The Basics Culture Anthropology

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The Basics





  • The word anthropology means the study of humankind (see Culture Counts).

  • It is a holistic science, meaning that anthropologists look at the whole of what it means to be human.

  • Some of what it means to be human is biological.

  • Much of being human is learned, or cultural.

  • Because anthropology is the only science that looks at the whole of what it means to be human, it is broken into sub disciplines or specializations, physical or biological anthropology, archaeology, linguistic anthropology, and cultural anthropology.

  • Anthropologists of various sub disciplines work together to answer questions about what it means to be human.


Physical or biological anthropologists study human biology within the framework of genetic changes in populations over time … or evolution. Some biological anthropologists are paleoanthropologists who study human ancestors. Some biological anthropologists are primatologists who study nonhuman primates (prosiminas, monkeys, and apes). Forensic anthropology is also a sub discipline of biological anthropology. This is an applied work dealing with legal matters. Forensic anthropologists work with coroners and other legal representatives in analyzing and identifying human remains.


Archaeologists study earlier cultures and life ways. They find and recover material remains of past cultures. They analyze and interpret those remains. Their sources of information are artifacts, ecofacts, and features, but some archeologists are ethnohistorians. They ask living people about history, old stories, and what is known in the present about people’s pasts.


Linguistic anthropology is the study of human speech and language.

Linguistic anthropologists work out the origins of human speech, when hominids began to have the physiology to begin articulating various sounds and when their brains began to allow them language memory, creation, and function. Linguistic anthropologists also study how languages influence people’s worldview and perception, as well as how languages change. Linguistic anthropologists can compare languages to discover relationships between them and find language origins.

Studying culture and language is essential to understanding humans because without language there can be no complex culture. Without culture there can be no language. Being human is intricately bound up in language.


Cultural anthropology is the “description and explanation of the similarities and differences in thought and behavior among groups of humans.” It is also “the interpretation and appreciation of other peoples’ ways of life” (Omohundro 2008: 6). 


In this class we are most concerned with culture, although biology, archaeology, and linguistics help inform our understanding of culture.


There are many definitions of culture. We will focus in on the definition in your text book, but in the meantime, here are a few examples of other definitions. What do they have in common?


1) Culture is the learned, shared understandings among a group of people about how to behave and what everything means.


2) Culture:  is a shared, learned, symbolic system of values, beliefs and attitudes that shapes and influences perception and behavior -- an abstract "mental blueprint" or "mental code."

Culture must be studied "indirectly" by studying behavior, customs, material culture (artifacts, tools, technology), language, etc.

1)  Learned.   Process of learning one's culture is called  enculturation.

2)  Shared by the members of a society.  No "culture of  one."

3)  Patterned.  People in a society live and think in ways  that form definite patterns.

4)  Mutually constructed through a constant process of social interaction.

5)  Symbolic.   Culture, language and thought are based on symbols and symbolic meanings.

6)  Arbitrary.   Not based on "natural laws" external to humans, but created by humans according to the "whims" of the society.  Example: standards of beauty.

7)  Internalized.   Habitual.   Taken-for-granted.    Perceived as "natural."



•      Anthropology looks at people as part of groups.

•      Anthropology has always looked at and compared cultures.

•      Sociology for a long time looked at human behavior primarily from the point of view of Western society.


People often ask how cultural anthropology differs from sociology. While the two disciplines are more similar now than they used to be, they evolved from different theoretical, methodological and subject perspectives. Anthropologists have always looked at cultures all over the world. Sociologists for a long time looked primarily at western cultures. Sociological theories arose from examining western issues and concerns. Often those theories are less effective tools for interpreting human life in non-western cultures. Anthropology is also holistic in that anthropologists examine everything about being human. Sociologists have tended to focus on social systems. North American social institutions, including our educational institutions, have long relied on sociology and psychology without incorporating the knowledge and perspective of anthropologists into decision making processes.





One definition –

•      Culture is the acquired knowledge that people use to interpret their world and generate

    social behavior.



•      We understand culture because we pick it up through the interactions we have with other people throughout childhood until we die. (We are enculturated)


•      Rarely do people give us formal lessons about culture because most of culture is taken for granted.


  • We learn who we can touch in certain circumstances and who to avoid touching.

  • We learn how long to look someone in the eye in various contexts and when to look away.

  • We learn in some cultures that it is fine for men to hold hands and walk with arms around each other, while in other cultures people learn that men should not hold hands while walking down the street.

  • Almost everything we do is ‘governed’ by cultural rules that have become common sense to us. When we compare our ‘common sense’ with another culture’s ‘common sense’, we can begin to wonder why we do the things we do.


Elevator behavior?

What are the cultural expectations for how to behave in an elevator, for example?

How did you learn these rules?

What happens when someone breaks these rules?


I had a sociologist friend years back who would ‘experiment’ on people to alleviate her own job-related stress. One day she and another friend drew circles on the floor of an elevator and as people came into the elevator, she told them which circle to occupy. She wanted to see how they would react. They nearly always did what she said. Why, I wonder?


Sociologists often use ethnomethodology as a way to identify social rules. Ethnomethodology involves tweaking or breaking a social rule to see people’s reactions. Anthropologists rarely use this method. Anthropologists try to understand people in actual, everyday circumstances through long-term observation and discussion rather than through experimentation. Still, it’s interesting to see how people react when something unexpected happens that challenges social boundaries.

(See video links)


The main thing to consider here is that culture is learned and much of it is not formally taught. We seem to come to know through observation and through other people’s reactions to each other and us. This is called enculturation. The process of learning and acquiring culture is enculturation.


Culture is always shared


One person cannot make a culture. Culture is a shared experience. In the United States people share, to various degrees, what is often called ‘mainstream’ culture. ‘Mainstream’ means that there are certain cultural norms that are broadly shared, but not universally shared. However, the United States is made up of many sub cultures, cultural regions, and ideological differences so that there is no one definition of what it means to be ‘American’.


Mainstream culture is shared in different degrees.


Sources of variation include, but are not limited to:

Sex and gender




Etc. etc.


•      In subcultures people may share specialized knowledge or have in common shared ideologies.


We all belong to several sub cultures. “A subculture is that particular mix of shared understandings held by groups within a larger society” (Omohundro 2008: 31). Subcultures may be distinguished through dress, language, religion, work habits, foods, etc. etc.


College students might be considered part of a subculture. A hundred years ago college subculture was especially distinctive because in the United States there were fewer people able to attend college and those who did were mostly wealthy and mostly male. Even now, college students share ‘rituals’, habits, knowledge etc. that coincide with college as a behavioral setting.



Symbolic – (arbitrary)

•      There is no biological requirement for what we do in culture.

•      Humans make it up.

•      As in language, a word is a symbol because it stands for something else. We share knowledge about what the word stands for.

•       Culture is similarly symbolic.


Everything about culture is symbolic. Our behaviors, clothing, tools, jobs, etc. etc. all reflect deeper cultural meanings. Language is how we communicate culture and everything about language is symbolic. A word is a combination of sounds that stand for something. We share the knowledge about what that word means. Clothing is like language. We read clothes. Our reading of clothes depends on our shared understanding of what clothing means and that shared understanding is cultural.



Men’s Suits?


What do suits mean to us?

Why? Why this color, style, material, etc.? Who decided what suits mean?

Why do suit jacket sleeves have a certain number of buttons for decoration?

Why is it proper to have keep the bottom button of a suit jacket open?

Why does the fit of a suit indicate the status of a man?

Where did all of these expectations come from and how have they become ‘common sense’?


Our symbols and the meanings of our symbols are arbitrary. We were not born knowing them. They are not biological. They were created over time. The fact that other cultures have different symbols and different meanings informs us about the arbitrary nature of symbols.


There are universal behaviors. All humans must get and eat food. All human groups that survive procreate and have babies. All human groups educate their young to become adults. However, the ways that people accomplish these basic necessities, and the symbolic/cultural meanings attributed to them, differ from group to group.



Culture is dependent on symbols

Culture is based on the human ability to create symbols.


Symbol: something that represents something else with which it is not intrinsically related



Culture is integrated

•      Integration is the tendency for all aspects of culture to be interrelated with the whole.

 •      Automobiles, for example, are not just for getting from place to place.  We read a great deal into cars.


Automobiles are an example of cultural integration. They are integrated within our economic and political systems, as well as within our religious and even artistic endeavors.

To think about how one aspect of culture is integrated with everything else, consider what cars mean to us.

(Wealth? Status? Individualism? Other?)

Can we live without using automobiles in our society? What parts of our lives, if any, have nothing to do with automobiles?

 Even car designs influence and reflect culture and cultural expressions, and they do so differently from culture group to culture group.

For example:

While most North Americans give little consideration to the facial characteristics of automobile grilles, many people in Japan do notice. According to U.S. car specialists such as Gerald Hirshberg, design vice president of the San Diego Nissan studio, 1991, “When Westerners conjure up an image of a car, it’s a side view. With the Japanese it’s the front. The Japanese read personality and expression into the ‘face’ of the car” (1991: Armstrong).

Tom Matano, BMW car designer, discussing the cultural preferences and perceptions of automobile design, said that when Japanese drivers park their cars at home, the nose faces the street so that city drivers see block after block of parked car faces. Conversely, Americans park with the tail to the street. “Japan’s crowded streets make it difficult for a complete vehicle to be seen.” (2003: Sawyer). In the U.S., people often park parallel to the street. Crowding and spatial parking practices are one part of Japanese awareness of the facial expressions of cars and American unawareness.

Although most American drivers apparently are unconcerned with the faces on cars and trucks, U.S., European and other designers have long referred to front grilles with facial metaphors.

I’ll read some recent examples:

  • About the A4 Audi: “The face and the trunk need to show that there is a very powerful engine behind there.”  (Shahmanesh-Banks 2004: 24)

  • About the X-Type Jaguar: “The company said: ‘what face should we put on it? It couldn’t look like the S-Type as it’s too polarized, so it had to look like the more generic one, and this is how it got its face.” (Shahmanesh-Banks 2004: 16) 

  • Peter Horbury, executive director of design for Ford Premium Auto Group, said that design images reflect preference of regional cultures and have to be adjusted with regions in mind. “When we designed a truck for the Chinese when I was at MGA, we put the front screen glass down as far as we could. The client-the Chinese government-didn’t like it. The face of the vehicle had Western proportions. Raising the base of the windshield-which lessened the area occupied by its “eyes”-made an immediate difference.” 2003: Sawyer).

  • About the B9 Tribeca Subaru. “The raised upper lip of the grille and the downward slope at the corners of the grille’s mouth bring to mind words like bitter and snarly,” said Daniel Hill, president of Sensory Logic, a marketing firm that interprets facial expressions for corporate clients.

  • About the Audi A8, Hill equated the height of its grille with supremacy and authority, while its open-mouth appearance suggested fear and surprise. (Patton 2005: 10).

Culture is integrated. This means that culture is a set of connected elements so that if you change one of them, you change the others.





Culture is moral

•      Every social system is a moral order


•      Every social system includes shared values that glue the group or community together


•      Shared values give people a sense of being a member of a community


•      The moral nature of culture is part of adaptation and survival, but it also contributes to conflict and destruction


As we learn culture, we learn what is right or wrong, good or bad according to the beliefs or ideologies of the people with whom we share culture. What is right or wrong, good or bad may be different from culture to culture. However different, the moral aspects of culture are often deep. We cannot easily let go of our beliefs about right and wrong, and that is true of other people as well.

 While the moral nature of culture provides cohesiveness and makes living together possible, it is also the source of great conflict between groups whose moral beliefs differ.


 Culture is limit setting

•      When we push cultural limits, we are bound to feel discomfort.

 •      We will likely be “punished” in some way by those around us who are staying within the limits.

 All day we experience pressure to conform to cultural expectations. We likely don’t think much about all the hundreds of cultural expectations we are constantly adhering to. We are more aware when we fail to conform and feel the discomfort that comes with crossing a social boundary. We may even be punished in some way, even if it only includes strange looks, frowns, being the subject of gossip, or loss of privileges.


I found a picture on the internet of a man wearning a brown shoe on one foot and a black shoe on the other. He realized he was wearning mismatched shoes only after he was nearly finished with his work day. When he looked down and realized what he had done, he was embarrassed. Embarrassment is an indicator that a social/cultural boundary has been crossed in some way.  We could ask why our culture finds it amuzing when people wear mismatched shoes. How has it come to be a 'rule' that shoes should match?


Culture is always changing

•      Sometimes change is very slow, sometimes very fast.


•      Part of change is adaptation.


•      When something in the environment changes, when subcultures push for change, cultures change.


While cultures always change, sometimes the change is slow and sometimes it is fast. Sometimes culture change is voluntary, through inventions and borrowing. Sometimes it is involuntary, as in war or colonial expansion.

In the 21st century, economic globalization is influencing great change throughout the world. Some people assume that globalization means that cultures will become like each other, or homogenous. Anthropologists are discovering that people everywhere interpret and perform changes differently within the contexts of their own cultural ideologies and practices. Culture remains at the center of human events.



Culture can be both adaptive and maladaptive

Not everything humans learn to do is adaptive.


•       For example cars are adaptive and maladaptive.

 •       Highways are a destruction of the landscape.

 •       Sprawl is a result of car transportation.

 •       Global climate change  

•       Maladaptive aspects of culture lead to change.


Sometimes practices that were adaptive and positive become maladaptive, meaning that they have a detrimental effect on human lives.

 Dependence on cars and oil has become maladaptive. At one time car transportation was a positive adaptation.

 Can you think of other examples of cultural adaptations that over time became maladapative?

 When practices and beliefs become maladapative cultures have the choice of changing or dying.



In sum, “culture is a set of principles for creating dramas for writing script and, of course, for recruiting players and audiences. Culture is not simply a cognitive map that people acquire, in whole or in part, more or less accurately, and then learn to read. People are not just map-readers; they are map makers. People are cast out into imperfectly charted, continually revised sketch maps. Culture does not provide a cognitive map, but rather a set of principles for map making and navigation. Different cultures are like different schools of navigation to cope with different terrains and seas.”



Blog exercise 1.1

Embarrassment is an emotion that we can read in others and realize in ourselves. Embarrassment is a clue that someone perceives that a cultural limit has been crossed.

In this exercise, think of an event when you observed embarrassment or were embarrassed yourself. Describe the event. Describe how others reacted. Identify the cultural limit that was crossed. Consider how discomfort and certain kinds of behaviors served to guide people toward conforming to social rules, no matter how small.



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