The first class of “Intro to Anthropology 2020” began with the first part of “Viewing the World” in the Muckle and González textbook Through the Lens of Anthropology. For a 2021 update, see “what it means to be human” using the textbook Anthropology: What does it mean to be human?
This class concentrated on the basics of “What is Anthropology?” as providing a perspective on the world. The next class finished this chapter and concentrated on “Why is Anthropology Important?” We revisited the themes from this class when reading the Tim Ingold chapter on “Similarity and Difference” in Anthropology: Why It Matters.
What is Anthropology?
Many students sign up for an anthropology course in order to meet a requirement, or maybe just because it looks interesting. Anthropology is perhaps the least well-known academic discipline. So what is anthropology?
Anthropology, broken into its root form Anthrop + ology is the study or science of people or humans or humanity. For Muckle and González anthropology is simply the “study of humans” (5). Muckle and González point out that anthropology provides a framework. It is a “way of understanding how humans came, and continue, to be” (2). Muckle and González emphasize the “lens of anthropology” as a perspective for “viewing the world.”
As we delve deeper into anthropology, it turns out that the anthropological perspective can be quite unsettling. In the words of Tim Ingold, who we read to conclude the course: “Anthropology doesn’t tell you what you want to know; it unsettles the foundations of what you knew already” (107). We can see how that unsettling works when we turn to the subject of anthropology. Anthropology may be the study of humans, but who are humans?
As Muckle and González describe, “human has a distinct meaning in anthropology and may be used in ways that are unfamiliar” (5). Wait, what? It’s already unsettling. Basically for some anthropologists humans might include
- all in the family Homininae going back about about seven million years ago to bipedalism; or
- those in the genus Homo, back to around two million years ago with creatures who are gathering-and-hunting tool users and who would more physically resemble modern humans; or
- only the species Homo sapiens at around 300,000 years ago with a more recognizable mosaic of physical and cultural traits.
Although anthropologists might disagree on when to begin calling creatures “human,” there are some arrogant definitions of human that anthropologists definitely reject:
- We reject that humans are limited to what are sometimes called early modern humans, or the humans coming into Europe around 30,000 years ago.
- We reject the idea that humanity begins with agriculture or the farming humans of 12,000 years ago (see for example ideas about agriculture which posit that gatherers and hunters were not fully human).
- We reject ideas that humans are limited to contemporary humans or to a particular group of people in today’s world.
With regard to the final point about rejecting the idea that only a particular group of people in today’s world should be considered human, anthropologists insist that culture is the primary explanation for human differences. That is to say, just because other people are doing things differently, it does not make them not human, it makes them differently human, as part of our learned behavior as human beings. Muckle and González use a very matter-of-fact definition of culture: Things people think, things people do, things people have (6). Those things are learned. And it is important to state from the beginning that culture is “dynamic, fluid, and ever-changing” (Muckle and González, 7).
There have been lots of anthropological debates about the idea of culture–see Culture, Culture, Everywhere for example. And as a parallel to the debates about what time period we should start using the term human, anthropologists have debated around what epoch culture begins.
In short, when does culture happen? Does it happen
- with Homininae since walking is a learned behavior? (This is a controversial proposition, as most people consider bipedalism to be more of a biological given than a product of cultural learning. However, see Bipedalism is also called Walking for a defense of the cultural learning approach)
- with Homo, back around two million years ago when we find clear evidence of stone tools? (Most anthropologists agree that tool use is when we can clearly see culture, as we’ll discuss with our first archaeology class on tools.)
- with Homo sapiens at around 300,000 years ago when we see lots and lots of learned behavior incorporated into the repertoire? (Although most anthropologists would probably push the date of “culture” much earlier than Homo sapiens, here we see a suite of behaviors that can be more clearly distinguished from the non-human primate tool use we see in primatology.)
Like with the term “human,” anthropologists might disagree on when to begin calling behavior “cultural.” That said, there are some arrogant definitions of culture that anthropologists definitely reject:
- We reject that culture begins only with early modern humans and the cave paintings found in contemporary Europe. Homo sapiens were doing rock art and other cultural activities in many parts of the world long before those cave paintings. (And some of that cave art was probably made by Neanderthals!)
- We reject the idea that agri-culture is also the beginning of culture. Hunting-and-gathering societies have varied and complex cultural formations.
- We reject ideas that culture is limited to a particular group of people. For anthropology, everyone has culture–culture is how we become human. (We talk a bit more about the radical implications of the idea of culture in the next class, and especially in our class on Race and Culture that begins our cultural anthropology unit.)
Muckle and González emphasize that anthropology is holistic, focusing on linkages among what some consider to be different spheres of social life. Anthropology is comparative, studying across different societies and also through time. Studying anthropology therefore involves studying evolution, which simply means change over time. Although anthropologists can be very quantitative, many anthropologists prioritize qualitative data as they attempt to figure out how people make sense or make meaning of their lives. Uncovering these aspects of social life means anthropology is a field-based discipline. As we will see more in later classes, anthropologists do fieldwork and participant-observation.
Muckle and González describe anthropology in North America as emerging from a “four fields” approach:
- Biological Anthropology, formerly called physical anthropology and including primatology.
- Cultural Anthropology, also called Social Anthropology, or Sociocultural Anthropology. (For my most current course devoted to cultural anthropology, see Cultural Anthropology 2020.)
- Linguistic Anthropology.
For Muckle and González, any field of anthropology has a potentially applied or practical application. In this textbook, they use two themes to apply anthropology and cross-cut all the material we will be studying. Those themes are Food and Sustainability. The textbook does feature a specific chapter on Food-Getting and on Sustainability, but these themes pop up throughout the textbook.
Founding Issues of Anthropology
One of the founding issues of anthropology was to compare human similarities or universals with human differences and particularities. In some ways, human universals and similarities–what we seem most to share–are also what make us most different and particular (Muckle and González, 2).
One commonality among many human societies is to be “ethnocentric,” or to consider our own ways of doing things to be the only natural, human way to do things. To counter this common ethnocentrism, anthropologists proposed “cultural relativism” which Muckle and González briefly introduce here. This basically means to consider what people are doing in its own context before passing judgement on those ideas or behaviors. Cultural relativism is not equivalent to philosophical relativism or moral relativism–it is a means for understanding, not of automatic acceptance. Nevertheless, it should prompt us toward a perspective of tolerance.
Cultural relativism is not just about others. In the end, as Matthew Engelke puts it in How to Think Like an Anthropologist, “cultural relativism is critical self-awareness” (in Muckle and González, 14).