Enculturation & Fieldwork

For this Intro to Anthropology 2020 class on enculturation, cultural relativism, and fieldwork, we read:

  • Muckle and González chapter 8, “Studying Culture” in Through the Lens of Anthropology (note: link is to the 3rd edition, but page numbers and quotes for this class are to the 2nd edition).
  • Meredith Small, “Our Babies, Ourselves.” Natural History (1997).

This material was for Intro to Anthro 2020.

Culture & Colonialism Recap

First, a bit of a re-cap from the previous class on race and culture. Basically, around 1500AD or 500 years ago, there was an enormous diversity and complexity of societies around the world. All the political organizations and economic organizations we documented in our unit on Archaeology could be seen throughout the world. At that time, a number of formerly peripheral European places turn into global empires, setting up global trade networks and new hierarchies, eventually resulting in systems of colonization and enslavement. By about 200 years ago, European explanations for human difference tended to naturalize and justify those hierarchies, explaining human difference in terms of racial determinism (Muckle and González, 181). Culture, as reimagined by anthropology, eventually spoke against naturalizing hierarchies by race or social group.


In contrast to prevalent racial ideas that others were inherently inferior or primitive, anthropologists posited that other people were experts, intelligent, and had interesting patterns exhibited in

These are exactly the topics we cover in this part of Intro-to-Anthropology.

Anthropology’s radical claim is that people learn those patterns. Moreover, as anthropologists, or simply as curious human beings, we can learn about these patterns by doing fieldwork.

Fieldwork for anthropology is when we “live with another group of people for an extended period” (Muckle and González, 191). One of the main methods of anthropological fieldwork is known as Participant Observation (Muckle and González, 192).

As a way of understanding fieldwork and participant observation, check out this video on “Doing Anthropology” made by MIT anthropologists (2008):

Interestingly, note the appearance by anthropologist Heather Paxson, who also appears in the Muckle and González chapter (194).

Ideally fieldwork reinforces the main points of the culture concept and helps us with cultural relativism (Muckle and González, 185-86). Through fieldwork, we discover patterns of human life, in their own terms and context. We find that these patterns are learned, variable and transmitted. Previous ideas of racial determinism become untenable.

Cultural Relativism & Enculturation

The Meredith Small article “Our Babies, Ourselves” is an ideal way to illustrate both cultural relativism and enculturation, or how we learn culture. Small’s article deals with parenting practices and shows how different they can be around the world (see student comment below). Interestingly, Small shows us how others can be ethnocentric as well: “The Gusii mothers were appalled. . . . These American women, the Gusii concluded are clearly incompetent mothers” (LeVine, 1 in Small).

I particularly like how Small draws examples not just from very far away others, but from Dutch practices as well, demonstrating that they can have biological differences in sleep time (see student comment below).

One of the main points of Small’s article is to stand against ethnocentric child-rearing, and it features sections by anthropologists on

  • Holding, attention to crying, versus scheduling (Barr, 4)
  • Feeding: How, when to wean (Dettwyler, 5)
  • Sleep and how co-sleeping can regulate breathing (McKenna, 6)

A main point is that child-rearing expresses and inculcates values. Our US American methods are often seen as promoting independence–see for example the section on Dependence and Independence training in Muckle and González (190). Of course, we might ask if our methods actually produce independence.

One big take away from the article is that humans are born “neurologically unfinished” (Small, 4; see student comment below). Our heart rates and breathing are social from the beginning, and our natural brain development takes place during a period of intense nurture. Anthropological holism therefore questions any nature/nurture dichotomy. There is no human nature outside of particular history and nurture. There is no baseline parenting pattern apart from our long histories occupying diverse environments.

Culture Caveats

The idea of culture has been a relatively revolutionary concept introduced by anthropology from approximately 100 years ago. But unlike 100 years ago, when very few people thought about culture in this way, now almost everyone has heard the term culture and many people like to explain things as “well, that’s just their culture.” This popular use of the word culture has at times led to problematic ideas and interpretations. In this section, I wish to outline three caveats or qualifications to how we would prefer to use culture anthropologically.

1. Does cultural relativism mean: “Anything Goes”?

As we discussed back when we first talked about the idea of cultural relativism, cultural relativism is a means to understand how and why people do things. Before we pass any judgments, we want to understand (as much as possible) from an insider perspective. However, that does not mean we will ultimately agree with everything people do.

For Muckle and González, we can see cultural traits as both adaptive and maladaptive (187). One of their primary examples is the controversial practice of FGM or Female Genital Mutilation, which they classify as maladaptive (188). Of course, we should immediately recognize that there are many practices in our own society which can be seen as maladaptive–Muckle and González mention artificial tanning beds (188). We might reflect–what are some practices that US Americans do that an outsider might say, “Why do they do that? Why don’t they just stop?”

The main point here is that cultural relativism is a means to understand, not necessarily approve. Sometimes cultural relativism and understanding should result in encouraging change.

Here is another example: Although Meredith Small’s article discusses multiple cultural practices, we might wonder whether high fertility rates and some childcare practices might be a sign of inequality and lack of access to resources, not just a cultural thing (see Tronick in Small, 3; if you are interested, see my blog-post on Childcare, Culture, and Power).

2. How much variation is there in any culture?

One of the consequences of the popular use of the term culture is that people tend to think of culture as a kind of determining framework. It cannot be stressed enough:

  • There is always variation within any culture. All cultures are heterogeneous! (Muckle and González, 177)
  • Culture is always changing!
  • Cultures do not have fixed-and-forever boundaries. People are always interacting, talking to others, sharing and borrowing.

In this sense, I think that sometimes Muckle and González can be a bit broad with their characterizations, such as the idea of Dependence and Independence training discussed above. There are PLENTY of people in the US who vary from the supposed norms of childcare!

3. Can we just say “ethnicity” and call it a day?

As several students mentioned in their comments on the previous class, ethnicity can be a much better term than race to discuss human difference (Muckle and González, 184). Ethnicity can be a term used to indicate a cultural group, stressing shared and learned behavior.

However, we need to be careful not to adopt an overly simplistic idea of ethnicity. If our idea of ethnicity means we think of the group as homogeneous (not heterogeneous), static (not changing), and with fixed boundaries… Well, then we’ve just changed made a word change, but kept our previous ideas about race. We are then using the word “culture” or “ethnicity” as a euphemism for race (I’ve written about this in a blog-post titled When Culture Looks Like Race).

So it is important to understand that although we perhaps have come a long way in the past 100 years, racism, prejudice, and discrimination are real, and they have real effects (see Muckle and González, 182-183). Simply swapping the terms around (ethnicity instead of race) is not enough: we need to radically shift our ideas and practices.

Of course, this brings up the relationship between language, thought, and behavior, which we examine in our next class on Language.