Resource used: Cultural Anthropology: A Problem-Based Approach by Richard H. Robbins and Sherrie N. Larkin, 1st Canadian edition
Problem 1: How can people begin to understand beliefs and behaviours that are different from their own?
The goal of sociocultural anthropology is to be able to look beyond the world of everyday experiences to discover the patterns and meanings that lie behind the world.
Eg) classroom chair
- To us, it is just a regular piece of furniture we use to sit on, etc. but anthropologists view it much differently
- To them, one aspect they would focus on would be the relation between the shape of the classroom desk/chair and the position into which it forces the body–a position that compels it to “pay attention”
- They might suggest that the chair and desk are part of the political anatomy of educational settings by preparing/forcing students to listen to a teacher and not be distracted by others (ie. Instrument of control)
Once you notice that the chair/desk are instruments of control, then you might notice other ways that the classroom design serves to enforce discipline
- Eg) distribution of students in rows, all facing the spot where the teacher is
- Eg) use of clocks, bells and whistles to control movement and activities
- Eg) transition from wide-open classrooms in kindergarten to more rigid/formal classrooms in elementary school
- Students do not always obey these subtle commands, but the instruments of control limit/reduce resistance
- Foucault referred to the shaping of the human body as political anatomy – a way that people’s bodies are controlled by others to operate with the necessary speed and efficiency, producing docile bodies
In sociocultural anthropology, we cannot take anything for granted even our own beliefs and behaviour, let alone those of others; we need to be able to see beyond our taken-for-granted world
Question 1.1: Why do human beings differ in their beliefs and behaviours?
- People in a society view the world in a similar way because they have the same culture, so when they are different cultures, different perspectives on the world will be presented
Although events like birth, death, food, water and shelter are common to all cultures, all societies give different meanings to these things and have unique rituals/rules
For some, it’s the passage from one world to another. For others, it’s the final end while still others consider it to be part of a never-ending cycle.
- Eg) Kwakwaka’wakw of BC believe that the soul of a dead person enters a salmon.
Some fear the dead whereas some revere it.
- Eg) rural Chinese have a shrine for dead ancestors
- Cultures have unique death rituals and processes for grieving.
Although many items are edible, only few are designated as “good to eat”
- For instance, most North Americans would not consider insects to be food
- Human beings are cultural animals; they ascribe meanings of their own creation to objects, persons, behaviors, emotions and events and proceed to act as though those meanings are real
All facets of our lives, like birth/death, etc, are infused with meaning
- But why is this?
Clifford Geertz argues that humans impose meaning on their experiences and surroundings because these meanings help us on impose order on the universe, preventing it from being a jumble, “a chaos of pointless acts and exploding emotions”
- Humans, according to him, are “incomplete or unfinished animals who complete themselves through culture–not just culture in general, but specific forms of it” eg) American
Differences in culture arise in part from the fact that different groups of humans, for whatever reasons, create, share and participate in different realities, and assign different meanings to common events
- Objects and things, like clothes, are defined through the meanings that we give them
A major question in anthropology is why different groups of people have different cultures
- It’s difficult to look at our own culture from an object point of view, and even more difficult to look at beliefs and behaviours of another culture, especially if we consider them to be “wrong”
Question 1.2: How do people judge the beliefs and behaviours of others?
Dilemma: Since there are so many versions of what the world is like, how do we go about trying to understand each of them without making positive or negative judgments? Are we allowed to reject or condemn any? Can we say that one culture is superior to another?
The ethnocentric fallacy and the relativist fallacy
- Ethnocentric fallacy – the idea that our beliefs and behaviours are right and true, whilst those of other peoples are wrong or misguided
- If we condemn or reject the beliefs or behaviours of others, we may be committing the ethnocentric fallacy, which is something that sociocultural anthropologists wish to avoid
- Instead, we should attempt to understand beliefs/behaviours in the context of the culture because something that is crazy to us may be completely normal
- In addition, if we think that we are right and everyone else is wrong, then we reach a dead end because everyone will think everyone else is wrong. It also causes anthropology to become a study of people’s mistakes rather than people in general
Therefore, intellectually unsatisfactory
Relativism – no behaviour or belief can be judged to be odd or wrong simply because it is different from our own
- Ie) a specific belief or behaviour can only be understood in relation to the culture—the system of meanings—in which it is embedded
Thus, from this perspective, all actions can be judged as reasonable or rational in the context of the culture
- Eg) genetic modification of young girls in Sudan makes perfect sense to the women, according to Ellen Gruenbaum, because it protects the honour of the family and of the girl herself
Moral problem: the relativistic fallacy – the idea that it is impossible to make moral judgments about the belief and behaviours of others
- With relativism, no belief or behaviour can be condemned as wrong
- Often times, like in the case of cannibalism in Wari’ culture or virginity testing in Turkey, the beliefs and behaviours are somewhat rational once we understand it from “the native’s point of view”, but what if they cannot be rationalized?
Therefore, morally unsatisfactory
Objectivity and Morality
The conflict between ethnocentrism and relativism is not just theoretical for anthropologists; depending on your research subject, anthropologists have the dilemma of maintaining a moral distance from objects of study to remain objective, or becoming actively involved in criticizing behaviours or beliefs they encounter
Eg) Nancy Scheper-Hughes began to argue for a politically committed, morally engaged, and ethically grounded anthropology after she came back to a community as an anthropologist after having been a community organizer before
- “Those of us who make our living observing and recording the misery of the world have a particular obligation to reflect critically on the impact of the harsh images of human suffering that we foist upon the public.”
- She argued that anthropology must be “critically grounded”; we cannot abandon people and must serve as witnesses and reporters of human rights abuses and the suffering of the poor and the oppressed
- However, Laura Nader advised other anthropologists to not study the poor and the powerless because of the negative images and impressions that may result
- Human rights activists question cultural relativism by asking whether we can ever criticize what seem to be violations of basic human rights, such as the right to bodily integrity, freedom from torture, arbitrary imprisonment, slavery or genocide
There is no easy answer to what is right and wrong
- However, we should first question what it was about us that made the behaviour or belief seem puzzling in the first place
- We need to appreciate that there are other perspectives that are different from our own, and our ethnocentric biases may blind us to these alternatives
What our culture hides from us may be more important than what it reveals.
Question 1.3: Is it possible to see the world through the eyes of others?
- An anthropologist must be able to look beyond everyday appearances to decipher the often hidden meanings of beliefs, objects and behaviours, while at the same time setting aside his or her preconceptions of what is normal and proper
- Must also learn one culture and then relate knowledge to members of another culture to translate the meanings of one world into the meanings of another
Like other social scientists, anthropologists use surveys, written documents, historical accounts and questionnaires for research
- But unique to anthropology is the usage of the ethnographic method – the immersion of the investigator in the lives of the people they are trying to understand and, through the experience, the attainment of some level of understanding of the meanings those people ascribe to their existence
- It is beneficial because the anthropologist can take him/herself as a subject of investigation by participating in the lives of others and in their cultural practices
- By succeeding in seeing the world as others do, even if for a brief moment, then understanding and describing that world becomes far easier
- Participant observation – the active participation of the observer in the lives of his or her subjects
Anthropologists need to be able to put aside their own views of things and see the world in a new way, and fieldwork is just the beginning of understanding
Confronting witchcraft in Mexico
Awkward or embarrassing moments in the field may help anthropologists to understand a culture or even to question their own view of the world
- Abelam wondering how we could walk upside down, and the anthropologist couldn’t explain gravity
To communicate with anyone, even members of their own society, people must share some of the meanings they ascribe to objects, persons, behaviours, emotions and events
- What happens when views of the world are completely different?
- Eg) anthropologist struggles to deal with the Ixtepajanos world view, filled with witchcraft and magic
Systems of belief become eminently reasonable when viewed from within or when we participate in the lives of people who hold those beliefs
The Endangered Anthropologist
- Although disease, injury or hostile reactions are likely, anthropologists are coming under increasing risk from areas where human rights violations are common
Anthropologists are, as Roger Keesing put it, outsiders who know something of what it is to be insiders
Question 1.4: How can the meanings that others find in experience be interpreted and described?
One way to think about culture is as a text of significant symbols (cultural text): words, gestures, drawings, natural objects — anything, in fact, that carries meaning
- A text inscribed with the symbols that revealed the ideas about time and work that characterized the civilization that produced it
Like Holmes in the watch story, we must be able to decipher the meaning of the symbols that comprise a cultural text to understand a culture
- We must be able to interpret the meaning embedded in the language, objects, gestures and activities that are shared by members of a society
- In our everyday lives, we both read and maintain the text that makes up our own culture; our task is to use the abilities that have enabled us to dwell in our own culture and use them to understand the cultures of others
The culture of a people, like the possessions of a person, is an ensemble of texts — collections of symbols and meanings — that must be viewed together to provide a full understanding
Eg) Balinese cockfight — they may seem aggressive and competitive if you look at only the cockfight, but in reality they are not. Events do not necessarily reveal all aspects of a person/culture, but rather only segments
Question 1.5: What can learning about other peoples tell anthropologists about their own societies?
Despite the focus on other societies, anthropologists often apply the concepts and techniques that are useful in understanding other cultures to understand their own culture
- An objective in studying other cultures is to help us understand the meanings we impose on our experiences
- Eg) Ilongot head-hunting story
A Balinese anthropologist studies Canadian hockey
- There appear to be parallels between the importance of Canadian hockey in Canada and cockfights in Bali
However, neither are simply mirrors of their respective societies; as Yngve Lithman suggests, they also draw attention to something and provide an “explanation” for something
- It brings Canadians from around the country for a common focus
- Helps people adjust to sudden change by providing a way for players to gain status, achievement and self-esteem
- According to Collings and Condon, games like hockey affirm the value of success, as well as a dramatic set of instructions on how to attain it
These games build character and teach young people about cooperation
- However, they can also teach violence, verbal aggression, cheating, etc
- Thus, anthropologists can conclude that hockey, like the Balinese cockfight, is a small-scale rendering of a concept (status for Balinese, status and success for Canadians) that cannot be expressed/comprehended directly
- Ie) the rules that lead to success in hockey can also be applied to the real world
An anthropologist looks at a “Happy Meal”
- Nothing is too mundane to shed some light into the culture of which it is a part
What can we learn about the American culture by looking beyond the “taken-for-granted” quality of this meal?
Eg) Why is meat at the centre of the meal when other cultures have complex carbohydrates at the centre, like rice or wheat?
- Suitability for the outside grill
- Definition of hamburger set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture
- Meat is relatively cheap because nearly a third of the hamburger can be inexpensive scraps of fat
Eg) Why do we consume cola? Why do we consume so much sugar?
- Sugar has negligible nutritional value, but it provides a quick and cheap energy boost for blue-collar workers who lack money/time for a more nutritious meal
- Removes the fat coating and beef aftertaste from mouth.
- Eg) Gender roles in Happy Meal toys
The Happy Meal is extremely detrimental for the environment due to the huge environmental effects from raising cattle and growing sugar crops
Question 1.6: What do anthropologists do and how can an anthropological perspective be used outside of academia?
Anthropology – anthopos (human beings) + logia (study of)
- Includes everything that humans do currently or have done in the past
- Also includes how and when we became human and comparing humans to other organisms
- Began during the age of exploration due to Europeans encountering different cultures and bringing back strange tales, and when Europeans started establishing colonies in far-off lands (eg. Jesuit Relations between the Jesuits and the indigenous peoples of Southern Ontario)
Formal discipline of anthropology began in 1871 when Edward Tylor was appointed to the first position of anthropology in Britain (mostly “armchair anthropology”)
In 1925, Thomas F. McIlwraith was the first anthropology appointment at U of T
- Department of Anthropology was formed in 193
- Most departments of anthropology were formed in the 1970s when the “baby boomers” started attending university
Museums were also instrumental in propagating and developing Canadian anthropology
Although Regna Darnell of the University of Western Ontario claims that Canadian anthropology does not possess any features that set it apart from others, the “national discipline combines features of disciplinary organization and historical context in patterns that are unique”, perhaps because of a “critical mass of First Nations languages and cultures”
Sub-Disciplines of Anthropology
- Although sub-disciplines address the same core questions of anthropology, they focus on different aspects of the question.
- Focuses on humans as one of many organisms that inhabit the earth
- Includes paleoanthropology (study of fossil remains of early humans), primatology, forensic anthropology and study of human biological evolution
- Study of human history and artifacts
- Examine material remains of human groups, along with pottery and artifacts, to understand how people lived, including clues about their social and cultural lives
- Examine the relationship between language and culture, along with the history of languages and the language itself
- Look at how societies are structured and how cultural meaning is created
Interested in both differences and similarities amongst groups from around the world
The importance of stories
- According to anthropologist Julie Cruikshank, Yukon First Nations tell stories “that make meaningful connections and provide order and continuity in a rapidly changing world”, and are the means by which the young learn from elders
The stories that people tell to each other and about each other reveal a lot about their beliefs and values
The “good and proper body” in Samoa
- Searching for meaning is something that sociocultural anthropologists do
- Story about making babies into “good and proper bodies” with food, which are associated with status and age
It does not develop automatically, but is something that requires intervention and assistance, revealing the meaning of wellness in Samoan society
A branch of sociocultural anthropology that challenges the discipline to examine male-centric bias in the four major sub-disciplines of anthropology
Law and society
- Another branch of sociocultural anthropology is the area of law and society, aka political anthropology
Includes formal social, political, economic and intellectual institutions and their social surroundings, as well as law-like activities and the process of establishing order in our society and other societies
- Eg) Who makes the rules, who can undo them, how are they normalized and enforced and how are they morally justified
- Ie) How is chaos avoided?
With globalization, the focus of this branch has increased to include governments within and between nation-states and international issues
- Yet another branch of sociocultural anthropology is a field that “combines the concerns of ecology and a broadly defined political economy” to challenge the main reasons for environmental degradation and challenge solutions to environmental problems
- Usually focuses on access to material resources and land scarcity, but it can also include community identity
- Applied anthropology – Putting anthropological knowledge into practice outside of academia
Anthropologists from all the major sub-disciplines apply their knowledge in the real world, but vary in what they do
- Biological – assist police in identifying skeletal remains
- Archaeologists – identify and assess remains
- Linguistic – wording of public documents or language translations that may be culturally sensitive
Sociocultural – social and cultural differences and similarities wherever they happen
Explain diversity of perspectives around the world, help understood ourselves and others better, and resolving social, economic, educational and political problems created by diversity
Why do human beings differ in what they believe and how they behave?
Human beings, unlike other animals, create their own worlds and ascribe meanings to objects, persons, behaviours, emotions and events, meanings that together constitute a culture
- Also has the benefit of creating order in our lives
Anthropological dilemma of ethnocentric and relativistic fallacies
- We cannot believe that everyone is wrong nor can we suggest that all actions are correct/justifiable
Whatever understanding we reach is at best limited, but what we can do is interpret and describe the meanings of others as a cultural text
- By objectifying our own beliefs and behaviours in the same way as we do others, then our culture and other cultures become equally exotic and strange