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What are anthropology and holism?

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Holism is a core idea in anthropology, which is the study of humankind. Holism means that the anthropologist considers all elements of a culture in their study, even when trying to analyze a specific feature. By looking at the whole picture, not just one detail, an anthropologist can see how different aspects of a culture are related. Considering the broader context enables the researcher to discover the cultural logic underlying a seemingly unusual idea or behavior.

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Holism is an essential part of anthropology, which is a social science dedicated to the study of humankind. Although it is most often mentioned as an element of socio-cultural anthropology, the branch that studies modern human cultures, holism is also part of biological anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and archaeology. Using holism or a holistic approach means that the scientific researcher considers the entire culture when they set out to analyze the meaning of a specific component of that culture. By using a holistic approach, the anthropologist can see how that component fits into broader patterns which make sense to the people in that culture.

A holistic approach is especially useful in analyzing components that may be considered wrong in the anthropologist’s culture. The classic example is cannibalism. For a human to eat another human being is commonly illegal and/or immoral, but it is recommended in some cultures. By locating eating practices within the broader cultural context, anthropologists can make sense of eating human flesh or organs.

Cultural concepts of power along with religious beliefs and patterns of conflict resolution can all be considered. Cannibalism often occurs in relation to warfare, and anthropologists have learned that it rarely indicates animosity toward the person consumed. Carried out as part of religious ritual, consuming a human often indicates respect or reverence for the entire person being consumed, and by extension their culture. It may also represent beliefs about a specific body part, such as the brain or heart, that has power that will be imparted to the person who eats it.

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