Cultural Anthropology (Encyclopedia of Public Health)
Cultural anthropology emerged as an area of study following the era of European exploration, when the full diversity of human experience became globally apparent. Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1832917) one of the founders of anthropology, defined culture as "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" (Tylor 1871, p. 1, emphasis added). It is the holistic emphasis of cultural anthropology that distinguishes it most clearly from other related disciplines. For example, an anthropologist may focus his or her research on a particular dimension of culture, such as religion or political organization, but that dimension will also be described in terms of its relationship to the "complex whole" of the local culture.
Anthropologists generally describe culture in terms of a set of interacting systems that perpetuate cultural practices through generations. For example, kinship systems are one of the basic building blocks of culture, encompassing mate choice, marriage customs, family relationships and obligations, and household composition. Social systems encompass stable non-kin relationships such as voluntary associations. Religions or belief systems provide guidance for relationships between people and the natural world, as well as the unseen or unknown forces that affect people's lives; they exist in all cultures and show an astounding diversity in terms of content and practices. Economic systems and political systems extend relationships beyond the family and household. Though some of these systems and relationships may ultimately encompass global dimensions, cultural anthropologists are primarily concerned with the impact of each of these systems at the local level, in the day-to-day experiences of communities.
The emphasis on understanding local experience has led to the development of an array of field observation methods collectively called "ethnographic" methods. Cultural anthropology is a field-based science that emphasizes direct observation of and participation in a culture as the primary source of knowledge about that culture. Controlled experimentation is rarely an option, for obvious ethical reasons. Instead, emphasis is placed on the collection of detailed, repetitive observations using diverse methods, under diverse conditions, and with diverse community members. Methods include both qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis techniques. A single study may include a quantitative household census or survey, structured and unstructured open-ended interviews, time-series observations of specific types of behaviors, and detailed observational notes on events such as marriages and funerals. Anthropologists use a process called triangulation to compare the results from the various data collection strategies. This is often done during the field research process, such that hypotheses generated from one strategy are investigated using another. This iterative process serves to reduce over-all bias and increase the robustness of conclusions.
Within cultural anthropology, a number of subfields overlap. Ethnography is the broadest and encompasses the systematic study of cultures. Medical anthropology focuses specifically on the study of disease and health in the context of cultural systems. Applied anthropology centers on the systematic use of anthropological knowledge to address contemporary problems. Urban, national, and global anthropology are three closely related subfields that focus on interrelationships at these different levels and how they affect and are affected by the everyday social and cultural lives of people living, acting, and struggling in particular places. Psychological anthropology encompasses the study of cultural, psychological, and social interrelations at all levels. Linguistic anthropology explores language in its social and cultural context.
Cultural anthropologists also work within a variety of theoretical perspectives that range from the strongly scientific and objective to the strongly literary and subjective. Hahn (1999) described anthropological theory as encompassing three major areas:
- Ecological/evolutionary theory, which claims that the physical environment and human adaptations to it are the principal determinants of sickness and healing
- Cultural theory, which posits that cultural systems of beliefs, values, and customs are the basic determinants
- Political/economic theory, which proposes that economic organization and contending relationships of power are the principal forces controlling human sickness and health
The choice of theoretical perspective is driven by the overall goal of the research, with some problems requiring an integration of theories from different perspectives. For example, the intersecting epidemics of substance abuse, violence, and AIDS in impoverished urban settings in the United States led Merrill Singer (1996) to develop the theoretical construct of syndemics, comprising synergistic, mutually enhancing health and social problems. The syndemic concept integrates aspects of both ecological and political/economic theories in medical anthropology. It also typifies the anthropological approach by striving to model the relationships among multiple subsystems at the community level.
KATHLEEN M. MACQUEEN
(SEE ALSO: Acculturation; Anthropology in Public Health; Assimilation; Biculturalism; Community Health; Cross-cultural Communication; Cultural Norms; Customs; Ethnicity and Health; Folk Medicine; Lifestyle; Theories of Health and Illness)
Ember, C. R., and Ember, M. (1990). Cultural Anthropology, 6th edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Hahn, R. A., ed. (1999). Anthropology in Public Health. Bridging Differences in Culture and Society. New York: Oxford University Press.
Harris, M. (1991). Cultural Anthropology, 3rd edition. New York: Harper-Collins.
Singer, M. (1996). "A Dose of Drugs, a Touch of Violence, a Case of AIDS: Conceptualizing the SAVA Syndemic." Free Inquiry 24:990.
Tylor, E. B. (1871). Primitive Culture. London: J. Murray.
Anthropology, Cultural (Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity)
Anthropology, the study of human beings through time and across place, is characterized by the concept of culture, a particular set of methods (ranging from anatomical analysis to ethnographic fieldwork), and a holistic perspective. Most anthropologists also adhere to the principle of relativism, which holds that one must at least temporarily suspend judgment and comprehend behavior from the perspective of the people studied to combat human tendencies toward ethnocentrism and naive realismhe view that, at root, everyone views the world in a similar manner. Although a relativist stance might seem problematic in the face of genocidal horrors, few anthropologists adhere to a fanatical relativism, which argues that "anything goes." Relativism is nevertheless essential to the ethnographer's attempt, as one of the founding figures in anthropology put it, "to grasp the native's point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world" (Malinowski, 1984, p. 25). This anthropological perspective is of enormous importance to human attempts to understand genocide, which occurs in a variety of cultural contexts.
Given the broad scope of the discipline, it is not surprising that, particularly in recent years, anthropologists have engaged in a wide range of projects related to genocide, such as defending indigenous peoples, leading forensic investigations, consulting United Nations (UN) tribunals, assisting refugees, helping victims cope with trauma, promoting conflict resolution, participating in the reconstruction, and arguing against so-called primordialist explanations.
One key area in which anthropologists have contributed to human understanding of genocide is in helping to explain why people participate in mass murder. Perpetrator regimesarticularly those involved in "ideological genocides" (Fein, 1984, p. 1)ften rise to power as "revitalization movements" (Wallace, 1956, p. 1) that gain support in situations of rampant social, political, or environmental change which undermine local structures of meaning. Such upheaval provides a foundation for the emergence of radical ideologies and charismatic leaders whose blueprints for renewal require the elimination of those labeled as undesirable in the population.
To facilitate this project, genocidal regimes are centrally concerned with "manufacturing difference" (Hinton, 2004). As they reconstruct and crystallize boundaries of difference, for example, genocidal regimes set perpetrators and victims apart, marking the latter in dehumanizing discourses that facilitate their annihilation. Thus, Germans are split off from Jews, who are depicted as a disease that threatens to contaminate and even destroy the Aryan race. In a similar manner, Hutus have been divided from Tutsis, Bosnian Serbs from Muslims and Croats, Turks from Armenians, colonizers from indigenous peoples, and so forth.
Such genocidal ideologies are not constructed in a vacuum: They are located in particular places at a given moment in time. To motivate their minions to kill, genocidal ideologues forge their messages of hate out of a blend of the new and the old, thereby enabling them to tap into local knowledge that has deep ontological resonance for the actors. Examples range from the Hamitic hypothesis in Rwanda to the Khmer Rouge manipulation of local understandings of disproportionate revenge and Nazi invocations of anti-Semitism and the German Volk.
Besides revealing much about such boundary construction and ideology, anthropologists have also shown how violence is culturally patterned. In Rwanda, for instance, Hutu acts of violence, ranging from stuffing Tutsis into latrines to bodily mutilation, resonated with local understandings linking bodily health to proper blockage and flow. This "bodily inscription of violence" (Hinton, 2004) can be seen in a wide range of cases, from the torture chambers of the Khmer Rouge to the murder of so-called savage Putumayo in Colombia at the turn of the twentieth century.
Such violence always occurs in a social context. Anthropologists have examined a number of crucial group dynamics, such as kinship relations, liminality and rites of passage, socialization into microcultures of violence, ritual process, and local understandings of status, honor, face, and shame. Confronted with Putumayo who had been manufactured into beings classified as savage, ignorant, and wild, rubber traders engaged in ritualized murder, sometimes burning or crucifying the alleged infidels in a liminal locale where a microculture of brutal violence had emerged. Anthropology, of course, does not explain everything, but it provides a crucial level of analysis that may be fruitfully combined with insights garnered from other disciplines.
SEE ALSO Archaeology; Forensics; Sociology of Perpetrators; Sociology of Victims
Hinton, Alexander Laban, ed. (2002). Annihilating Difference: The Anthropology of Genocide. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hinton, Alexander Laban, ed. (2002). Genocide: An Anthropological Reader. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.
Hinton, Alexander Laban (2004). Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Malinowski, Bronislaw (1984). Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland.
Taussig, Michael (1987). Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Taylor, Christopher (1999). Sacrifice as Terror: The Rwandan Genocide of 1994. Oxford: Berg.