Introdution to Anthropology


IX. History of Anthropology

A. Origins

Anthropology traces its roots to ancient Greek historical and philosophical writings about human nature and the organization of human society. Anthropologists generally regard Herodotus, a Greek historian who lived in the 400s bc, as the first thinker to write widely on concepts that would later become central to anthropology. In the book History, Herodotus described the cultures of various peoples of the Persian Empire, which the Greeks conquered during the first half of the 400s bc. He referred to Greece as the dominant culture of the West and Persia as the dominant culture of the East. This type of division, between white people of European descent and other peoples, established the mode that most anthropological writing would later adopt.

The Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, who lived in the 14th century ad, was another early writer of ideas relevant to anthropology. Khaldun examined the environmental, sociological, psychological, and economic factors that affected the development and the rise and fall of civilizations. Both Khaldun and Herodotus produced remarkably objective, analytic, ethnographic descriptions of the diverse cultures in the Mediterranean world, but they also often used secondhand information.

During the Middle Ages (5th to 15th centuries ad) biblical scholars dominated European thinking on questions of human origins and cultural development. They treated these questions as issues of religious belief and promoted the idea that human existence and all of human diversity were the creations of God.

Beginning in the 15th century, European explorers looking for wealth in new lands provided vivid descriptions of the exotic cultures they encountered on their journeys in Asia, Africa, and what are now the Americas. But these explorers did not respect or know the languages of the peoples with whom they came in contact, and they made brief, unsystematic observations.

The European Age of Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries marked the rise of scientific and rational philosophical thought. Enlightenment thinkers, such as Scottish-born David Hume, John Locke of England, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau of France, wrote a number of humanistic works on the nature of humankind. They based their work on philosophical reason rather than religious authority and asked important anthropological questions. Rousseau, for instance, wrote on the moral qualities of “primitive” societies and about human inequality. But most writers of the Enlightenment also lacked firsthand experience with non-Western cultures.

B. Imperialism and Increased Contact with Other Cultures

With the rise of imperialism (political and economic control over foreign lands) in the 18th and 19th centuries, Europeans came into increasing contact with other peoples around the world, prompting new interest in the study of culture. Imperialist nations of Western Europe—such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, France, and England—extended their political and economic control to regions in the Pacific, the Americas, Asia, and Africa.

The increasing dominance of global commerce, capitalist (profit-driven) economies, and industrialization in late-18th-century Europe led to vast cultural changes and social upheavals throughout the world. European industries and the wealthy, elite classes of people who owned them looked to exotic foreign lands for sources of labor and goods for manufacturing. In addition, poorer Europeans, many of whom were displaced from their land by industrialization, tried to build new lives abroad. Several European countries took over the administration of foreign regions as colonies (see Colonialism and Colonies). See also Capitalism.

Europeans suddenly had a flood of new information about the foreign peoples encountered in colonial frontiers. The colonizing nations of Europe also wanted scientific explanations and justifications for their global dominance. In response to these developments, and out of an interest in new and strange cultures, the first amateur anthropologists formed societies in many Western European countries in the early 19th century. These societies eventually spawned professional anthropology.

Anthropological societies devoted themselves to scientifically studying the cultures of colonized and unexplored territories. Researchers filled ethnological and archaeological museums with collections obtained from the new empires of Europe by explorers, missionaries, and colonial administrators. Physicians and zoologists, acting as novice physical anthropologists, measured the skulls of people from various cultures and wrote detailed descriptions of the people’s physical features.

Toward the end of the 19th century anthropologists began to take academic positions in colleges and universities. Anthropological associations also became advocates for anthropologists to work in professional positions. They promoted anthropological knowledge for its political, commercial, and humanitarian value.

C. The Beginnings of Modern Anthropology

In the 19th century modern anthropology came into being along with the development and scientific acceptance of theories of biological and cultural evolution. In the early 19th century, a number of scientific observations, especially of unearthed bones and other remains, such as stone tools, indicated that humanity’s past had covered a much greater span of time than that indicated by the Bible (see Creationism).

In 1836 Danish archaeologist Christian Thomsen proposed that three long ages of technology had preceded the present era in Europe. He called these the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. Thomsen's concept of technological ages fit well with the views of Scottish geologist Sir Charles Lyell, who proposed that the earth was much older than previously believed and had changed through many gradual stages.

C.1. Evolutionary Theory

In 1859 British naturalist Charles Darwin published his influential book On the Origin of Species. In this book, he argued that animal and plant species had changed, or evolved, through time under the influence of a process that he called natural selection. Natural selection, Darwin said, acted on variations within species, so that some variants survived and reproduced, and others perished. In this way, new species slowly evolved even as others continued to exist. Darwin’s theory was later supported by studies of genetic inheritance conducted in the 1850s and 1860s by Austrian monk Gregor Mendel. Evolutionary theory conflicted with established religious doctrine that all species had been determined at the creation of the world and had not changed since.

English social philosopher Herbert Spencer applied a theory of progressive evolution to human societies in the middle 1800s. He likened societies to biological organisms, each of which adapted to survive or else perished. Spencer later coined the phrase "survival of the fittest" to describe this process. Theories of social evolution such as Spencer’s seemed to offer an explanation for the apparent success of European nations as so-called advanced civilizations.

C.2. Anthropological Evolutionary Theories

During the late 1800s many anthropologists promoted their own models of social and biological evolution. Their writings portrayed people of European descent as biologically and culturally superior to all other peoples. The most influential anthropological presentation of this viewpoint appeared in Ancient Society, published in 1877 by American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan.

Morgan argued that European civilization was the pinnacle of human evolutionary progress, representing humanity’s highest biological, moral, and technological achievement. According to Morgan, human societies had evolved to civilization through earlier conditions, or stages, which he called Savagery and Barbarism. Morgan believed these stages occurred over many thousands of years and compared them to geological ages. But Morgan attributed cultural evolution to moral and mental improvements, which he proposed were, in turn, related to improvements in the ways that people produced food and to increases in brain size.

Morgan also examined the material basis of cultural development. He believed that under Savagery and Barbarism people owned property communally, as groups. Civilizations and political states, he said, developed together with the private ownership of property. States thus protected people’s rights to own property. Morgan's theories coincided with and influenced those of German political theorists Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. Engels and Marx, using a model like Morgan’s, predicted the demise of state-supported capitalism. They saw communism, a new political and economic system based on the ideals of communality, as the next evolutionary stage for human society.

Like Morgan, Sir Edward Tylor, a founder of British anthropology, also promoted the theories of cultural evolution in the late 1800s. Tylor attempted to describe the development of particular kinds of customs and beliefs found across many cultures. For example, he proposed a sequence of stages for the evolution of religion—from animism (the belief in spirits), through polytheism (the belief in many gods), to monotheism (the belief in one god).

In 1871 Tylor also wrote a still widely quoted definition of culture, describing it as “that complex whole that includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of a society.” This definition formed the basis for the modern anthropological concept of culture.

C.3. Cultural Evolution, Colonialism, and Social Darwinism

The colonial nations of Europe used ethnocentric theories of cultural evolution to justify the expansion of their empires. Writings based on such theories described conquered peoples as “backward” and therefore unfit for survival unless colonists “civilized” them to live and act as Europeans did. This application of evolutionary theory to control social and political policy became known as social Darwinism.

Theories of cultural evolution in the 19th century took no account of the successes of small-scale societies that had developed long-term adaptations to particular environments. Nor did they recognize any shortcomings of European civilization, such as high rates of poverty and crime.

Furthermore, while many proponents of cultural evolution suggested that the people in small-scale societies were biologically inferior to people of European descent, no evidence actually supported this position. But not all anthropologists believed in this type of cultural evolution. Many actually rejected all evolutionary theory because others misused and abused it.

D. New Directions in Theory and Research

Anthropology emerged as a serious professional and scientific discipline beginning in the 1920s. The focus and practice of anthropological research developed in different ways in the United States and Europe.

D.1. The Influence of Boas

In the 1920s and 1930s anthropology assumed its present form as a four-field academic profession in the United States under the influence of German-born American anthropologist Franz Boas. Boas wanted anthropology to be a well-respected science. He was interested in all areas of anthropological research and had done highly regarded fieldwork in all areas except archaeology. As a professor at Columbia University in New York City from 1899 until his retirement in 1937, he helped define the discipline and trained many of the most prominent American anthropologists of the 20th century. Many of his students—including Alfred Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead—went on to establish anthropology departments at universities throughout the country.

Boas stressed the importance of anthropologists conducting original fieldwork to get firsthand experiences with the cultures they wished to describe. He also opposed racist and ethnocentric evolutionary theories. Based on his own studies, including his measurement of the heads of people from many cultures, Boas argued that genetic differences among human populations could not explain cultural variation.

Boas urged anthropologists to do detailed research on particular cultures and their histories, rather than attempt to construct grand evolutionary stages for all of humankind in the tradition of Morgan and Tylor. Boas’s theoretical approach became known as historical particularism, and it forms the basis for the fundamental anthropological concept of cultural relativism.

D.2. Functionalism

Many other anthropologists working in Boas’s time, mostly in Europe, based their research on the theories of 19th-century French sociologist Émile Durkheim. Like Sir Edward Tylor, Durkheim was interested in religions across cultures. But he was not interested in the evolution of religion. Durkheim instead proposed that religious beliefs and rituals functioned to integrate people in groups and to maintain the smooth functioning of societies.

Durkheim’s ideas were expanded upon by Bronislaw Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, two major figures in the development of modern British anthropology beginning in the 1920s and 1930s. Their approach to understanding culture was known as structural functionalism, or simply functionalism.

A typical functionalist study analyzed how cultural institutions kept a society in working order. For example, many studies examined rites of passage, such as initiation ceremonies. Through a series of such ceremonies, groups of children of the same age would be initiated into new roles and take on new responsibilities as they grew into adults. According to functionalists, any unique characteristics of the rites of passage of a particular society had to do with how initiation ceremonies worked in the function of that society.

Functionalists based their approach to doing fieldwork on their theories. They lived for long periods with the people they studied, carefully recording even very small details about a people’s culture and social life. The resulting ethnographies portrayed all aspects of culture and social life as interdependent parts of a complex model. Functionalist research methods became the blueprint for much anthropological research throughout the 20th century.

During the first half of the 20th century, many anthropologists conducted functionalist ethnographic studies in the service of colonial governments. This research allowed colonial administrators to predict what would happen to an entire society in response to particular colonial policies. Administrators might want to know, for instance, what would happen if they imposed taxes on households or on individuals.

D.3. Structuralism

In the 1950s French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss developed an anthropological theory and analytic method known as structuralism. He was influenced by the theories of Durkheim and one of Durkheim’s collaborators, French anthropologist Marcel Mauss. Lévi-Strauss proposed that many common cultural patterns—such as those found in myth, ritual, and language—are rooted in basic structures of the mind.

He wrote, for instance, about the universal tendency of the human mind to sort things into sets of opposing concepts, such as day and night, black and white, or male and female. Lévi-Strauss believed such basic conceptual patterns became elaborated through culture. For example, many societies divide themselves into contrasting but complementary groups, known as moieties (from the French word for “half”). Each moiety traces its descent through one line to a common ancestor. In addition to many shared ritual functions, moieties create a system for controlling sex and marriage. A person from one moiety may only marry or have sexual relations with a person from the other moiety.

D.4. Cultural Materialism and Cultural Ecology

In the 1960s, American anthropologists such as Julian Steward, Roy Rappaport, and Marvin Harris began to study how culture and social institutions relate to a people’s technology, economy, and natural environment. All of these factors together define a people’s patterns of subsistence—how they feed, clothe, shelter, and otherwise provide for themselves.

Economic and ecological approaches to understanding culture and societies are known as cultural materialism or cultural ecology. Harris, for instance, analyzed the religious practice in India of regarding cows as sacred. He suggested that this religious practice developed as a cultural response to the value of cows as work animals for farming and other essential tasks and as a source of dung, which is dried as fuel.

D.5. Symbolic Anthropology

In the 1970s many anthropologists, including American ethnologist Clifford Geertz and British ethnologist Victor Turner, moved away from ecological and economic explanations of people’s cultures. Instead, these anthropologists looked for the meanings of particular cultural symbols and rituals within cultures themselves, an approach known as symbolic anthropology.

Symbolic anthropological studies often focus on one particularly important ritual or symbol within a society. Anthropologists using this approach attempt to demonstrate how this one symbol or ritual shapes or reflects an entire culture. Geertz, for example, attempted to show how the culture of the people of Bali, Indonesia, could be understood by examining the important Balinese ritual of staging and betting on cockfights.

Source: "Anthropology," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2003
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