What are the key components of the anthropological perspective?

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. There are three key components of the anthropological perspective – they are comparative or cross-cultural studies, holism and cultural relativism.

Comparative or cross-cultural studies.

It is not possible to understand human diversity without studying diverse cultures. An anthropologist looks at different societies with fresh eyes and tries to understand:

  1. How the society is held together.
  2. What makes it function the way it does.
  3. How the society has adapted to the environment.
  4. The main modes of communication within the society.
  5. 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.

Holism

A society’s culture is a web of values, beliefs, traditions and practices that are interdependent and interconnected. When an anthropologist attempts to understand a culture, he or she cannot do so in a piecemeal manner. Instead they must take into consideration the whole culture and the equilibrium between the different parts.

This means that the anthropologist needs to consider:

  1. The economics of the culture, including the mode of production and the relations of production.
  2. The kinship system, including the system of descent, marriage practices and living arrangements after marriage.
  3. The religion, beliefs and rituals of the society in question.
  4. The politics, including how the society is organised, who has power and how that power is obtained.
  5. The balance of power between men and women.

All of these parts are intertwined and integrated 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.

Cultural Relativism

Another key component of the anthropological perspective is cultural relativism. When an anthropologist is studying a different culture, he or she cannot apply the values of his or her own culture to form judgements regarding the actions and beliefs of the people they are studying. It is important to avoid taking an ethnocentric view of the culture under study, because otherwise it will be impossible for the anthropologist to truly understand the behaviour and motivations of the society in question.

Early anthropologists were less aware of this bias and their perceptions coloured their interpretations of what they were seeing.  To give an example, the first anthropologists who studied the aborigines in Australia did not recognise the beliefs and values and rituals of the aborigines as a religion. It was simply too different to what the anthropologists understood to be a religion. As a result they did not recognise what they were seeing as what it actually was. This ethnocentric view made it impossible for them to understand that in fact the aborigines had a very sophisticated and complex system of beliefs. The resulting ethnography was of course way off the mark.

Why are these components of the anthropological perspective important?

Understanding the culture of a society is not straightforward. Not only is it an intricate web but the parts are constantly moving and changing over time in response to changes in the environment. This means that an anthropologist must always keep these three components of the anthropological perspective in mind, in order to truly understand the where, the why, the how, the what and the when of the culture under study.

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