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Cultural Anthropology: Unveiling the Study of Human Culture

What is Culture?

Offering a precise definition of culture can prove to be an arduous task to accomplish. For decades scholars have been struggling in the attempt to imprint the meaning of one of the most ambiguous terms in the English language (Williams, 1985) into evoking formulations. An example of this never-ending struggle is evident in the work of two American anthropologists, Clyde Kluckhohn and Alfred Kroeber, who, in the early 1950s, counted no less than 164 definitions of the word, all quite similar but each with additional nuances. The reason for this abundance in conceptualizations stems from the equally plentiful ways in which anthropologists have been studying culture, with some emphasizing its material aspects, such as tools, clothing, and technologies, while others focusing on intangible qualities, for instance, belief systems, values and customs of daily life (Brown et al., 2020).

Figure 1: Illustration of a multicultural group standing together (Slater, 2017).

In light of its elusive and multifaceted nature, in their tenth edition of the popular book Humanity: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, eminent American anthropologists, Peoples and Bailey (2014), attempt to frame the term into the following formulation: "The culture of a group consists of shared, socially learned knowledge and patterns of behavior” (23). However, a paragraph later, the authors do not refrain from unveiling the problematic and reductive implications that even the most universally accepted definition hides. The term “shared”, to begin with, despite recognizing culture as a collective phenomenon, fosters the assumption that all individuals within a culture think or behave identically (Peoples & Bailey, 2014). On the contrary, factors such as age, gender, social status, and geography –among many others– frequently lead to variation within pre-existing systems of culture (Peoples & Bailey, 2014). Moreover, cultural elements are not monoliths, in that they can pass from one group to another through the process described as cultural diffusion, which makes sometimes the distinction between cultural systems very hard to establish (Peoples & Bailey, 2014). In the following passage, the author of Small Places, Larger Issues. An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology (2010), Thomas H. Eriksen, exemplifies this “enigmatic” feature of culture:

On the one hand, every human is equally cultural; in this sense, the term refers to a basic similarity within humanity. On the other hand, people have acquired different abilities, notions, etc., and are thereby different because of culture. Culture refers, in other words, both to basic similarities and to systematic differences between humans (16).

Moving to the term “learned”, it correctly suggests that individuals are not already born with a specific culture, but rather, it is something progressively mastered by means of observation and imitation. This process, called enculturation, allows infants to acquire the culture of their social group thanks to the instruction of parents and peers from a very young age (Rosman et al., 2009). However, once again the term must be contextualized. Saying that all Africans are "born with rhythm", for example, or that Northerners are "innately cold and introverted" because it is what their culture entitles, is extremely reductive and problematic (Eriksen, 2004). Although it is true that ”particular social milieux stimulate inborn potentials for rhythmicity, while others encourage the ability to think abstractly“ (Eriksen, 2004, p. 10-11), these differences are, by no means, inborn and therefore, must not be expected in every single individual belonging to a certain cultural group. The reason why, stems from humans’ capacity to conform, neglect, or transform culture, which makes nobody irrevocably bound by their culture (Rosman et al., 2009). In light of this, what scholars mean by "culture is learned", is that it is not acquired genetically but rather gained as individuals grow within a specific group.

Figure 2: "Tamalada", artwork that illustrates the process of enculturation (Lomas Garza, 1990).

In conclusion, as eloquently stated in the work of brilliant anthropologists N. Brown, T. McIlwraith, L. Tubelle de González (2020) in “Perspectives: An Open Introduction to Cultural Anthropology”, culture is the “air we breathe” (6), in that it provides us sustenance and security. From birth, it encompasses both tangible components of our lives such as institutions and material artifacts, as well as intangible elements including customs, beliefs, and ideas. This immense complexity among human cultures presents a formidable task in comprehending and appreciating them. Thankfully, anthropology equips us with the necessary tools to tackle this challenge, enabling us to gain insights into the richness and complexity of the cultures that shape our world and thus, ourselves.

What is Anthropology?

Coming from the Greek words "Anthropos" meaning humans, and "logos" meaning study, anthropology can be defined as the study of what it means to be human. Ranging from the biology and evolutionary history of Homo Sapiens to the intricacies of society and culture, like kinships and religions, anthropology seeks to address profound questions such as: why is there such linguistic diversity, and to what extent do languages differ? Are there any shared elements among all religions? What are the various forms of governance, and how do they operate? What are the universal characteristics of human beings? And, most significantly, what defines human beings as a species on Earth? (Brown et al., 2020).

Due to its extensive field, anthropology is commonly categorized into four main subfields: cultural anthropology, archaeology, biological anthropology, and linguistic anthropology, each providing a multifaceted and organic understanding of the human condition. It is important to note, however, that the structure of anthropology varies across different parts of the world. In the United Kingdom and many European countries, cultural anthropology is referred to as social or socio-cultural anthropology, while archaeology, biological anthropology, and linguistic anthropology are often treated as separate disciplines. Meanwhile in Mexico, for example, anthropology focuses predominantly on the cultural and indigenous heritage within the nation rather than comparative research (Brown et al., 2020). For practical reasons, this series will mainly adopt the approach in organizing anthropology common in the United States and Canada, if not stated otherwise, that includes:

Figure 3: "The Four Fields of Anthropology" in the U.S. (Scupin, 2013).
  • Archaeology, which examines the historical past of cultures, analyzes their ancient remains, and artifacts, so as to provide insights into human history, cultural evolution, and the interaction between different groups and their environments from the very beginning of times;

  • Physical Anthropology, also known as Biological Anthropology, investigates the human body as a biological organism by focusing on genetics, evolution, human ancestry, primates, and adaptability. With the emergence of "new" physical anthropology, developed by Sherwood Washburn at the University of California, the field underwent a notable transformation, marking a significant departure from the older concept of "physical anthropology." This shift occurred when researchers discovered that physical traits, which were previously relied upon for racial classification, proved inadequate in predicting other important attributes such as intelligence and morality. (Mikels-Carrasco, 2010);

  • Linguistics studies language and its connection to culture. It examines human languages, their functioning, creation, evolution, demise, and revival. In this regard, linguistic anthropologists strive to understand language in relation to broader cultural, historical, or biological contexts. It includes analyzing linguistic aspects of communication, such as verbal contact, as well as non-linguistic elements like body movements, eye contact, and cultural context;

  • Cultural Anthropology focuses on studying the diverse cultures of humans and how those cultures are shaped by or shape the world around them - a topic that will be further explored in the final section of this article.

  • Applied Anthropology can be defined as the practical application of anthropological knowledge, theories, and methodologies to address real-world issues and solve practical problems. Applied anthropologists often work collaboratively with various stakeholders, such as government agencies, NGOs, and community organizations, to develop culturally sensitive and context-specific solutions to social, cultural, economic, and environmental challenges (Peoples & Bailey, 2014).

Scientific Vs Humanistic Approaches

In exploring the realm of anthropological sub-disciplines, it must be noted that there is no unified consensus among anthropologists regarding their areas of study or research methodologies, which is reflected in the contrasting approaches employed when it comes to biological anthropology, archaeology, cultural anthropology, and linguistic anthropology. On the one hand, sub-fields like biological anthropology and archaeology adhere to a deductive and scientific approach. These branches formulate hypotheses and rigorously test them using material evidence such as bones, tools, seeds, and other archaeological artifacts (Brown et al., 2020). Precisely through the analysis of these tangible remains, they seek answers about human origins, evolution, and past civilizations (Brown et al., 2020). On the other hand, sub-disciplines like cultural anthropology and linguistic anthropology embrace more humanistic and inductive methodologies (Brown et al., 2020). They focus on the collection and analysis of nonmaterial data, such as observations of everyday life and language in use (Brown et al., 2020). Rather than relying solely on quantitative data, these branches explore the nuances and complexities of human culture, often emphasizing narratives and interpretations of meaning (Brown et al., 2020).

This divergence in methodologies has occasionally led to tension between the scientific subfields and the humanistic ones within the field of anthropology (Brown et al., 2020). In 2010, for instance, cultural anthropologists raised concerns about the mission statement of the American Anthropological Association, which claimed anthropology to be "the science that studies humankind in all its aspects"(Wade, 2010). Some scholars advocated replacing the word "science" with "public understanding" to acknowledge the diverse approaches within the field, arguing that not all anthropologists adhere strictly to the scientific method and that alternative modes of inquiry, focusing on narratives and interpretations, also hold value (Brown et al, 2020). After extensive debate, the word "science" ultimately remained in the mission statement, and, thereby, anthropology continues to be predominantly categorized as a social science in the United States (Brown et al., 2020).

Figure 4: Illustration showing the contrast between the scientific method & the humanistic perspective (Nicolas Ogonosky, 2016).

Nevertheless, it was important to recognize the ongoing dialogue and tension surrounding the diverse methodologies employed within the field, highlighting the broader spectrum of approaches that exist. This dynamic landscape within anthropology invites us to appreciate the richness of different methodological approaches and the insights they offer into understanding humankind in all its complexities.

Holism & Comparison

Another feature of anthropology that allows for a 360-degree understanding of humankind is its holistic perspective, which recognizes not only the interconnectedness of various aspects of human life but also the influences each aspect has on the other (Eriksen, 2017). To truly understand the human experience, in fact, anthropology requires considering the broader context and related factors such as complex histories, languages, bodies, and societies in their entirety rather than focusing on isolated elements (Brown et al., 2020). For instance, cultural anthropologists investigating the meaning of marriage in an Indian village would consider factors such as local gender norms, family networks, legal regulations, religious customs, and economic influences (Brown et al., 2020). Likewise, a biological anthropologist studying monkeys in South America would analyze physical adaptations, foraging patterns, ecological conditions, and human interactions to gain insights into social behaviors (Brown et al., 2020).

In their book, the brilliant group of scholars Rosman, Rubel, and Weisgau (2009), explains the uniqueness of holistic methodology in uncovering the intricate complexities underlying biological, social, and cultural phenomena using an example:

An investigation into the peopling of the Pacific, that is, the migration of humans into Australia, New Guinea, and the Oceanic islands, demonstrated how all four subdisciplines may play a role in a research endeavor. The physical and linguistic differences of the people would be of significance in investigating how the different cultures of the areas were transformed through time. Archeology would show when people moved into these areas and how their cultures changes through time. Cultural anthropology examines the way in which migration and relative isolation bring about changes and cultural diversification (8).

Comparison is also another fundamental tool used by anthropologists across all subfields to explore commonalities, differences, and transformations in human societies. By employing comparative methodologies, anthropologists seek answers to questions concerning, for example, human-chimpanzee distinctions, language adaptations to new technologies, and diverse responses to immigration across countries (Brown et al., 2020). Unlike disciplines such as sociology or psychology that primarily compare individuals within a single society, anthropology extends its comparisons to encompass multiple societies and even other primate species (Brown et al., 2020). This is illustrated by the sub-field of cultural anthropology, for which comparisons are made within or between cultures, examining ideas, morals, practices, and social systems (Brown et al., 2020).

Figure 5: Illustration of holistic-based anthropology (CSS, 2022).

In essence, by utilizing holistic and comparative methods and perspectives, anthropologists are able to delve deeper into the intricacies of human societies and cultures, ultimately contributing to a broader understanding of human existence thanks to a set of methods and theoretical perspectives that empower practitioners to explore, compare, connect, and comprehend the various manifestations of the human condition.

Cultural Anthropology

In light of this brief excursus on culture and anthropology, it becomes clear that the scope of study of cultural anthropology is the intricate labyrinth of human cultures. Similar to anthropology, cultural anthropology is divided into specialized areas of study, including every cultural aspect of human life in existence, such as art, religion, kinship, economy, politics, and language –to name a few. Naturally, these subcategories are approached through a holistic and comparative lens, meaning, as we have already extensively observed, that the subject is studied emphasizing the interconnectedness of cultural elements within society and encouraging the examination of multiple cultures to gain broader insights into human behavior and social organization.

The discipline draws extensively from firsthand experiences in the field, which allows cultural anthropologists to develop a strong commitment to valuing and fostering cultural diversity. Ethnography, which will be taken into account later on in this series, is the most important tool of cultural research. This involves a series of methods such as participant observation, interviews, and collection of data which happens directly on the field. Moreover, they often study social groups different from their own, recognizing the fresh insights that can emerge when an outsider seeks to understand an insider's point of view via ethnographic research. In such ways, cultural anthropologists gain insights into the various cultural patterns and adaptations to changing circumstances in the world.

Universalism vs Relativism

Much of the work of cultural anthropologists has emerged from a recognition of and fascination with the interplay between the local –representing specific cultures– and the global –encompassing a universal human nature and the intricate network of connections between individuals in different contexts (Cunha, 2014). In other words, the focus of cultural anthropologists is the extent to which all humans, cultures, and societies share commonalities while also acknowledging the uniqueness of each, thus seeking to strike a balance between similarities and differences.

Figure 6: Illustration "Mythology" with symbols representing different cultures (Judie Anderson/Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., n.d).

For now, an example of how cultural anthropology seeks to explore and explain the intricate dynamics within specific cultural contexts with a universalist turn can be observed in the study conducted in the 1980s by American anthropologist Philippe Bourgois. The latter aimed to understand the persistence of extreme poverty among wealthy neighborhoods in the United States, and thus, immersed himself in the lives of Puerto Rican crack dealers in East Harlem, New York (Brown et al., 2020). There, he approached their experiences by considering both their specific historical background, including their Puerto Rican roots and migration to the U.S., and their present-day encounters with globally diffused social phenomena such as marginalization and institutional racism (Brown et al., 2020). Rather than assigning blame solely to the crack dealers for their perceived "poor choices" or holding society responsible for perpetuating inequality, through his universalistic and relativistic approach Bourgois argued for a more nuanced understanding (Brown et al., 2020). He emphasized that both individual choices and broader social structures can contribute to trapping people within the intertwined realms of drug use and poverty (Brown et al., 2020). In doing so, he unveiled the power of cultural anthropology, which is, to cite Norwegian anthropologist and professor at the University of Oslo, Thomas Hylland Eriksen (2017), “[to] make the contemporary world easier to understand, and perhaps, easier to make peace with” (4).

Figure 7: Photograph from the series "Righteous Dopefiend" (Bourgois, P. & J. Schonberg, 2009).

The fruitful debate between the universal and the particular within anthropology has sparked the emergence of enlightening perspectives. This ongoing discussion has given rise to significant developments in cultural anthropology, particularly in addressing the problem of ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism, defined as "the attitude that one's own group, ethnicity, or nationality is superior to others" (Merriam-Webster, n.d.), exemplifies the tension that has propelled positive changes both within and outside the field of anthropology, in that, over time, it has contributed to a greater appreciation for diverse cultures and a more global outlook, fostering a shift towards cultural understanding and harmony.

The Problem with Ethnocentrism

The study of human culture finds its roots in the "Age of Discovery," a period marked by European exploration and exploitation of new territories and their indigenous populations by the desire to establish social and political orders that would primarily benefit them (Rhodes, 2001). The growth of European empires, fueled by the discovery of new trade routes and the deplorable invention of the slave trade, brought about the disruption of previously independent cultures in the Old World, for which ethnocentrism played a significant role in imprinting the belief among Europeans of their cultural superiority over others (Rhodes, 2001). Unfortunately, the early development of anthropological practices reflected and supported precisely these ethnocentric attitudes (Rhodes, 2001). The discoveries of cultural anthropologists were, in fact, very frequently used to justify the subjugation and oppression of non-European societies, with unfounded claims of social and biological inferiority (Rhodes, 2001).

Figure 8: Cartoon "Les Curés et l'animaliste" - "The Priests and the animalist" (Siné, 2007).

This approach to the subject remained all and all unchallenged until 1890 when, famous American Anthropologist, Franz Boas put forward his argument that anthropology was suffering from an ethnocentric bias and prompted contemporary anthropologists to unlearn its practices and undertake the study of Culture without any added judgment (Eriksen, 2017). According to Boas, all cultures have their own reasons and unreason, logic, and superstitions and therefore, are all equal (Eriksen, 2017). In this regard, cultural relativism marked the first and most important step to minimizing prejudices and biases and, in turn, exercising scientific etiquette. Moreover, it fostered an understanding of different societies from within, in other words, without imposing external judgments, and it emphasized that societies should not be ranked on a scale based on external variables such as literacy or income, as these may not be relevant or valued within the culture being studied (Eriksen, 2017).

This digression into the historical context of anthropology was essential to fully understand the problematic foundations upon which the discipline was built and better appreciate the work of brilliant cultural anthropologists like the aforementioned Philippe Bourgois in trying to challenge and rectify the problematic legacies of ethnocentrism and colonialism within the field. Moreover, an ongoing reflection and engagement with the discipline's history serve as reminders of the imperative to approach the study of human culture with cultural sensitivity, respect for diversity, and a commitment to challenging power imbalances.

Why is Cultural Anthropology So Important?

Learning cultural anthropology holds immense significance in today's interconnected world as it offers a profound understanding of the diversity and complexity of human cultures, fostering appreciation and respect for different ways of life. This knowledge enables the development of cross-cultural competence, which is crucial in globalized societies and diverse communities. Cultural anthropology equips learners with valuable insights into social norms, values, and practices, shedding light on the historical, economic, and political factors that shape societies. It also encourages critical thinking, challenging assumptions, stereotypes, and biases that influence our perceptions of others. Furthermore, cultural anthropology cultivates empathy and intercultural communication skills, promoting cultural sensitivity and facilitating meaningful interactions across diverse contexts. Ultimately, by engaging with cultural anthropology, individuals contribute to building inclusive, tolerant, and harmonious societies by embracing the richness of human cultural diversity.

Figure 9: "Crowd on a Street at Coney Island" (Marsh, 1928).

In addition to its societal importance, studying cultural anthropology offers a wide range of career opportunities and valuable transferable skills. Anthropology prepares students for diverse fields such as medicine, museology, archaeology, education, international business, and filmmaking. The field nurtures skills in observation, analysis, critical thinking, effective communication, and problem-solving. It encourages a broad understanding of different cultures and perspectives, allowing individuals to see the world through diverse lenses. Anthropology challenges ethnocentrism and promotes the appreciation of different cultures, while also addressing the tension between universality and particularity. Its interdisciplinary nature and holistic perspective make it essential for comprehending complex global issues and navigating a rapidly changing world. Students of anthropology gain the tools to critically examine familiar topics, challenge biases, and understand the multifaceted nature of human existence.


In conclusion, this article has offered an introductory exploration of cultural anthropology, delving into its fundamental concepts and core principles. Initially, culture has been examined as a multifaceted phenomenon, encompassing both tangible and intangible aspects of human life. Subsequently, the reader is guided into the main field of anthropology, the study of humans in its entirety. In contrast to disciplines like sociology or psychology which primarily focus on comparing individuals within a single society, anthropology takes a broader approach by encompassing multiple societies and even other primate species in its comparisons (Brown et al., 2020).

At last, cultural anthropology, as a specialized subfield, focuses on unraveling the complexities of human cultures. It employs both quantitative and qualitative analysis to uncover cultural patterns and adaptations, while also embracing the tension between universality and particularity. The discipline actively challenges ethnocentrism and promotes cultural relativism, fostering an appreciation for the diverse range of cultures and perspectives that exist in the world. Studying cultural anthropology not only provides individuals with a deeper understanding of human cultures but also equips them with valuable transferable skills. It cultivates critical thinking, effective communication, and a profound appreciation for the complexities of different cultures and perspectives. Moreover, with its interdisciplinary nature and holistic perspective, anthropology is essential for comprehending global issues and navigating the ever-changing world we live in today.

Bibliographical References

Brown, N., McIlwraith, T., Tubelle de González, L. (2020). Perspectives: An open invitation to cultural anthropology. American Anthropological Association, 2nd Edition, 4–10. Retrieved from:

Cunha, M. (2014). The Ethnography of Prisons and Penal Confinement. Annual Review of Anthropology, (43)1, 217–233. DOI:

Eriksen, T. H. (2004). What is Anthropology? (2nd ed., 2017). Pluto Press, British Library Catalogue, 3–11 [PDF Ebook]. Retrieved from

Eriksen T. H. (2010). Small Places Large Issues: an Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology (3rd ed.). Pluto Press. 1–20 Retrieved from:

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Ethnocentrism. In dictionary. Retrieved July 17, 2023, from

Mikels-Carrasco, J. (2010). Teaching Human Primates: Education from an Evolutionary Perspective, the Contributions of Sherwood Washburn. General Anthropology, (17)1, 1–10 DOI:

Peoples, J., & Bailey, G. (1988). Humanity: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. (10th ed., 2014). Cengage Learning, 2–44 Retrieved from:

Rhodes, Lorna A. (2001). Toward an Anthropology of Prisons. Annual Review of Anthropology, (30)1, 65–83. DOI:

Rosman, A., Rubel, P. G., & Weisgrau, M. (1981). The Tapestry of Culture: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. (9th ed., 2009). AltaMira Press, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 1–15. Retrieved from:

Wade, N. (2010). "Anthropology Group drops ‘Science’ references, deepening a rift". The New York Times. Retrieved from:

Williams, R. (1976). Keywords. A vocabulary of culture and society. [Revised ed., 1985]. Oxford University Press, 12–24. Retrieved from:

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