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This lesson will be a brief overview of cultural anthropology. It will highlight the concept of culture while also defining the main branches of archaeology, anthropological linguistics, and ethnology.


(video available on February 2016)

Lesson Transcript

Definition of Terms

Anthropology, the study of humankind, has sometimes been compared to a big tent that covers interest in everything human. Using this tent metaphor, we could say there are several subfields of anthropology that act like tent poles. For instance, there’s physical anthropology, which deals mainly with biology, trying to understand physical variations among people groups. Then there’s cultural anthropology, which is the study of the commonalities and differences of both past and present cultures. This one focuses more on social things, like class structure, language, law, politics, religion, magic, art, and technology.

For today’s lesson, we’re going to take a closer look at the tent pole of cultural anthropology. With this in mind, let’s get its definition down one more time. Speaking quite technically, it is the study of universals and variations in cultures of the past and the present. In very simple terms, it’s the study of how human culture has changed and sometimes even stayed the same throughout history.

However, in order to understand cultural anthropology, we definitely need to take some time on the term ‘culture.’ Scholastically speaking, Carol and Melvin Ember’s book, Cultural Anthropology, defines culture as the set of learned behaviors and ideas, including beliefs, attitudes, values, and ideals that are characteristic of a particular society or population. More plainly said, culture could be explained as the way a people group behaves, the things they believe, the things they value, and even the things they produce. It encompasses a people’s language, religious beliefs, music, diet, work habits, family structures, technology, and much more.

Keeping in mind how broad the concept of culture is, most cultural anthropologists narrow their area of interest. For this reason, cultural anthropology is usually broken down into three main branches. Again, using our metaphor, if anthropology is the tent and cultural anthropology is a tent pole, the three branches of cultural anthropology could sort of be our seating sections under the tent. These three are archaeology, anthropological linguistics, and ethnology. For the remainder of our time, we’ll take a brief look at each of these three main branches of cultural anthropology.

Archaeology

As the study of the physical remains of past cultures, archaeology shares much in common with the study of history. However, unlike historians who usually only deal with written records, archaeologists go way back to prehistory, the time before written record. Of course, this offers some serious challenges, forcing archaeologists to sort of reconstruct a culture’s history using only the physical things that have been left behind. In other words, while a historian can use the works of men like Martin Luther to study the era of the Reformation, an archaeologist is often left with pieces of pottery, or maybe some unearthed tools, to study the culture of ancient Babylon.

Anthropological Linguistics

The next of our branches of cultural anthropology is anthropological linguistics. As a science, this can simply be defined as the study of human language.

Like archaeology, this study of language is not just limited to written language. It also reaches way back into prehistoric times before the advent of writing. Being a very daunting area of study, anthropological linguists often find themselves working backward, taking modern languages and trying to find ancient languages they may be related to. Much like a family historian tries to piece together a family tree, these scientists try to answer questions like ‘Do all languages have a common ancestral language? If so, when and where did they begin to differ?’

Ethnology

Now we come to our last main branch of cultural anthropology, ethnology. Again, rather simply stated, ethnology is the study of recent cultures and how they differ. For this one, the word ‘recent’ is key. Unlike archaeology and linguistics, which dabble in prehistory, ethnology focuses on more contemporary cultures. Where an archaeologist is left with only the remains of a culture, an ethnologist usually is able to actually observe his culture of interest.

In seeking to understand things like family customs, religion, or economics of a culture, an ethnologist often has the benefit of being able to actually interview his subjects! Building on the term ‘ethnology,’ cultural anthropologists who live among a culture in order to interview and observe a people group are known as ethnographers.

Lesson Summary

Anthropology is the study of humankind. Like most sciences, it is broken down into subfields. One of these subfields is cultural anthropology, which is the study of the commonalities and differences of both past and present cultures. As its name implies, it is interested in culture, the set of learned behaviors and ideas that are characteristic of a particular society or population.

As a science, cultural anthropology is usually broken down into three main branches. First is archaeology, which is the study of the physical remains of past cultures. Then there’s anthropological linguistics, which is the study of human language. The last branch is ethnology, which sets itself apart from our first two in that it is the study of recent cultures and how they differ.

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