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1. Instructions to Class: Complete the Main Conference and two responses.
Main Conference: Respond to the following question: What internal and external controls influence your
life? During her ethnographic experience, what did Elizabeth Fernea (from the book Guest of the Sheik)
learn about internal and external controls? Now that you have finished this course, how might you apply
what you have learned in your daily life, your academic or professional career?
When drafting your answer be sure to follow the grading rubric (below)
You are expected to
contribute to each conference within the time frame posted
300-500 words
respond to your classmates, both to advance the discussion and to deepen your
understanding of the topic
read the assigned materials in advance―these are to be informed discussions, and your
postings should help further each one
check your submissions for correct spelling and grammar
cite all of your sources fully and accurately, including page numbers
Write a positive response to each of the following items below.
Classmate A) External controls are all around us, even if we do not realize it when we act and react to
events in our daily lives. As a military spouse of an enlisted person, external controls pressed upon me in
much the same way they did BJ, women spouses had their place and we were not to overextend our
husband's rank. Even at spouses meetings, I was below the spouses of anyone who's spouse had more
rank than mine. When we were first married I didn't believe the rumors I'd heard about the spouse
hierarchy, until one day when the spouses were called into a meeting with the base commander to talk
about what was going on with our deployed husbands, understand that this was in the early 1990's when
most active duty were men. Anyway, the spouses were told to sit in order of rank by the commander. This
seemed amazingly odd to me, I was not a military brat so these were my first experiences with the military
life. I stood there, not knowing where to sit because I did not have a rank, I was just a spouse. A couple of
other young spouses joined me standing along the side of the room until another spouse asked us our
husband's ranks and showed us where to sit, which was in the back because our husband's ranks were
enlisted and low. After the seating arrangements were accomplished, the commander stood at the front of
the room and started to yell at us, he was mad to say the least. He then chastised all of the spouses who
sat according to their husband's ranks because thier husband's rank was not theirs and then he went on
about how the spouses were supposed to support one another as equals and not as ranked peers. It
made the few of us who didn't know where to sit feel better about our reaction to the request, but it also
made an immediate impact on me; the rumors were true and I needed to get ready for the ride ahead
because I would be treated as such. In the over 20 years that my husband has been active duty, and the
many units he has been a part of, the hierarchy always exists, even if people don't want to admit to it.
My experience was simliar to BJ's in her schooling about multiple wives and who wears the rank in the
house as far as spouses are concerned. BJ said, "Even as second or third wife, a woman has a role and
status and purpose" (Fernea, 1965, p. 165). As an only wife, she was out of place among her polygymist
neighbors, but also found the ranking system of wives a bit confusing and depressing for those who must
do certain things to maintain their place and not make the top wife upset.
I will apply what I have learned to my personal life by using the information and experience to better
understand why people do what they do in terms of the cultures that they are from. As for my professional
life, an understanding of cultural anthropology is beneficial since I plan on working in advocacy or social
work. Understanding cultures and how they define lives will help me understand those I interact with
better and find resources to help them that are complimentary to their culture and lifestyles.
Fernea, E.W. (1965). Guests of the sheik: An ethnography of an Iraqi village. New York. Anchor Books.
Classmate B.
The internal controls that influence my life are the discipline, values, and morals that have been instilled
in me by my parents, my family, and the 21 years that I spent in the United States Army. My mother and
the Army have probably had more of an impact on my life more than any other person or organization. I
would submit to you, that I am my worst critic and am often too hard on myself. I attribute this type of
behavior to having been told to never settle for second best and to always give your very best in
everything you do. I have been told my entire life to never quit or accept failure. All of my past
experiences with both my upbringing and the Army have made a lasting impact and compel me chose the
hard right over the easy wrong. These life lessons rest deep within me and without a doubt, influence my
life. The external controls that influence my life on a daily basis are obviously the legal system that
guides me down the right path as well as the common courtesies that are observed in the work place.
Many of the people that I work with are retired military and have similar views and life experiences.
These people are used to a regimented life style and still live it daily. Just being around them in the
workplace is a constant reminder of where we came from, how we are supposed to act, as well as
conduct ourselves in a professional manner that will bring credit upon the organization that we work for.
During BJ’s ethnographic experience in the village of El Nahra, Iraq, she learned many things in
regards to internal and external controls. I think that the biggest internal control that she relied on was
her ability to keep her opinion to herself, remain even-tempered and flexible in order to avoid offending
the other women in the village. Elizabeth was well aware that she was in a different part of the world and
clearly understood that the people of Iraq did things very different than what she was used to. I am
almost certain that she relied on her academic experience as well as her upbringing to influence her life
while in the village of El Nahra. In regards to the external controls that BJ was exposed to, I think that the
one that stands out most in my mind is the amount of control that the males have over the females in
Iraq. BJ quickly learned this and truly found out the extent of external control that males imposed, when
she returned from a car ride into the countryside with Laila. Elizabeth should not have gone with Laila
and her cousins into the countryside without another male family member being present. Mohammed
and Elizabeth’s husband Bob were not happy to say the least. “I’m afraid you’ve made quite a blunder,
“he said. “You might have asked me before you went. You’ve made me look foolish and compromised
your friend” (Fernea, 1965, p. 263). Internal and external controls are equally influencing and play a huge
role in our daily lives. BJ understood the importance of both internal and external controls and was able
to adapt and be successful while in El Nahra.
I will apply what I have learned in this Cultural Anthropology course in my daily life by simply being
more understanding of the differences that exist between people and cultures. After taking this course, I
believe that it is near impossible to not relate to the lessons that I have learned. Anthropology “seeks to
understand how life is lived, experienced, and interpreted in different settings and at different times. It
also seeks to understand how different people’s unique histories and positions in larger contexts, such as
the global economy, shape their lives (Module 1, 2012). I will definitely be able to apply it to my
professional career through not being judgmental of others in their beliefs or behaviors. I will do my best
to gain a more thorough understanding of my co-workers and recognize what is important to them and
why. It will be easy to apply what I have learned from this course to all other courses that I will take in the
future. “Anthropology is unique in its holism; it considers every aspect of what it is to be human.
Therefore, every other discipline is useful to anthropologists (Module 1, 2012). I will now be better
equipped to tackle the academic obstacles that are placed in front of me. I will be able to take a less
biased approach to learning and interacting with students and faculty.
Fernea, E.W. (1965). Guests of the sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village. New York: Doubleday.
Module One, Cultural Anthropology- What is it to be Human, Webtyco. Accessed July 1, 2012.
These are modules you can also use for reference:
1. What Is Anthropology?
The Subject Matter of Anthropology
Anthropology is the study of what it is to be human in the past and present, the things about
people that are the same, and the things about them that are different. Anthropologists try to
understand and describe the way in which humans think and behave and why we think and
behave as we do. They help us recognize that much of what we think and do has been learned
from the cultural worlds we walk in and that others do not necessarily experience or understand
the world in the same way we do.
To understand humanity, anthropologists must study all of humanity, not just the most familiar
or convenient human populations. Anthropology is cross-cultural. It seeks to understand how life
is lived, experienced, and interpreted in different settings and at different times. It also seeks to
understand how different people's unique histories and positions in larger contexts, such as the
global economy, shape their lives. By studying people in their own contexts, anthropologists
guard against conclusions that may be true for some, but not all. Anthropologists resist
assumptions that any particular behavior, idea, or way of being is "natural" unless they are sure
that no others do it, think about it, experience it, or interpret it differently. They challenge
ethnocentrism wherever and whenever they find it.
Think about it:
Ideas about where infants should sleep can reflect notions of the "ideal" person a
society is trying to develop. Many Americans, for example, highly value
independence, individualism, and personal space and think, therefore, that infants
"must" learn to sleep in their own cribs, often in their own rooms. People from other
traditions, however, may find this practice cruel. Where do you think infants should
sleep? Why? What does your opinion say about your values and traditions?
The Development of Anthropology
Historically, many have written about the ways of life of "others." For example, Herodotus wrote
about different groups of people in the ancient world, Marco Polo wrote about the people he
encountered in his travels, and the early European explorers and missionaries wrote about
people in the Americas. Despite this long tradition of "amateur" anthropology, anthropology as
an organized academic discipline is only about 130 years old. In Europe and the United States in
the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the increasing ability to travel to faraway places
and the realization that, although there was enormous diversity among peoples, we are all
members of the same species allowed the discipline to flourish.
Though anthropology first developed in this Euro-American context and Western anthropologists
studied "exotic" peoples in faraway places or traditional peoples whose ways of life were
changing rapidly with modernity, anthropologists now come from all over the world. They bring
their different perspectives to their research and often turn an "anthropological gaze" on either
their own cultures or on the Western cultures in which the discipline originally arose. As one
might expect, through its attention to diversity, anthropology has also attracted diverse scholars.
Women, for example, have been among anthropology's pioneers perhaps more than in other
disciplines. Think of Margaret Mead, an anthropologist who is famous for her studies of culture
and personality, particularly adolescence and gender roles, as just one instance.
Think about it:
Leo Chavez, an American anthropologist whose family migrated to the United States
from Mexico generations ago, wrote an ethnography about the lives of recent
immigrants to California. Do you think it is necessary for an anthropologist to come
from the "same" background as the people she or he studies? In your opinion, how
close in background do you think Dr. Chavez and his informants were? To what
extent would their common ethnic origin help or hinder his study?
How Is Anthropology Organized?
The Four Fields and Two Dimensions of Anthropology
Anthropology is organized into four fields―archaeology, cultural anthropology, linguistics, and
physical (or biological) anthropology―though each makes use of the insights of the others, and
all are linked by common themes. Each of these fields has two dimensions, theoretical and
applied, though again, this division is somewhat arbitrary because applied anthropologists use
and contribute to theory, and theoreticians consider real-world data as they build theories to
explain what they observe.
Archaeology studies the "stuff" people leave behind as they live and die. This "stuff" includes not
only the remains of materials people make and use, but also, for example, the traces of their
diets, diseases, and processes of living.
Think about it:
Archaeologists often study "garbage" such as food scraps, bones, broken pottery,
artistic "mistakes," discarded objects, even bodily waste. What do you think a future
archaeologist would say about your way of life based on your garbage?
Cultural anthropology (also called social anthropology or sociocultural anthropology) studies
learned and shared ideas and behaviors, how these come to be, how they change, and how
"culture" shapes what people think and do. (We will discuss in more depth in topic 2 below the
concept of culture as it is variously understood by anthropologists.) The following list compiled
from the sections and interest groups of the American Anthropological Association indicates some
of the topics cultural anthropologists are interested in. These include feminism, law, politics,
education, agriculture, psychology, religion, work, development, urban and rural life,
globalization, media, gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender issues, AIDS, alcohol and drugs,
bioethics, disabilities, and emerging diseases as well as every geographic area of the world.
Anthropologists specialize in certain issues or geographic areas or both, but as this list implies,
whatever is part of the human experience is grist for at least one cultural anthropologist's mill.
Linguistic anthropologists study human languages, both past and present. They describe
languages, study the ways in which languages change and develop, and look at various forms of
communication among people. By studying their languages, linguistic anthropologists help us
understand what is important to different groups of people and how they make sense of their
Physical anthropologists (also called biological anthropologists) study the interaction between
culture and biology in human life, primatologists study nonhuman primates (primatology),
paleoanthropologists study the evolution of primates including humans, and molecular
anthropologists study genetic relationships among people. Forensic anthropologists are often
experts on human anatomy and biological structures and may conduct research to solve crimes.
Medical anthropology cross-cuts all of the four fields of anthropology. For example, consider
research on infectious diseases. Physical and cultural anthropologists try to understand the
relationship between culturally patterned beliefs and behaviors and the transmission of HIV. For
instance, an anthropologist might ask, How do ideas about sexual abstinence, fidelity, and
condoms affect behaviors that in turn affect whether an individual becomes infected with HIV (a
biological condition)? Archaeologists look for evidence of infectious diseases and the ways people
coped with them through what they have left behind, and linguistic anthropologists study the
different terms different people use for such diseases, their treatments, and outcomes, and the
discourse related to them.
Think about it:
In Uganda in the early 1990s, HIV was called the small insect of SLIM (their term for
AIDS), whereas in Western (and other) cultures, we call the agent that causes AIDS
a "virus." We understand viruses differently than we do insects. Such different terms
can indicate different ways of thinking about and understanding this pathological
agent, and these ideas, in turn, can influence what people do to avoid acquiring it.
Anthropological data from Uganda indicate that many people at this time transferred
to HIV their ideas about other insect-born infections, such as malaria. Thus, some
people believed they would not get "the small insect" if they stayed indoors in the
Can you think of an example of when you applied ideas you already had when you
were trying to comprehend something entirely new? How do you think this type of
thinking affects the "truth" of what you "know" about the new phenomenon?
Another example from medical anthropology illustrates both the applied and theoretical
dimensions of anthropology. "Critical medical anthropologists" use ideas from world systems
theory to investigate the effects of the world capitalist system on human health in various
settings. Although their studies increase our understanding of the political and economic factors
that lead to differential health outcomes and thus build theory, their findings are also used to
develop interventions designed to improve health in specific populations.
Think about it:
Anthropologists reported that narcotic analgesics (painkillers) are now commonly
marketed in American inner cities and that their use leads to serious health and
psychiatric consequences. They described those who use these drugs and the ways
they are marketed and sold. Why do you think knowing more about the people who
use certain drugs and how they obtain them could help control the problem?
Unifying Threads
The four fields of anthropology are unified by their emphasis on holism, a historical perspective,
universalism, and a cross-cultural comparative approach. All anthropologists are committed to
understanding human phenomena in context. That is, anthropologists recognize that nothing
occurs in a vacuum and that a researcher must be familiar with the whole to understand the
particular. By the same token, anthropologists know that the present is a product of the past and
that the yesterdays of a place and of a people must be known to understand the todays and
tomorrows. Anthropologists also respect the universal humanity of all those they study as well as
the connections between humans and other primates. Finally, all anthropologists are committed
to studying all cultures, subcultures, and microcultures and comparing them to document and
understand commonalities, differences, and changes.
The Position of Anthropology within Science and the Humanities
Human beings are complex biological and cultural organisms, and anthropologists integrate
approaches from both science and the humanities to understand them and to convey their ideas
and their lives to others. People, for example, must eat and drink to survive, but think of the
myriads of foods and drinks there are and the countless different behaviors, ideas, and
experiences that accompany this biological necessity. For example, a "scientific" anthropologist
may quantify how food is apportioned differently between men and women in diverse settings.
They may ask, Are men allotted more high-protein food in certain cultures and if so, what are
the health outcomes of this difference? On the other hand, a more humanistically oriented
anthropologist may seek to understand and represent the ways men and women feel about these
differences. As further evidence of anthropology's humanistic perspective, anthropologists may
be interested in the arts different people make, the literature they write or speak, and the values
that give meaning to their lives.
The Relationship between Anthropology and Other Academic Disciplines
Anthropology is unique in its holism; it considers every aspect of what it is to be human.
Therefore, every other discipline is useful to anthropologists. They learn from political scientists,
molecular biologists, economists, physicians, historians, lawyers, psychologists, physicists,
writers, neuroanatomists—in other words, from everyone. While anthropologists learn from other
disciplines, they also question whether the theories and conclusions of other disciplines apply to
all peoples or just to certain people. Thus, by investigating diversity, anthropology provides an
essential corrective to the very human tendency of so-called "objective" researchers to see the
world through their own inevitably biased lenses. Of course, anthropologists are humans, too, so
they must look at their own and each other's work as well to identify and eliminate the
ethnocentric biases they find.
How Do Cultural Anthropologists Do Their Work?
Major Types of Studies in Cultural Anthropology
Cultural anthropologists produce different products according to the requirements of their
research questions and, importantly, according to funders' needs. They write books, journal
articles, and reports and produce films, recordings, and television or video programming.
Traditionally, cultural anthropologists lived for an extended time (sometimes years, off and on)
conducting fieldwork among an "exotic" people (at least to Western eyes), participating in the
daily life of the people as they observed it. They learned and used the language, perhaps
focusing on specific aspects of the people's lives according to the anthropologists' own interests,
biases, or guiding theoretical framework. Eventually they produced ethnographies that described
and analyzed the people's way of life.
As the need for anthropological input into public health and international and domestic
development projects has increased, much ethnographic work has become even more issueoriented, focused, and brief. Sometimes "rapid assessments" are conducted rather than
extended fieldwork. Consequently, anthropologists, although still producing comprehensive
ethnographies, also write relatively brief reports, articles, and monographs and may even
condense their findings into one-page executive summaries that policymakers and program
officers can easily digest and use.
Finally, "new" ethnographies often examine what the anthropologist brings to his or her research
and explore the ways the ideas, attitudes, or values of the anthropologist affect the eventual
product. Sometimes, instead of being set in only one place, "new" ethnographies examine an
issue in multiple places and from multiple perspectives.
Think about it:
An example of a "new" ethnography is Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing's Friction, which
explores global connections and the friction that results from different people's
interests "bumping up" against each other. Her ethnography of the timber industry,
indigenous resistance to the industry, and global environmentalism is situated in the
many sites necessary to tell her story: villages in the rainforest, corporate offices,
and nonprofit agencies across the globe. Tsing also acknowledges her own
allegiances and understands that, rather than being an objective observer, she is
part of the story she tells.
Anthropologists also produce cross-cultural comparisons called ethnologies. Ethnologies often
focus on specific issues, looking at how different groups of people approach and deal with various
living situations.
Think about it:
Brigitte Jordan compared birthing practices in the Yucatan, Sweden, the
Netherlands, and the United States in her classic work, Birth in Four Cultures. For
example, she found that to Mayan women, birth is "hard work" properly performed
at home. To many women in the United States (and often to biomedical
professionals) birth is a medical event fraught with peril that must occur in a
hospital to best secure the safety of both mother and child. In her ethnology, Jordan
did not attempt to prove that one way is "better" than another. She tried only to
document variations and to understand the logics underlying them.
What do you think of this approach? Do you think there is a "right" way to give
birth? If you were a health-care worker in a different culture, do you think it would
be helpful to understand your patients' or clients' ideas and behaviors surrounding
The Methods Cultural Anthropologists Use in Their Work
Anthropologists have a varied tool kit available to them to answer their research questions. They
are well-known for their qualitative research approach, though they use both qualitative and
quantitative research methods. Anthropologists often ask open-ended questions that allow
people to respond however they wish and say as much as they want to say. Anthropologists call
the people they study informants or consultants to emphasize the expertise of the people and
the fact that the people are the experts rather the "subjects" of experiments or "respondents" to
a survey with forced-choice questions.
Anthropologists, however, often use and help develop surveys that are based on previous openended research conducted to determine the range of answers appropriate in the particular
setting in which the survey will be used. They may also use interview guides rather than
preformatted questionnaires, and they may allow an informant to venture into any subject that
may be illuminating.
Also, rather than questioning a fixed number of people, anthropologists often follow "trails"
wherever they lead, interviewing people previous informants have suggested would be helpful.
On the other hand, unlike journalists, anthropologists are often concerned with making sure they
interview enough informants to capture the range of variation in responses, and they use
scientific methods to obtain representative samples when their research questions call for this
Think about it:
All anthropologists must "enter the field"—that is, they must begin research in a new
environment where they may be strangers and may be subject to suspicion if not
outright hostility. Alternatively, they may enter the field "at home," where a new
dynamic may be introduced into already established relationships.
Elizabeth Fernea accompanied her anthropologist husband to a remote conservative
Shiite village in Iraq in the early 1960s. She balked at wearing the traditional abaya,
the black garment that conceals women's entire bodies. To Fernea, the garment
symbolized what she considered to be the second-class status of women in this
culture. She quickly found, however, that she was very uncomfortable without it.
When she wore it to her first social gathering with women in the village, her hostess
pronounced her "polite."
If you were to live in and study another culture, how do you think you would handle
expectations that you conform to customs that conflict with your beliefs?
Anthropologists are often interested in uncovering both emic and etic points of view―that is,
they try to identify the point of view of the people being studied as well as other "outside"
perspectives. For example, surveys often ask demographic questions that divide people into
groups according to age, education, income, marital status, religion, and ethnic group or race.
These are standard etic categories, typically agreed upon by Western researchers as important
markers of difference. On the other hand, people may or may not identify themselves according
to these categories, and they may also have other (emic) categories for grouping people, such as
clan, political group, musical style, sports teams they follow, and so forth. Indeed, they may not
think in terms of differences among people at all.
Anthropologists ask their informants to detail their life histories, fill in blanks, draw pictures and
maps, tell them which things go together and which things don't, appear on videotape and
audiotape, participate in focus groups, todemonstrate how they make their art and artifacts,
perform their operations, cook their food, and surf the Web. In other words, anthropologists ask
their informants to show and tell what it means to live their particular lives. Depending on the
data they have collected, anthropologists may use statistical or qualitative data-analysis software
to analyze their data.
Think about it:
Arthur Kleinman, a psychiatrist and one of the most important figures in medical
anthropology, recounts why he became a qualitative researcher. Early in his career,
he administered a survey to the parents of young adults with schizophrenia. The last
question asked parents to rate the impact of the illness on their families on a fivepoint scale ranging from "Very Severe" to "None."
One mother wrote at the bottom of her questionnaire something like this: I will
answer this question, but you will never understand anything from my rating. This
illness has not had a "very severe" impact on my family; it has murdered my family.
What do you think is the difference between asking people to rate or otherwise
assign a number to their experiences or feelings and asking them to explain or
describe them? How might asking open-ended questions contribute to our
understanding of phenomena?
How Does Cultural Anthropology Contribute to Solving Human
Anthropology's Contributions to Health Care, Education, and Business
Anthropologists conduct research and gather information that contributes to many fields,
including health care, education, and business. In all these fields, anthropologists help
professionals understand and work successfully with people who do not necessarily share their
ideas or behaviors.
An enormous amount of work has been done in health care, for example. Medical anthropologists
conduct cross-cultural studies of everything possibly related to health and illness and behaviors
related to them. They study health-care systems, including Western medicine, and the
relationships between patients and healers in many different settings. They may act directly as
"brokers" between patients and biomedical health-care professionals to help ensure that care is
delivered in appropriate ways to people whose ideas and behaviors may not mesh well with
biomedical ideas. They may help integrate traditional healers into Western medical practices, and
they may study different treatments and health-care outcomes, comparing ideas and behaviors
around the world. Medical anthropologists know that people come into health-care encounters
with many established ideas and behaviors and that interventions to improve people's health will
not be successful without understanding the people practitioners hope to serve.
In education, anthropologists may help teachers understand different learning styles and
behaviors of those they are trying to teach. For example, children in certain cultures may be
taught not to look at or speak to adults, but their American teachers may not understand this
cultural behavior.
In business, anthropologists may help marketers understand consumers, they may help product
developers understand people's needs and how they actually use products, and they may help
managers understand their organization's culture and help them implement beneficial changes.
Actual and Potential Contributions of Anthropology to Solving Social Problems
Anthropology is concerned with life as it is actually lived. Anthropologists want to find out what
people actually do, rather than what they say they do. They ask people why they behave as they
do. Anthropologists participate in the lives they observe and allow what they observe and
question to emerge naturally rather than from preconceived assumptions. They talk to people
and allow them to bring up and elaborate on topics that a conventional survey might not include.
Through embedded, holistic research, anthropologists deliver reliable and valid findings that are
firmly grounded in reality. Policymakers use these findings to design programs to alleviate social
problems in both domestic and international settings. Additionally, because anthropologists are
uniquely trained, they are particularly useful program evaluators who can understand how a
program is really operating. Furthermore, because they are trained to "expect the unexpected,"
they are likely to unearth programs' unintended consequences, both positive and negative. The
more such contributions are appreciated, the more anthropologists will be able to contribute.
Just as they are now routinely included in planning and evaluating public health and
development projects, policymakers must include them when they plan initiatives related to
national security, war, and peace.
2. What Is Culture?
How do Anthropologists Understand Culture?
The Characteristics of Culture
There may be as many definitions of culture as there are anthropologists, but all definitions
incorporate certain ideas. Culture is learned rather than instinctual. Sometimes people
deliberately teach the ideas and behaviors their group deems appropriate, "normal," or
commonsensical. Humans, however, often absorb ideas and behaviors unconsciously and are
unaware that they are learned and that not all humans share them. This fact implies another
characteristic of culture: culture is shared, whether by a few in a small subculture, such as an
ethnic or religious group, or a microculture, such as an organization, or by members of an entire
nation or other geographic entity.
Difference is another hallmark of culture. If everyone in the world thought or behaved in one
way, the idea or behavior could be said to be "natural" rather than cultural. Additionally, culture
varies and is dynamic; it changes through time, though not all members of a culture change in
the same ways or at the same times. Furthermore, the transmission of culture requires
language, including "primitive" forms such as simple signs and vocalizations, to convey meaning.
The language requirement implies a final commonly accepted characteristic: culture is expressed
through symbols, which are anything that stands for something else. Words, images, artifacts,
behaviors, and other symbols are culturally produced, enacted, and interpreted in learned,
shared, and varied ways. Though other animals may also demonstrate learned, shared, and
varied behaviors, it is the highly elaborated, incredibly rich symbolic aspect of human culture
that makes it unique.
The History of the Concept of Culture
People have been aware that they learn, share, and transmit this learning for a very long time,
but an anthropological concept of culture only began in the nineteenth century. Sir Edward Tylor
(1871, Kroeber and Kluckhohn 1966:81) defined culture as "… that complex whole which
includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom and any other capabilities and habits
acquired by man as a member of society" (1871." Since then, the concept has changed from
Tylor's "laundry list" of the elements of a culture to an understanding that culture is deeper than
behavior we can observe.
Today, there are many concepts of culture arising from different theoretical approaches, though
as just noted, these concepts incorporate some fundamental themes. For example, some
anthropologists understand culture as responses to the objective material conditions in which a
population lives, and others think of culture in terms of the subjective ideas that direct people's
attempts to make sense of their worlds.
The following figure, through quotations from various noted anthropologists, shows how the
concept of culture has changed over time.
Evolution of the Concept of Culture
Benedict (1929): … that complex whole which includes all the habits
acquired by man as a member of society (1966, 81).
Linton (1936): … the sum total of ideas, conditioned emotional responses,
and patterns of habitual behavior which the members of that society have
acquired through instruction or imitation and which they share to a greater
or lesser degree (1966, 82).
Mead (1937): Culture means the whole complex of traditional behavior
which has been developed by the human race and is successively learned by
each generation. A culture is less precise. It can mean the forms of
traditional behavior which are characteristic of a given society, or of a group
of societies, or of a certain race, or of a certain area, or of a certain period of
time (1966, 90).
White (1943): Culture is an organization of phenomena—material objects,
bodily acts, ideas, and sentiments—which consists of or is dependent upon
the use of symbols (1966, 137).
Kroeber (1948): … culture might be defined as all the activities and nonphysiological products of human personalities that are not automatically
reflex or instinctive (1966, 91).
Herskovits (1948): … refers to that part of the total setting [of human
existence] which includes the material objects of human manufacture,
techniques, social orientations, points of view, and sanctioned ends that are
the immediate conditioning factors underlying behavior (1966, 84).
Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952): … Patterns, explicit and implicit, of and
for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the
distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiments in
artifacts (1966, 357).
Geertz (1973): … set of control mechanisms—plans, recipes, rules,
constructions (what computer engineers call "programs")—for the governing
of behavior (1973, 44).
Source: All except Geertz, 1973, are quoted in Kroeber and Kluckhohn, 1966.
How Do Anthropologists Study Culture?
Anthropological Studies of Various Cultures
In a traditional holistic study of a culture, anthropologists look at features of the physical
environment in which the group of people lives. These features may include climate, natural
resources, and geologic features. They investigate the ways people earn a living, the tools and
other materials they use, and the economic institutions they have developed to survive.
Anthropologists study the social structure—that is, the relationships people are born into or form
and the rules that govern these relationships. These rules may concern the rights, obligations,
and expectations associated with each relationship. Anthropologists also study political,
educational, and religious relationships and institutions as well. Finally, they study the shared
sense that holds the group together, their ways of viewing, experiencing, and interpreting their
More anthropologists today are conducting focused studies to understand specific cases. In these
studies, anthropologists may study only one aspect of a culture intensively, but they also
examine how this aspect fits into an integrated, contextualized whole.
How Anthropologists Compare Cultures and the Usefulness of this Approach
Anthropologists sometimes generate theories or explanations of why people think and act as
they do and the conditions under which they think and act in particular ways. To build these
"grand" theories, it is important to look at ideas and behaviors and the factors that affect them
on a worldwide scale. Only then can theorists generalize about humanity. For example, a theory
that explains how states developed cannot be based only on the circumstances surrounding one
state's development because the factors may be very different for others.
To help anthropologists theorize, the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) are available on the
Internet. These files contain ethnographic and archaeological information on 400 different
societies, classified into over 700 categories. Anthropologists can ask questions and test
hypotheses about warfare, gender inequalities, child abuse—nearly any human issue. Even if
most anthropologists today no longer try to make sweeping generalizations about all humanity
and instead focus on how culture operates in local settings, they will include cross-cultural
comparisons in their work to highlight diverse human responses to and interpretations of similar
What Is the Role of Culture in Human Life?
The Role of Culture in Human Survival
Culture has allowed humans to live successfully in nearly every possible environment. The
ranges of many other species are usually restricted by climate and the availability of specific
foods required for survival. Humans, on the other hand, have learned to exploit nearly all
available resources in an environment and have invented ways to live in seemingly hostile
environments with few resources of their own. For example, we do not have natural fur coats like
other mammals that live in the cold, but we do have coats, houses, and heating systems. We are
still subject to natural forces, however, and some of our cultural adaptations may not work well
in the long run. History is full of examples of cultures that have not survived.
Today, for example, human activity may be altering global climate in ways that may not be
conducive to our long-term survival. There are five factors that may contribute to or prevent
environmental collapse:
environmental damage
climate change
hostile neighbors
friendly trade partners
the society's responses to its environmental problems
Perhaps we will successfully adapt to new conditions—or perhaps we will not. Anthropology, by
highlighting the vast diversity of human ideas and behaviors, teaches us that we are not locked
in by our "nature" to respond in potentially maladaptive (or even annihilating) ways. We are
creative, flexible cultural beings; we have choice.
The Relationships among Culture, Society, and the Individual
It is a paradox that whereas individuals actively create culture as they are exposed to, learn, and
share new information, individuals are also the products of culture because culture shapes what
they think and do. For example, even when individuals "rebel," they rebel in culturally patterned
ways. Any society is a group of such individuals, and each society must balance individual needs
and the needs of the group. Groups reward individuals who conform to cultural norms (and these
norms vary in different cultures), but the norms must not be so onerous that individuals' needs
are not met. For example, sexuality strengthens cooperative bonds by cementing relationships
between families through marriage. It ensures that society will continue. However, sexual
competition can threaten cooperation, and unrestricted sexual activity can result in unsustainable
population growth. Therefore, to promote the beneficial consequences of sexual activity and
control the potentially destructive consequences, all societies make rules about who may have
sex with whom.
Too much restriction, however, can lead to individual pent-up frustrations and societal stresses.
To generalize from this example, when individuals must subordinate all their needs to the needs
of the group, tension grows. When group needs are ignored, problems arise and the group may
dissolve. Different groups of people strike different balances, and those balances shift with time,
but all cultures address this tension between individual and group needs.
Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism and Their Place in Anthropology
Ethnocentrism is the tendency to see one's own ways as the best or the only ways. By making
differences visible, anthropology constantly strives to make ethnocentrism visible as well.
Anthropologists frequently point out that other disciplines ask questions and draw conclusions
based on ethnocentric biases and assumptions, and they critique anthropology itself on the same
basis. For example, feminist and minority anthropologists have accused many of their colleagues,
both male and female, majority and minority, pioneers and newcomers, of sexism, ageism,
heterosexism, racism, and other forms of communalism, however unintentional they may be. To
ignore the perspectives of groups who may view and experience things differently is to leave out
significant parts of the human story.
Think about it:
Bronislaw Malinowski pioneered ethnographic fieldwork in his studies of the
Trobriand Islanders early in the twentieth century. Much later, however, Annette
Weiner also studied the Trobrianders and found that Malinowski had ignored women
in his studies and, in so doing, missed their important economic role. Can you think
of any examples of biases affecting scientific research?
The principle of cultural relativism, another hallmark of anthropology, insists that one must
suspend judgment of others so that one can understand other cultures on their own terms. Once
anthropologists have achieved this understanding, however, they may conclude that certain
practices are maladaptive or even morally repugnant. Cultural relativism does not mean
"anything goes." Anthropologists may ask this question of any group: How well does your culture
meet the physical and psychological needs of its members, and how well does your culture help
its members respond to their obligations as moral world citizens?
How Is Culture Created and How Does It Change?
Theories of How Humans Create Culture
Though people create culture, they do not just sit down and do it. Anthropologists have struggled
with how some ideas take hold and become "common sense" and the "way we do it." Many have
stressed the adaptive nature of culture; cultures "grow" as people try creatively to solve the
problems of living. Others maintain that culture exists outside of specific individuals or ideas and
that it generates itself. Still others emphasize that although humans collectively create and
change culture, these humans are themselves immersed in culture because a culture-free
individual does not exist. The innovations any individual creates emerge in a context and will be
adopted if the context and timing are "right" and discarded if they are not.
Theories of Cultural Change
This sense of "rightness" leads us to theories of cultural change. As we have noted, cultures are
dynamic, and they respond with varying degrees of flexibility to movements and shifts within and
around them. New ideas or behaviors appear, and cultures either accommodate them or reject
them. (Today, this happens much more rapidly than previously.) Culture change can be positive
or negative. Flexibility allows beneficial adaptations to occur, but too much rapid change can be
Early in the history of the discipline, theorists thought that cultures "progressed" from primitive
forms to what they considered the highest form of civilization, European societies. (This way of
thinking is often known as social evolution or social Darwinism.) Anthropologists discarded this
ethnocentric approach by the 1920s, replacing it with theories of diffusionism. According to this
theory, cultural traits spread from one society to others through proximity.
Cultural ecologists rejected this "accidental" approach to change and maintained that cultures
change predictably in response to environmental conditions. More "culturally" oriented
anthropologists challenged this approach and held that material conditions did not inevitably
produce certain changes but that people's ideas, values, attitudes, and beliefs shape the way
cultures change. In other words, these scholars say that people with different culturally
constructed perceptions of the world will respond to it in different ways.
Another view that has emerged is world system theory (see How Is Anthropology Organized
above). World system theorists argue that cultural change in the world today is caused by the
effects of Western capitalism and its attempts to impose ideological hegemony on the rest of the
world. Not all anthropologists accept world system theory as the major or only explanation of the
forces driving change in the world today. Many believe that numerous factors contribute to social
change. Nonetheless, all anthropologists must now consider the increasing economic, political,
social, and cultural integration of the world today and various peoples' responses to this
3. The Beginnings of Human Culture
Where Do We Place Homo sapiens among the Animals?
The Classification of H. sapiens within the Animal Kingdom
A species is a group of organisms that can reproduce fertile offspring. For example, horses and
donkeys can mate and produce offspring (mules), but mules are sterile, indicating that horses
and donkeys are members of different species. Any living human can mate with any other
human and produce fertile offspring (given that all is working well); therefore we are all
members of the same species.
Biologists have developed a system to classify all living organisms into categories. The system is
a hierarchical arrangement based on the characteristics of organisms, and each species belongs
to progressively more inclusive groups. Each species is given a name that includes the name of
the species and subspecies (if any) and the name of the genus to which it belongs. The biological
name for modern humans is Homo sapiens sapiens.
Hierarchical Table of Categories
Canis (coyote, dog, wolf)
Felidae (lion, tiger, cougar)
Some scientific names Canis familiaris (domestic dog) H. sapiens
Felidae familiaris (house cat)
Source: Abelard.Org. 2003. Human Classification Systems,
Using the Example of Classification of "Living Organisms" (Taxonomy). Electronic document,, accessed July 26, 2006.
How the Study of Primates Can Help Us Understand Our Species
We are biologically very closely related to other primates, particularly chimpanzees and bonobos,
and studying their anatomy and behavior can give us clues about our early ancestors, how they
evolved, and how they lived. Furthermore, our closest primate relatives live as we do in social
groups, communicating with one another, cooperating with one another, fighting and resolving
conflicts with one another, and using tools to accomplish tasks. Studies have shown that young
primates learn the "rules" of their group and that some of these rules vary from group to group,
indicating these cousins also have rudimentary culture.
By studying primates, we can learn which of our behaviors may be in our "nature" and which we
"create" through culture. Many culturally constructed behaviors are adaptive, but some are not.
If a maladaptive behavior is culturally determined rather than part of our biological nature, we
then can choose to replace it with behaviors that enhance our species' well-being.
Think about it:
Robert Sapolsky reviewed studies in primatology that challenge, among others,
assumptions that primate species are "hard-wired" to be either peaceful or violent.
In one example, aggressive adolescent male baboons newly moving into one
particular troop whose aggressive males had died of tuberculosis years before soon
learned and adopted the peaceful, affiliative behavior of the nonaggressive males
already there. In other words, circumstances had created a new peaceful way of life
in this troop, which was then passed on to newcomers. The male baboons' so-called
aggressive "nature" had changed and wasn't so natural after all.
How might this study be relevant to our understanding of "human nature"? To what
extent does it suggest alternatives to some current human behaviors?
When and How Did Humans Evolve?
The Mechanisms of Evolution
Evolution is the scientific theory that explains the enormous number of different species that now
live and have lived on Earth. The theory holds that all species arose from other species through a
long process of change. Darwin defined evolution as "descent with modification." The first life
forms on Earth were single-celled organisms, and all other forms descended—with
modifications—from them. Several processes—mutations, natural selection, random genetic drift,
and gene flow—made this happen. We describe these processes below.
Mutations, or changes, occur by chance in DNA molecules and produce an organism with
a trait or traits that differ from those of its parents. For example, a chance mutation in
DNA may increase a cell's sensitivity to movement.
In the process of natural selection, nature, through direct inheritance or mutations,
selects traits that increase an organism's ability to reproduce in specific environments
from traits that are already present in the population. Sensitivity to movement may
enable the organism with this capability to move in the direction of other movement and
thus find more food. This organism would then be more likely than others of its kind to
reproduce successfully and pass this sensitivity to more offspring. Over vast amounts of
time, the population as a whole will have this trait.
In random genetic drift, the frequencies of genes change by chance, which is most
likely to happen in small populations. For example, a single organism may have a
mutation that makes it green whereas others of its kind are blue. Being green confers no
reproductive advantage on its own—green beings are no more likely to reproduce more
offspring than blue beings—but if for some reason the green organism is the only one
that reproduces (e.g., perhaps all others have been wiped out by a disease), all the
members of the population will eventually be green.
Finally, gene flow occurs when genetic material is exchanged either directly or indirectly
between different populations. For example, when a member of Group A mates with a
member of Group B and one of their offspring mates with a member of Group C, genetic
material from Group A can combine with genetic material from Group C, influencing the
evolutionary fate of that population. In other words, natural selection chooses traits that
increase reproductive success and pushes evolution in the direction of greater adaptation
to environments, but traits that evolved through random genetic drift and gene flow were
not specifically selected for and just come along for the ride.
The Major Trends in Human Evolution
Contrary to what many people think, evolutionary theory does not maintain that humans evolved
from today's apes. Instead, humans and today's apes both evolved from early primates. We are
closely related because we share a common ape-like ancestor who probably lived five–seven
million years ago. The mechanisms of evolution, primarily natural selection, operated so that
descendants of this ancestor evolved many species that were adapted to various environments.
The apes of today represent one branch, and different species of apes evolved according to their
own paths (smaller branches). Modern humans represent another branch that includes many
different species. Many of these species became extinct because of a variety of factors, and
today there is only one enormously successful hominid—us.
Over millions of years, hominids lost many ape-like features such as long, sharp canines, small
skulls, and large differences between sexes. The most important trend in the evolution of
modern humans was upright walking on two legs (bipedalism), which allowed individuals to see
and escape from predators and freed hands so they could carry offspring, food, and eventually,
weapons and other tools. These abilities probably stimulated increased brain development,
which, in turn, endowed modern humans and their more recent ancestors with the intelligence to
develop cultural solutions including language to the challenges of survival so these solutions
could be transmitted to others. It is culture that has allowed modern humans to survive
The Hominid Genera in the Fossil Record and the General Characteristics of the Species
within Each
Paleoanthropologists disagree about how to classify the hominid fossils that have been found,
and they disagree on which fossils are hominids. They make these determinations from finely
tuned analyses of skeletal remains such as teeth and bones, and many times they must draw
conclusions from mere fragments. Given these limitations, however, many currently divide
hominids into four genera (the plural of genus): Ardipithecus, Australopithecus, Paranthropus,
and Homo. Just which fossils belong to Ardipithecus and the number of separate species they
belong to are extremely controversial issues in paleoanthropology.
Hominids belonging to Ardipithecus are extremely ape-like because they lived around six–to
eight million years ago, which is very close to the time it is thought that human and chimpanzee
lineages diverged from a common ancestor. Early Australopithecines had many ape-like
characteristics and primarily ate vegetation, though they also hunted small animals and
scavenged the kills of other animals. Later Australopithecines developed powerful chewing
equipment to take advantage of harder, very fibrous plants. Species in the Paranthropus genus
were especially "robust" (heavy and thick), with very large teeth and chewing muscles and bones
to which they were attached, large-featured faces, and large bodies. Paleoanthropologists think
that it is most likely that some Australopithecine species evolved into the first species in our
modern genus, Homo (perhaps Homo habilis), and that Paranthropus species became extinct.
Compare the Evidence for the "Out of Africa" and "Multiregional" Hypotheses
Regarding the Evolution of Modern Humans
Scientists agree that humans originated in Africa. They agree that an advanced hominid species,
Homo erectus, spread from Africa into Europe and Asia. They agree that modern humans
evolved from archaic humans, but they disagree about whether one, several, or all populations
of archaic humans, such as the famous Neanderthals, played a role in the evolution of modern
Proponents of the "Out of Africa" hypothesis argue that modern humans descend directly from
one population of archaic H. sapiens in Africa and that these modern humans eventually spread
again throughout the world, replacing H. erectus because of their superior capacity for culture.
They base their case on genetic and fossil evidence and on cultural remains such as art. For
example, in a famous study of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA, which is inherited only from one's
mother), researchers determined that all modern humans today share mtDNA with a woman who
lived in sub-Saharan Africa about 200,000 years ago. (This does not mean she was our only
ancestor; she is, however, the only woman whose descendants included a woman in every
generation for these many, many years. Recent fossil discoveries in Africa of anatomically
modern humans dating from 160,000 years ago also support the "Out of Africa" hypothesis (e.g.,
H. sapiens idaltu).
Supporters of the "multiregional" hypothesis argue that fossil evidence from China and Asia
indicate that H. erectus transitioned to H. sapiens simultaneously in certain areas of the world
where they coexisted. They argue that this was possible because all populations were genetically
connected by gene flow, so any evolutionary advance would spread throughout breeding
populations. This hypothesis is also supported by recent genetic evidence indicating that Africa
was not the only source of modern humans' DNA. Finally, some scientists argue that certain
geographical variations in traits that date from around 750,000 years ago still exist (for example,
the relatively "flat" faces of many Asian peoples).
Think About It:
The National Geographic Genographic Project is collecting DNA specimens from
people all over the world to determine the routes our ancestors took when they
moved out of Africa beginning about 60,000 years ago. Are you curious about your
earliest ancestors? New technologies can tell you where your ancestors may have
What Do We Know about the Beginnings of Culture?
The Fossil Evidence for Tool Making
Other primates modify natural objects to accomplish tasks, and there is some evidence that one
Australopithecine species, A. garhi, made tools from stones about 2.5 million years ago, though
many experts disagree about this. Prior to this evidence, experts attributed the first stone tools
to the earliest known species of the genus, Homo, Homo habilis, "handy man." Many tools have
been found at sites associated with "handy man." Their brain cases were much larger than those
of Australopithecines, and the shape of their skulls was more human-like. Additionally, the skulls
show evidence that an area of the brain associated with language, Broca's area, was developed,
so H. habilis could have used rudimentary "language" to teach his or her techniques and skills to
others and pass traditions orally as well as by demonstration to succeeding generations.
Think about it:
Antelope fossils found at the same site as A. garhi show cut marks made by a stone
tool, and the hominid fossils and antelope fossils date from the same time period.
The earliest stone tools, dated to 2.6 million years ago, were found nearby. Some
experts think that A. garhi made sharp-edged tools by chipping off small pieces from
volcanic rocks. Is this evidence strong enough to convince you that A. garhi made
stone tools?
The Role of Language in Creating Culture
In the previous section, we asserted that some primitive language capacity may have allowed
ancestors of modern humans to teach their tool-making techniques and skills to others. Imagine
the advantages of the capacities to convey the nuances of tool manufacture and to verbally
correct and guide an apprentice rather than trying to teach only by demonstration. Because we
have language, we can assess a situation for danger and specifically warn others of the direction
and timing of the danger even in the dark. With others, we can evaluate past successes and
failures and plan future endeavors to maximize success. We can remember who is our friend, to
whom we owe favors and who owes us, and who is our enemy. In short, it is impossible to
imagine thought as we know it without language, and without thought, we cannot share or teach
in the way humans do. Without language, we have no culture, and without culture, our species
would not have survived. The importance of language to culture and thus human success cannot
be overemphasized. Without language, we are not human.
Is the Biological Concept of Race Useful?
Why "Race" Is a Cultural Construct
Clearly, there are differences among groups of people in skin color, hair color and texture,
amount of body hair, body shape and size, and blood type, among many others. Studies of the
human genome indicate that after the dispersal of our ancestral population from Africa, human
populations continued to evolve on different continents, which led to the differences we observe.
Studies have shown, however, that there is more variation within groups than between groups.
For example, Euro-Americans and African Americans have wider variations in skin color within
each group than one would find if the groups were compared to each other. Also, variations in
characteristics occur as gradations rather than as sharp breaks. For example, it is impossible to
draw a line demarcating where one "race" ends and another begins according to skin color, hair
texture, or facial features.
Certainly, though many uninformed people assert that members of certain races behave in
certain ways, there is no scientific evidence for behavioral differences based on "racial" biology.
People from all populations are capable of the complete range of human behaviors. Additionally,
human populations are genetically "open," which means that genes flow back and forth among
them. Given the biologically constant sexual availability of men and women, whenever different
groups come in contact with one another, they interbreed and have done so since our
beginnings. This interbreeding has produced a continuum of genetic differences rather than
sharp distinctions among us.
Skin Color as an Adaptation to Different Environments
Many people consider skin color an indicator of "race." Skin color is complicated and depends on
several factors including skin thickness or transparency, a pigment called carotene, reflected
color from blood vessels, and most importantly, the amount of another pigment, melanin, in the
skin's outer layer. Everyone, except albinos, has melanin, which protects against the damaging
effects of ultraviolet rays from the sun.
The distribution of skin color in the world indicates that natural selection favored very darkcolored skin in areas that received the most ultraviolet radiation. In areas with less sunlight,
light-colored skin allows enough sunlight to penetrate the skin to help manufacture Vitamin D.
Vitamin D is necessary to maintain adequate levels of calcium in the body and thus, is essential
for healthy bones. It is likely that light skin color is a relatively recent adaptation to
environments with relatively little sunlight. The critical lesson is that one skin color is no better
than another. Skin colors represent successful adaptations to different environments.
Different "Racial" Classification Systems in Use Today
Though the biological nature of "race" is very controversial, there is no argument that race is
very meaningful culturally. One's racial classification often determines one's chances in life in the
United States, for example in the health care one receives. However, the systems people use to
assign themselves and others to races vary cross-culturally. For example, the Japanese system is
simple: people are either Japanese or not Japanese. Americans (U.S.) usually follow the rule of
hypodescent: children of mixed-race parents are assigned to the lower-status race. For example,
a child with a Euro-American parent and an African-American parent is often classified as African
American, which, sadly, still is often considered by many as the lower-status racial category in
the United States today. Additionally, race is usually assumed to be unchangeable in both the
United States and Japan. In Brazil, however, the racial classification system is much more fluid
and is based on many apparent physical characteristics. For example, when people become
suntanned their "race" may change.
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Module 2: Culture and Survival—Subsistence, Communication, and
Child Rearing
Language and Communication
Social Identity and Enculturation
Patterns of Subsistence: Making a Living
Economic Systems
1. Language and Communication
The ability to use language is one of the most distinctive aspects of being human. People use
symbols, whether by sound or gesture, to communicate. All language has rules that are followed
so that meaning can be shared. Even though we are born with the physiological capacity to
communicate in any language, we must actively learn each language.
We humans, of course, are not the only animals that communicate. Birds communicate through
calls, as do mammals of all sorts. Dogs "talk" to you, as do cats. Their ways of communicating
are called call systems. Such systems use a few sounds or gestures in response to specific
events. These calls are considered a closed system of communication because each call is unique
in its message. Chimpanzees, considered among the closest relatives to humans, have a number
of distinctive gestures, hoots, moans, and screams that communicate. For instance, a particular
hoot alerts others to food, and a bark indicates "danger." Each call has only one meaning.
Characteristics of Human Speech
In contrast to the "closed" systems of animal communication, human speech is an open system
because we can combine sounds in all manner of ways to communicate in all manner of
situations. A chimp would be hard pressed to put together two calls to indicate "food" and
"danger," for example, "Someone is putting bananas in my bin, and that someone is dangerous!"
Humans, however, can put together a whole range of meaningful sounds (words) to express a
complex array of past, present, and future experiences and emotions.
Human speech is characterized by conventionality, meaning that specific sounds (words) refer to
specific things. In English, we have specific sounds that mean chair. In Spanish, a different set of
sounds means chair (una silla); similarly in French (une chaise), and so on. The sounds are
arbitrary, but they are set for a given language. Conventionality enables us to communicate in a
given language.
Human speech is also characterized by productivity. That is, you can constantly create new
phrases and sentences from the words you use. You can create new sentences each day for the
next 100 years and never run out of ways to combine words that make sense.
Finally, human speech is characterized by displacement. That is, we can talk about things that
are not immediately in front of us. We can talk about things in the past. We can talk about things
happening next door. We can talk about things we can only imagine. We can talk about things so
complex we can hardly understand them, which is a remarkable quality of language. As a result,
we can communicate abstract concepts that we can remember, think about, and apply later on.
Teaching our Nearest Primate Relatives to Communicate
What about chimpanzees and other primates who are taught to communicate by humans?
Because chimps do not have the physical capacity to speak like humans, researchers have
taught a number of animals to communicate using American Sign Language. A famous one
is the chimpanzee, Washoe, who after being taught 10 signs, spontaneously combined
them in new ways (Gardner and Gardner 1967:671) and even taught signs to her son.
Altogether, Washoe could use about 85 signs (Nanda and Warms 2007:118). Kanzi, a
bonobo (pygmy chimpanzee), learned 150 signs and used them in strings (SavageRumbaugh, Shanker, and Taylor 1998, cited in Nanda and Warms 2007:118).
Washoe and Kanzi show us that chimpanzees have a greater linguistic ability than we
previously thought. However, even with careful instruction over many years, the highest
level of language that chimpanzees can acquire is that of a very young human child.
Humans have evolved language that is unique in its complexities and possibilities. Humans
need human language to pass on their culture and for survival. Chimps do not (Nanda and
Warms 2007:118–119).
The Structure of Language (Descriptive Linguistics)
Linguists (those who study languages) identify four subsystems of a language itself. At the base
are the sounds. Sounds identified by humans are called by their Latin name, phones. The
smallest unit of meaningful sound is a phoneme. The study of phones is phonology. One way of
writing these sounds so that others will be able to pronounce them is through the International
Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Each symbol in the IPA represents one distinct sound.
How would you write your name so that anyone would know how to pronounce it?
Linguistic Activity
Try writing your name and your mother's or father's name using the International Phonetic
Alphabet tables.
Note the two sets of symbols: one for consonants and one for vowels.
Choose one symbol for each sound in your names.
Here are examples for Jason and Tiffany. To spell their names phonetically, refer to the
International Phonetic Alphabet charts at the link above.
Consonants for Jason's name are: /j/ s/ n/. The vowels are: /ei / a/.
For Tiffany's name, the consonants are: /t/ f/ n/. The vowels are: / I/ e/ i:
/j ei /san/ / tI/fe/ni:/
Please note: even though in English you may spell a word with a double letter (Tiffany), in
IPA, only one symbol is given per sound.
The set of sounds used in a given language are phonemes. A phoneme is the smallest sound that
makes a difference in meaning in a language. For example in English, we distinguish between the
sound r (red) and the l (led). So these sounds are phonemes in English. Someone whose first
language is Japanese may have a difficult time distinguishing these sounds, so she or he may
refer to "led beans and lice" (instead of "red beans and rice"). English requires that we
distinguish these phones. Japanese does not.
For example:
Each human language uses only a subset of the possible human sounds. Some languages
include sounds that other languages would not even consider or would use them in
different ways.
Some African languages regularly use click sounds. The first language of Nelson Mandela,
the former president of South Africa was Xhosa, one such language. The symbol "!" is used
to indicate a certain click sound. In these modules, you will see references to "!Kung." The
!Kung are an ethnic group in southern Africa. The "!" tells you how to pronounce their
Many languages, including Chinese, rely on tones. A sound said in a high pitch may have a
different meaning when it is said in a low pitch. Cantonese dialect has six tones. Mandarin
has four. Depending on your tone, for the sound "ma," you could be talking about your
mother or a horse (Haviland et al. 2005).
In English, we use ng at the end of words, as in sing, but have difficulty placing it at the
beginning of the word as is done in some Polynesian and Asian languages.
When sounds are put together in a meaningful way, they form morphemes. Morphemes can be
words or parts of words. For example, in English we have suffixes and prefixes that go at the end
and the beginning of words, but that are not words themselves. For example, pre (as in prefix)
means "before," and the suffix ly makes an adverb from an adjective, as in quickly. The study of
words and the meaningful parts of words is called morphology.
The way in which words are combined into sentences and phrases is called syntax. Words must
be structured and arranged to make sense in a language. Each language has its own syntactic
rules. In English, the order of words in the sentence makes a difference. In English, "The letter
carrier bit the dog" has a different meaning than "The dog bit the letter carrier." Even though all
the words are the same, the order conveys meaning. In German, the parts of speech are
indicated by case markers. Thus, Der Hund biss den Briefträger ("The dog bit the letter carrier")
and Den Briefträger biss der Hund mean the same thing regardless of the order. To say "The
letter carrier bit the dog," you would change the case markers to read Der Briefträger biss den
The order of words and the regular ways words are changed form the grammar of a language.
The rules and patterns of grammar enable us to coherently put sounds together and help us
recognize meaning in each new utterance. Both morphology and syntax are part of the grammar
of a language.
All of the words of a given language form its lexicon (vocabulary). The relationship of language
to culture can clearly be seen in its words. We have hundreds of words for cars and car parts in
our lexicon. Members of hunting and gathering groups have 500 to 1,000 words for different
plants (Nanda and Warms 2007:125). Clearly, the lexicon of a language reflects what is
important to the group and helps people distinguish categories that make a difference.
Think about it:
Each subgroup in a society has its special words, or lexicon.
Think about your workplace or a special hobby, sport, or interest of yours. In introducing
total newcomers to your area, what words would you teach them so they would
understand everything they needed to know?
Historical Linguistics
Languages change. Even from one generation to the next we can see changes in vocabulary and
word usage.
Think about it:
Language can change even within a short period of time. Compare words you use with
those your parents or grandparents may have used. Listen to recordings of old radio
shows, review old movies, or chat with your older relatives.
What differences do you note in their vocabulary, compared to the vocabulary you and
your friends use?
Historical linguists look at how languages change and evolve. Besides documenting changes in
living languages, historical linguists chart divergences in ancient languages. For example,
historical linguists study the relationship of Latin to the many Romance (having to do with Rome,
the home of Latin culture and civilization) languages of Europe, e.g., Italian, Spanish,
Portuguese, French, and Romanian.
English is one of 140 languages within the Indo-European language family. Over a period of
6,000 years, protolanguage, or original language, developed into many different groups and
subgroups. English is one of the languages within the Germanic subgroup as illustrated in the
following chart,
Source: Short, Daniel M. 2005. Indo-European Language Tree. Electronic document,, accessed August 4, 2006.
Historical linguists use their knowledge of how languages change over time to trace the
migrations and movements of people. For instance, linguists studying the many Polynesian
languages of the central Pacific have helped determine when the island groups were originally
settled. Linguists work with archaeologists, cultural anthropologists, and physical anthropologists
to help piece together the puzzle of ancient peoples' migrations and settlements.
Language and Culture
Language and culture are intricately intertwined. Sociolinguists study this relationship, looking at
when and how people use language and what it means. They look at a person's status and how
speech reflects that. They look at age and sex and the different language patterns associated
with them. They also look at when informal talk and formal talk are used and how people know
when to use which type.
Many people are raised with two or more languages or two or more dialects. A child may use one
language in school and another language at home. We may use Standard English at work but
other speech when interacting with friends in a process called code switching. Learned cultural
rules help us understand when it's appropriate to use one way of speaking or another.
Think about it:
Even monolinguists (those speaking one language) adapt their speech to different
situations. Consider how you might speak to people at a religious service compared to how
you might talk to others Friday night at the club. How would it be to use "religious service
language" when playing pool? What changes from one setting to the next?
Language and Thought
We learn important points about our culture through the study of communication. Our culture
influences our language. However, anthropologists also wonder how language affects our culture.
Specifically, to what extent does language shape our thoughts? Linguistic relativity, sometimes
called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, is the idea that language molds thought and action. Edward
Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf maintained that language provides certain filters that
affect the way we see the world. We see it differently depending on the language we speak. The
structure of the language, as well as its lexicon, guides speakers along certain paths. Thus, we
think and act the way we do partially because of the nature of the language we speak.
For example:
Speakers of Swedish and Finnish (neighboring peoples speaking radically different
languages) working at similar jobs in similar regions under similar laws and regulations
show significantly different rates of on-the-job accidents. The rates are substantially lower
among the Swedish speakers. The Swedish language emphasizes movement in threedimensional space. The Finnish language emphasizes more static relations among
temporary entities. As a consequence, Finns organize the workplace in a way that ignores
the time factor in the production process. This in turn leads to frequent production
disruptions, haste, and (ultimately) accidents (Haviland et al. 2005:107).
Gender Differences
Our sex makes a difference in how we speak. Distinct ways of speaking for males and females
are found in many languages. In American society, sociolinguist Deborah Tannen (2001:132)
notes that men and women are socialized into to two different cultures that result in two
different ways of speaking. Tannen observes that women seek relationships, and their type of
speaking is "rapport-talk." Men, on the other hand, seek independence in a hierarchical world.
Their language is "report-talk." When men and women interact, their different styles interfere
with communication. A woman may be indirect in expressing her wish and expects the other
person to interpret. The man, on the other hand, expects directness and may totally
misunderstand the woman's intent.
For example:
In Lakota society, in South Dakota, men and women have distinct ways of speaking. For
example, a woman and her brother would each pose the same question differently. When
the movie Dances with Wolves was released, Lakota were eager to see the movie that was
filmed on their reservation. In the theater, as the plot unfolded, the audience started to
laugh because the hero (Kevin Costner) spoke Lakota like a woman. Because the actors
had found Lakota difficult to learn, the dialect coach had decided to teach everyone just
one way to speak (Haviland et al. 2005:109).
Nonverbal Communication
To fully understand and communicate in another culture, we must know not only the language in
its fullness, but also how people communicate without words, i.e., nonverbally. Nonverbal
messages may carry up to 70 percent of communication (Nanda and Warms 2007:135).
Nonverbal communication cues must be learned to be understood. Time, space, gestures, all
have meaning, depending on the culture.
Time talks: If your sweetheart is arriving later and later for your dates, what does this tell you?
If a candidate arrives a half-hour before the interview time, what does this communicate? Time
has meaning, and we learn what that meaning is through our culture.
Think about it:
In New Zealand, Maori (the indigenous peoples) and Pakeha (those of European origin)
people are still learning each others' ways. Recent discussions on a land issue encountered
difficulties because Maori and Pakeha leaders had different expectations regarding time.
The Maori expected talks to continue until a consensus was reached. The lawyers for the
Crown (the government), expected talks to finish by a certain time because they had
deadlines to attend to.
As a cultural anthropologist, how could you facilitate communication between the two
Space talks: What does it tell you when you see two people with their faces very close
together? What do a large office and a large desk communicate to others? Proxemics is the study
of the social use of space. Edward Hall (1969), in his classic study, observed that people in
different cultures maintain different amounts of space between themselves and others depending
on their relationships with the others and what kinds of interactions they are conducting with
them. He identified three kinds of intimate space. The closest space is the "bubble" surrounding
a person. Only our very closest friends and intimates are permitted here. The space extending a
little further from our bodies' space is for social and consultative interactions. This is the distance
we maintain when doing routine business. The third-closest space is public space. In this area,
interactions are impersonal. Because the distance for each of these spaces is determined by our
culture, people in different societies have different comfort zones. Arab, Latin-American, French,
Italian, and Turkish people, among others, have a smaller "bubble" than Americans, Germans,
English, or Japanese and thus feel more comfortable with closer distances in their personal
Think about it:
How do you feel in a crowded elevator? What happens to your bubble? Consider how
people react when their comfort zone is intruded upon. What changes are made? Consider
gaze of eyes and movement of body.
Things talk: What does a diamond tiara tell you about the person wearing it? What does a
Ferrari tell you about the driver? What does a body piercing tell you about the person involved?
We give meaning to the things we see, and we learn this meaning from our culture.
Think about it:
In Polynesia tattooing is an important part of the indigenous culture. Tattoos indicate high
rank and status. They communicate bravery and the ability to endure pain. They are an
indication of wealth. When Captain Cook's sailors came ashore in the eighteenth century,
they were intrigued with the custom, and many got tattoos as well. Back home in England,
tattoos were a novelty and became associated with the sailors and lower ranks of society.
Who gets tattoos in our society? What does tattooing communicate?
Gestures talk: Consider the ways people use gestures. We wave good-bye, blow kisses, give
thumbs up, show A-ok. These gestures may mean something very different in another culture.
The A-ok sign is considered an obscene gesture in parts of South America. The signal to "stop"
with the palm out and the fingers up can mean a challenge to fight in some Asian cultures.
2. Social Identity and Enculturation
How do people get to be members of society? How does an Inuit child learn the ways of his Inuit
people? How do Korean children learn to be good Koreans? Anthropologists refer to the process
of passing one's culture from one generation to the next as enculturation. Enculturation starts
soon after birth as we become oriented to both our physical and our social environment. How we
become oriented depends on the culture in which we live. As we learn our culture and the ways
of our people, we develop self-awareness and the ability to determine the accepted ways to think
and act.
Human babies are not equipped to take care of themselves. They are helpless and dependent on
others for survival. Our biological instincts help us only so far. We need our social environment,
those around us, to ensure that we live and thrive. Our mother is the most important person
when we are first born, and we start to learn from her.
Soon, other members of the household are involved in teaching us. Who these people are and
what we are taught depends on the culture in which we are born. Some households may be
composed of a mother and father and their children. In some societies, fathers never live in the
same house as the mothers of their children. In other societies, grandparents, aunts, and uncles
all live together and are involved in the enculturation process of each child, a subject covered in
module 3.
Anthropologists see that not only what children learn is important as they become members of
society, but how they learn is also significant. Childhood experiences influence adult
personalities. How we are raised makes a difference in who we are as adults. We can identify two
different patterns of child rearing that help us explain some personality differences. These
patterns are dependence training and independence training.
1. Dependence training encourages children to think of themselves as part of a larger
group. This training creates community members who see the group as more important
than the individual. This pattern is found in societies with extended families, particularly
in households that depend on subsistence horticulture, pastoralism, or foraging (see topic
3 below) for survival. Often a large group is needed as a source of labor to till the soil,
manage the herds, or help find food in the wilderness. Individuals cannot survive alone.
In these groups, the possibilities of conflict are great because decisions must be group
ones. In-marrying spouses must conform to the group. Various aspects of dependency
training help prevent conflicts. One aspect of the training is indulgence towards children.
Babies in such societies are often nursed for several years. Infants are held, passed
around, and constantly tended. They are often with others. Young children are given
duties and activities that help the group and support the child's sense of importance in
contributing to the group.
A second aspect of the training is corrective. Children are punished for disobedience or
for being selfish or aggressive. After punishment, a child may immediately be shown love
again. The group and its relationships with others are primary.
2. Independence training stresses self-reliance and personal achievement (Haviland et al.
2005:129). Such training is generally found where nuclear families (parents and children)
are on their own. Independence is important for survival. As with dependence training,
both discouragement and encouragement are used. For instance, among many families in
North America, infants are fed on a schedule, and breast feeding is stopped after a few
months. Children are encouraged to feed themselves. Soon after birth, babies are given
their own private space, with a crib away from the parents. Children are generally not
given responsibilities as contributions to the group's welfare but as tasks that will benefit
the child herself.
Assertiveness and even aggression may be encouraged. Competition and winning are
emphasized. In societies that believe survival requires individuals to look out for their
own interests, independence training is important.
Anthropologists see that dependence and independence training form a continuum, and one
pattern is not considered better than the other. If a society requires compliant people, then
independence training would undermine the society. In a society where adults are asked to
question authority and invent new ways of doing things, dependency training would not work.
Sometimes a society will have both aspects at work with resulting contradictions. For example, in
the United States, although individual independence is professed, a strong trend of compliance
also exists. This trend has become more evident in the security requirements for air travelers
where anything out of the ordinary is seen as a threat. Whistle-blowers in government and
corporations may not only be ignored or seen as disloyal, they may even be punished or fired
rather than heralded for their independent actions.
Gender Roles and Enculturation
Anthropologist Margaret Mead, in her cross-cultural studies, found that differences between men
and women varied from one culture to the next. Biology is not destiny in the ways we behave.
For example:
In the 1930s, Mead determined from her studies in Papua New Guinea that in different
ethnic groups, men and women had different characteristic temperaments. Among the
Arapesh, men and women were cooperative and nurturing. Among the Mundugamor, both
sexes were aggressive, whereas among the Tchambuli, women were dominant over men.
Modern researchers question some of Mead's findings, but her research showed that
different cultures may have different expectations for male and female personality and
behavior (Mead 1963).
Group Personality
Child rearing, personality, and culture are all intertwined. To what extent is it possible to
generalize about the personality of people in a given group? To a certain extent, it may be
possible. Each individual develops certain characteristics that are like those of others in their
society, because of common experiences. At the same time, all people also have distinctive
personalities based on their unique circumstances and genetic background.
Thus, any generalization about the modal personality of a group must be qualified by the
realization that individuals within any group are unique. Furthermore, group boundaries may be
porous. However, modal personality is defined as those characteristics that occur most
frequently in a culturally bounded group (Haviland 2005:132). Modal personalities are
determined through statistical measures and can reveal variation and diversity within groups.
Data on personalities can be gathered through such psychological tests as Rorschach ("ink blot")
tests in which people are asked to explain what they see in the random blot.
For example:
Anthropologist, Ruth Benedict, developed the idea that culture was "personality writ
large," that is, that culture reflected the collective personality of those within it. In her
classic work Patterns of Culture (1959), she compared three cultures: (1) the Kwakiutl of
the Pacific Northwest of North America, (2) the Zuni of the American Southwest, and (3)
the people of the island of Dobu near Papua New Guinea. Each group had a pattern of
culture: the Kwakiutl were individualistic and exuberant, the Zunis aimed for the golden
mean, and the Dobuans were fearful and worried about magic.
During World War II, Benedict worked with the U.S. occupation forces in Japan. She
argued that Japanese culture, characterized by a strong sense of "shame" and "honor,"
was more amenable to change than U.S. culture, which was characterized by a sense of
"guilt" and a belief in absolute good and evil. She convinced U.S. authorities not to
eliminate the institution of the emperor, but to maintain it. She argued that given the
traditional flexibility of the emperor, the emperor would reject militarism (as shameful)
and accept democracy (as honorable).
Her work, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), has sold more than two million
copies in Japan. Her understanding of Japanese personality made a difference for the
occupation of Japan and its economic and political recovery since the war (Ferraro
Alternative Gender Models
Anthropologists agree that gender roles vary from culture to culture and that these roles affect
personality. However, genders themselves may be ambiguous, a fact that also affects individuals'
roles and personalities. Chromosomes that determine a person's sex may vary, making someone
who falls outside distinct biological and culturally defined categories of male or female.
Some cultures allow for a third sex, usually males who take the role of females. For example, the
Plains Indians of North America had an intermediate category of male/female. By being neither
fully male nor female, these individuals held great prestige in the community. They were viewed
as having special healing powers. Sometimes called by the French term Berdache, such people
today prefer to be known as Two Spirits, showing both the male and female together in one
For example:
In Samoa in the South Pacific, fa'afafine are men who take on the role and dress of
women. Fa'afafine means "in the way of a woman." Sometimes a family will select a boy
and groom him to be a fa'afafine. Other times, a boy or man will choose to become a
fa'afafine. Fa'afafine are beloved. They are useful around the house because of their
strength. Their gentleness helps make for smooth relationships. In modern Samoa,
fa'afafine work in many fields including secretarial and administrative fields. They are on
athletic teams and teach Sunday school.
3. Patterns of Subsistence: Making a Living
How do humans survive? How is it that we can survive in almost every climate on the globe?
Naked, we have little to protect us compared to other animals. What we have to our advantage
is culture and the ability to adapt.
As humans have adapted to the different environments of the world, what basic subsistence
strategies have they developed to help them survive? Anthropologists identify four basic
strategies: foraging (also called hunting and gathering, pastoralism, horticulture, and agriculture.
We discuss these strategies in the next sections.
Foraging is the subsistence strategy that humans have used for most of their time as a species
on Earth. It is the oldest and most universal of our strategies for making a living. Foraging relies
on plants and animals that are wild. Foragers do not produce food. They do not cultivate plants
and do not raise animals for food. Their food sources are those naturally occurring plants and
animals that reproduce on their own.
Foragers generally have a low population density. They live in small mobile, family-based groups.
Hunting and gathering groups tend to be egalitarian (everyone is equal), with leadership coming
from those with knowledge and experience. These groups can move from their camp when
convenient. They thus leave behind refuse that might cause diseases and conflicts that might
cause hardship or dissolution of the group. Their material possessions are few. Most of what they
have is shared.
Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins (1972) has noted that foragers were the original affluent society.
Even in the harsh lands of the Kalahari Desert, the !Kung are traditionally able to do all of their
subsistence work of hunting and gathering in less than 20 hours per week. The remaining time is
spent in storytelling, resting, and chatting, even though they're living in marginal areas (Lee
It is sometimes hard for foragers to continue their lifestyle in the modern world because of
pressure on the land. The main groups of foragers today are in marginal land, not desired by
more powerful neighbors. However, as demand for oil and mineral resources grows, even those
on marginal lands are being forced to settle off their traditional territory. Modern governments
prefer that their citizens settle in one place so that they can be counted and taxed and so are
often unsympathetic to the situation of nomadic foragers.
Modern groups that still maintain some foraging include the Inuit of the Arctic Circle, some
Australian aboriginal groups, the Agta of the Philippines, the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert of
southern Africa, and some Orang Asli of Malaysia, among others.
Pastoralism is a food-gathering strategy that depends on herd animals such as cows, goats, or
sheep. The animals eat the grass or other natural vegetation, and the humans eat the animals.
People may also use the animals for milk, cheese, or their blood.
Pastoralists can be either nomadic or transhumant. Nomadic pastoralists follow the herd from
one grazing spot to another. The whole family will move with the animals. Sometimes a greater
pattern of movement will be finely regulated among a large group, with a chief directing when
and where a given family may herd its animals (Barth 1986).
Transhumant pastoralism is a strategy whereby most of the family stays in one place while some
members move the herd animals to grazing areas. Transhumance is found in East Africa, where
the men and boys herd the animals to different pastures. In Heidi, the classic children's story by
Johanna Spyri, set in Switzerland, the herding society was transhumant. Heidi's friend, the
goatherd, looked after the goats during the summer months in the mountains while the family
stayed back in the village.
Pastoralism involves a complex relationship of animals, land, and people. Because the animals
are domesticated, they depend on their keepers for food, water, and protection from predators
and weather. Pastoralists must know the capacities and characteristics of the land and the needs
of their animals. The animals are essential for the livelihood and survival of the people, but they
are more than just commodities. Animals are frequently named. They are admired and caressed.
Individual animals even inspire stories and songs.
For example:
Among the Nuer of East Africa, cattle are central to life. Each man takes his name from
one of his cows whose qualities particularly please him. Nuer people chant poems and sing
songs about their cows. Here is an example of one of these songs
....As my black-rumped white ox,
When I went to court the winsome lassies,
I am not a man whom girls refuse.
We court girls by stealth in night…
We brought the ox across the river….
Friend, great ox of the spreading horns,
Which ever bellows amid the herd,
Ox of the son of Bul Maloa.
In this song, transcribed by anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard, the poet, son of Bul
Maloa, refers to his ox as his friend and as one who helps him impress the ladies (EvansPritchard 1940:47).
Pastoralists today are found in East Africa (cattle), North Africa (camels), southwestern Asia,
including Turkey and Iran (sheep and goats), central Asia (yak), and the subarctic (caribou and
reindeer) (Nanda and Warms 2007:156). As is the case with foragers, central governments do
not much care for pastoralists, particularly those who are nomadic. Governments find it hard to
count, tax, and control such folk. Furthermore, traditional herding lands of pastoralists may lie in
more than one country so the families and their herds as they cross borders may get caught in
international conflicts and warfare.
Horticulture is the production of plants using simple tools. Unlike foragers who gather wild plants
for their subsistence, horticulturalists grow their own domesticated varieties of plants.
Horticulturalists are found throughout the tropics and temperate parts of the world where the
growing season and climate permit planting and harvesting. The primary crops vary from region
to region. The indigenous peoples of North and South America cultivate maize (corn), beans, and
squash. In the Oceania region, the major crops include sweet potato, taro, and manioc. Rice and
millet are among the crops grown by horticulturists in Asia and Southeast Asia.
Horticulturalists' technology is generally simple. They do not use draft animals or plows but
instead use digging sticks or hoes. They do not have irrigation systems. Their yields are
generally low but enough to feed their families. Horticulturalists generally do not aim to cultivate
great surpluses. Population densities among them are generally low, usually no more than 150
people per square mile (Nanda and Warms 2007:18) although villages may range from 100
people to 1,000 people.
In the tropics, horticulturalists frequently practice swidden, or slash-and-burn cultivation, in
which fields are cleared by cutting down the vegetation and then burning it. The resulting ash
fertilizes the fields and supports productivity for a few years. As productivity declines, the fields
are abandoned and left to revert back to native vegetation and forest growth.
Fields are left fallow for up to 20 years before being cut and burned again. This cycle enables the
soils to be replenished before being used again for cultivation. Horticulturalists require about six
times as much land in fallow as they do in production. When land becomes scarce, whether
through a rise in population or appropriation by others, and the fallow period is shortened, the
soils can quickly deteriorate if they do not have the required time for regeneration.
Most swidden farmers plant a multitude of crops on their small plots. Some horticulturalists shift
residences as they shift fields. In other societies, the families stay in one place but rotate fields
for cultivation. Horticulturalists also hunt and fish to supplement their diets.
Agriculture (Intensive Cultivation)
Most of us are familiar with agriculture. In this subsistence strategy, land is used over and over
again. Some plots are allowed to lie fallow, but generally for shorter amounts of time than with
swidden practices. Fertilizing is required to keep the land fertile. The farmer uses draft animals
and plows or complex machinery to till the fields. Agriculture frequently relies on irrigation.
Agriculture also requires intensive inputs of labor. For example, swidden farmers must put in 241
worker days/year for their rice crop. In contrast, wet-rice agriculture, with its flooded plots,
requires 292 worker days/year (Nanda and Warms 2007:161–162). Modern agriculturalists
require great capital investments for machinery. Although they have more control over
production, modern agriculturalists are in some ways more vulnerable than horticulturalists.
Monocropping—that is, planting just one kind of plant—means that a single disease can destroy
the entire crop. Weather problems can also create economic disaster for the farmer.
Agriculturalists generally are sedentary—that is, they live in one location and do not move with
the rotation of their crops. Modern agriculture in the United States, however, frequently relies on
migrant laborers who follow the harvest.
If we look at the prehistory and history of the world, though some people began to settle before
they grew crops, agriculture is associated with the rise of cities that began 5,000 years ago.
Agriculture also supports social stratification and complex forms of social organization. Food
production is used to support specialists in society such as priests or ruling elites. Often
production is by rural cultivators, or peasants, whose labor supports complex state societies (see
the discussion of states in module 4). Because agriculture supports large groups of people, often
in densely populated areas, disease and environmental degradation are often consequences.
Nonindustrial Cities: The Aztecs' Tenochtitlan and
When the Spanish conquistadores arrived in Mexico in the early 1500s, they found the
Aztec Empire and its capital, Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, in full flower. Tenochtitlan,
along with its sister city, Tlatelolco, was a thriving metropolis of about 200,000 people.
Intensive agriculture supported the cities. Crops included corn, beans, squash, gourds,
peppers, tomatoes, cotton, and tobacco.
Because of successful food production, skilled artisans, including those who worked in
silver, stone, clay, fabric, feathers, and paint, were free to create their art. The society
also supported warriors, priests, and government bureaucrats. The marketplace of
Tlatelolco was so grand that the Spanish compared it to the markets of Rome and
Constantinople (Haviland 2005:171–172).
Industrial Economy
The use of machinery and chemicals in agriculture has enabled vast amounts of food to be
produced by very few people. Our industrial economy has led to a population boom, a great
increase in energy consumption, and growth in specialized occupations. In industrial economies,
people work for wages. Unlike economies based on subsistence strategies, which limit acquisition
and consumption and put less strain on the environment, industrial economies are based on the
growth of consumption and the acquisition of material possessions.
4. Economic Systems
Economics is the study of the ways in which we produce the items needed to support or enhance
our lives and the ways these items are distributed and consumed. For many peoples of the
world, the economic system is simple: they grow or gather what they need and distribute their
produce to family members who consume it. But in our own industrial society, this pattern is
complex. Few of us live solely on what we grow or raise ourselves. We are part of a complex
network of goods and services that takes in the whole world.
Generally, economists have focused on production, distribution, and consumption in
industrialized countries and have assumed certain values and behavioral patterns for those
countries. For instance, formal economic theory assumes that people have unlimited wants but
are limited in what they can afford. Therefore, economists assume that people will make choices
that will provide the greatest material benefit to themselves.
Economic anthropologists take a larger view of human motivation. Material benefit or profit may
be one factor. But consider your own life. You may wish to take a day off from work to be with a
friend who has come to town. Or you may take time off to be with your family to celebrate a
special tradition. If you are selling something, you may take a loss in order to offer a good deal
to a relative. You may pay big bucks for your daughter's wedding. You will make choices that
benefit you, but these may not be the ones that bring the most material profit to you.
Anthropologists see that economic decisions are made within the context of human relationships.
Economies and economic decisions are intertwined with culture and only make sense within the
context of a given culture.
In most nonindustrial societies, division of labor is by age and sex, with some specialization for
crafts. Groups of kinfolk and not individuals control land and other valuable resources. No one
gets significantly more than anyone else. All members of the group are provided for.
Anthropologists study economics cross-culturally by looking at production and systems of
exchange and distribution.
Production starts with resources and their allocation. What resources are available to people?
Land and water are basic to all. Tools, including the knowledge and materials to make them, are
Resource Allocation
Who has access to resources needed for survival? In general, as societies become more
industrial, access to resources becomes more regulated and limited. In small-scale societies,
most people have access to most of the resources because such economies have limited
resources (Nanda and Warms 2007:178). In large-scale societies, access is often limited based
on numerous factors. For example, in North American society, not everyone has equal access to
a good education and hence to the resources available to well-educated people. One's income
can also limit access to needed resources such as good-quality health care. Family background,
too, may make a difference in access to wealth and social position.
As we discussed in topic 3, foragers generally have simple tools and flexible boundaries.
Freedom of movement enables people to avoid conflict and to fully use resources.
For pastoralists, the most important resources are their livestock and the land for grazing. Kin
groups generally control access to grasslands and water. Individuals or their close family
members generally own the animals themselves.
Horticulturalists farm and live on land controlled by extended kin groups. Nuclear families may
be given permission to work particular plots. The family does not own the plot; members just
have rights to use that land (usufruct rights). When they are not using the land, it reverts back
to the extended kin group. The same plot may be designated for another nuclear family's use at
a later time.
Intensive agriculture exists in North America and other parts of the industrialized world where
resources such as land and machinery are generally privately held.
Units of Production
Households control production in most nonindustrial societies. A household is a group of people
who live together and share production and distribution among themselves (Nanda and Warms
2007, 182). Household members may be related by kinship but not necessarily. A household is a
basic economic unit.
In industrial societies, the business firm is the basic unit of production, and its main focus is to
make a financial profit. The firm may comprise kin or non-kin, but members are usually tied to
the firm because of their labor. The aim of the firm is not to make products for its members but
to sell goods for a profit.
Division of Labor
All societies have some division of labor by sex and by age. As societies get more complex,
division of labor becomes more complex as well, resulting in specialized occupations.
Division of Labor by Sex
All societies divide labor on the basis of sex. Each society considers certain work appropriate for
women and other work appropriate for men. However, not all societies divide this work the same
way. Anthropologists tend to explain the division of labor among men and women in terms of
historical and cultural factors, rather than biology. They have found a continuum of practices
from societies where work is interchangeable between men and women to those where activities
are determined totally by sex.
Generally hunters and gatherers and horticultural groups have more flexible sex roles. This
pattern is known as the "flexible/integrated pattern." Boys and girls are enculturated in much the
same way and see adult men and women interacting on an equal basis. In such societies, up to
35 percent of the work may appropriately be performed by either sex (Haviland et al. 2005:180).
Among pastoralist and intensive agricultural and industrial societies, sex roles are likely to be
more rigid. In these societies, men and women rarely work together, and neither sex would
consider doing the work of the other. Both boys and girls are raised by their mothers, but at
some point, a boy must transfer to the men's world and prove his masculinity. Although work is
strictly segregated by sex in these societies, men are considered superior to women and have
authority over them.
A third pattern of division of labor by sex is called "dual-sex configuration." In this pattern, men
and women carry out their tasks separately, but the division is balanced and equal rather than
unequal as in societies where the sexes are segregated. Neither sex is considered the superior of
the other. Such patterns can be found among North American Indian groups whose subsistence
is based on horticulture and in West African kingdoms.
Division of Labor by Age
All societies divide labor by age. People are often given tasks that match their strength and
ability to do things. Adults gain specialized knowledge that enables them to do the work required
to keep society functioning. Some older folks, with declining strength and physical abilities, may
no longer contribute in ways they did in their prime but may still participate in significant ways.
Think about it:
In traditional Maori society in New Zealand, the older men had important tasks to do. One
of those tasks was to make sennit, ropes made from the rolling, twisting, and plaiting of
natural fibers. Such rope was vital for constructing houses and canoes. Sennit could be
made in the household while seated, the thigh bone being an excellent place to roll the
fibers. A grandfather could watch his grandkids at the same time.
In Samoa, older women continue to weave mats used for sleeping and for ceremonial
exchange. While weaving, usually with other women, they can keep their eyes on the
In your family, what special tasks that contribute to the good of the group can older
people perform?
Craft Specialization
In some societies, technologies are simple, and everyone knows more or less how to use
everything. Among foragers, tool making for hunting and gathering does not require specialized
equipment and can be done by most adults. Digging sticks for excavating roots and spears for
hunting may take some time to make, but the knowledge of how to make them is shared among
the group. It is similar with horticulturalists. Simple tools are used in planting and harvesting of
their varied plants.
As societies become more complex, with intensive agriculture and industry, tools and the
accompanying division of labor become more specialized as well. In these societies, because
surpluses enable people to consume food without producing it, specialized roles are supported.
In traditional India, the caste system exemplifies occupational specialization. Thousands of
different activities, e.g., washing clothes, making music at festivals, creating pottery, and
conducting religious ceremonies, are the prerogative of specific kin groups. In traditional India,
as well as in other societies, one's occupation may be determined by the family one is born into
or assigned according to one's ethnic background.
In industrial societies such as our own, specialization is essential. A quick scan of the Yellow
Pages of the telephone book reveals long lists of specializations. No individual or family could
make or do everything that is available in our society. As we go through the day, earn our living,
and provide for our homes and families, we rely on others to make our lives possible.
Distribution: Systems of Exchange
All peoples exchange goods and services. Anthropologists find that exchange forms the basis of
society. In fact, French anthropologist Marcel Mauss maintained that gifts hold groups together.
Because gifts must be reciprocated it is through giving and receiving that we are joined to one
another (Mauss 1990).
Anthropologists identify three types of exchange: reciprocity, redistribution, and market, all of
which we describe below.
Reciprocity is the exchange between two parties of items having approximately the same value.
Three types of reciprocity are recognized: generalized, balanced, and negative.
1. Generalized reciprocity is an exchange usually between close kin or friends with no stated
expectation of a return. Parents give to their children out of love. Those involved do not
view such transactions as economic. The giving may be quite altruistic, or the giver may
expect gratitude and love in return.
Generalized reciprocity is important for foraging groups, for example, with the
distribution of meat. When a kill is made, each person in the group is given a share. The
hunter gives so that all can live and gains respect and status in the process.
2. Balanced reciprocity involves an obligation to give in return. It is generally found among
people who are slightly more distanced. We see this reciprocity in buying a round of
drinks or selecting a birthday present for a friend. We expect that others will pick up the
tab next time. As we present our gift, we expect (underneath) that the receiver will buy a
comparable gift for us on our birthday. Balanced reciprocity is seen in trading
relationships among nonindustrial peoples.
3. Negative reciprocity is an unsociable exchange where one person tries to get the better
end of a deal. It is usually found among strangers. It may involve hard bargaining or
even what some would call cheating and deception.
With redistribution, goods are collected in one place and then sorted and given back to those
who gave them. We see this form of exchange in our tax system. We all give to the government,
which takes our money and uses it to provide services for citizens. We don't get the same money
back, but we do get something back in the form of schools, parks, roads, police and fire
protection, and so forth.
Redistribution is important in horticultural societies where chiefs collect goods from those
beneath them. This show of goods is important for the chief and the supporting families in that it
reflects their wealth and status. When goods are exchanged in ceremonies, the goods received
are then distributed back to those who gave.
For example:
The potlatch of the Pacific Northwest is an example of redistribution. The potlatch was a
feast in which the hosting chief would give away goods and food to the villagers, other
chiefs, and invited guests. The more that was given away, the higher the prestige of the
host. Sometimes, valuable items would be destroyed or thrown away with a flourish.
The potlatch can be seen as an adaptive strategy in an environment of both scarcity and
abundance. When a chief and his people are rich, the potlatch shares their abundance with
neighbors who are struggling. When the times are rough for the first group, they will
benefit from the grandiose generosity of another's potlatch.
Reciprocity and redistribution are leveling mechanisms that keep wealth and resources
circulating in society and prevent them from being accumulated beyond a certain point. The
philosophy is that greater wealth brings a greater obligation to give. Sometimes, great prestige
is awarded those who give goods away, as in the potlatch. Leveling mechanisms help reduce
economic differences. Social obligations of people as part of a community keep them from
acquiring more than others, help strengthen the community, and ensure that everyone has what
they need to survive.
Market Exchange
Market exchange is the primary means of economic distribution in industrial societies. It involves
buying and selling goods and services at prices that obey the rules of supply and demand.
Whereas reciprocity and redistribution are nested in social and personal relationships, financial
goals are generally more important than social ones in a market economy.
Traditionally, market exchange takes place in a marketplace, a specific location. In many
nonindustrial countries and in ancient cities of Asia and Europe, the marketplace draws people
from the surrounding area, bringing their produce, animals, or crafts to sell and buying needed
items from others. Prices are set by face-to-face bargaining with another person. Money or
barter, the direct exchange of goods, may also be used.
In industrial societies, market exchanges are increasingly impersonal. We may or may not know
the people who help us with our purchases, but chances are we know little about them. With
electronic buying and selling, it is possible to buy and sell without ever having contact with a
human being, let alone with someone you know personally. In today's economy, the geographic
location of the actual marketplace where things are bought and sold may not even be known to
those involved. Call centers and warehouses can be located anywhere around the world.
Geographic boundaries for businesses are becoming less and less important. This process of
going across borders, known as globalization, will be discussed further in module 5.
Capitalism, which began in Europe 300 years ago, has transformed economies around the world.
Ownership of capital goods such as factories, farms, and so on is generally in the hands of a
small group of people (the elite). Under capitalism, production is undertaken primarily to make a
profit for the owner, not to enhance the community or social relations. The primary resource that
the majority of people have is their labor.
Socialism takes many forms in the modern world and uses market exchange in varying degrees.
However, it also relies on central governmental control for distribution of many goods and
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Benedict, Ruth. 1946. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
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Institutions of a Nilotic People. London: Oxford University Press.
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Hall, Edward T. 1969. The Hidden Dimension. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Haviland, William A., Harald E. L. Prins, Dana Walrath, and Bunny McBride. 2005. Cultural
Anthropology: The Human Challenge. Belmont, CA: Thomson-Wadsworth.
Lee, Richard. 2003. The Dobe Ju/'hoansi. 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth-Thomson Learning.
Mauss, Marcel. 1990 [1924]. The Gift: Form and Reason of Exchange in Archaic Societies. New
York: W. W. Norton.
Mead, Margaret. 1963. Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. NY: William Morrow.
Nanda, Serena, and Richard L. Warms. 2007. Cultural Anthropology. 9th ed. Belmont, CA:
Sahlins, Marshall. 1972. Stone Age Economics. Chicago: Aldine.
Savage-Rumbaugh, Sue, Stuart G. Shanker, and Talbot J. Taylor. 1998. Apes, Language and the
Human Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tannen, Deborah. 2001. You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. New
York: HarperTrade.
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Module 3: Group Formation—Adapting through Cooperation
Sex and Marriage
Family and Household
Kinship and Descent
Grouping by Gender, Age, Common Interest, and Class
1. Sex and Marriage
Think about it:
A Nayar girl in Southwest India was expected to form at least three relationships with
men. The first was a temporary ritual union shortly before her first menses that may or
may not include sexual relations. The second was a "visiting union" with one or several
men who were required to present her with gifts in return for sexual privileges. The third
occurred when the woman eventually became pregnant. One of her partners formally
acknowledged paternity (though he may not be the biological father) and presented gifts
to the woman and the midwife who attended the birth.
None of a woman's sexual partners lived in the same household as the woman and none
had additional economic or social obligations to the woman or her child aside from these
occasional gifts. Women lived with their biologically related kin, and these kin maintained
the household economically (Haviland et al. 2005:213).
The Control of Sexual Relations
The difference between humans and most other animals is particularly apparent in our sexual
behavior. Human females, unlike most other primates except bonobos, and human males, like
most other animals, can engage in sexual activity at any time. Because human sexuality is not
regulated by instinct as it is in other animals and because it can have serious consequences
(e.g., pregnancy or disruption of harmonious social relations), humans create cultural rules to
regulate when, where, and with whom people can have sex. Anthropological studies confirm that
the range of variation in these rules is enormous.
For example, in some societies homosexual activity may be considered "sinful," unnatural," or
"criminal," whereas in other societies people are indifferent and those who engage in such
activities are left alone. Anthropologists have documented that some people consider
homosexual acts a natural and necessary part of life. For example, the Etoro of Papua New
Guinea believe that homosexual acts give boys semen that turns them into men (e.g., Herdt
Rules regarding premarital sex provide another example of cultural variation. In the United
States, premarital sex among adolescents may be condemned as "dangerous" or "immoral,"
whereas in other societies, for example, the Trobriand Islands, adolescent sexual activity is
regarded as necessary preparation for adulthood.
Think about it:
Anthropologist Annette Weiner found that Trobriand Islanders begin to play erotic games
by age 7 or 8, and by age 11 or 12, they are regularly engaging in sexual activities with a
variety of partners. Weiner argues that, "Sexual liaisons give adolescents the time and
occasion to experiment with all the possibilities and problems that adults face in creating
relationships with those who are not relatives" (Weiner 1988:71).
Though all societies establish rules regarding sexual behavior, only about 15 percent of societies
restrict sexual activity to marriage. Most other societies permit greater individual freedom in
premarital and extramarital sexual behavior, but these societies vary in the degree of openness
permitted (Haviland et al. 2005:212).
Incest taboos are extremely common, but again, rules regarding which relatives are considered
inappropriate sexual partners vary widely. In one society, individuals may not be permitted to
have sexual relations with certain categories of relatives whereas in others, this category of
relative is considered ideal.
Theorists have advanced different explanations for incest taboos. Some have claimed that
"human nature" includes an inherent horror of incest. This explanation, however, fails to account
for the common occurrence of incestuous relations in many societies, including the United
States; for the cross-cultural variation in relatives considered inappropriate or appropriate sexual
partners; or for institutionalized incest that requires certain individuals to marry their relatives.
Think about it:
In the Iraqi tribe described by Elizabeth Fernea in Guests of the Sheik, a boy's ideal
marriage partner was his father's brother's daughter. (She is called his bint-amm and he is
called her ibn-amm.) The boy had "first claim" to this cousin whom anthropologists would
refer to as a parallel cousin. (Parallel cousins are children whose parents are the same-sex
siblings of Ego's parents. See Kinship Terminology below). If for some reason she was to
marry someone else, he had to relinquish his claim before her marriage could take place
(Fernea 1965:156).
In some Polynesian societies, people believed that members of the royal family had the
most mana, a supernatural force that determined the group's living conditions. Because
this force could enhance the whole group's well-being, it was in the group's interest to
maximize the amount of mana in their royal family. Therefore, a king's best marriage
partner was his own sister because she had more mana than any other woman.
How do these ideas compare to the "rules" you have learned? What do you think are the
advantages or disadvantages of these various rules?
In his theory of the unconscious, Freud tried to account for incest taboos by claiming that boys
competed with their fathers for their mothers, and girls competed with their mothers for their
fathers (the so-called "Oedipus" and "Electra" complexes). He argued that society suppresses
these desires to prevent the disastrous conflicts such desires might cause, particularly in
adolescence before people direct their desires to others. Other theories posit that incest taboos
protect girls from early pregnancy or psychological trauma by forbidding sexual relations with
those in closest contact with them.
Cross-cultural studies, however, contradict these theories. For example, Bronislaw Malinowski
(1927) revealed the ethnocentrism of Freud's theories when he documented that in the
Trobriand Islands, a boy's primary adult male relationship was with his maternal uncle, and no
"Oedipal" competition for the mother occurred between a boy and his father in this society.
There is evidence that many animals avoid sexual contact with their closest relatives. This
evidence indicates there may be an evolutionary advantage to avoiding sexual relationships with
close relatives because increasing genetic diversity among a population usually works to a
species' advantage. People commonly believe that inbreeding produces defects, and eventually,
this is true. Inbreeding among domestic animals and plants, however, produces desirable
qualities as well.
In conclusion, given the enormous cross-cultural variation in incest taboos, most anthropologists
think sexual avoidance of relatives is another example of the interaction of biology and culture,
as are most human behaviors. A functional explanation of incest taboos is that such prohibitions
force relations outside a given group and therefore strengthen network ties to others. The
resulting social bonds may be the difference between a group's survival and its end.
What Is Marriage?
The Distinction between Marriage and Mating
All animals mate in a biological sense―that is, they bond with others through sexual activity.
Such biological bonds may be lifelong or they may be fleeting, lasting only a moment. Humans
"mate" as well, but they often form more permanent bonds through legally, religiously, or
economically sanctioned arrangements known as marriage. These arrangements vary widely
from culture to culture.
An Anthropological Definition of Marriage
Anthropologists have studied unions among people all over the world. Common features they
observe have yielded the following definition: marriage is "a culturally sanctioned union between
two or more people that establishes certain rights and obligations between the people, between
them and their children, and between them and their in-laws" (Haviland et al. 2005:213). The
rights and obligations inherent in marriage usually involve sex, labor, property, child rearing,
exchange of goods and services, and status, though some forms of marriage include other rights
and obligations.
You will notice that an anthropological definition of marriage restricts neither the gender nor the
number of people involved. Any definition with such restrictions is ethnocentric because it fails to
include the various forms marriage takes in different societies such as multiple spouses
(polygamy) or same-sex marriage.
Endogamy and Exogamy
In addition to rules about appropriate sexual partners, societies create rules about appropriate
marriage partners. In some societies, individuals must choose partners from within certain
groups or categories of individuals (endogamy), or they must go outside of certain groups or
categories of individuals to seek a spouse. Forbidden or approved groups or categories vary
widely. For example, some people encourage (or force) their children to marry within their ethnic
group or religion, an example of endogamy. Others may insist that individuals marry outside
their own village, an example of exogamy. These rules may change over time, however, as
people encounter new cultural influences.
Think about it:
In the United States, it was common for people who grew up in small towns to marry
people from the same town (endogamy). Even men and women who had been to far-off
places during the world wars often came home and married their hometown sweethearts.
As more and more of their children began to attend college and find jobs away from home,
they tended to marry or partner with "strangers" (exogamy), and this pattern became the
new norm. Recently, however, there are many reports of divorced or widowed people
returning to high school reunions and again practicing "within group" endogamy as they
begin romantic relationships with hometown partners.
Different Forms of Marriage
The most common form of marriage is monogamy, in which each partner has one spouse. That
monogamy is the most common form is not because monogamy is inherently "natural" or
"moral" or even preferred by many people. Depending on the obligations marriage entails in
different societies, acquiring and supporting more than one spouse may take more resources
than one can muster. Where more than one spouse (polygamy) is culturally permitted, scarce
resources rather than any moral imperative restrict the number of spouses one has.
Polygamy can take various forms. Polygyny, in which a man has more than one wife, is far more
common than polyandry, in which a woman has more than one husband, perhaps because there
are shortages of men. Such shortages may be caused by the higher loss of male fetuses during
pregnancy, shorter life expectancies, more dangerous occupations, and social violence such as
warfare. These factors are much more common among men than women. In some societies,
men are expected to marry their brothers' widows (levirate) or their dead wives' sisters
(sororate) regardless of whether they already have other spouses.
Think about it:
In AIDS-ravaged Africa, the levirate can lead to the spread of HIV and eventually, AIDS.
How do you think this practice contributes to HIV transmission? Why do you think people
continue it? If you were a policymaker, what would you do?
Though it is difficult for many Westerners to imagine not being jealous if one had to share a
sexual partner with others, many living in polygamous relationships emphasize their benefits.
They claim co-wives (or co-husbands) reduce household or agricultural work and loneliness and
provide built-in child care and friendship. To reduce potential friction, a sleeping rotation may be
established, and a "good" husband will give equal time to each of his wives.
Think about it:
In Guests of the Sheik, Fernea writes that the Koran permits a man to have up to four
wives if he can support them equally and give them equal affection. The women of the
sheik's harem challenge Fernea to defend Western monogamy by pointing out that if a
Western husband wants to marry another woman, he must divorce his current wife, and
she may be left alone. In a polygynous system, however, he would continue to support
and care for his current wife as well. The Iraqi women asked, "Which is better?"
Polyandry, as practiced in some parts of Tibet where several brothers marry one wife, protects
family land from division and, unlike monogamy or polygyny, checks population growth because
only one husband can impregnate the wife at a time.
Think about it:
For some years, mainland China has had a "one-child" policy, which has resulted in a
shortage of women because of the cultural preference for sons. What do you think are the
options for men seeking wives in these circumstances?
In Elizabeth Fernea's Guests of the Sheik (1965), cousin marriages are preferred in certain
societies, including Arabic and ancient Israelite and Greek societies. Marriages between cousins
allow property to remain within the family and establish and maintain solidarity between social
Group marriages in which individuals have sexual rights to anyone in the group occur rarely, but
they do occur. For instance, among people in northern Alaska, some men shared their wives with
colleagues and had sexual relations with colleagues' wives in turn. These relationships entailed
mutual-aid obligations as well as sexual privileges, and children of the men were also considered
related. Other groups, such as those known in the West as "hippies," have also experimented
with group marriage.
Another form of marriage, serial monogamy, is now quite common in Western countries as
marriages or relationships dissolve and people form new monogamous partnerships. Serial
monogamy may occur because women have children early in life either outside marriage or
within a marriage that does not last. The difficulties of maintaining a household on their own
often inspire these single women to seek marriages to new men who will help them fulfill their
economic and domestic responsibilities to their (and possibly his) children.
Furthermore, because Western men are permitted only one wife at a time, some men divorce
current wives and marry women who, in their view, are more desirable (famous examples of
such men include Henry VIII and Donald Trump).
Same-sex marriages also occur infrequently, but they occur in various societies. Such marriages,
including the same rights and obligations adhering to heterosexual marriages, are legal in
Canada and the Netherlands. Woman-woman marriages not involving sexual relations are
sanctioned in some sub-Saharan African societies. In the sub-Saharan Nandi, for example,
women who have not borne children may marry younger women. The younger woman's children
(usually fathered by a relative of the older woman's husband) will inherit the older woman's
husband's property although he is not the biological father of the younger woman's children.
Why Is Marriage So Common?
The Economic, Social, and Legal Functions of Marriage
As the previous section indicates, people marry for many reasons, and marriages convey many
benefits. Marriages solidify alliances between individuals and family groups and allow parties to
the alliance to call upon each other for various kinds of supports. These supports include social
ties; assistance with work; economic resources, including health care, Social Security, and
pensions in the United States; and defense against threats.
Because marriage performs so many crucial functions, many societies do not allow young
individuals to make this important decision themselves. Rather, families seek suitable partners
for their children and, if successful, arrange marriages that enhance their children's and their
families' prestige, wealth, and security.
Think about it:
Serena Nanda naively assumed it would be easy for her to help arrange a marriage for an
Indian friend's son. In fact, she found she would not have considered all the factors
necessary to a good match, and if the son had followed her advice, he might have found
himself in a very unhappy situation. The wife Nanda might have chosen might have
thought herself superior to him because of her slightly higher caste, been quarrelsome, or
inappropriately independent (Nanda 1992).
What qualities or characteristics would your family members look for in a potential spouse
if your marriage were in their hands? Do you think their priorities would differ from yours?
Which system—arranged marriages or individual choice—do you think leads to more
stability or greater happiness in marriages?
In many societies, gift exchanges must occur before a marriage can take place. For example,
some prospective husbands must pay a bride-price (or bride-wealth) to their intended's family or
work for them for a time to compensate their in-laws for the loss of a productive or otherwise
valued family member, to acquire rights to the children born of the marriage, and to legitimize
those children. Appropriate bride-wealth varies in different societies. For example, in some
African societies, men must offer livestock, goods, or money, and in Papua New Guinea, they
must give pigs, shells, or stones. The bride-wealth also legitimizes the children born of the union.
In other societies, prospective wives must bring a dowry of money or gifts to the husband's
family when they marry. In the United States, for example, it is common for the bride's family to
pay for the wedding. This custom represents an indirect transfer of wealth to the young couple
because wedding guests usually give the bridal couple gifts and money. The husband's family
reciprocates to some extent by hosting the rehearsal dinner. Marriage also legitimizes children
born within the marriage, thus ensuring the child's claim on family resources and support.
Divorce in Different Societies
Divorce may occur for a variety of reasons, through a variety of mechanisms, and with varying
difficulty in various societies. Common justifications for divorce are infertility, cruelty, or failure
to provide the resources or privileges commonly associated with marriage. In countries where
monogamy is prized and marriages are based on "love" relationships, such as the United States,
infidelity or loss of affection may also be common reasons for divorce.
Mechanisms of divorce may include protracted and complicated disputes that must proceed
within a judicial system or much easier, informal methods. For example, a Hopi woman in
Arizona could divorce her husband by removing his belongings from her home and putting them
outside to announce that he was no longer welcome in her house (Haviland 2005:229).
2. Family and Household
What Is the Family?
An Anthropological Definition of Family
Humans are born into families. Though most of us know what we mean by family, a
nonethnocentric anthropological definition must recognize that family means different things to
different people. There is no inherently "normal" or "natural" family. Therefore, anthropologists
use a broad definition of family to encompass these different meanings.
One useful definition is: "two or more people related by blood, marriage, or adoption" (Haviland
2005:235). According to this definition, families differ from households in which members live
together, but there are no biological or legal marital or adoptive relationships among them.
From this definition, we can see that all humans (so far) have a family, at least at the moment of
birth. At that moment, for some, the first family may simply be oneself and the woman who bore
us, whereas others are born into a group of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Whether we have a family of two or a family of hundreds and no matter how family is defined,
families are the basic human social group.
Cross-Cultural Variation in Family Forms
Anthropologists distinguish between conjugal families (formed through marriage) and the
relatively uncommon solely consanguineal families in which everyone is biologically related. For
example, a common North American conjugal family form is the nuclear family consisting of a
father, mother, and their children. In contrast, the Na of China do not marry. Their families
consist of those related by blood only and include women, their children, and their brothers (Hua
2001). Their family is consanguineal only, not conjugal.
Although most North Americans think of the basic family form as the nuclear family, just as in
marriage, North Americans' norms are not global norms. In fact, this form is no longer
"standard" in North America itself. Most North American families do not include two parents, and
many do not include children because some couples opt neither to procreate nor to adopt
(Stacey 1990:5, 10).
In many societies, family forms may include a man or woman, his or her multiple spouses, and
their children (polygamous families). Families may also include multiple generations of parents
and their children (extended families) or two spouses of different or same sex. Families can
include step-parents and each parent's children (blended families); they can include people who
live together and people who do not live together; they can include in-laws; they can include
fictive kin—that is, people who are considered and treated as family members.
New reproductive technologies, which allow conception without intercourse and fertilized eggs
implanted and carried to term in surrogate mothers, are also creating new family forms. In
short, the number of family forms is limited only by the human imagination necessary to create
The Historical and Social Contexts in which Various Family Forms Arise
Family forms have not developed by accident, however. Families are part of cultural systems that
respond to particular times, places, and situations. The surrounding historical and social context
in which family forms arise has limited and directed their development. For example, the Roman
Catholic Church delegitimized many previously occurring family forms after the fourth century.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, was Joseph's father's brother's daughter (in other words, Joseph's
"cousin" in common Western kinship terminology), and Joseph's father married his mother after
the death of her husband who was his brother (levirate). The Roman Catholic Church outlawed
both these forms of marriage.
Think about it:
The Roman Catholic Church also eliminated polygamy, concubinage, and divorce and
remarriage, labeling these behaviors "sinful." Some have argued the Church's true motive
was to decrease the number of potential heirs to a family's wealth, which, in turn, would
increase the possibility the Church would inherit the wealth instead (Haviland 2005:237).
How would discouraging these behaviors limit the number of potential heirs?
Industrialization in Europe and North America also encouraged nuclear families and weakened
extended family ties. Large families offer many economic and social advantages in agrarian
societies because more people can divide the work, and one is never lonely in a large family. It is
much easier, however, to move to a new job in a new location if one must move only a nuclear
family rather than many wives, children, in-laws, parents, grandparents, and so forth.
Think about it:
In many societies, families expect those who have moved to more industrialized countries
such as the United States to return home if a family member dies. Employers in such
countries, however, may have a much narrower definition of "important" family members
than other societies. Conflict or even job loss can result if a worker honors his family
obligations and returns home for a cousin's funeral if a boss does not agree cousins are
close family members whose funeral requires an employee's presence.
What do you think are the consequences of this difference in the meaning of family forms?
What Do Families Do?
The Functions of Families
Human infants cannot care for themselves. Our long dependency period demands that others
meet not only our biological needs for food and shelter, but also our social needs for attention.
Often, this task falls primarily to mothers or mother substitutes, whereas the job of protecting a
mother and child from dangers often falls to men, although there is much cross-cultural variation
in this pattern.
Regardless of the division of labor, the presence of both sexes enhances the offspring's survival,
and natural selection has operated to ensure that individuals would pass these behavioral
tendencies to their children. In turn, because both sexes are present as role models, children
learn behaviors considered appropriate to each sex.
Families arose from the recognition that a group was necessary to nurture children. Families
cooperated to provide life's necessities and, again, because group cooperation enhanced survival,
group formation and cooperation became part of "human nature." Families provide a way to
organize economic production, consumption of resources, and inheritance of resources, as well
as child rearing.
Many of us think that, ideally, families should provide a defense and refuge from the public
world, enduring and unconditional relationships, love, affection, cooperation, nurturance,
assistance, and resources. Realistically, families have never performed all these functions
perfectly, and, rather than safe havens, families too often are arenas of violence against their
Furthermore, families are not the only groups that can perform these functions. For example, in
some Israeli kibbutzim, child-care specialists raise children in households rather than in families.
Finally, as mobility increases in industrialized or industrializing societies, many of these functions
are increasingly fulfilled outside the family. For most of us, however, families are still our most
fundamental social group.
Think about it:
In Leo Chavez's ethnography of Latino immigrants to the United States, Shadowed Lives,
family members who established themselves in the States provided resources, including
jobs, to recent immigrants.
Common Patterns of Residence
Just as there is variation in marriage and families, there is variation as well in where people live
after marriage in different societies. Anthropologists have identified five basic residential
patterns: patrilocal, matrilocal, ambilocal, neolocal, and avunculocal residence. Marital exogamy
means that in many societies, one marriage partner must move into the home of the other, or
the couple must move to a home of their own. Again, context influences behavior.
For example, in patrilocal residence, a partner moves to the household in which the husband
grew up. This residence pattern predominates in societies where men play a prominent role in
subsistence activities, e.g., if polygyny is customary, if frequent warfare necessitates exceptional
cooperation among men, or if a well-developed political system exists in which men wield great
authority. Often these conditions are found in agricultural or pastoral societies. Because the
woman's family loses her companionship and services, a man must often pay compensation
(e.g., bride-price) to his in-laws.
Matrilocal residence, in which a man moves to his wife's household, usually occurs where women
play a major role in subsistence activities, such as in horticultural societies where political
authority is diffuse and women's cooperation is critical. In such societies, often the man does not
move very far and therefore can help his family of origin. In such cases, no compensation must
be paid to the husband's family for the loss of his services.
The ambilocal residential pattern allows a married couple to choose either matrilocal or patrilocal
residence. This pattern usually occurs when the labor of more than a nuclear family is needed to
survive, but resources are limited. This pattern allows the marriage partners and their families to
decide where they are most needed or where the resources are greatest.
Marriage partners who form a household separate from other family members are following a
neolocal residential pattern. This pattern occurs when the society values the independence of
nuclear families, where economic activities occur outside of the family rather than within it, and
where subsistence requires mobility.
Avunculocal residence is an uncommon pattern found in societies with conditions similar to those
fostering patrilocality but where descent (and rights and inheritance) is reckoned through the
mother (matrilineal descent). In this pattern, marriage partners live with the groom's mother's
brother. Because the groom is part of his mother's lineage, he is a member of his maternal
uncle's lineage as well and will inherit property and rights from this uncle. (The uncle's own
children belong to their mother's lineage, not his, and are unable to inherit important property
such as land and beach access from him.) Leaders in the Trobriand Islands follow this pattern,
for example.
In many foraging societies, if conflict arose in one household, members would move their small
store of belongings to another household until tempers cooled. Margaret Mead found a similar
pattern among adolescents in Samoa. She argued that the "stormy adolescence" Americans
considered "normal" was not an inevitable part of adolescent development, but rather derived
from culturally constructed nuclear-family living arrangements.
3. Kinship and Descent
What Is Kinship?
An Anthropological Definition of Kinship
All societies have concepts of human relatedness, but societies differ in how they organize these
relationships. Again, an anthropological definition of kinship must have "room" for many
variations. The following definition meets this criterion: "Kinship is a network of relatives within
which individuals possess certain mutual rights and obligations" (Haviland 2005:259). Kinship
networks extend beyond family or household groups and address challenges of living that are
beyond the capabilities of these smaller groups.
Why Kinship Is Important
Kinship is particularly important in meeting challenges in nonindustrial societies that do not have
elaborate political systems. In these societies, kinship identifies individuals who belong to one's
own group and individuals a person should consider outsiders. For example, families might band
together with other kin to defend against attack by non-kin outsiders. Kin may be obligated to
provide resources to other kin when necessary and, in turn, can claim resources when they are
in need. Additionally, individuals may need to share ownership of a means of production if
dividing it would destroy its usefulness. For example, in some horticultural societies, kin groups
rather than individuals own land. This arrangement allows the group to hold the land for
generations because although individuals die, the kin group continues.
What Are Descent Groups?
Kindred and Descent Groups
Anthropologists distinguish between kindred and descent groups. Criteria for membership in a
kindred are usually not explicitly defined, and an individual can consider members of both his
mother's and his father's kindred as his own. This type of kinship is called bilateral kinship and is
common in Western and foraging societies. Kindred exist only in relation to an individual. Only
the siblings of this individual share exactly the same kindred, and any particular kindred group
ceases to exist when the individual at its center dies.
In contrast, members of descent groups must descend directly from a specific real or mythical
distant ancestor. Membership depends on the parent-child bond rather than marriage bonds, for
example, and descent groups may be many generations deep. Many members of the same
descent group share exactly the same kin, and the descent group continues despite any
individual member's death.
Types of Descent Groups
There are two major forms of descent groups: lineages and clans. A lineage is a set of
consanguineal relatives who can actually trace their connection to a common ancestor through
parent-child bonds. Lineages also include members who associate with one another for shared
purposes such as planting and harvesting crops on lineage-owned land. A clan typically consists
of several lineages. Members assume descent from a common ancestor, though they cannot
trace precisely these genealogical links. Again, descent groups are commonly found in
horticultural, pastoral, and agricultural societies rather than in foraging or industrial societies.
In contrast to kindred, criteria for membership in a descent group must be definite so individuals
will know to which group they owe loyalty. The most common means of assigning membership is
through gender. Individuals are either a member of their father's lineage or their mother's, and
membership is automatic from birth. Unilineal descent through the father is called patrilineal
descent, and unilineal descent through the mother is called matrilineal descent. In Samoa, there
are ambilineal descent groups where lineage is traced through male or female lines or both. The
kinship groupings are known as cognitive descent groups.
Generally patrilineal descent occurs in societies in which male labor in subsistence activities is
assigned primary importance, and males dominate women. Matrilineal descent is found where
female labor is especially important, for example in horticultural societies in which female
cooperation is critical to subsistence. There are no known societies in which women consistently
have authority over men, however. In both types of descent, the other parent's kin are also
important in the social structure, and all may play roles in child rearing and other family
Think about it:
Among the Ganda people of Uganda, children born to a couple belong to their father's
lineage. If a mother were to leave the father, the children would remain with the father.
What do you think is the effect of this system on the stability of partnerships?
Double descent is very rare in nonforaging, nonindustrial societies. In this system, matrilineal
descent is used for some purposes, and patrilineal descent is used for others. For example,
among the Yako of Nigeria, the patrilineage owns permanent resources such as land. The
matrilineage owns consumable property such as cattle and is more important in certain religious
Ambilineal descent, found in some Pacific and Southeast Asian societies, offers flexibility to
individuals who may choose to affiliate with either their mother's or their father's lineage
according to whichever group offers the greatest advantage. These kinship groupings are known
as cognitive descent groups. In Samoa, for example, such groups hold land and chiefly titles.
Some groups require that an individual belong to only one group at a time, whereas others allow
multiple memberships.
Some Orthodox Jews in New York City provide an example of ambilineal descent groups in a
Western society. Some of these descent groups hold assets in common. An individual can choose
to belong to either a mother's or a father's group, or he or she can participate in both at the
same time. This arrangement represents a new adaptation to life in the United States rather than
a holdover from European ways.
Though clans and lineages are the most common kinds of descent groups, there are larger
groups of clans that form descent groups known as phratries and moieties. A phratry is a
unilineal descent group of clans that believe they have a common ancestor. If there are only two
such groups in an entire society, the group is known as a moiety. For example, in the Amazon
basin, Suyá men divide themselves into two groups, the "Piranhas" and the "Parakeets." The
Piranhas are associated with the east or "upper" part of the basin, and the Parakeets are
associated with the west or "lower" part. Each moiety has different responsibilities corresponding
to these associations. For example, the Piranhas always carry the top part of a log used in races
and the Parakeets, the bottom part. Because these are larger groups than lineages or clans,
often the feeling of kinship among their members is not as strong as in the other descent groups.
What Are the Functions of Kinship Groups?
How Kinship Helps Families Meet the Challenges of Living
Descent groups can provide a framework for social life. As with other groups, membership in a
descent group allows for mutual instrumental and social support among members. In practical
terms, this means members may give or receive food, clothing, shelter, or other resources;
participate collectively in religious or other ceremonies; own collective property; collectively
defend from attack or attack others; adjudicate disputes within the group; and so forth.
Lineages, clans, phratries, and moieties are often exogamous. (Members cannot marry each
other but must marry outside the group.) Therefore, these different groups may be bound by
marital ties, which further extend the network of support individuals and smaller groups can call
upon when needed.
Think about it:
Scottish clans survive worldwide even in industrial societies because they still perform an
important integrative function for their members. Individuals identify with their clan, wear
the clan's tartan (plaid pattern and colors), and attend clan gatherings.
What function do Scottish clans now serve beyond symbolic identification? Why do you
think these behaviors persist? What is the difference between the ideas underlying these
clans and those underlying kindred groups?
Systems of Kinship Terminology
The names we use for different relatives indicate something about their rights and obligations in
relation to us. For example, in many North American societies, people called grandmothers have
special bragging rights to their "grandchildren" (children's offspring) and may be called upon to
baby-sit (or raise) them and give them presents and other support. In return, children may be
expected to respect their grandmothers for their age and wisdom, call or visit them, and help
them when needed.
In addition to implying rights and obligations, the term grandmother includes information about
a genealogical relationship, sex, and age. In the North American system, a grandmother is the
mother of a parent, female, and two generations removed from a child. The term grandmother
classifies this person into a group of similar relatives and distinguishes her from other relatives
such as grandfathers, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, or cousins.
There is much cross-cultural variation in kinship terminologies. This variation indicates different
ways of thinking about relationships in different societies. Anthropologists have devoted much
attention to documenting and understanding these terminologies because of the valuable
information they encode regarding a society.
Kinship systems are explained by starting with a single individual called Ego (designated by a
square in kinship diagrams). Ego's relatives are identified by their relationships to Ego and by the
names Ego calls them.
In many, if not most, societies, distinctions between types of cousin relationships are important.
For example, the Omaha, Crow, and Iroquois systems all distinguish between parallel and crosscousins. Parallel cousins are children whose parents are the same-sex siblings of Ego's parents.
Cross-cousins are the children of opposite-sex siblings of Ego's parents. In other words, the
children of Ego's mother's brother and father's sister are cross-cousins to Ego, whereas the
children of Ego's father's brother and Ego's mother's sister are parallel cousins. The distinction is
meaningful because, for example, in some societies cross-cousins are preferred marriage
partners, and parallel cousins are inappropriate marriage partners, and in others, parallel cousins
are the preferred marriage partners. In contrast to systems that emphasize such distinctions,
many Americans classify all cousins in one category.
The source for kinship charts 1–6 is Kinship Terminology at
Brief descriptions of some major kinship systems follow. Keep in mind that these systems are
used in societies other than the ones that provide their names.
The Eskimo kinship system is based on bilateral kinship. Euro-Americans follow this system in
which the nuclear family usually is independent economically and socially. All parents' brothers
and sisters are considered aunts and uncles of Ego. All children of parents' siblings (aunts and
uncles) are cousins.
The Omaha kinship system is usually found in societies in which descent is reckoned patrilineally.
The system distinguishes between maternal and paternal kin. Male and female parallel cousins
are considered as Ego's brothers and sisters, but cross-cousins have separate terms. Relatives
on the mother's side are merged generationally.
The Crow kinship system is similar to the Omaha system but is the mirror opposite and is usually
found in societies with matrilineal descent. Relations on the father’s side are merged into the
same generational categories, whereas relations on the mother's side note generational
differences. For example, Ego's father's sister and father's sister's daughter are called by the
same term. Mother's sister and mother's sister's daughter are called by another term, and father
and father's brother are called by a third term. Parallel cousins are the same as brothers and
The Iroquois kinship system is associated with double descent and is found in societies with
unilineal descent. This system differentiates maternal and paternal kin, but same-sex siblings of
parents are called parents. Parallel cousins are equated with Ego's siblings. Cross-cousins are all
"cousins" and are often preferred as spouses.
The Hawaiian kinship system distinguishes relatives at the generational level. There is a
generation of parents and a generation of children. This form of kinship is most common in
societies where economic production and child rearing are shared. In this system, Ego calls all
mother's sisters mother and all father's brothers father. Within Ego's own generation, all males
and females, including all those whom Euro-Americans would call cousins, are considered
brothers and sisters.
Think about it:
In the Hawaiian system, all of the relatives many Americans call aunt are called mother,
and all of the relatives many Americans call uncle are called father. What do you think
would be the behavioral consequences of this system? Does this differ from your
experience and if so, how?
As new reproductive technologies emerge and different types of families become more common,
kinship terminologies change as well. For example, a child may be conceived with a donor egg,
carried to term by a surrogate mother, and raised by another woman. New kinship terms may be
created to distinguish among all these "mothers." Again, human creativity will fill these gaps,
providing yet another example of our cultural adaptability.
4. Grouping by Gender, Age, Common Interest, and
What Principles Do Societies Use to Organize Themselves?
In both simple and complex societies, people organize themselves into groups according to other
principles in addition to kinship. One's identity and the groups one associates with may depend
on one's gender, age, ethnicity, rank in society (including class or caste) or common ideas,
behaviors, or interests. Groups we belong to help us organize and address problems or
opportunities not addressed by marriage, family/household, kindred, or descent groups.
How Do Societies Organize by Gender?
Organization of Life Tasks
All societies have a gender-based division of labor derived from different biologies. Women, not
men, become pregnant, carry children, give birth, and breast-feed children. Different peoples,
however, interpret these facts differently. To some, they imply women are forever responsible
for child care and are unable to work outside the home whether as hunters or executives. Others
view women as capable of many tasks and productive beyond their roles as mothers.
Variation and Change
Societies organize differently around the principle of gender. For example, in the Six Nations of
the Iroquois, both historically and today, women and men are divided into separate groups.
Historically, women who were related through "blood" lived together and remained at home
tending to domestic tasks, whereas men spent most of their time away from home hunting,
fishing, making war, trading, and negotiating with other groups. This pattern continues today as
women tend to tasks at home while men often work in construction jobs away from their homes.
Though people consider male activities more important, women's contributions are also valued,
particularly as "sustainers of life" (Haviland 2005:284).
The Mundurucu people of the Amazon rainforest separate men and women even more drastically
than the Iroquois. From the age of 13, men work, eat, and sleep separately from the women,
and relations between the two groups are inharmonious. Though Westerners remarked on the
Iroquois's relatively gentle treatment of female captives, Mundurucu men use force to control
their women, as do men in many other societies today.
The degree of equality between men and women also varies cross-culturally. Typically, though
men and women sometimes perform different tasks according to their gender in foraging
societies, each can perform the tasks normally assigned to the other without being accused of
improper behavior, and power and resources are generally allocated equally to each. Males
dominate women, however, in most horticultural, pastoral, agricultural, and industrial societies.
In these societies, men have more access to resources and exercise more authority than women.
For example, though there are a few female senators and representatives in the U.S. Congress, a
woman has not yet been president of the United States. Additionally, most women do not earn
as much as men. That there are any female American members of Congress, however,
represents an enormous change in recent years in attitudes toward women's capabilities and
How Do Societies Organize by Age?
Many consider age and sex grouping to be universal principles determining a person's position in
society. In the United States, for example, people's first associations outside their kin are with
age mates met in school or in play. As children grow, they acquire privileges, resources,
responsibilities, and experiences according to their age. Today, most Americans end employment
when they reach a certain age and enter a new age-related group of retirees.
Americans may be labeled toddlers, children, teenagers, Gen-Xers, 30-somethings, baby
boomers, or senior citizens—each with assumed rights, expectations, obligations, and
experiences—based on the number of years they have lived. Each of these categories is an age
grade. People move in and out of these age grades together with others who are their same age.
Each of these groups is termed an age set. For example, freshman and sophomore are common
age grades in the United States. The individuals who are designated freshmen or sophomores at
any one time constitute an age set. In the American system, an age set will move into the next
age grade together in the next academic year as freshmen become sophomores, and a new age
set of individuals become freshmen.
In some societies, people move automatically through age grades or go through initiation rituals.
In others, people must buy their way in. For example, in some Native-American societies, boys
could not become members of their appropriate age grade unless they bought the costumes,
dances, and songs required for membership.
Think about it:
In traditional societies, once an individual reaches elder status, he or she is respected for
his or her life experience and wisdom. This may be less true in industrialized societies in
which the "latest" research findings carry more weight than an elder's advice. Ironically, in
these societies elderly people may be viewed as unproductive economic burdens, while
medical technology continues to extend their lives.
What do you think about spending society's scarce resources on the elderly?
How Do Societies Organize by Common Interest?
Kinds of Common Interest Groupings
People form common interest groups because they share ideas or activities. Such groups are
common in complex industrialized societies, but they can also operate in small traditional
societies. The list of organizations in the world formed for various purposes is vast. Although
they are often called "voluntary" organizations, membership is not necessarily voluntary. For
example, the military is a "common interest" group that can sometimes force certain people to
join. According to anthropologist Meredith Small, people who are isolated from many of their kin
confer fictive kinship on others who share their ideas or interests so they can experience an
extended family (Small 2000).
Think about it:
You most likely belong to or are aware of many common interest groups. What are they?
How did they form? What functions do they serve?
Postindustrial Factors Influencing Common Interest Groups
Some see a decline in participation in common interest groups in postindustrial societies in which
manufacturing is decreasing in importance and research, information, and services are
increasing. People in these societies are apparently spending more time enjoying homeentertainment systems, working longer hours, commuting for greater distances, and moving
frequently, all of which decrease group participation.
The Internet and cellular telephone technology are other key factors affecting group
participation. People are forming groups on the Internet and communicating with friends, kin,
and other associates via e-mail, instant messages, cell phones, video conferencing, and so on.
The urge to leave one's home to interact with others may no longer be as compelling as it once
How Do Societies Organize by Social Rank?
Distinctions between Stratified and Egalitarian Societies
Stratified societies institutionalize inequality. Individuals in such societies are ranked in tiers, and
the tier one occupies determines one's share of resources, power, and prestige. If no ranking
occurs, the society is not stratified.
One example of an institutionalized tier is social class. Individuals who belong to the same social
class have nearly equal prestige according to their society's evaluation system. For example, in
the United States, people often speak of three classes (lower, middle, and upper), though others
make more distinctions within these three classes. Members of the lower class share roughly the
same amount of prestige, which is much less than that shared by members of the upper class.
In some stratified societies, one is born into a tier and cannot move into another. The wellknown caste system of India is an example of a closed system in which people cannot move
among tiers. Some also contend that caste systems occur in many other countries as well,
including the United States during and after slavery before the civil rights revolution. For
example, some states passed laws during this time to prevent light-skinned black people from
moving into another tier by "passing" as white. One result of closed class and caste systems is
that a cheap labor pool is readily available to perform services and produce goods for members
of higher classes or castes.
In the United States today, theoretically anyone can move from a lower class to an upper class
through personal effort and achievement. It is becoming more and more difficult, however, for
most members of the lower classes to advance because wealth becomes concentrated among
fewer people, and traditional pathways to upward mobility such as good-paying manufacturing
jobs and good-quality public education close.
Think about it:
In a televised interview, Warren Buffett, one of the world's richest men, explained why he
was giving his billions to charity instead of his children. He said inherited dynastic wealth
was contrary to the American ideal of meritocracy, and his children already had more
advantages than 99.9 percent of the people in the world.
What do you think of his actions and ideas? What would you do if you had his billions?
Social class depends on role differentiation, formalized evaluation of these roles and their worth
(for example, unequal compensation for different occupations), and restricted access to the most
highly valued roles (for example, strict educational requirements to be a physician).
In contrast, in egalitarian societies, though there are differences according to age and gender,
roles are not as differentiated as in stratified societies. People have roughly equal access to
prestige, resources, and power. For example, in a foraging society, even if a person is an inept
hunter, he or she will still receive an equal share of the meat others bring back to camp. He or
she may be valued for other reasons and can still participate equally in group decisions. Though
others might value superior hunters, people are not formally ranked and differentiated according
to these attributes.
In fact, as Richard Lee found, the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert in Africa make sure no one boasts
of his hunting exploits. Even following a big kill, the hunter must say, "It is nothing," and others
will reprimand him for "drag[ging] us all the way out here …to make us cart home your pile of
bones." In this way, the !Kung "cool [a hunter's] heart and make him gentle" and maintain their
egalitarian society (Lee 1969:20–21).
Manifestations of Social Classes
An individual's social class becomes apparent to others in several ways, though societies differ in
the particular ways they evaluate class. First is verbal evaluation—how do people talk about
others in their group? Evaluated characteristics can be almost anything and may be commented
upon favorably or unfavorably. For example, in some societies, one's relatives indicate one's
social class and in another, attendance at a particular school will indicate one's class.
Second, social class is also apparent through relationships an individual has with others and the
character of those relationships. Are they equal, subordinate, or dominant? For example, a
janitor will interact with a corporate executive in socially prescribed ways deriving from the
differences in their social classes.
Third, societies have symbolic indicators of social class. For example, in the United States,
occupation, education, wealth, dress, possessions, and language all indicate social class. On a
deeper level, life chances are also symbolic indicators of social class. Members of upper classes
are usually healthier, and they live longer than members of lower classes.
The Development of Social Stratification
Social stratification is rooted in the need for specialization and in some people's desire for more
prestige, resources, or power than others have. For stratification to take root, however, others
must acquiesce to these desires. With the food-production revolution, people began to acquire
more personal property because surpluses accumulated and were stored. Whereas horticulturists
could still live in relatively simple, egalitarian societies, agriculture presented more complicated
problems, and specialized roles developed to resolve them.
For example, to farm land continuously and intensively, laborers had to build irrigation systems,
and supervisors had to manage these projects. Religious figures arose to conduct rituals that
attempted to control nature and ensure good crops. Hereditary ruling dynasties developed from
the priesthood. Certain lineages eventually dominated civic and religious positions and were then
ranked above other lineages. Thus an upper class originated and was legitimized through
ideologies they themselves created and perpetuated. As anthropologist Laura Nader wrote,
"Systems of thought develop over time and reflect the interests of certain classes or groups in
the society who manage to universalize their beliefs and values" (Nader 1997:271).
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NY: Doubleday.
Haviland, William A., Harald E. L. Prins, Dana Walrath, and Bunny McBride. 2005. Cultural
Anthropology: The Human Challenge, Instructor's edition. 11th edition. Belmont, CA: Thomson
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California Press.
Hua, Cia. 2001. A Society without Fathers or Husbands: The Na of China. Asti Hustvedt, trans.
New York: Zone Books.
Lee, Richard B. 1969. A Naturalist at Large: Eating Christmas in the Kalahari. Natural History
78(10):14–22, 60–64.
Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1927. Sex and Repression in Savage Society. New York: Harcourt, Brace.
Nader, Laura. 1997. Controlling Processes: Tracing the Dynamic Components of Power. Current
Anthropology 38:271.
Nanda, Serena. 1992. Arranging a Marriage in India. In The Naked Anthropologist. P. R. DeVita,
ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Small, Meredith. 2000. Kinship Envy. Natural History 109(2):88.
Stacey, Judith. 1990. Brave New Families: Stories of Domestic Upheaval in Late TwentiethCentury America. New York: Basic Books.
Weiner, Annette B. 1988. The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. New York: Holt, Rinehart and
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Module 4: Finding Order—Political, Supernatural, and Artistic
1. Politics and Power
2. Spirituality, Religion, and the Supernatural
3. The Arts
1. Politics and Power
All social relations contain an element of power. Power is the ability to impose your will on other
people and make them behave in certain ways whether they want to or not. Authority is the
ability to get people to do things, based on their respect for your knowledge or status.
Sometimes a person has both power and authority, such as police officers who have societies'
respect as well as the legal power to coerce. Sometimes a person has power but no authority,
such as dictators who can make things happen because they will it. Then there are those who
have authority but no power. Leaders in some societies are respected and their opinions hold
weight, but they cannot force people to do anything. Authority legitimizes power. In our
discussion, we include authority in the definition of power.
Societies as well as people have power. Societies impose order and resolve conflict. Both internal
order within society and external relations with other societies are managed through political
organization. Political organization concerns power: who has it, how it is gained, and how it is
used in society. Political organization may be informal and uncentralized, as in bands and tribes,
or more formal and centralized, as in chiefdoms and states (Haviland et al. 2005:307).
Types of Political Organization
When North Americans think of politics, we think of such things as election campaigns and
government officials. But when we take a broader, anthropological view, we see that politics
goes beyond this. Human organizations can be complex with much variation from one group to
the next. Anthropologists delineate four basic types of political structures: bands, tribes,
chiefdoms, and states. These types can be viewed as a continuum because the distinctions
between each are not necessarily rigid.
Types of Political Organization
Number of people
Tens of thousands
Mobile or fixed
Fixed—in villages
Fixed—many villages
and cities
Basis of
Kin, descent
Kin, rank,
Class and residence
Egalitarian Egalitarian or "Big
None, or little
Yes; many levels
Conflict resolution
Laws, judges
Food production
Yes; intensive
Reciprocal Reciprocal
Control of land
Descent group
Yes; ranked by kin
Yes; ranked by class or
Luxury goods for
Public architecture No
Source: Adapted from Haviland et al. 2005:309.
Band Societies
The simplest form of political organization is the band. Bands comprise relatively few people (20–
50) who are related to each other through kin ties (Nanda and Warms 2007:290). Bands share a
common territory, sometimes loosely defined, over which they travel as they forage for food. The
band is the oldest form of political organization for human beings and is characterized by
egalitarian relationships. Decisions are made through consensus by adult members of the band.
Band society is uncentralized—that is, power and authority are diffused among group members.
Reciprocity is the main form of economic exchange among members.
Leadership is informal—that is, leaders are those with the knowledge, skill, and ability to serve.
Leadership emerges from a given situation so it shifts as events change. Leaders have no power
to enforce their will: they lead as long as they have the confidence of the people. Because bands
are based on cooperation, social control focuses on keeping people on good terms and promoting
goodwill among members. Informal mechanisms of social control include gossip, ridicule, and
avoidance (Nanda and Warms 2007:291). Membership in a given band is flexible, so if people
are unhappy, they can easily move to another group to which they have kin ties.
Tribal Societies
A second type of uncentralized political organization is the tribe. In anthropology, the term tribe
refers to groups who trace their lineage back to an ancestor and who think of themselves as "one
people." Whereas bands are associated with hunting and gathering, tribes make their living
through food production, i.e., through horticulture or pastoralism. Like bands, tribes are usually
egalitarian, and leadership is informal, reflecting the age, knowledge, and skills of the individual.
Although most tribes are independent, they may join with outside groups if they are threatened.
Kinship is an important factor for integrating people in a tribe. Tribes may be made up of clans
comprising people who are related to each other through an ancestor. Elders, either men or
women, may represent the clan in a tribal council. The clans generally "own" local resources.
Clan members usually do not all reside in the same place so clan membership helps to integrate
the larger tribal group.
Another way that tribal groups may be integrated is through age grades. Age grades are
organized categories of people based on age, as discussed in module 3. An age set is a group of
people of the same age and sex in tribal societies who are initiated at the same time and move
through life together. Age sets cross kin boundaries and are an important factor in social
Tribes lacking age sets may have a segmentary lineage system. In this system, kinship lineages
are split into branches and then divided further into smaller and smaller branches or lineages.
Should a dispute arise, lineages join together, depending on their closeness to a common apical
ancestor. Societies with age grades are less likely to have feuding, because the age sets cut
across kin lines.
Leadership in tribes takes a number of forms. Native-American societies had different leaders for
different circumstances. For instance, the Cheyenne had peace leaders and war leaders (Nanda
and Warms 2007:294).
Think about it:
Among the Ojibwa of central North America, different leaders were chosen for hunting,
war, ceremonies, and clan business. This style of leadership was confusing to Europeans
wishing to deal with the Ojibwa. To sort things out, the government of Canada insisted on
dealing with one chief. The Ojibwa labeled that one leader as okmakkan, which translated
means "fake chief" (Nanda and Warms 2007:294).
Why would leadership be misinterpreted? What happens when there is no leader who can
speak for a whole group?
Groups in New Guinea and Melanesia have another kind of leadership known as big man. A big
man is a leader who gains power by building his prestige through increasing wealth. By
distributing his wealth through feasts and other ways, he gains a reputation for generosity. This
generosity also creates a group of people beholden to him, and who then become his followers. A
big man's leadership cannot be passed to others. All big men must earn their own position, and
each position is fragile. If followers become discontented, they can go to other big men who are
building their wealth and power.
A chiefdom comprises a number of local groups that are led by a single individual, a chief. A
chiefdom is more complex than a tribe or a band. It formally integrates a number of communities
into a larger group. In such a society, there may be a number of chiefs, ranked in relationship to
each other. A person's status depends on how close genealogically that person is to the chief.
Chieftainships are usually hereditary, although there may be other selection criteria as well.
Chiefs usually hold office for life. Unlike leaders in bands or tribes, chiefs usually have authority
to unite members at all times.
Think about it:
In the Polynesian society of Samoa, chiefs are elected by the broad extended family unit
that comes together for that purpose. Candidates for the family chiefly title must show
their genealogical connections to the ancestor who created or held the original title. The
candidates must also show that they have served the group and the previous title holder
through contributions of labor and goods, including money. "The path to leadership is
through serving" is a Samoan proverb. Once selected, the chief serves for life and is
removed from office only for egregious behavior. The chief represents the family at
gatherings and in council meetings and commands the labor and goods of those people
who serve (and own) the title.
How do elections and inherited rank determine leadership in your society?
Chiefs usually control the distribution of land and people's livelihoods. They may control the labor
force and can expect to receive a portion of their people's produce or earnings for feasts and
other important events. Such contributions are then redistributed throughout the group. (See the
discussion of redistribution in module 2.)
Depending on the society, chiefs may amass wealth that can be passed to their children. In other
societies, wealth simply passes through the hands of the chief, as the representative of the
group. A chief may thus be very "poor" personally but able to gather and "show off" the wealth
contributed by the members of his group.
The state is the most complex form of political organization. States are characterized by
hierarchical and centralized government and include large numbers of people within their
territories. The state also has a legal monopoly over the use of force (Nanda and Warms
2007:301). Unlike chiefdoms, which are built on kin ties, states are based on citizenship that
unites members across political, class, and ethnic groups. States can thus be more powerful and
heterogeneous than chiefdoms, tribes, or bands.
States are remarkable in that they enable large numbers of people to live together. Feeding
large populations requires intensive use of the land through agriculture. Controlling large groups
of people requires central governments with access to police or militaries. Integrating large
groups into a cohesive whole requires bureaucracies and often an official religion.
How did states arise? Anthropologists put forth a number of theories. The voluntaristic theory of
state formation, detailed by V. Gordon Childe (1936), maintains that intensive agriculture
enabled surpluses, which supported specialists, such as artisans and priests. The specialized
occupations needed a larger organizing structure to keep order and promote economic exchange.
Another theory emphasizes the need to control water and irrigation. The hydraulic theory of state
formation advanced by Karl Wittfogel (1957) stresses the need for cooperation among farmers to
control water in arid or semiarid conditions. Large-scale irrigation required large-scale political
organization to coordinate water distribution to all.
The coercive theory of state formation proposed by Robert Carneiro (1970) suggests that as
populations grew and people turned to agriculture, competition for the limited land increased. As
the populations continued to grow, conflicts with neighbors arose, and through wars and
skirmishes groups overtook their neighbors and their territories, thus growing in size until one
group controlled an entire area.
Maintaining Political and Social Order
All societies must be able to control their members. This control may be internalized or
externalized. Internalized controls are generally culturally controlled ways of doing things that
are so ingrained into the way people behave that they come automatically. Such controls include
our social norms and religious beliefs. External controls are sanctions that come from outside
ourselves. Positive sanctions encourage approved behaviors. Rewards and recognition are
examples of positive sanctions. Negative sanctions include threats and punishments.
Think about it:
Because of internalized controls we know we should give up our seat on the bus to an
older person or help a youngster to cross the street. We are taught these things, and they
seem natural and right to us. Our controls are within ourselves. When we are rewarded
with an A for our hard work and study in our class, this is a positive sanction to support
right behavior and is an externalized control because it comes from outside ourselves. The
threat of an F also hangs over us as a negative sanction if we don't do the work we are
supposed to do.
What internal and external controls influence your life?
Informal Means of Social Control
Social control may also be informal or formal. Informal mechanisms include socialization and
public opinion. Teaching children how to behave involves socialization, or enculturation, and is an
important part of social control. We have to be taught the right way to do things. Once we know
the right way to do things, we pass this knowledge on to others, including our own children. Thus
social control begins with upbringing and education. The way in which we are socialized is so
much a part of us that we may not even think about it, until we meet someone who violates
those rules and assumptions.
Think about it:
Nancy and her family from Wisconsin always celebrated the Fourth of July with fireworks
and a picnic. It was a happy day that brought friends and family together. When Nancy's
family moved to Germany, she was surprised to learn that July 4 was no different from
July 3. It was then she realized that the Fourth of July was an American holiday, an
important day in her society, but not a particularly important day for people in other
From your own experience, what expectations have you had, based on the way you were
raised, that were different from someone else's?
Public opinion is also an important informal means of social control. Because we are social
beings, we are concerned about what others think of us. Some of those informal mechanisms
that help keep people in line are gossip, ostracism, and ridicule.
Think about it:
How would gossip be a form of social control? Think of an example.
Supernatural beliefs can be strong informal mechanisms of social control. Beliefs in supernatural
beings such as gods, witches, and sorcerers may restrain people from doing certain things for
fear of retribution or punishment from the supernatural. Ancestor worship is important in those
societies where relatives who have died are considered to still play an active role in daily life.
Sacrifices and proper behavior, necessary to keep the ancestors happy, bring rewards and
benefits to the group.
Belief in witchcraft is also a means of social control. Neighbors will think twice about doing
something nasty to another if they think witchcraft will be practiced in retaliation.
Think about it:
For the Azande of East Africa, illness and bad fortune are the result of witchcraft. Inside
witches is an inherited substance called mungu that causes damage to others. This
substance leaves the witch's body at night and eats away at the internal organs of the
victim. People are suspected of being a witch when misfortune comes from those around
them. The suspect may be unaware of being a witch or of wishing ill on others. Although
witches cannot rid themselves of their power, they can stop some bewitching by making
sure they hold no jealousy, envy, or other negative emotions towards others (EvansPritchard 1958).
How might belief in witchcraft support personal relationships in the group?
Religious control can also be important. For example, a belief that experiences after death are a
direct result of actions on Earth may guide people's behavior. Thus, fear of hell and hope for
heaven may be powerful motives for conformity.
Formal Means of Social Control
In all societies, informal means of social control are the first recourse in enforcing social norms
and handling disputes. However, when deviance is too great or disputes cannot be peaceably
resolved, formal means are used. Formal means can take various forms.
Think about it:
Among the Inuit of Canada, disputes are resolved through song duels where disputants
throw derisive songs at each other rather than weapons. In a public gathering, the plaintiff
and the defendant challenge each other with abusive songs. The person who gets the most
applause is the winner. Interestingly, guilt or innocence is not the determining factor but
whoever has the better verbal skills.
What examples can you think of nonviolent actions that control behavior in your own
In our own society, our formal means of social control include arrest by police, trial by jury or
judge, imprisonment, fines, and execution. The base of our formal social control is the rule of
law. Anthropologist E. Adamson Hoebel (Ferraro 2006:314) delineates three qualities of law:
1. Laws imply the possible use of legitimate coercion. Sometimes the very threat of force is
enough to motivate correct behavior.
2. Legal systems give authority to special people to use force.
3. Law is based on precedents: new laws are based on old ones so there is regularity and
predictability. Ties with tradition help protect against arbitrary and capricious laws.
Just as societies control disputes within their boundaries, so they must control relationships
outside. Warfare, which is defined as organized and institutionalized fighting between groups, is
one such mechanism. Why do wars occur? Some say human beings are naturally aggressive.
However, others point out that our nearest primate relatives have seldom been observed in
"warlike" behavior, and in fact, bonobos have ways of peaceably resolving conflicts. Others
believe aggression is culturally based. Although in states and chiefdoms warfare is sometimes
used to achieve political objectives, not all societies use violence, and some groups are able to
avoid warfare altogether.
There seems to be little doubt that aggression in human beings became more marked with the
advances in food production 10,000 years ago and the formation of centralized states 5,000
years ago. According to archaeologists, prior to the beginning of food production, warfare was
almost unknown. Hunters and gatherers lived in small bands with in-marrying between the
groups. Hostilities against relatives were unlikely. In addition, foragers had no food surpluses to
support armies and no centralized governments to coordinate large numbers of people for
military campaigns. Foraging groups also did not own territory, one of the major sources of
However, with food production people became more sedentary and began to claim exclusive
rights to land. As populations grew, land became scarce and conflicts more likely to emerge.
Because of advances in technology, warfare in the past 100 years has taken on ominous features
such as the capacity to kill large populations and even to annihilate the world.
The causes of modern-day warfare are complex, involving political, economic, and ideological
factors. Many of today's wars are not between states but are fought within countries where
governments are corrupt or where the controlling authorities have lost popular support. Some
wars are fought by quasi states operating within states. Some wars intentionally target civilian
populations and have little regard for political boundaries. Today's wars remind us of the need to
find alternative ways to control conflict or face grim possibilities for humankind.
2. Spirituality, Religion, and the Supernatural
Characteristics of Religion
Religion is an organized system of ideas about the supernatural or spiritual realm. The beliefs
and ceremonial practices that accompany religion guide humans in finding meaning in the world
and in dealing with important problems. Religion is a group or collective matter. In contrast,
spirituality, or concern with the sacred, is often individually focused and does not require
traditional organization.
Anthropologist, E. B. Tylor (1871) proposed three basic levels of religion:
1. Animism, a belief system in which all objects (living and nonliving) are thought to be
filled with spirit. Rocks, trees, buildings…everything is considered to have spirit.
2. Polytheism, which Tylor maintains grew out of animism, is the belief in several gods.
3. Monotheism, which Tylor saw as the most advanced form of religion, is the belief in one
Tylor and people of his time believed in unilineal progress—that is, that human society is
evolving positively towards logic and rationality. This view of society is now discredited. Instead
of determining which religious forms are superior to others, anthropologists are interested in
understanding religious ideas and behaviors, the ways in which religion is important to people,
and the role religion plays in society. Religions may also combine different traditions in their
For example:
Candomble is an Afro-Brazilian religion practiced in the north of Brazil and is an example of
religious syncretism, the fusion of more than one tradition. In the 1500s, when the
Portuguese brought slaves to Brazil, they found a combination of Catholicism and native
Indian beliefs already there. The slaves' beliefs in spirits and magic intertwined with similar
Native-American beliefs. Outwardly the slaves followed the Catholic faith, but they secretly
continued other religious practices.
In 1888, when the slaves were liberated, at least 15 generations of slaves had grown up
with a belief in the orishas, African spirits masked as Catholic saints. Today, Candomble,
also called Macumba in some regions, still incorporates elements of Catholicism,
spiritualism, and African traditions (Stirling 1997).
Although religion may take different forms, anthropologists identify six characteristics that all
religions share (Nanda and Warms 2007:375). Religions
1. have stories considered important by believers
2. use symbols and symbolism
venerate places, people, and qualities that cannot be verified empirically
perform rituals to reach the supernatural
regard certain people as specialists
Sacred Stories and Myths
Every society has sacred narratives that, to that society, are religious truths. Myths are
narratives that explain the cosmos and the way things came to be. They carry important
messages about life and validate values and customs. Anthropologists note that sacred stories
closely unite rituals and moral behavior with social organization.
For example:
According to the Hopi of New Mexico, back when the world was young, beings lived
underground. Before they came to live on Earth as people, they were given the choice of
what to farm. The beings chose blue corn, because even though it is difficult to grow, it is
a hardy strain of corn. The god Maasaw taught the Hopi how to grow the corn and to treat
the Earth respectfully. Until the twentieth century, the members of different Hopi clans
worked cooperatively to raise the important blue corn. For the Hopi, planting the corn
recreated the spirit of harmony and humility that the ancestors had when they chose blue
corn. Their creation story was a charter for their society.
Symbols are important to religious stories and to religions. Symbols may take the form of
physical objects such as a cross, a Star of David, the Star of Islam, or the crescent moon. Verbal
symbols, for example the names of sacred people, songs, or verses, may also be powerful.
Supernatural People and Power
Religions have special people, places, and qualities that exist separately from the material world
we ordinarily inhabit. There is no way to measure these things. Most religions have spirits, which
take the form of people or animals or are associated with nature. Spirits may have emotions like
humans do and act in the world among people. One type of spirit is the trickster. Tricksters are
generally interested only in themselves. They may combine qualities of greed with a sense of
Think about it:
The coyote is a common trickster among many Native North American cultures. Coyote
tries to trick other animals to get what he wants. He is clever and daring and breaks rules.
Sometimes coyote gets caught, but he is incorrigible. One legend tells of coyote stealing
fire and giving it to humans. Coyote makes mischief but is ultimately important to people.
What function do supernatural tricksters fulfill for those in the real world?
In addition to beings or spirits, religions have states of mind. Enlightenment is the goal for some
traditions, including Buddhism. Some religions believe there is a spirit that permeates the
universe. The term animatism refers to this concept of spirit, which is also known today by the
Polynesian term, mana. Mana is a special spiritual power that is concentrated in persons or
things. Because it can be powerful, mana is also associated with tapu, i.e., taboos or
For example:
Among the Maori of Polynesian New Zealand, certain trees traditionally were set aside for
making outrigger canoes. For the trees to get to the needed size, a powerful chief with
great mana would place a taboo on the forest to prevent anyone from felling the trees.
Only after the taboo was lifted could the trees be harvested and made into magnificent
canoes. Thus mana and tapu were used to conserve the forest and natural resources.
Communication, Rituals, and Rites of Passage
Rituals are ceremonial acts used for special occasions. Through rituals, people enact their
religion. Religious rituals use religious symbols and draw upon sacred stories and acts and often
sacred music. Rituals are used to connect with the supernatural or spirit world.
Prayer is a way of conversing with spirits or gods. Prayer may be spoken or sung; it may be
silent or spoken aloud. Prayer may involve hoisting flags or spinning wheels with words inside
them (Nanda and Warms 2007:388). Sacrifice occurs when people give offerings to the
supernatural to help strengthen their prayers.
Magic is an attempt to control supernatural forces. When people do magic, they believe that their
words and actions will influence spirits and compel them to behave in certain ways.
Anthropologists identify two types of magic. Imitative magic, sometimes called sympathetic
magic, is based on the principle that the desired results will imitate what you do. For example,
pricking pins into a voodoo doll is a form of imitative magic. The idea is that by damaging the
doll, the person the doll represents will be damaged as well. Contagious magic is the notion that
objects that have been touched by a person maintain a connection to that person. In voodoo,
having a piece of cloth or hair from the person the doll represents will make magic more
Think about it:
In the United States, a ball signed by a famous baseball player or a picture signed by a
celebrity may become collector's items, imbued with special importance.
What special things do you have in your life that once were touched by, or belonged to,
someone important to you?
Divination is a ritual practice used to find out information from the supernatural. Divination can
be used to predict the future, diagnose disease, or determine who is guilty of a crime. It may
involve reading cracks in animal bones or examining chicken entrails. It can be done by reading
tea leaves or tarot cards. Divination gives people confidence that they have the information they
need to make decisions.
Rites of passage are ceremonies that mark a person's transition from one social status to
another. Birth, puberty, marriage, and death are among the landmarks in a person's life that
may be marked by such rites. Arnold van Gennep (1960) posited that rites of passage always
follow three stages:
1. separation, during which the person is detached from a former status
2. liminality, during which a person, in a transitional phase, is separated from the old ways
but not yet attached to the new
3. reincorporation, during which the individual is reincorporated into the group, and the
change in status is complete
In the third stage, the person takes on the responsibilities and privileges of the new social
Think about it:
What are the stages in your life that make a difference? How are these stages marked?
Identify the three phases that make up the point of passage as you move from one part of
your life to the next.
Rites of intensification are rituals that bind people together. These rites focus on a group, rather
than the individual, and are used when a group is threatened, whether by nature or by enemies.
Rites of intensification tie the group to the past and to collective action, thus promoting a sense
of unity and of optimism.
Religious Specialists
All societies have individuals who are regarded as having a special relationship with the
supernatural world. These people guide the religious practices of others. Some may have distinct
personality traits that support this link with the supernatural; others have special training.
Anthropologists recognize two types of religious specialists or practitioners: shamans and priests.
Shamans are those with special powers that enable them to contact supernatural beings. By
going into altered states of consciousness, shamans search for a vision that will help heal the
sick, control the weather, or show the path ahead. In many societies, shamans are average
members of the group who make their living as others do. Their exceptional powers are brought
into play during special ceremonies or at points of crisis or illness.
Priests are found in societies that have the resources to support a full-time religious specialist.
Priests are formally elected or initiated into their position. They are responsible for performing
specific rituals on behalf of the group or teaching the group. Priests generally undergo special
training to become priests. The term priest includes all full-time religious leaders, including
ministers/pastors, rabbis, imams, monks, nuns, and so forth.
Belief in witches and sorcery is not universal, but such beliefs are found in many cultures of the
world. Witches use psychic powers alone to affect others, usually in a harmful way. They may
not even know they are witches and may have no control over their power. Sorcerers consciously
manipulate objects or words to cause harm to others.
Religion and Change
For the most part, religion is a force that preserves order, particularly in stratified societies
where it may be called upon to maintain class structures. However, religion can also be a
powerful force for change, especially where groups are downtrodden or in upheaval.
A nativistic movement attempts to restore what is seen by believers as the better life of the past.
The message of nativistic movements is that people have fallen from the ways of their ancestors,
and the goodness of the past ages may be restored if certain practices are followed.
In contrast, vitalistic movements look to the future as the golden age. The message is that the
past is dark but through the teachings of a prophet, goodness will be achieved. Sometimes these
movements for radical change are termed revitalization movements. They help to quell fears and
anxieties about disruptions in the present.
Think about it:
The Seneca were once a powerful tribe that was a member of the League of the Iroquois.
But with the creation of the new state of New York, disease and war decimated their
numbers, and their land was lost to land speculators and settlers. Seneca men turned to
alcohol; conflict and divisiveness tore the small group apart. In 1799, a man named
Handsome Lake received a message from angels. The creator was saddened by the way
the Seneca were behaving. To avoid the coming apocalypse, he was told the people should
repent of their sins and return to traditional rituals. Handsome Lake taught peace with the
white people. He brought the Seneca together with strict rules for marriage and behavior.
He brought order and relative prosperity through new crops and a new division of labor
(Haviland et al. 2005:373).
How would revitalizing old ways help people move into a new age?
Functions of Religion
Religion serves several functions for society. A psychological function is to provide a model that
gives order to the universe and to human behavior. It explains the unknown, helps reduce
anxieties, and provides a means for dealing with crises. Religion plays a social function by
prompting reflection on right and wrong behavior and setting guidelines for acceptable ways to
Religion also serves a social function through education. Religion, for both literate and
nonliterate groups, teaches about events in the past that are important to the group and may
pass along practical skills and information needed for survival. Another social function of religion
is maintenance of social solidarity through support of group unity. Common beliefs, rituals, and
songs reinforce group identity. Religion may also be used to justify war.
3. The Arts
What Is Art?
Art is the creative use of imagination to interpret and enjoy life. Artistic expression is universal in
the human experience. In every society, once the need for physical survival has been met,
people turn to art, whether to decorate a container, embroider clothing, or compose a song. Art
symbolically expresses almost every part of culture, including religious, kinship, and ethnic
identities (Haviland et al. 2005:367). In fact, almost everything humans do or make can involve
imagination and creativity.
Anthropologists use the term art to include the visual arts (sometimes termed graphic or plastic
arts) of painting, sculpture, architecture, carving, and weaving. Art also includes crafts, which
apply aesthetics to utilitarian items. The verbal arts of poetry, myth, and folklore as well as the
musical arts of singing and playing instruments are also included, as are the movement arts of
dance, sports, and games and the combination of these art forms in performance (Nanda and
Warms 2007:409).
Visual Arts
Every known society that has existed in history has created some form of visual art, whether it is
something etched in bone, shell jewelry, clay pots, tattooing, or drawings on cave walls. Visual
arts may be representational, imitating closely something in nature, or they may be abstract,
representing natural forms only by basic patterns. Anthropologists recognize a continuum
between representational and abstract art. In the visual art of foragers and other small-scale
traditional societies, symbolism is shared by the community. Designs the Western eye may
regard as purely decorative may have symbolic meaning. When decoded, such designs may
show, for example, genealogical relations.
Verbal Arts
Verbal arts take many forms including narratives, poetry, dramas, riddles, proverbs, and even
insults and compliments.
For example:
"Playing the dozens" is an African-American custom in which two people compete in a
comedic way, taking turns insulting each other. They insult one another, the other's
mother, or other family members, until one opponent has no comeback. One of the rules is
that the insults must not be true. Because it is light-hearted it can help to diffuse very real
The dozens requires a competitor to have verbal ability, wit, mental agility, and selfcontrol. The practice goes back to slavery days when violence among slaves was severely
punished. Verbal sparring became a substitute for physical fighting.
"Yo' mama," is a common beginning to a rejoinder, for example, "Yo' mama's so fat, when
she hauls ass she gotta take two trips."
Narratives are usually divided into three categories—myth, legend, and tale (Haviland et al.
2005:378)—which are described below.
1. Myth—a sacred story that explains the fundamentals of existence. Through myths,
beliefs are justified and standards set for correct behavior. Myths express the worldview
of the people involved as we have just described.
2. Legend—a narrative about a figure or event that is presented as true but may not be
historically accurate. Although they may be plausible, legends cannot be attributed to a
known author and thus exist in multiple versions. A long legend, often in verse or song, is
an epic. Legends may have mythological details. Anthropologists are interested in
legends because they provide clues regarding ideal expected behavior within a society.
For example:
Through metaphors, legends and myths speak to underlying themes that guide
people's lives. In his book, Hero with a Thousand Faces (1968), Joseph Campbell
maintains that certain myths have similar themes but different contexts and
characters, depending on the culture. In our own society, the films in the Star Wars
series have the same motifs as many ancient legends—that is, hero stories.
Another common motif is the importance of relying on one's own integrity and
intuition to save society from a peril it faces.
3. Tale—creative narrative told as entertainment. Tales are generally pure fiction, although
they may be told to relate a moral or lesson or to inspire resistance to the dominant
order. Some tales are widespread geographically, with similar motifs showing up in
widely divergent cultures. Tales may be told in musical form, as through folk songs. They
may also be told through the many forms of poetry. Contemporary forms include rap and
hip-hop. Like many tales, these poems talk of love, lust, conflict, and resistance to the
dominant social order.
For example:
Public presentation of poetry can take different forms, even competitive forms. The poetry
slam is a contemporary competitive type of poetry performance. In poetry slams, the
poets must select not only the right words but the right actions to convey their message.
Members of the audience judge the poets on the content of their poetry and their
Musical Arts
The study of music in its cultural setting is known as ethnomusicology. Ethnomusicologists work
closely with anthropologists to study the role and meaning of music in different cultures. Music
takes different forms in different cultures, so what some people consider beautiful others may
find strange and cacophonous. The anthropologist tries to decipher what is communicated in
music and the ways listeners experience it.
Performance Arts
Performance arts combine a number of art forms into a presentation. Music, dance, and the
visual and verbal arts may all be brought together. Opera is an example of performance art in
Western culture. The gamelan of Indonesia, including the music, dance, costuming, and retelling
of the legends of the Ramayana and other epic stories, is another example of rich performance
Functions of Art
One reason anthropologists study art is that it reflects a society's values and concerns. From
these outward expressions, whether it be stories, songs, pictures, or even films and television,
anthropologists can learn how people understand themselves and perceive others.
Art Reflects the Social Structure
Particularly in a hierarchical society, art can be used to reinforce the social order. Architecture,
poetry, song, story, and other art forms can legitimate the source of a ruler's or government's
power, and support the structure of society.
Think about it:
The totem poles of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest are carved with symbols that
reflect the hierarchy of their society. These poles stand outside the homes of chiefs. What
artistic symbols in your life reflect and support the way your society is structured?
Art Expresses Cultural Themes and Affirms Social Identity
Because art emerges from a shared culture, it presents themes and values that group members
recognize and respond to. The arts make cultural themes visible. By reiterating the values of the
group, art can enhance the sense of belonging.
Think about it:
Music can powerfully draw people together, whether by age groups, ethnicity, or religion.
Think about the music you enjoy. What does it say about who you are? How does this
music differ from the music your parents enjoyed? What music do you have in common?
What music binds you to others?
Although the arts are important for expressing the social structure and people's identity, they
can also give voice to the views and needs of oppressed and marginalized peoples. Folktales and
legends may ridicule or challenge the existing order and through allegory show possible
Think about it:
Br'er Rabbit was a trickster, a clever hero in African-American stories from the South
before and after the Civil War. Through his cleverness, he could outthink and confuse the
more powerful folks around him. He would appear to be small and weak, but his clever wit
always saved the day. Br'er Rabbit stories showed how to overcome an unjust system. As
the American social system has changed, with more open protest now possible, Br'er
Rabbit folk tales have faded.
What African-American stories have supplanted the trickster, Br'er Rabbit? What message
is conveyed?
Performance art presentations also reflect the values and concerns of society. Anthropologist
Clifford Geertz (1973) coined the term deep play to refer to the messages that come from
performances such as sports or games where participants join together. His classic work focused
on the Balinese cockfight, which reflected values of good and evil, beast versus man. Betting and
winning expressed social hierarchy.
Think about it:
In Spain, bullfighting is not seen as violent or cruel. Because the bullfighter cannot show
signs of anger or aggression, bullfighting is considered a beautiful ritual. The killing of the
bull is done with grace, courage, and skill. When facing the bull, the matador does not
initiate violence. The bull is the one who is angry and wild. The matador is calm and
controlled. He is the master of himself and of the situation. The bullfight is a performance
whereby man transcends the aggression of animal nature to show the perfection of
elegance, poise, and honor (Nanda and Warms 2007:420).
What are the deep-play messages of performance events in your culture?
Art adds beauty and pleasure to everyday living. However, it serves additional functions that,
when studied, help us understand cultures. Art reveals a people's worldview and a culture's
standards for behavior. It reflects a culture's customs and values. All arts can be created for
religious purposes, to honor a sacred being or an ancestral spirit. Any art form can support the
cohesiveness of the society from which it comes and can also reveal political themes and
influence social change. The arts support cultural identity by linking people to each other and
with their past. Art helps us interpret real events.
Campbell, Joseph. 1968. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Carneiro, Robert. 1970. A Theory of the Origin of the State. Science 169:733–738.
Childe, V. Gordon. 1936. Man Makes Himself. London: Watts.
Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1958 [1937]. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. Oxford:
Clarendon Press.
Ferraro, Gary. 2006. Cultural Anthropology: An Applied Perspective. 6th edition. Belmont, CA:
Geertz, Clifford. 1973. Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight. In The Interpretation of
Cultures. Clifford Geertz , ed. Pp. 412–453. New York: Basic Books.
Haviland, William A., Harald E. L. Prins, Dana Walrath, and Bunny McBride. 2005. Cultural
Anthropology: The Human Challenge. Belmont, CA: Thomson-Wadsworth.
Nanda, Serena, and Richard L. Warms. 2007. Cultural Anthropology. 9th edition. Belmont, CA:
Stirling, Bruce. 1997. Macumba. Electronic document,, accessed August 8, 2006.
Tylor, Edward B. 1958 [1871]. Origins of Culture. Reprinted. New York: Harper & Row.
Van Gennep, Arnold. 1960. The Rites of Passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wittfogal, Karl. 1957. Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. New Haven, CT:
Yale University Press.
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Module 5: Culture Change and Globalization
1. Cultural Change
2. Globalization
1. Cultural Change
Why Culture Changes
It is through culture that we humans are able to adapt to changes in our environment. Our
cultural institutions of religion, kinship, and marriage and political and economic organization
come together in an integrated way that forms stability for us.
Archaeologists have shown that some cultures have remained stable, in much the same form, for
a thousand years. Change may come through the physical environment such as climate changes
or through changes in economics, politics, or religion. In any case, it is our culture that enables
us to adapt.
Cultures in fact, are constantly adapting and changing but not necessarily at the same rate.
Change may be gradual without affecting a culture's foundation. Other times, change may be
sudden and so dramatic the society is destabilized and even destroyed. Over the past centuries,
the most important source of cultural change has been the development of a world economic
system that has brought about invasions, revolutions, and diseases.
How Cultures Change
The source of change, whether small or large, may come from outside or inside a culture.
Anthropologists identify three main types of change: innovation, diffusion, and acculturation.
Innovation is something new that is developed within a culture. With diffusion, change occurs
when something is received from another group. Acculturation happens when members of
society are exposed firsthand to another culture and adopt characteristics of that culture. Change
may result in cultural loss whereby an existing practice is abandoned in the process. However,
change may also incorporate new ways in with the old to create modified or hybrid customs.
Innovation occurs when group members invent or discover something that others accept. A new
object or a new way of thinking or behaving may be invented. When innovations are truly new,
they are termed primary innovations. Primary innovations may be something discovered or
created. They may be ideas or things. Secondary innovations are deliberate applications or
modifications of something previously known.
Think about it:
The making of pottery may have been a secondary innovation, based upon the use of clay
in ovens and in housing, which were primary innovations. Before pottery, people used
baskets, stone bowls, and leather bags for containers, as in Southwest Asia, nearly nine
thousand years ago. The people of this region were familiar with clay, having used it in
their housing and ovens for cooking. Building on this basic knowledge of clay, at some
time people began to mold clay into containers, and then to specifically fire it in ovens.
The earliest known pottery resembled earlier containers of leather and stone. Only later
did potters start to develop shapes and decorations that were particularly suited to the
clay vessels themselves (Haviland et al. 2005:397).
What innovations in your life are built upon, and resemble, previous innovations?
Some innovations happen by chance. Many innovations call upon creativity and ingenuity. All
innovations, even primary ones, arise in an existing cultural context of ideas, customs, and
The movement of ideas, customs, and practices from one culture to the next is known as
diffusion or cultural borrowing. Diffusion can come about by trade, travel, and warfare. Cultures
are creative in their borrowing, picking and choosing what fits and what they desire.
Anthropologist Ralph Linton (1937) suggested that most of any culture's content comes through
diffusion, including many aspects that Americans take for granted in their daily life. Some
examples of diffusion are pajamas (of East Indian origins), beds (built following a pattern from
either Persia or Asia Minor), soap (invented by the ancient Gauls), boots (from rubber discovered
by the ancient Mexicans), and umbrellas (invented in India) (Nanda and Warms 2007:108).
Even the most remote society has some network connections to other societies, so throughout
our human history there has been constant interchange.
Think about it:
The Columbian Exchange refers to the diffusion of plants and animals from the New World
(North and South America) to Europe and thence to Africa. Many of the foods we take for
granted in our life, come from crops domesticated (invented) by the peoples of the New
World before the arrival of Europeans in 1492. The Irish potato, on which the people of
Ireland became totally dependent, came originally from South America. Tomatoes, so
much a part of Italian cuisine, also came from the New World.
Foods from avocados to zucchinis originated in the New World. Other such foods included
beans, cashews, chili peppers, chocolate, corn, cassava (manioc), papaya, pecans,
peanuts, pineapples, pumpkins, sunflowers, sweet potatoes, and vanilla. Tobacco also
originated in the New World and was then spread throughout the globe.
In the opposite direction came the horse, introduced by early Spanish settlers. The horse
spread throughout the North American plains and was adopted by the Native Americans.
Cattle were also first introduced by the Spanish. Important crops such as oranges,
bananas, sugar cane, and wheat were introduced by Europeans into the Americas.
Describe what your personal cuisine would be like without the diffusion of foodstuffs
around the world.
Borrowed items may undergo modification to fit with cultural ideas. For example, American
football had its origins in British rugby. However, its rules were modified, and the game took on
a different meaning in its new context, becoming a central icon of American culture.
The blending of borrowed items with traditional features to form a new system, is known as
syncretism. We encountered religious syncretism in module 4 in the discussion of Candomble,
which incorporates elements of Catholicism and African religions into the new form.
Cultures may also resist diffusion. Even though ideas coming from outside may be beneficial,
people may choose to stay with old, familiar ways of doing things. For example, the United
States is one of the last nations to retain the old English system of weights and measures. Even
though using a base of 10 (rather than 12) is easier to deal with mathematically, Americans
prefer to think in terms of miles, rather than kilometers, and pounds and gallons, rather than
kilograms and liters.
Acculturation is the process of cultural change that happens with firsthand contact between a
culture and a more powerful group. Whereas diffusion usually involved changes in individual
items or groups of items, acculturation involves a widespread reorganization of an entire culture
over a short period of time. The dominant culture may change because of the contact, but the
subordinate culture experiences much more dramatic change, to the point it could even become
extinct. Acculturation is usually forced, at least to some degree, although anthropologists debate
the extent to which people are willing participants in the process of change.
Repressive change occurs when people are forced to adapt, rather than making changes
voluntarily. Repressive change occurs along a continuum from acculturation, where people are
expected to conform to the ways of the dominant group, all the way to genocide, where whole
groups of people are killed. In the twentieth century, we have a number of horrific examples of
genocide. In Nazi Germany, in the 1940s, Jews, gypsies, and other nonconformists were
systematically killed. In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia slaughtered millions of
citizens; similarly government forces in Guatemala and factional parties in Rwanda murdered
masses of people.
Think about it:
Social scientists have discovered that when genocide occurs, religion, economics, and
politics work together. For example, in nineteenth-century Tasmania, British wool growers
wanted the land for their sheep. The government supported these economic interests
through military action and offered bounties for the capture of indigenous Tasmanians
living on the land. Settlers hunted and killed native people as sport. Atrocities were
committed against the Tasmanians who were seen, by the Europeans, as little more than
animals. Missionaries' attempts to save souls further undermined the native culture by
forcing Tasmanians to adopt Western ways. The result was total annihilation of the
Tasmanian people and their culture. The last Tasmanian died in 1876.
Consider genocide during your lifetime. What role did religion, economics, and politics play
in allowing it to happen?
Less extreme than repressive change is directed change, where the dominant group intentionally
disrupts traditional structures. Colonial governments, wishing to control people and resources,
and sometimes with good intentions, may force indigenous people into new practices.
Think about it:
The Ju/'hoansi, also known as the !Kung san, are a foraging group in the Kalahari Desert
of southern Africa. Their life of hunting and gathering has been well documented by
anthropologists. Richard B. Lee, who showed that even living in the harsh, marginal lands
of the desert, the !Kung made a comfortable living, working only 20 hours/week. Efforts
by the Botswana government to encourage cattle grazing, land privatization, and the
establishment of schools, medical clinics, and food distribution have all contributed to a
radical change in the lives of Ju/'hoansi. Health, nutrition, and family problems have
In Namibia, forced settlement of Ju/'hoansi has led to deadly alcoholism and increased
homicides (Lee 2003).
Consider the changes in lifestyle that occur when cultures change from nomadic hunting
and gathering to a sedentary or settled way of life based on herding and raising crops.
Reactions to change also cover a wide continuum and take many forms. Some people respond by
avoiding the stronger power by moving away, possibly to inhospitable areas. Others have
assimilated the new ways into the old ways through syncretism. Revitalization movements,
discussed in module 4, are another reaction to change coming from outside the culture.
Rebellion, or armed resistance to authority, may break out when discontent reaches a high level.
Rebellions generally have fairly limited objectives, for example, expressing anger against unfair
taxes. Revolutions, on the other hand, make radical changes to culture and society.
Why have cultures changed to the point that there are now very rich societies and very poor
ones? Modernization is the concept that wealth comes from being modernized and that if poor
people from underdeveloped nations can change to be like people in Western societies, they will
be wealthy and strong. Modernity encompasses the technological and sociocultural systems of
industrialized nations. In this view, foreign aid from wealthy countries will enable
underdeveloped countries to become more modern, less impoverished, and thus better off.
Modernization theory assumes that some groups are crippled by their cultures, values, material
possessions, and behaviors. Outdated traditions are blamed for the disparity in wealth between
Western countries and others.
World systems theory (e.g., Wallerstein 1997) maintains that disparities between rich and poor
nations are not based on cultural differences but on the relationship of peoples to the world
economic system. According to this theory, cultures do not differ fundamentally, but rather they
differ in wealth depending on how they operate in the world system. Wealthy nations are wealthy
because they exploit poorer nations for their material resources and cheap labor. The colonial
nations of Europe, beginning in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, carved up the
continents of Africa, South America, Asia, and the islands of the Pacific and used the wealth of
these regions to enrich their own society.
Think about it:
Modernization theory assumes some cultures are "modern" and some are not, and this
accounts for disparities in wealth. World systems theory holds that universal processes
operate across all cultures to create "haves" and "have nots."
Based on what you have learned about culture and anthropology, what do you think
anthropologists would say about these two ways of understanding global economic
circumstances? To what extent is ethnocentrism a factor in these two models?
Although colonialism per se has more or less ended, the maintenance of the gap between rich
and poor countries is upheld by those multinational corporations that take advantage of the lessdeveloped countries for their natural resources and inexpensive labor.
2. Globalization
Anthropologists and the Future
Culture is the main means by which people respond to and change their environments. For most
of human history, however, people had to adapt only to their local environments. Now what
happens across the globe affects how we live and, increasingly, even whether we live. In turn,
what one does locally affects others globally. Our "local" environment is now global, and the
consequences of many of our individual beliefs and behaviors have global consequences.
Think about it:
Can you remember what life was like without computers, the Internet, and cell phones?
Since the Industrial Revolution, most Westerners are accustomed to relatively rapid
change, yet even Westerners can sometimes feel their lives are "spinning out of control"
when coping with the enormous changes of the last 50 or 60 years and their speed.
What do you think are the effects of rapid change on others who until recently led very
traditional lives and used relatively simple technologies?
As we have learned in previous modules, cultural responses and changes may be adaptive or
maladaptive. They may increase people's "fitness" for their environments and promote wellbeing, or they can doom them to failure.
It is the job of cultural anthropologists to document and make sense of these changes and
consequences. They spend hours listening to people, looking at what they are doing, and
learning about their lives. Anthropology is the only discipline that draws on historical, biological,
linguistic, and cultural perspectives in addressing human problems. It is the only discipline that
deals with the totality of what it is to be human. Most importantly, anthropology asks, What does
this phenomenon mean to someone else? How do others experience and understand it?
Though anthropologists cannot precisely predict the directions of cultural change, because of
these disciplinary strengths, they are able to see patterns and trends and predict likely
consequences if these patterns and trends continue. They can detect interconnections that may
not be apparent to scholars in disciplines that are less holistic, less historical, and less
comparative. Anthropologists are thus particularly well-positioned to help promote adaptive
responses and warn others of harmful trends.
Major Cultural Trends
Three major trends operate in the world today. The first is globalization, the process in which the
world is becoming more connected, integrated, and homogenized. Globalization began 500 years
ago with Columbus's voyage. This voyage initiated a global trade network connecting every
person in the world either directly or indirectly and bringing them under European influence if not
actual colonization.
The globalization process took a giant leap forward after World War II as people were exposed to
new places and ideas during the war, transportation improved so people traveled in greater
numbers, corporations began to market their products globally, and a global economy emerged.
This economy is based on production for sale rather than for subsistence. The economic system
is ruled by the profit motive and neoliberal notions of "free trade" with no tariffs and no
restrictions on manufacturing. The system is characterized by global corporations that are often
outside the control of any state or world entity. They can move their operations freely around the
globe seeking and creating conditions favorable to maximizing profits. Individuals, in contrast,
cannot move freely around the globe seeking to maximize their own profits, but are severely
constricted by states through immigration laws and policies.
Globalization has led to some cultural homogenization because both Westerners and nonWesterners have adopted each other's products, technologies, ideas, and behaviors. For
example, Asian Indians wear jeans and eat at McDonald's, but Americans also practice yoga and
devour curries. People everywhere also are exposed to mass media, and they communicate with
each other and find information on the Internet. However, most of this homogenization is
Western-oriented because of the allure of Western culture to many and the great wealth and
power wielded by Western nations and corporations. Western ideas, values, and products are
promoted through advertising and other public relations activities that are often supported by
Western governments (Wolf 1999; Hertz 2001).
Think about it:
Find pictures of modern cities anywhere in the world on the Web. What are the similarities
among them? What are the differences? Is it sometimes difficult to guess where each city
is located?
Resistance to Globalization
Many of the effects of globalization are beneficial (at least in the short term) or enjoyable to
many world citizens. Additionally, multiple states are uniting through organizations such as the
European Union or initiatives such as the North American Free Trade Agreement to better
compete in the world marketplace. Many predict that soon everyone will think and behave in
similar ways. A second major trend, however, is resistance to globalization. Many groups of
people resist homogenization and unification by asserting their own distinctive cultural identities,
and many resist the capitalism and the consumerism it stimulates and facilitates. Although the
Internet promotes homogenization, it is also a vehicle for dissent and resistance. Sadly, one
consequence of this resistance can be increased violence, death, and destruction when some
groups see violence as their only viable resistance strategy.
Think about it:
Chechen rebels have fought Russia for many years. Though Russian leaders characterize
the rebels as Islamic terrorists, most observers think their cause is rooted in nationalism
and ethnic identity rather than religion.
What is the advantage to Russia of portraying the Chechen rebellion as "Islamic" terrorism
rather than ethnic or nationalistic terrorism? Why do you think many states are breaking
apart rather than coming together? Why do some groups think they must use violence to
achieve their ends and why do others think they must counter violence with more
Perception of Environmental Degradation
A third trend is the perception shared by many that globalization and the consumerism that
accompanies it are destroying our physical environment. According to these people, we are
consuming our natural resources at an unsustainable rate, we are overwhelming our planet with
waste, and we are poisoning our environment with pollution. For example, as the demand for
products such as coffee and chocolate increases, farmers who formerly grew crops for their own
family's use may be replaced by large-scale commercial farming operations. These
agribusinesses use industrial farming methods such as toxic pesticides and fertilizers to increase
production and meet the demand for these products.
Some maintain that these practices and increasing industrialization to meet other consumer
demands are irreversibly harming the earth. According to one botanist, Peter Raven, if everyone
consumed as much as Americans, it would take three planet Earths to sustain the world's
population (quoted in Haviland 2005:450).
Think about it:
Often elites in less-developed countries or areas are enticed to allow corporations to dump
waste, including highly toxic or radioactive waste, in areas populated by the powerless.
How do people justify these practices? What culturally constructed assumptions and
attitudes underlie these justifications?
The differential effects of waste disposal are just one example of how globalization affects
different people differently. Although relatively few enjoy incredible wealth in the modern world
and even many middle-class Westerners have lifestyles of comfort that would stun their
grandparents, most of the world's people live in dire poverty. Billions have little or no hope of
improving their material conditions. Even members of the "comfortable" Western middle class
may experience insecurity as jobs are outsourced to other countries, and the "social safety nets"
and energy supplies that fuel our lives are threatened. Many fear that their children or
grandchildren will have much more difficult lives and that personal control over the conditions of
life is decreasing. Additionally, all, rich and poor alike, are vulnerable to the violence that so
often results from ethnic or religious tensions within and among nations and the social injustice
endemic to every country regardless of its development.
In addition to differences in material well-being within affluent countries, wide disparities exist
between residents of wealthy countries and residents of poor countries. According to the 2005
United Nations Human Development Report, "…the space between countries is marked by deep
and, in some cases, widening inequalities in income and life chances. One-fifth of humanity lives
in countries where many people think nothing of spending $2 a day on a cappuccino. Another
fifth of humanity survive on less than $1 a day and live in countries where children die for want
of a simple anti-mosquito bednet" (United Nations Development Program 2005:3).
Workers justifiably fear that if they organize for better wages and working conditions,
corporations that value their obligations to shareholders more highly than obligations to their
employees will move their operations to other countries. Workers who can no longer support
their families in traditional ways are grateful for employment, are willing to work cheaply, and
will not demand humane conditions. Women and children living in countries without protections
against abuse may particularly suffer from this practice. Some Western consumers, lured by low
prices, may be unaware of or fail to consider the effects of their buying habits on the lives of the
world's poor.
Think about it:
Multinational corporations are free to employ the cheapest labor they can find nearly
everywhere in the world. Workers, on the other hand, are constrained from selling their
labor at the highest price by nations' immigration laws and policies. What do you think
would be the consequences if workers were able to move freely about the world in the
same way corporations move freely?
Anthropology and a Viable Future for Humanity
The Challenges of Globalization
Although many enjoy foreign travel, exotic foods and other products, communication with people
from around the world, and all the other blessings of an interconnected world, globalization is a
mixed blessing for most and a disaster for many. Challenges we face include poverty, violence,
disease, emotional discontent, and environmental degradation.
Whereas some enjoy the best health and longest life spans in human experience, others' lives
are "brutish and short," to quote Thomas Hobbes. Ironically, both hunger and obesity endanger
many, and both result at least in part from corporate power and practices. Shifts from
subsistence to cash economies have left many malnourished. Climate change, desertification,
and soil erosion resulting from industrialization have turned much fertile land into wasteland.
Forests that provided well for people for millennia now feed cattle whose meat is shipped to
wealthy nations. Populations have exploded, and many cannot feed themselves.
If feeding the hungry masses of the world were profitable, corporations would do it; because it is
not, they do not. On the other hand, "supersizing" portions, processing the nutrients out of food,
convincing people to buy these foods, and workers' sedentary labor are all extremely profitable,
and so Americans' waistlines grow as do the health problems that accompany obesity.
An interconnected world means that diseases once confined to localities can spread across the
globe and threaten billions. AIDS is a prime example, but other threats are emerging as well. For
example, infectious disease specialists know that sooner or later a strain of influenza—perhaps
the strain of avian flu we are seeing currently—will evolve the ability to pass from human to
human and ignite a global pandemic.
Another challenge we face is the loss of cultural and biological diversity. For example, indigenous
peoples possess accumulated wisdom that humanity may one day need. We could learn from
those who have lived in sustainable ways for thousands of years. We could learn about
alternative crops, alternative medicines, and simple yet effective technologies. We could learn to
think in other, perhaps more adaptive ways. We could learn other ways to live meaningful and
satisfying lives by maintaining cultural diversity as well as the biological diversity that sustains
many people.
Think about it:
What do you think are some of the culturally constructed ideas that underlie the
consumption behaviors of Westerners and, increasingly, others? What new ideas do you
think people would need to adopt to change these behaviors to sustainable practices?
What Anthropology Offers
Understanding diversity, illuminating the ethnocentric ideas and behaviors that divide people,
and promoting understanding among diverse peoples is what anthropologists do. We live with
difference in a culturally pluralistic world and culturally pluralistic localities. Many in the United
States have moved from thinking of the country as a "melting pot" in which people blend and
lose their distinctive identities to a culturally pluralistic "salad" model in which people retain their
Anthropologists, however, can help move humanity from cultural pluralism to a multicultural
model. Multiculturalism implies more than mere co-existence and more than mere tolerance; it
implies understanding, respect, and enjoyment of difference. By helping us to better understand
ourselves and each other, what we offer each other, and the consequences of dangerous trends,
anthropologists can encourage the cooperative aspects of human nature. Humanity then has a
better chance to meet the challenges we face.
Haviland, William A., Harald E. L. Prins, Dana Walrath, and Bunny McBride. 2005. Cultural
Anthropology: The Human Challenge. Belmont, CA: Thomson-Wadsworth.
Hertz, Noreena. 2001. The Silent Takeover: Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy. New
York: Arrow Books.
Lee, Richard B. 2003. The Dobe Ju/'hoansi. 3rd edition. Singapore: Thomson Learning, Inc.
Nanda, Serena, and Richard L. Warms. 2007. Cultural Anthropology. 9th edition. Belmont, CA:
United Nations Development Program. 2005. Human Development Report 2005., accessed August 28, 2006.
Wolf, Eric. 1999. Envisioning Power: Ideologies of Dominance and Crisis. Berkeley: University of
California Press.
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