Module I: Introduction

I. The Culture Concept

A. A Brief History of the Culture Concept.


Anthropology began as a specialized discipline in the 19th century within a theoretical school called evolutionism. This approach was related to the dominant Darwinist and, more importantly, social Darwinist paradigms of the period. Evolutionists proposed a developmental framework for recording and interpreting cultural variations around the world and understanding them in relation to contemporary Victorian standards. Culture was reduced to separable traits, which were collected by travellers, traders, and missionaries and collated by "armchair anthropologists" in much the same way as natural specimens and fossils. Grand catalogues of these items were used to chart the stages of the human cultural development under an assumption that some traits were representative of earlier or more "primitive" historical periods. This view ultimately rested on a racial theory that these progressively arranged cultural differences were attributable to unequal genetic propensities and endowments among peoples.

The theses of early anthropology are evident in Edward Tylor's 1871 work, Primitive Culture, which includes the first formal definition of culture:

Culture or Civilization, .... is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.
The telling point of this definition is that, although labelled a whole, culture is actually treated as a list of elements. In effect, culture traits were understood as representing one of a series of stages of mental and moral progress culminating in the rational society of industrializing England.

Although most of these prejudices about non-Western peoples are still with us, anthropologists have thoroughly repudiated the 19th century approach as an expression of racialism and ethnocentrism, the practice of interpreting and judging other cultures by the values of one's own. Franz Boas, an early 20th century anthropologist, was instrumental in this reversal of perspective and laid out the ground rules for the modern anthropological orientation of cultural relativism. This approach rests on four major postulates, which directly confront the evolutionist position.

  1. Cultural aspects of human behaviour are not biologically based or conditioned but are acquired solely through learning.
  2. Cultural conditioning of behaviour is ultimately accomplished through habituation and thus acts through unconscious processes rather than rational deliberation, although secondary rationalizations are often offered to explain cultural values.
  3. All cultures are equally developed according to their own priorities and values; none is better, more advanced, or less primitive than any other.
  4. Cultural traits cannot be classified or interpreted according to universal categories appropriate to "human nature". They assume meaning only within the context of coherently interrelated elements internal to the particular culture under consideration.
Source: Boas 1920.
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