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