What Is Cultural Anthropology Essay Example

There are many fields of study that focus on human beings, or aspects of their lives and culture only one studies humans in their entirety. Humanity as a so subject can be approached and understood from many different angles, it can be difficult to understand why anthropology is special in its regard to understanding humans. So, what is anthropology? What is it that makes anthropology, especially cultural anthropology different from other fields of study? 

Anthropology “...studies people in all their cultural, social, and biological complexity” (1), there are four subfields. There is biological anthropology, where the study of humans and nonhuman hominids takes place; archaeology where ancient humans and their lives are studied; linguistic anthropology where languages are studied and compared to each other; and cultural anthropology. To understand cultural anthropology, first there must be an understanding of culture.


One of the biggest differences between humans and other non human animals is culture. Culture, a seemingly simple word, has had many debates over its meaning. Generally, the most agreed upon definition by anthropologists is that culture is the “...complex whole…[that is] the total  socially acquired ...[way of life] of a group of people” (Cultural Anthropology, 12).  This includes how and what people eat, their methods of food production, their consumerism and exchange norms, their language, how and what they wear and many other aspects of everyday life that become second nature to a person of a given society. In so, cultural anthropology, specifically, is “...the study of contemporary people and their...learned and shared behaviours and beliefs” (5).

It wasn’t until the mid to late nineteenth century that anthropology was officially recognized as a field of study. Before that, going back thousands of years, it had existed in fragments and observations about other cultures some scholar may have happened to cross paths with, but never by the name cultural anthropology. It was after Charles Darwin’s discovery of the principles of evolution that anthropology itself was able to gather a following, as it gave a tactile, scientific backing to the origin of man. This was important for early anthropologists because from there they could create a model of the evolution of civilization and culture. This wasn’t necessarily an accurate depiction of culture, at least from modern standards, and shows some of the dilemmas that anthropologists have had to face.

Looking back, the early anthropologists believed in functionalism, the belief that “...a culture is similar to a biological organism…” (7), and so can and will evolve into a more sophisticated culture over time. This was because anthropologists looked at cultures through the lens of their own individual culture, comparing the other culture by standards not their own. This in and of itself is ethnocentrism, a concept that modern anthropologists have abandoned in favor of cultural relativism, This is the concept that cultures must be understood by the values of that culture, not by the standards of another. It is also important to point out that “...there is no distinctive “comparative method” in anthropology” (Lewis, 259), cultures aren’t judged as better or worse than each other. Another anthropological dilemma seen, still to this day, is biological determinism versus cultural constructionism, which is essentially the nature versus nurture concept. That is the question of if biological factors shape behavior or if learning does.

Learning and research

Learning and research are some of the main components of cultural anthropology. Over time the research methods have changed, bringing the researcher away from libraries and out into the physical world. Modern anthropologists do fieldwork to achieve their goals. They, after selecting a research topic, conduct rigorous preparatory research on their intended subject, learning the language and other aspects of the culture from previous studies and reports. They then can prepare for the field by obtaining grants, choosing a specific site, getting permission of the subject to study them. Only after all of these steps have been fulfilled can the anthropologist begin a type of participant observation. They will live within the community, as one of the community, for an extended period of time, studying every aspect of the culture and performing interviews and surveys, so as to obtain the best possible understanding of how and why the people do what they do. But this process can bring up ethical questions as well.

There are many points where studying people can cause ethical dilemmas. Most scientific fields don’t have to deal directly with the human component. Though anthropology was established in the nineteenth century they did not establish an official code of ethics until the 1970s. Prior to that time anthropologists were used by various governments to study cultures so that the information collected could be used to influence foreign governments and sway war efforts. This was especially seen during “...Project Camelot...to strengthen U.S. interests” (Cultural Anthropology, 73) in South America, and during the Vietnam War. Anthropologists are ethically bound to do no harm to humans through their research. Furthermore, they are generally expected to maintain the human rights of the society they seek to study by obtaining informed consent to study those peoples as well as being as collaborative and respectful as possible.

So, why do anthropologists go through all this? The research, the ethical dilemmas, the potential danger involved in going to far off places? The answer is simple. They are trying to answer questions. They want to know the whys and hows of humanity. They want to figure out what all humans share and the vast diversities that separate societies so distinctly. They aren’t just curious though. There is an even deeper purpose behind these questions, besides academic curiosity. Anthropologists are trying to accomplish a goal through the understanding of many cultures. This goal is how to help people. Anthropologists want to help societies, especially their own, in overcoming problems. By comparing the problems of one society to another, who doesn’t suffer from that problem an anthropologist may be able to figure out how to neutralize that problem in their own society. 

And now the final question, is a medical doctor an anthropologist? They study everything about the physical human body and the illnesses, ailments and injuries that can affect them. While they study a major component of humanity, they still do not study the whole of humanity as a subject. They do not study linguistics or art or food production. They do not study all of the aspects of culture that make humans human. This is where the major difference lies between most subjects and anthropology.  Anthropology uses stark scientific method to study the hows and whys of human beings as a whole. As simple as it seems, to study humans, there are many intricacies involved in cultural anthropology. From its birth only a few hundred years ago, anthropology has gone through trials and tribulations to be recognized as a true science, to find its ethical foreground and to ultimately find ways to help and care for the human race.

Work Citation

Lewis, Oscar. “Comparisons in Cultural Anthropology.” Yearbook of Anthropology, 1955, pp. 259–292. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3031150.

Miller, Barbara D. Cultural Anthropology. Vol. 8, Pearson, 2017.

Unknown. “College of Liberal Arts.” University of Massachusetts Boston, 2019, www.umb.edu/academics/cla/anthropology.



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