, newlyweds move in with one spouse’s family while in others they may establish their own household. The living arrangements of married couples can have an impact on issues such as gender roles within the family unit and the relationships between different generations.
By understanding the kinship system of a culture, anthropologists can gain insight into how families are organized and how social relationships are established within a society. They can also better understand how these relationships intersect with other aspects of culture such as religion, politics, and economics.
Religion, Beliefs and Rituals
Religion can be an important part of a culture’s identity and can shape many aspects of daily life. Different cultures may have different religious beliefs or practices, ranging from monotheistic religions such as Christianity or Islam to polytheistic religions such as Hinduism or Shintoism. Religion can also have an impact on issues such as gender roles, social hierarchy, and political power.
Beliefs are another important aspect of culture that anthropologists must consider. These beliefs may include ideas about the nature of reality, morality, and the afterlife. Beliefs shape how people view themselves and their place in society. They can also influence how people make decisions about issues such as health care or education.
Rituals are formalized behaviors that are typically associated with religious or cultural practices. Rituals may include things like prayer, meditation, or sacrifice. They often serve to reinforce social norms and values within a society while also providing individuals with a sense of community and belonging.
By understanding the religion, beliefs, and rituals of a culture, anthropologists can gain insight into how people understand their place in the world and how they relate to others within their society. They can also better understand how these beliefs intersect with other aspects of culture such as politics, economics, and gender roles.
Politics and Power
Politics refers to how a society is organized and who has power within that society. Different societies have different forms of government such as democracy, monarchy, or dictatorship. The balance of power between different groups within a society can also vary widely. Some societies may be hierarchically organized with clear social classes while others may be more egalitarian.
Understanding the political system of a culture can provide insights into issues such as social inequality, conflict resolution, and decision-making processes.
Anthropologists must also consider how political power is obtained and maintained within a society. This can include factors such as wealth, education, or military force.
Gender roles are another important aspect of culture that anthropologists must consider. These roles refer to the behaviours and expectations associated with being male or female in a given society. Gender roles can vary widely across cultures and may influence many aspects of daily life including work, family life, and social interactions. Understanding gender relations within a culture can provide insights into issues such as reproductive rights, violence against women, and access to education or employment opportunities.
Components of the Anthropological Perspective (3) – Cultural Relativism
This concept refers to the idea that when studying a different culture, an anthropologist must suspend their own cultural biases and avoid making value judgments about the beliefs and practices of the people they are studying.
Anthropologists recognize that every culture has its own unique set of values, beliefs, and practices that are shaped by historical, social, and environmental factors. These cultural differences can be difficult for outsiders to understand or accept, but it is important for anthropologists to approach other cultures with an open mind and without imposing their own cultural values on what they observe.
For example, an anthropologist studying a traditional society where arranged marriages are common may initially find this practice strange or even objectionable, based on their own cultural upbringing. However, in order to gain a deeper understanding of why arranged marriages are practiced in this society, the anthropologist must set aside their personal biases and seek to understand how this practice fits into the larger cultural context.
Cultural relativism does not mean that all cultural practices are equally valid or morally acceptable. Rather, it acknowledges that different cultures have different ways of understanding and interacting with the world around them. By approaching other cultures with an open mind and without preconceived notions or judgments, anthropologists can gain a deeper understanding of these differences while also recognizing universal human experiences such as love, loss, joy and pain.
In summary, cultural relativism is an essential component of the anthropological perspective. It requires anthropologists to approach other cultures with humility and respect while recognizing that every culture has its own unique set of values and beliefs shaped by historical, social and environmental factors. By embracing this perspective, anthropologists can gain deeper insights into what makes each culture unique while also recognizing shared human experiences across cultures.
Conclusion – The Importance of Considering all the Components of the Anthropological Perspective
The components of the anthropological perspective are crucial for understanding a culture in its entirety. Without taking these factors into consideration, an anthropologist’s understanding of a culture would be incomplete and may lead to misunderstandings or misinterpretations.
Firstly, studying the politics and power dynamics within a society is important because it provides insights into how decisions are made and who holds influence over different aspects of daily life. This knowledge can help anthropologists understand issues such as social inequality, conflict resolution, and decision-making processes. By understanding the political system of a culture, an anthropologist can gain a deeper understanding of its structure and function.
Secondly, examining gender roles is important because it helps to shed light on how men and women interact with each other in different societies. Understanding gender relations within a culture provides insights into issues such as reproductive rights, violence against women, and access to education or employment opportunities. This knowledge can help anthropologists better understand how gender identity shapes individuals’ lives in different ways.
Finally, cultural relativism is essential for gaining an accurate understanding of another culture. It requires anthropologists to approach other cultures with humility and respect while recognizing that every culture has its own unique set of values and beliefs shaped by historical, social, and environmental factors. By embracing this perspective, anthropologists can avoid imposing their own cultural biases on their observations and instead seek to understand the beliefs and practices of the people they are studying on their own terms.
Overall, these three components of the anthropological perspective work together to provide a holistic view of a given culture. By keeping these components in mind when studying a culture, an anthropologist can gain a more complete picture of that society’s history, traditions, beliefs, practices and way of life over time.
For Further Reading
What are the key components of the anthropological perspective?
“Cultural values are a web of linked concepts, fixed in time and space.”
Evans-Pritchard and the Religion of the Nuer Tribe
How do economic and residence practices impact women’s status and power?
What are the different marriage wealth-exchange practices?
Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Structuralism and its Influence on Anthropological Thought
Clifford Geertz and the Thick Description of the Balinese Cockfight
Bronislaw Malinowski, the Trobriand people and the Kula
Why did Marxist ideas only start being applied in Anthropology in the last half century, and what are some of the key ideas that influence Materialistic Anthropology?
Dance as Ritual – an anthropological perspective
How Residence Customs After Marriage Vary Around the World
Compare the operations and implications of Bridewealth and Dowry
The impact of Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ARTs) on Anthropology
“The two-gender system is neither innate nor universal” (Towle and Morgan 2006)
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