Module I: Introduction:
Concepts, Methods, and Theories


This module has covered a basic introduction to the subdiscipline of cultural anthropology and discussed the concepts, methods, and theories that anthropologists have developed for describing, analysizing, and explaining human thought and behaviour in cross-cultural perspective.

Cultural anthropologists adopt many different approaches to understanding of the human experience but uniformly start their enquiries from the perspective of the culture concept. Culture is understood as a uniquely human system for organizing and adapting to the natural and social worlds and our psychological reactions to them. It is characterized by four salient features: symbolic composition, systematic patterning, learned transmission, societal grounding.

As a science of human thought and behaviour, anthropology is concerned with describing cultures, a process termed ethnography, and with explaining cultural regularities and variation, a process termed ethnology.

Ethnography involves extensive fieldwork and the personal, first-hand collection of data within the society whose culture is to be described. The major research methods of ethnography include participant observation and key informant interviewing. An ethnographer tries to compose a accurate, objective picture of the culture he or she studies but must be aware of numerous sources of bias. These include: inadequate sampling, theoretical preconceptions, personal biases, and ethical concerns.

Ethnology is the theoretical aspect of cultural anthropology and involves the identification and explanation of cross-cultural regularities and differences through analysis, comparison, generalization, and hypothesis formation. Anthropologists have proposed many competiting ethnological schools for interpreting and understanding culture. These differ according to three major theoretical considerations:

  1. whether cultural meaning is best elucidated through an emic approach or etic approach,
  2. whether valid cross cultural generalizations can be formulated, and
  3. whether human behaviour reflects predominant concern with the basic needs for subsistence, social order, or intellectural order.
Specific ethnological schools discussed include:
  1. Historical Particularism
  2. Ethnosemantics
  3. Structural Functionalism
  4. Marxism
  5. Cultural Evolution
  6. Cultural Ecology

We can summarize the main introductory points and concepts and anticipate the modules which follow in a conceptual diagram, which can also serve as a map for the territory covered in this course.

Course Map

Note: This is a "clickable" image map, but only the link for module 1 can be successfully activated

The landscape begins with the real world, which provides the resources and challenges that establish the primary conditions of human survival. Real world phenomena include the natural environment, human population distribution and biologically determined psychological states. Concrete reality and the way in which it is ordered provide numerous subject areas for other natural and social sciences. However, the natural order is fundamentally incidental to anthropological analysis, since our primary focus is on cultural processes, which impose their own categories and rules on the perception of the phenomenal world and provide the immediate framework for human perception, thought, and action. Anthropologists do borrow concepts and methods from other sciences to set their understanding of particular cultural systems in a wider scientific context, but we are more interested in how cultures filter and pattern perceived realities than in the natural order in itself. The culture concept, therefore, defines the subject matter of anthropolgy and its basic modes of description and explanation and provides a shared conceptual orientation which distinguishes anthropologists from other scientists.

Culture is an abstract concept but is manifest in human thought and behavior as ethnographic data, which anthropologist reconstruct from their empirical observations in the form of an ethnography. Ethnography per se is an important process in cultural representation and has its own rules and conventions for accurate and systematic description.

Cultural description and analysis are subject to various specializations in relation to several ethnological schools and subfield concentrations. These subdivisions are reflected in both theoretical differences and alternative empirical emphases and methods. The main differences within the subdiscipline are defined by ethnological schools, which start from different assumptions about the primacy of human needs and develop different causal theories about how culture are organized to satisfy them. Cognitive anthropogists emphases our need to organize a frightening chaotic reality into neatly defined and interrelated mental categories. Social determinists stress the need for social and moral order. Cultural materialists are concerned with basic survival problems and the need for acquiring food and other subsistence resources through the application of technology to the environment.

Different theoretical orientations produce different emphases on subject matter. Anthropologists interested in culture as an intellectural order frequently focus on ideology and belief systems, which are most often embedded in the subject area of religion. Social anthropologists concentrate on politics, social structure, and economic organization. Cultural materialists are most concerned subsistence technology and environmental conditions and have a secondary interest in the exchange of products among social units. These specialized foci define five main subfields, each of which covers an set of specialized institutions or sub-systems within the wider cultural milieu:

  1. cultural ecology - concerned with technology and environment,
  2. economic anthropology - concerned with the exchange of goods and services,
  3. social anthropolgy - concerned with the structure of social groups and relationships,
  4. political anthropology - concerned with the distribution and use of power, and
  5. anthropology of religion - concerned with perception and manipulation of the supernatural order.
Each subfield has created its own set of analytical terms for describing, classifying, and explaining cultural institutions within its own area of concern and expertise. These specialized institutional subsystems will comprise the separate topics that we shall cover one-by-one in subsequent modules within this course. (Of course specialization within an subfield does not mean the exclusion of attention to issues appropriate to the others. The principle of holism requires that specific institutions must be understood in the context of total cultures.)

You may want to return to this map as you proceed through the course in order to orient your understanding and progress through the modules in terms of a general overview.

Brian Schwimmer
Deparment of Anthropology
University of Mantioba
© 1997 University of Manitoba, all rights reserved.

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