Anthropology’s Changing Perspectives on Human Diversity

In Through the Lens of Anthropology we read the second part of chapter 1, “Introduction: Viewing the World.” The lecture summary focuses on anthropology’s changing perspectives on human diversity:

This was for Intro to Anthro 2022 after discussing What is Anthropology?. Next we read about how We Are Primates.

Anthropology’s Changing Perspectives on Human Diversity

Early Anthropology & Unilinear Cultural Evolution

The birth of anthropology in the late 19th century marked the beginning of a long journey in understanding human diversity. Initially, anthropology’s perspective on human diversity was heavily influenced by theories of unilinear cultural evolution, most famously articulated in Lewis Henry Morgan’s 1877 book Ancient Society. This theory posited all societies on a single line of progress from “savagery” through “barbarism” to “civilization.”

Anthropology, with its subfields of physical anthropology (now biological anthropology) and archaeology, was called upon to account for supposed differences between human groups. These early perspectives on human diversity, now recognized as Eurocentric and racist, were used to justify existing colonial relationships and the oppression of Indigenous peoples.

Franz Boas & the Challenge to Determinism

Franz Boas, considered the founder of academic anthropology in the United States, challenged these deterministic ideas, marking a significant shift in anthropology’s perspective on human diversity. Through his studies of immigrants, he demonstrated that physical characteristics could change within a generation due to environmental factors, undermining the concept of fixed racial categories.

Cultural Relativism & Its Implications

As anthropology’s perspective on human diversity evolved, it introduced the idea of cultural relativism. This concept was revolutionary in its time, challenging the prevailing ethnocentric views that dominated Western thought. Ruth Benedict, one of Boas’s students, famously stated that the purpose of anthropology is “to make the world safe for human differences,” positioning anthropology as an advocate for human diversity.

Problematic Aspects of Early Anthropology

Despite these progressive shifts, early anthropology had its problematic aspects. One such practice was “salvage ethnography,” where anthropologists rushed to document cultures they believed were disappearing. While well-intentioned, this approach often involved the collection of artifacts and even human remains, raising ethical concerns that continue to shape anthropology’s perspective on human diversity today.

Missed Opportunities for Deeper Anti-Racism

While Franz Boas made significant strides in challenging racial determinism, his approach racism had its limitations. This becomes apparent when we consider his relationships with two prominent Black intellectuals of his time: W.E.B. Du Bois and Zora Neale Hurston.

W.E.B. Du Bois, a sociologist and civil rights activist, conducted groundbreaking ethnographic work in Philadelphia and elsewhere. Despite their occasional interactions and mutual respect, Boas never fully embraced Du Bois’s more radical anti-racist stance.

Similarly, Zora Neale Hurston, a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, worked closely with Boas and conducted anthropological fieldwork in the American South. Her works like Their Eyes Were Watching God and the anthropologically influenced Mules and Men are now considered classics. However, despite Boas’s support, Hurston was never fully accepted into the academic anthropological community.

These relationships highlight a missed opportunity for anthropology to align itself more closely with the fight against systemic racism. While Boas and his students were progressive for their time in challenging biological determinism, they stopped short of the more comprehensive anti-racist stances advocated by Black scholars and activists. This limitation in Boasian anthropology’s perspective on human diversity would have long-lasting effects on the discipline’s engagement with issues of race and inequality.

Contemporary Anthropology’s Role in Media & Society

Anthropologist Hugh Gusterson provides a critical analysis of how anthropology’s changing perspectives on human diversity are perceived and used in popular media and broader society. He argues that anthropologists are often typecast as experts on the exotic or the primitive – what he calls “the fluffy bits” of culture. This pigeonholing fails to recognize the discipline’s potential contributions to understanding complex global issues and human diversity. (See also Anthropology and the Savage Slot for related reflections.)

The Need for Diversity & Decolonization in Anthropology

Recognizing the field’s problematic history, there’s a growing call for increased diversity within anthropology and a commitment to decolonizing its practices. These efforts represent the latest shift in anthropology’s perspective on human diversity, aiming to dismantle historic and ongoing systemic oppression of Indigenous peoples.

Interestingly, despite these efforts, some scholars have noted a “whitening” of anthropology since the 1990s. This trend, where the field became less diverse rather than more, highlights the ongoing challenges in truly diversifying the discipline and broadening its perspectives on human diversity.

As we move forward, anthropology’s changing perspectives on human diversity remain central to the field. They challenge us to rethink not just how we conduct research, but also how we teach anthropology, how we present findings to the public, and how we can use anthropological insights to address global challenges in an ethical and inclusive manner. The journey of anthropology, from its problematic origins to its current efforts at reform, reflects a continuous reevaluation of how we understand and respect human diversity.

Recap: Anthropology’s Changing Perspectives on Human Diversity

In Through the Lens of Anthropology we read the second part of chapter 1, “Introduction: Viewing the World.” The lecture summary focuses on anthropology’s changing perspectives on human diversity:

This was for Intro to Anthro 2022 after discussing What is Anthropology?. Next we read about how We Are Primates.


Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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