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What Is Anthropology?
Anthropology is the study of humankind, especially of Homo sapiens, the biological species to which we human beings belong. It is the study of how our species evolved from more primitive organisms; it is also the study of how our species developed a mode of communication known as language and a mode of social life known as culture. It is the study of how culture evolved and diversified. And finally, it is the study of how culture, people, and nature Interact wherever human beings are found.
This book is an Introduction to general anthropology, which is an amalgam of four fields of study traditionally found within departments of anthropology at major universities. The four fields are cultural anthropology (sometimes called social anthropology), archaeology, anthropological linguistics, and physical anthropology. The collaborative effort of these four fields is needed in order to study our species in evolutionary perspective and in relation to diverse habitats and cultures.
Cultural anthropology deals with the description and analysis of the forms and styles of social life of past and present ages. Its subdiscipline, ethnography, systematically describes contemporary societies and cultures. Comparison of these descriptions provides the basis for hypotheses and theories about the causes of human lifestyles.
Archaeology adds a crucial dimension to this endeavor. By digging up the remains of cultures of past ages, archaeology studies sequences of social and cultural evolution under diverse natural and cultural conditions. In the quest for understanding the present-day characteristics of human existence, for validating or invalidating proposed theories of historical causation, the great temporal depth of the archaeological record is indispensable.
Anthropological linguistics provides another crucial perspective: the study of the totality of languages spoken by human beings. Linguistics attempts to reconstruct the historical changes that have led to the formation of individual languages and families of languages. More fundamentally, anthropological linguistics is concerned with the nature of language and Its functions and the way language Influences and is Influenced by other aspects of cultural life. Anthropological linguistics is concerned with the origin of language and the relationship between the evolution of language and the evolution of Homo sapiens. And finally, anthropological linguistics is concerned with the relationship between the evolution of languages and the evolution and differentiation of human cultures.
Physical anthropology grounds the work of the other anthropological fields in our animal origins and our genetically determined nature. Physical anthropology seeks to reconstruct the course of human evolution by studying the fossil remains of ancient human and infrahuman species. Physical anthropology seeks to describe the distribution of hereditary variations among contemporary populations and to sort out and measure the relative contributions made by heredity, environment, and culture to human biology.
Because of Its combination of biological, archaeological, and ethnographic perspectives, general anthropology is uniquely suited to the study of many problems of vital Importance to the survival and well-being of our species.
To be sure, disciplines other than anthropology are concerned with the study of human beings. Our animal nature is the subject of intense research by biologists, geneticists, and physiologists. In medicine alone, hundreds of additional specialists investigate the human body, and psychiatrists and psychologists, rank upon rank, seek the essence of the human mind and soul. Many other disciplines examine our cultural, intellectual, and aesthetic behavior. These disciplines include sociology, human geography, social psychology, political science, economics, linguistics, theology, philosophy, musicology, art, literature, and architecture. There are also many "area specialists," who study the languages and life-styles of particular peoples, nations, or regions: "Latin Americanists," "Indianists," "Sinologists," and so on. In view of this profusion of disciplines that describe, explain, and Interpret aspects of human life, what justification can there be for a single discipline that claims to be the general science of the human species?
The Importance of General Anthropology
Research and publications are accumulating in each of the four fields of anthropology at an exponential rate. Few anthropologists nowadays master more than one field. And anthropologists increasingly find themselves working not with fellow anthropologists of another field but with members of entirely different scientific or humanistic specialties. For example, cultural anthropologists interested in the relationship between cultural practices and the natural environment may be obliged to pay closer attention to agronomy or ecology than to linguistics. Physical anthropologists interested in the relationship between human and protohuman fossils may, because of the Importance of teeth in the fossil record, become more familiar with dentistry journals than with journals devoted to ethnography or linguistics. Cultural anthropologists interested in the relationship between culture and individual personality are sometimes more at home professionally with psychiatrists and social psychologists than with the archaeologists in theIr own university departments. Hence, many more than four fields are represented in the ongoing research of modern anthropology. The specialized nature of most anthropological research makes it Imperative that the general significance of anthropological facts and theories be preserved. This is the task of general anthropology. General anthropology does not pretend to survey the entire subject matter of physical, cultural, archaeological, and linguistic anthropology. Much less does It pretend to survey the work of the legions of scholars in other disciplines who also study the biological, linguistic, and cultural aspects of human existence. Rather, it strives to achieve a particular orientation toward all the human sciences, disciplines, and fields. Perhaps the best word for this orientation is ecumenical. General anthropology does not teach all that one must know in order to master the four fields or all that one must know in order to become an anthropologist. Instead, general anthropology teaches how to evaluate facts and theories about human nature and human culture by placing them in a total, universalist perspective. In the words of Frederica De Laguna,
Anthropology is the only discipline that offers a conceptual schema for the whole context of human experience.. It is like the carrying frame onto which may be fitted all the several subjects of a liberal education, and by organizing the load, making it more wieldy and capable of being carried. (1968, p. 475)
I believe that the importance of general anthropology is that It is panhuman, evolutionary, and comparative. The previously mentioned disciplines are concerned with only a particular segment of human experience or a particular time or phase of our cultural or biological development. But general anthropology is systematically and uncompromisingly comparative. Its findings are never based upon the study of a single population, race, "tribe," class, or nation. General anthropology insists first and foremost that conclusions based upon the study of one particular human group or civilization be checked against the evidence of other groups or civilizations under both similar and different conditions. In this way the relevance of general anthropology transcends the interests of any particular "tribe," race, nation, or culture. In anthropological perspective, all peoples and civilizations are fundamentally local and evanescent. Thus general anthropology is implacably opposed to the insularity and mental constriction of those who would have themselves and none other represent humanity, stand at the pinnacle of progress, or be chosen by God or history to fashion the world in their own Image.
Therefore general anthropology is "relevant" even when It deals with fragments of fossils, extinct civilizations, remote villages, or exotic customs. The proper study of humankind requires a knowledge of distant as well as near lands and of remote as well as present times. Only in this way can we humans hope to tear off the blinders of our local life-styles to look upon the human condition without prejudice.
Because of Its multidisciplinary, comparative, and diachronic perspective, anthropology holds the key to many fundamental questions of recurrent and contemporary relevance. It lies peculiarly within the competence of general anthropology to explicate our species' animal heritage, to define what is distinctively human about human nature, and to differentiate the natural and the cultural conditions responsible for competition, conflict, and war. General anthropology is also strategically equipped to probe the significance of racial factors in the evolution of culture and in the conduct of contemporary human affairs. General anthropology holds the key to an understanding of the origins of social inequality - of racism, exploitation, poverty, and underdevelopment. Overarching all of general anthropology's contributions is the search for the causes of social and cultural differences and similarities. What is the nature of the determinism that operates in human history, and what are the consequences of this determinism for individual freedom of thought and action? To answer these questions is to begin to understand the extent to which we can increase humanity's freedom and well-being by conscious intervention in the processes of cultural evolution.
(Culture, people, nature: An introduction to general anthropology (2nd edition), by Marvin Harris,1975, pp. 1-5, Harper International Editions)
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