Educational Anthropology Research Paper Starter

Educational Anthropology

(Research Starters)

The following article summarizes the academic discipline known as educational anthropology. Although the field was institutionalized and professionalized in the 1960s, it has roots in the broader discipline of anthropology, and thus dates back to the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Once the field solidified in the late twentieth century, practitioners distinguished their field from others by declaring their primary focus of study the transmission of culture through education, both formal and otherwise. In addition to bringing more awareness to the role culture plays in education, anthropologists also made significant contributions to the social sciences through innovations in methodology. Anthropologists are credited with the ethnographic approach to research, emphasizing the importance of 'the other' through comparative methods, and finding the 'unfamiliar and exotic' in the study of familiar cultures, even one's own.

Keywords Comparative method; Culture; Cultural pluralism; Cultural therapy; Cultural transmission; Educational anthropology; Ethnography; Mead, Margaret; Spindler, George; Spindler, Louise; Educational Theory; Educational Anthropology


History of Educational Anthropology

"Educational Anthropology or anthropology of education, (either one sounds awkward) has as long a history as anthropology itself" (Spindler, 1987, p. 2). This quote provides a fitting introduction to the field of anthropology and education. George Spindler, one of the modern-day founders of the discipline, organized a conference in 1954 that became a pivotal moment in the institutionalization of the field, but even as he argues himself, the roots of the discipline run much deeper. The quote is playful too, in recognizing that along with the formalization of the field came the formalization of a name that is difficult to say.

That the roots of the discipline run deep is demonstrated most aptly by the contribution of one of the most recognizable anthropologists of the early twentieth century. Margaret Mead, who earned notoriety in 1928 with the publication of "Coming of Age in Samoa," gave a great deal of attention to the concepts of teaching and learning. Indeed, she once categorized cultures according to whether they are 'learning cultures' or 'teaching cultures,' defining the former as "small, homogenous group(s) that show little concern for transmitting culture because there is virtually no danger of anyone going astray" and the latter as those cultures in which it is necessary for "those who know to inform and direct those who do not know" (Wolcott, 1987, p. 27).

Of course, Mead was just one of many anthropologists making contributions to our understanding of education in the early twentieth century. Indeed, Eddy (1987) refers to the period between 1925 and 1954 as "The Formative Years" and notes that a bibliography of studies that addressed formalized education and enculturation reads like a "Who's Who of American and British founders of modern anthropology" (p. 7). In addition to the people who were studying education and anthropology during this time, the Formative Years were notable for other reasons as well. Much of the funding for studies in anthropology came from private sources, such as the Rockefeller Foundation and Carnegie Corporation, and anthropology was viewed largely as an applied science. In 1941, the U.S. Government contracted with anthropologists to study the 'educational problems' of Native Americans; the work of other anthropologists contributed significantly to the 1954 Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that ended segregation. And abroad, anthropologists studied the problems of education in Africa, although it wasn't until mid-century that practitioners "recognized the need to adapt education to individual and community needs rather than to transfer Western educational practices wholesale" (as quoted in Eddy, 1987, p. 13).

While the contributions of anthropologists to educational issues during the first half of the twentieth century were impressive, as Margaret Mead stated at the 1954 Stanford Conference, they were largely "dependent upon personalities rather than any on-going institutionalized process of any sort" (Eddy, 1987, p. 13). The conference would later come to signify the institutionalization and specialization of educational anthropology, although the conference itself was not the direct cause. Indeed, higher education enrollment growth following World War II, along with a tremendous increase in public funding (and a simultaneous shift away from private funding), led to a focus on the development of the profession within the academy. Curriculum development needs of the 1950s and 1960s, and the recognition of the failure of schools to meet the needs of the urban poor and urban minorities, gave anthropologists an opportunity to formalize their contribution to education in specific ways. The formalization and specialization process culminated in 1970, with the development of the Council on Anthropology and Education (CAE). As Eddy (1987) argues, the organizing principles of the CAE reflect "remarkable continuity" between educational anthropology's past and future. The principles, listed below, provide insight into a definition of the field:

• Anthropology, as a discipline, is concerned with cross-cultural and comparative studies;

• American society is a multi-cultural society and an important subject of inquiry in its own right;

• Anthropology has contributions to make to the study of child development and learning, in all the various ways and environments in which they occur;

• Ethnography is an effective tool for studying learning and teaching systems, and the results of ethnographic studies can contribute to educational policy;

• And, education today takes place within context of large cultural, social, political, economic, and technological change.

What is Educational Anthropology?

As educational anthropology became a more formalized and specialized discipline, those who studied it felt it was important to distinguish it from other disciplines. Recognizing that "learning fell more or less in the province of the psychologists and social structure in the province of sociologists and social anthropologists, we felt that cultural transmission would be a natural [focus] for anthropological applications to education" (Spindler, 2000, p. 31). Pai, Adler, and Shadiow (2006) similarly place the emphasis on culture, arguing that educators have not "always been clear and precise about the myriad ways that cultural factors influence the process of schooling, teaching, and learning" (p. vii). Our lack of awareness, they claim, has led to "unsound educational policies, ineffective school practices, and unfair assessment of learners" (p. vii).

Culture Defined: Because anthropology of education is about culture, and specifically the ways in which culture is transmitted, it's important to begin with a definition of culture itself. As with most subjects of study, scholars debate the exact meaning of culture, but agree with the following basic definition.

"Culture is most commonly viewed as that pattern of knowledge, skills, behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs, as well as material artifacts, produced by a human society and transmitted from one generation to the next" (Pai, Adler, & Shadiow, 2006, p. 19).

Pai, Adler, and Shadiow (2006) further describe culture as goal-oriented and as a system of norms and controls designed to govern behavior. They emphasize the process of symboling, - or the bestowing of meaning upon objects and actions - as a critical in the development of culture, explaining that it is the process by which, for example, "an ordinary cow becomes a sacred cow and plain water becomes holy water" (p. 21). Finally, culture is pervasive and impacts nearly every aspect of human life. Studies suggest that our experience of pain is shaped by the language available to us to describe it, and that even something as simple as our perception of colors and shapes is not just a physiological response, but depends on the categories available to us to understand them (Pai, Adler, & Shadiow, 2006).

The above definition perhaps begs the question, "How does the individual relate to the larger culture?" As described, it might seem that any single person is determined by the norms of the larger group, but anthropologists are quick to qualify their definition with the acknowledgement that "every person's interpretation of his or her culture is idiosyncratic and cultural knowledge varies from person to person, depending on age, sex, status, and individual experience" (Spindler, 2000, p. 38). Furthermore, anthropologists liken culture to a map; in the same way a map is an abstract representation of a territory and not the territory itself, culture is an abstract representation that provides only a general understanding of a group of people (Pai, Adler, & Shadiow, 2006). Implicit norms and...

(The entire section is 3972 words.)