Module I: Introduction

II. Method and Theory in Cultural Anthropology.

C. Ethnology.

1. Dimensions of theoretical differences.

Anthropologists differ in their treatment and explanation of cultural reality primarily over the reasons or causes for general cultural universals and specific cultural variations. However, there are other differences in theoretical schools that must be considered before directly investigating fundamental causal issues. These involve different approaches to how meaning is inferred from cultural data and whether cultures can be grou ped into wider categories for the purpose of generalization.

a. Attribution of Meaning:

We have already considered the problem of meaning in the ethnographic reporting, since researchers must record not only their direct observations of cultural phenomena but must also consider the meaning that informants explicitly or implicitly assign to objects and events in a cultural context. This strategy is called the emic approach, an awkward designation that comes from a distinction that linguists make between phonemes (sound categories) and phones (actual vocal production) when analyzing language sounds. (We shall cover this topic in the next unit.) An emic depiction of cultural elements is opposed to a second strategy of classifying and understanding traits as representing cross culturally applicable terms and categories rather than culturally specific meanings. This type of analysis is termed the etic approach.

To some extent emic and etic approaches are complementary. T he anthropologist starts with certain cross-cultural analytical principles to help identify a research issue and organize and interpret the data but also considers his/her observations within the informants' categorization and meaning system to provide an additional empirical dimension. After fieldwork the research proceeds to process the data in an etic framework of general analytical categories and theory. However, some anthropologists maintain that it is not legitimate to apply any cross-cultural terms and that the etic approach is invalid.

b. Generalization

Differences between emic and etic approaches are closely related to issues of generalization. Anthropologists who argue that etic or cross-culturally valid terms and categories are not possible also maintain that cultures and their component traits and institutions cannot be subjected to comparative conclusions or generalizations. Each culture represents a particular configuration of elements and must be understood only in terms of its uniqueness. Boas first articulated this approach to culture and established an ethnological school which is sometimes called historical particularism because it is critical of generalization.

In contrast to particularism, many anthropological theories emphasize the need to draw general conclusions or laws on the basis of comparing individual cases. There is a range of intermediate positions between extreme particularists and generalizers. Some anthropologist maintain that comparisons and generalizations must be done on a carefully controlled basis, in which a few case studies are chosen to allow for recognition of the cultural context of the institutions that are under consideration. More radical generalizers compare traits from hundreds of culture without much attention to context and have created a substantially compendium of cross-cultural data, the Human Relations Area Files, as a basis for their comparative research.

You may wish to take a vist the the Human Relations Area Files WWW site.

c. Identification of cause

Ethnological theory is most heavily focused on the causes of cultural patterns and elements and how and why cultures persist and change. While there are numerous causal schemes most fall into three broad categories -- material determinism, social determinism, and ideological determinism -- which ultimately reflect different philosophies of which human needs are the most basic.

  • Go to Next Section - Ethnological Schools