Chapter 1 – The Culture Concept

Emily Cowall, McMaster University

Priscilla Medeiros, McMaster University 

Learning Objectives

  • Compare and contrast the ideas of ethnocentrism and cultural relativism.
  • Identify key founding figures in anthropology and their contributions to the field.
  • Describe the concept of culture in anthropology and how it has evolved.


Do you think culture can be studied in a coffee shop? Have you ever gone to a coffee shop, sat down with a book or laptop, and listened to conversations around you? If you just answered yes, in a way, you were acting as an anthropologist. Anthropologists like to become a part of their surroundings, observing and participating with people doing day-to-day things. As two anthropologists writing a chapter about the culture concept, we wanted to know what other people thought about culture. What better place to meet than at our community coffee shop?

Our small coffee shop was filled with the aroma of coffee beans, and the voices of people competed with the sound of the coffee grinder. At the counter a chalkboard listed the daily specials of sandwiches and desserts. Coffee shops have their own language, with vocabulary such as macchiato and latte. It can feel like entering a foreign culture. We found a quiet corner that would allow us to observe other people, and hopefully identify a few to engage with, without disturbing them too much with our conversation. We understand the way that anthropologists think about culture, but we were also wondering what the people sitting around us might have to say. Would having a definition of culture really mean something to the average coffee-shop patron? Is a definition important? Do people care? We were very lucky that morning because sitting next to us was a man working on his laptop, a service dog lying at his feet.

Meeting Bob at the Coffee Shop

Having an animal in a food-service business is not usually allowed, but in our community people can have their service dogs with them. This young golden retriever wore a harness that displayed a sign stating the owner was diabetic. This dog was very friendly; in fact, she wanted to be touched and would not leave us alone, wagging her tail and pushing her nose against our hands. This is very unusual because many service dogs, like seeing eye dogs, are not to be touched. Her owner, Bob, let us know that his dog must be friendly and not afraid to approach people: if Bob needs help in an emergency, such as a diabetic coma, the dog must go to someone else for help.

We enjoyed meeting Bob and his dog, and asked if he would like to answer our question: what is culture? Bob was happy to share his thoughts and ideas.

Bob feels that language is very important to cultural identity. He believes that if one loses language, one also loses important information about wildlife, indigenous plants, and ways of being. As a member of a First Nations tribe, Bob believes that words have deep cultural meaning. Most importantly, he views English as the language of commerce. Bob is concerned with the influence of Western consumerism and how it changes cultural identity.

Bob is not an anthropologist. He was just a person willing to share his ideas. Without knowing it though, Bob had described some of the elements of anthropology. He had focused on the importance of language and the loss of tradition when it is no longer spoken, and he had recognized that language is a part of cultural identity. He was worried about globalization and consumerism changing cultural values.

With Bob’s opinions in mind, we started thinking about how we, two cultural anthropologists, would answer the same question about culture. Our training shapes our understandings of the question, yet we know there is more to culture concepts than a simple definition. Why is asking the culture concept question important to anthropologists? Does it matter? Is culture something that we can understand without studying it formally?

In this chapter, we will illustrate how anthropology developed the culture concept. Our journey will explore how anthropology became a social science. This will include learning about the work of important scholars, how anthropology emerged in North America, and an overview of the importance of ethics.

Key Elements of Culture

Culture is:

  • An integrated system of mental elements (beliefs, values, worldview, attitudes, norms), the behaviors motivated by those mental elements, and the material items created by those behaviors;
  • A system shared by the members of the society;
  • 100 percent learned, not innate;
  • Based on symbolic systems, the most important of which is language;
  • Humankind’s most important adaptive mechanism, and
  • Dynamic, constantly changing.


When early anthropologists studied people from other civilizations, they relied on the written accounts and opinions of others. These scholars did not have any direct contact with the people they were studying. This approach has come to be known as armchair anthropology.

These early scholars collected others’ travel accounts and used them to come to conclusions about far-flung cultures and peoples. The reports typically came from missionaries, colonists, adventurers, and business travelers and were often incomplete, inaccurate, and/or misleading, exaggerated or omitted important information, and romanticized the culture. By relying on this flawed data, they often drew inaccurate or even racist conclusions. They had no way of knowing how accurate the information was and no way to understand the full context in which it was gathered.  For instance, if a colonial administrator offered to pay people for their stories, some of the storytellers might have exaggerated or even made up stories for financial gain. If a Christian missionary asked recently converted parishioners to describe their religious practices, they likely would have omitted non-Christian practices and beliefs to avoid disapproval and maintain their positions in the church. A male traveler who attempted to document rite-of-passage traditions in a culture that prohibited men from asking such questions of women would generate data that could erroneously suggest that women did not participate in such activities. All of these examples illustrate the pitfalls of armchair anthropology.

Simply put, if a culture is viewed from a distance (as from an armchair), the anthropologist tends to measure that culture from his or her own vantage point and to draw comparisons that place the anthropologist’s culture as superior to the one being studied. This point of view is also called ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is an attitude based on the idea that one’s own group or culture is better than any other.

Figure 1: Sir James Frazer is among the founders of modern anthropology.

Early anthropological studies often presented a biased ethnocentric interpretation of the human condition. For example, ideas about racial superiority emerged as a result of studying the cultures that were encountered during colonialism.  During the colonial era from the sixteenth century to the mid–twentieth century, European countries (Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Dutch Republic, Spain, Portugal) asserted control over land (Asia, Africa, the Americas) and people. European ideas of wrong and right were used as a measuring stick to judge the way that people in different cultures lived. These other cultures were considered “primitive,” which was an ethnocentric term for people who were non-European. It is also a negative term suggesting that indigenous cultures had a lack of technological advancement. Colonizers thought that they were superior to the Other in every way.

Armchair anthropologists were unlikely to be aware of their ethnocentric ideas because they did not visit the cultures they studied. Scottish social anthropologist Sir James Frazer (1854-1941) is well-known for his 1890 work The Golden Bough: A Study of Comparative Religions. Its title was later changed to A Study in Magic and Religion, and it was one of the first books to describe and record magical and religious beliefs of different culture groups around the world. Frazer concluded that human beliefs progressed through three stages: from primitive magic to religion and from religion to science. This theory implied that some people were less evolved and more primitive than others. Of course, contemporary anthropologists do not view any people as less evolved than another. Instead, anthropologists today seek to uncover the historical, political, and cultural reasons behind peoples’ behaviors rather than assuming that one culture or society is more advanced than another. Frazer sent questionnaires to missionaries and colonists in various parts of the world asking them about the people with whom they were in contact. He then used the information to draw sweeping conclusions about human belief systems.  This book was not the outcome of extensive study in the field.

Another example of anthropological writing without the use of fieldwork is Sir E. B. Tylor’s 1871 work Primitive Culture. Tylor (1832-1917),  who went on to become the first professor of anthropology at Oxford University in 1896, was an important influence in the development of sociocultural anthropology as a separate discipline. Tylor defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”[1] His definition of culture is still used frequently today and remains the foundation of the culture concept in anthropology.

Figure 2: Drawing of a mother and child in Malaysia from Anthropology: An Introduction to the Study of Man and  Civilization E.B. Tylor, 1904.

Tylor’s definition of culture was influenced by the popular theories and philosophies of his time, including the work of Charles Darwin. Darwin formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species. Scholars of the time period, including Tylor, believed that cultures were subject to evolution just like plants and animals and thought that cultures developed over time from simple to complex. Many nineteenth century anthropologists believed that cultures evolved through distinct stages. They labeled these stages with terms such as savagery, barbarism, and civilization.[2] These theories of cultural evolutionism, like in Frazer’s book The Golden Bough, would later be successfully refuted, but conflicting views about cultural evolutionism in the nineteenth century highlight an ongoing nature versus nurture debate about whether biology shapes behavior more than culture.

Both Frazer and Tylor contributed important and foundational studies even though they never went into the field to gather their information. Armchair anthropologists were important in the development of anthropology as a discipline in the late nineteenth century because although these early scholars were not directly experiencing the cultures they were studying, their work did ask important questions that could ultimately only be answered by going into the field.


About 500 years ago, the first major colonization movements by western Europeans were a result of Portugal, Spain, and England looking for new resources. Colonies were implanted in Africa, Asia, and the New World. A second major colonial movement arose after the Industrial Revolution, motivated in part by a search for cheap labor and resources. By the end of the nineteenth century, Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany had divided up Africa, and Britain, France, and the United States were acquiring territories in the Pacific. Especially in Britain and France, ethnographic research was encouraged as a function of colonialism. Thus, well into the 1950s, anthropologists were employed by colonial offices.

The demise of colonialism and emergence of new independent states gave rise to issues such as plundering of resources, and the new nations produced their own ethnographers whose approaches to anthropology were different from the approaches used by the Euro-American colonial powers. Anthropologists from Mexico, Brazil, and the Indian subcontinent primarily studied their own people. Only the travelers from these former colonial countries thought about the colonialists as their “other.” In part, these post-colonial anthropologists set about correcting previously set anthropological agendas. More or less quiet debates are now occurring as to what a “global anthropology” should entail.

Off the Veranda

Fortunately, the reign of armchair anthropology was brief. Around the turn of the twentieth century, anthropologists trained in the natural sciences began to re-imagine what a science of humanity should look like and how social scientists ought to go about studying cultural groups. Some of those anthropologists insisted that one should at least spend significant time actually observing and talking to the people studied. Early ethnographers such as Alfred Cort Haddon (1855-1940) typically traveled to the remote locations where the people in question lived and spent a few weeks to a few months there. They sought out a local Western host who was familiar with the people and the area (such as a colonial official, missionary, or businessman) and found accommodations through them. Although they did at times venture into the community without a guide, they generally did not spend significant time with the local people. Thus, their observations were primarily conducted from the relative comfort and safety of a porch—from their verandas.

Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski’s (1884–1942) pioneering method of participant observation fundamentally changed the relationship between ethnographers and the people under study. Malinowski used more innovative ethnographic techniques, and his fieldwork took him off the veranda to study different cultures. The off the veranda approach is different from armchair anthropology because it includes active participant-observation: traveling to a location, living among people, and observing their day-to-day lives.  Fieldwork became the most important tool anthropologists used to understand the “complex whole” of culture.

In 1914, Malinowski traveled to the Trobriand Islands and ended up spending nearly four years conducting fieldwork among the people there. In the process, he developed a rigorous set of detailed ethnographic techniques he viewed as best-suited to gathering accurate and comprehensive ethnographic data. One of the hallmarks of his method was that it required the researcher to live among the natives. In a well-known book about his research, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), Malinowski described his research techniques and the role they played in his analysis of the Kula ceremony, an exchange of coral armbands and trinkets among members of the social elite. He concluded that the ceremonies were at the center of Trobriand life and represented the culmination of an elaborate multi-year venture called the Kula Ring that involved dangerous expeditions and careful planning. Ultimately, the key to his discovering the importance of the ceremony was that he not only observed the Kula Ring but also participated in it.

This technique of participant observation is central to anthropological research today. Malinowski did more than just observe people from afar; he actively interacted with them and participated in their daily activities.  And unlike early anthropologists who worked through translators, Malinowski learned the native language, which allowed him to immerse himself in the culture.  Malinowski suggested that other anthropologists should “grasp the native’s point of view, his relations to life, to realize his vision of his world.”[3]  He carefully documented all of his observations and thoughts. Malinowski’s techniques are now central components of ethnographic fieldwork.

Figure 3: Bronislaw Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands, 1915–1918

Salvage Ethnography

Despite Malinowski’s tremendous contributions to ethnography and anthropology generally, he was nevertheless a man of his time. A common view in the first half of the twentieth century was that many “primitive” cultures were quickly disappearing and features of those cultures needed to be preserved (salvaged) before they were lost. Anthropologists such as Malinowski, Franz Boas, and many of their students sought to document, photograph, and otherwise preserve cultural traditions in “dying” cultures among groups such as Native Americans and other traditional societies experiencing rapid change due to modernization, dislocation, and contact with outside groups. They also collected cultural artifacts, removing property from the communities and placing it in museums and private collections.

Others who were not formally trained in the sciences or in anthropology also participated in salvage activities. For instance, in his “documentary” film Nanook of the North (1922), Robery Flaherty filmed the life of an Inuit man named Nanook and his family in the Canadian Arctic. In an effort to preserve on film what many believed was a traditional way of life soon to be lost, Flaherty took considerable artistic license to represent the culture as he imagined it was in the past, including staging certain scenes and asking the Inuit men to use spears instead of rifles to make the film seem more “authentic.”

Today, anthropologists recognize that human cultures constantly change as people respond to social, political, economic, and other external and internal influences—that there is no moment when a culture is more authentic or more primitive. They acknowledge that culture is fluid and cannot be treated as isolated in time and space. Just as we should not portray people as primitive vestiges of an earlier stage of human development, we also should not romanticize a culture or idealize another’s suffering as more authentic or natural.


In the throes of salvage ethnography, anthropologists in the first half of the twentieth century actively documented anything and everything they could about the cultures they viewed as endangered. They collected artifacts, excavated ancient sites, wrote dictionaries of non-written languages, and documented cultural traditions, stories, and beliefs.

German-born Franz Boas (1858–1942), originally trained in physics turned to anthropology after a year-long expedition to Baffin Island, land of the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic. The Central Eskimo (1888) details his time spent on Baffin Island studying the culture and language of the central Eskimo (Inuit) people. He studied every aspect of their culture such as tools, clothing, and shelters. This study was Boas’ first major contribution to the American school of anthropology and convinced him that cultures could only be understood through extensive field research. More than anyone, Boas framed the discipline around the concept of holism: taking a broad view of the historical and cultural foundations of behavior rather than attributing differences to biology. Although he stressed cultural differences, he explained such differences in terms of the historical development of each culture. In his book Race, Language, and Culture (1940), he posited the idea that there is no necessary correlation between race, language, and culture, that one’s physical appearance does not determine one’s culture or ability to learn any language, thus dismantling the biological view of race. It was Boas who grounded the discipline in four fields and founded the American Anthropological Association. This four-field approach integrates multiple scientific and humanistic perspectives into a single comprehensive discipline composed of cultural, archaeological, biological/physical, and linguistic anthropology.

A hallmark of the four-field approach is its holistic perspective: anthropologists are interested in studying everything that makes us human. Thus, they use multiple approaches to understanding humans throughout time and throughout the world. They also acknowledge that to understand people fully one cannot look solely at biology, culture, history, or language; rather, all of those things must be considered. The interrelationships between the four subfields of anthropology are important for many anthropologists today.

Figure 4: A chart from a 1940 publication by Whorf illustrates differences between a “temporal” language (English) and a “timeless” language (Hopi).

Linguistic anthropologists Edward Sapir (1884-1939) and Benjamin Whorf (1897-1941), for instance, examined interrelationships between culture, language, and cognition. They argued that the language one speaks plays a critical role in determining how one thinks, particularly in terms of understanding time, space, and matter. They proposed that people who speak different languages view the world differently as a result. In a well-known example, Whorf contrasted the Hopi and English languages. Because verbs in Hopi contained no future or past tenses, Whorf argued that Hopi-speakers understand time in a fundamentally different way than English-speakers. An observation by an English-speaker would focus on the difference in time while an observation by a Hopi-speaker would focus on validity.[4]

In another example, Peter Gordon spent many years living among the Pirahã tribe of Brazil learning their language and culture. He noted that the Pirahã have only three words for numbers: one, two, and many. He also observed that they found it difficult to remember quantities and numbers beyond three even after learning the Portuguese words for such numbers.[5] 

Pirahã Numerical Terms:

In this short film, linguist Daniel Everett illustrates Pirahã numerical terms.

Although some scholars have criticized Whorf and Gordon’s conclusions as overly deterministic, their work certainly illustrates the presence of a relationship between language and thought and between cultural and biological influences. Words may not force people to think a particular way, but they can influence our thought processes and how we view the world around us. The holistic perspective of anthropology helps us to appreciate that our culture, language, and physical and cognitive capacities for language are interrelated in complex ways.


Figure 5: Franz Boas, One of the founders of American Anthropology, 1915

Gradually, anthropology was no longer the study of “savages” or “primitives;” it became the study of all human cultures. Boas played an essential role in the development of the concepts of cultural relativism and cultural determinism—that all behavioral differences among peoples result from cultural, not racial or genetic causes. As he observed on Baffin Island, cultural ideas and practices are shaped through interactions with the natural environment. The cultural traditions of the Inuit were suited for the environment in which they lived. This work led him to promote cultural relativism: the principle that a culture must be understood on its own terms rather than compared to an outsider’s standard. This was an important turning point in correcting the challenge of ethnocentrism in ethnographic fieldwork.[6]   Both Boas and Malinowski elaborated on cultural relativism. Boas in particular pushed hard against the common tendency to judge others by one’s own culture rather than by the basic assumptions of the culture being studied. He was fighting against ethnocentrism, seeing the world through one’s own glasses.

The fight against ethnocentrism—what in the United States today is sometimes called exceptionalism (we are always better)—is what motivates anthropologists to examine assumptions commonly used by Americans for example, or even embedded in the work of anthropologists themselves. Indeed, as fieldworkers, anthropologists must understand themselves, understand the eyes doing the recording of others. The participant-observation method of fieldwork was a revolutionary change to the practice of anthropology, but at the same time it presented problems that needed to be overcome. The challenge was to move away from ethnocentrism, race stereotypes, and colonial attitudes, and to move forward by encouraging anthropologists to maintain high ethical standards and open minds.  Does an anthropologist’s gender influence what he or she “sees”? Does an aversion to conflict affect the record, the choice of research interests? Do the bilingual or bi-cultural characteristics of anthropologists increase sensitivity in the field? The ethnographies that we produce are, in the final analysis, the theory of what we do and why, and what the people we study do and why.

A frequently cited example of an early ethnography employing cultural relativism is  by E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1902–1973), a British anthropologist who published Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande (1937). His study of the Azande of the southern Sudan was meant to indicate why and how Azande beliefs in magic and witchcraft made perfect sense according to Azande premises (and to many peoples everywhere who wanted to understand human ills such as disease and death). He avoided ethnocentric notions like “they are ignorant primitives.” His point was that their beliefs made sense given their premises, and that they were as logical as any other people. The main reason the Azande work is so much cited is that the main discovery is that we are all caught in our premises, our unchallenged assumptions. This idea applies to any thought including western science, as for example, the “nuclear religion”—the belief that President Eisenhower’s atoms for peace made up for dropping nuclear bombs on Japan during World War II, in spite of scientists’ inability to deal with nuclear waste and other associated problems. In Evans-Pritchard’s case, he was writing not merely about the Azande or, later, about the Nuer herdsmen; he was also writing about how a particular ethnography is inherently comparative, raising issues about our ingrained premises.

It must be noted that Boas trained many women anthropologists such as Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, knowing that diversifying fieldworkers by including people of all genders was important to successful fieldwork.  Many of Boas’s students including Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Alfred Kroeber were committed to cultural relativism as a starting point, and continued to refine the concept of culture. Ruth Benedict, one of his first female students, used cultural relativism in her research on the cultures of the American northwest and southwest. Her best-selling book Patterns of Culture (1934) emphasized that culture gives people coherent patterns for thinking and behaving. She argued that culture affects individuals psychologically, shaping individual personality traits and leading the members of a culture to exhibit similar traits such as a tendency toward aggression, or calmness.

Figure 6: Ruth Benedict, 1936

Benedict was a professor at Columbia University and in turn greatly influenced her student Margaret Mead, who went on to become one of the most well-known female American cultural anthropologists. Mead was a pioneer in conducting ethnographic research at a time when the discipline was predominately male. Her 1925 research on adolescent girls on the island of Ta‘ū in the Samoan Islands, published as Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), revealed that teenagers in Samoa did not experience the same stress and emotional difficulties as those in the United States. The book was an important contribution to the nature versus nurture debate, providing an argument that learned cultural roles were more important than biology. The book also reinforced the idea that individual emotions and personality traits are products of culture.

Anthropologist and famed writer of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) was  the first Black woman to graduate from the Barnard College where she studied anthropology with Boas.  Her deep connections to the southern culture of the American Negro made her an influential writer of folklore and ethnography. Hurston would describe her attraction to anthropology in the folklore collection, Mules and Men (1936). She wrote that anthropology gave her a unique lens with which to view her culture that she described as a “tight chemise.” She wrote: “…I couldn’t see it [culture] for wearing it. It was only when I was off in college, away from my native surroundings that I could see myself like somebody else and stand off and look at my garment. Then I had the spyglass of Anthropology to look through at that.”[7]

Alfred Louis Kroeber, another student of Boas, also shared the commitment to field research and cultural relativism, but Kroeber was particularly interested in how cultures change over time and influence one another. Through publications like The Nature of Culture (1952), Kroeber examined the historical processes that led cultures to emerge as distinct configurations as well as the way cultures could become more similar through the spread or diffusion of cultural traits. Kroeber was also interested in language and the role it plays in transmitting culture. He devoted much of his career to studying Native American languages in an attempt to document these languages before they disappeared.  Kroeber was also the father of the acclaimed fantasy writer Ursula Kroeber LeGuin whose work was deeply influence by growing up in a household of anthropologists.

Anthropologists in the United States have used cultural relativism to add depth to the concept of culture in several ways. Tylor had defined culture as including knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, capabilities and habits. Boas and his students added to this definition by emphasizing the importance of enculturation, the process of learning culture, in the lives of individuals. Benedict, Mead, and others established that through enculturation culture shapes individual identity, self-awareness, and emotions in fundamental ways. They also emphasized the need for holism, approaches to research that considered the entire context of a society including its history.

Kroeber and others also established the importance of language as an element of culture and documented the ways in which language was used to communicate complex ideas. By the late twentieth century, new approaches to symbolic anthropology put language at the center of analysis. Later on, Clifford Geertz, the founding member of postmodernist anthropology, noted in his book The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) that culture should not be seen as something that was “locked inside people’s heads.” Instead, culture was publically communicated through speech and other behaviors. Culture, he concluded, is “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes toward life.”[8] This definition, which continues to be influential today, reflects the influence of many earlier efforts to refine the concept of culture in American anthropology.


This chapter has looked at some historic turning points in the way anthropologists have defined culture. There is not one true, absolute definition of culture. Anthropologists respect traditions such as language; the development of self, especially from infancy to adulthood; kinship; and the structure of the social unit, or the strata of a person within their class structure; marriage, families, and rites of passage; systems of belief; and ritual. However, anthropologists also look at change and the impact it has on those traditions.

With globalization moving at a dramatic pace, and change unfolding daily, how will emerging trends redefine the culture concept? For example, social media and the Internet connect the world and have created new languages, relationships, and an online culture without borders. This leads to the question: is digital, or cyber anthropology the future? Is the study of online cultures, which are encountered largely through reading text, considered armchair or off the veranda research? Is the cyber world a real or virtual culture? In some ways, addressing online cultures takes anthropology back to its roots as anthropologists can explore new worlds without leaving home. At the same time, cyberspaces and new technologies allow people to see, hear, and communicate with others around the world in real time.

Back in the coffee shop, where we spent time with Bob, we discovered that he hoped to keep familiar aspects of his own culture, traditions such as language, social structure, and unique expressions of values, alive. The question, what is culture, caused us to reflect on our own understandings of the cultural self and the cultural Other, and on the importance of self and cultural awareness.

Our Final Reflection

Bob took us on a journey to understand what is at the heart of the culture concept. Clearly, the culture concept does not follow a straight line. Scholars, storytellers, and the people one meets in everyday life have something to say about the components of culture. The story that emerges from different voices brings insight into what it is to be human. Defining the culture concept is like putting together a puzzle with many pieces. The puzzle of culture concepts is almost complete, but it is not finished…yet.


  1. How did the armchair anthropology and the off the veranda approaches differ as methods to study culture? What can be learned about a culture by experiencing it in person that cannot be learned from reading about it?
  2. Why is the concept of culture difficult to define? What do you think are the most important elements of culture?
  3. In the twenty-first century, people have much greater contact with members of other cultures than they did in the past. Which topics or concerns should be priorities for future studies of culture?


Armchair anthropology: an early and discredited method of anthropological research that did not involve direct contact with the people studied.

Colonialism: Colonialism began as the implanting of settlements on a distant territory.  Colonialism is about physical and cultural domination over “others” in the pursuit of economic and political gain. Colonialism in its modern form first began to take shape about 400 years ago.  The foundations of what we now think of as free-market capitalism were invented during the colonial era, partly to trade.  Key to colonialism are rationales that the colonizer is “naturally” more superior, and thus is justified in colonizing a place and people that are somehow deemed lesser.

Cultural determinism: the idea that behavioral differences are a result of cultural not racial or genetic causes.

Cultural evolutionism: a theory popular in nineteenth century anthropology suggesting that societies evolved through stages from simple to advanced. This theory was later shown to be incorrect.

Cultural relativism: the idea that we should seek to understand another person’s beliefs and behaviors from the perspective of their own culture and not our own.

Enculturation: the process of learning the characteristics and expectations of a culture or group

Ethnocentrism: the tendency to view one’s own culture as most important and correct and as the stick by which to measure all other cultures.

Four-field Approach: integrates multiple scientific and humanistic perspectives into a single comprehensive discipline composed of cultural, archaeological, biological/physical, and linguistic anthropology.

Functionalism: an approach to anthropology developed in British anthropology that emphasized the way that parts of a society work together to support the functioning of the whole.

Holism: taking a broad view of the historical, environmental, and cultural foundations of behavior.

Kinship: blood ties, common ancestry, and social relationships that form families within human groups.

Participant observation: a type of observation in which the anthropologist observes while participating in the same activities in which her informants are engaged.

Salvage anthropology: activities such as gathering artifacts, or recording cultural rituals with the belief that a culture is about to disappear.

Structuralism: an approach to anthropology that focuses on the ways in which the customs or social institutions in a culture contribute to the organization of society and the maintenance of social order.

The Other: a term that has been used to describe people whose customs, beliefs, or behaviors are “different” from one’s own.


Image of the author Emily Cowall

Dr. Emily Cowall is a cultural anthropologist and instructor in the department of Anthropology at McMaster University, Canada; Medical Historian; and former regulated health practitioner in Ontario. Her primary academic research interests are focused on the cultural ethno-history of the Canadian Arctic. Emily moved to the Eastern Arctic in the 1980s, where she became integrated into community life. Returning for community-based research projects from 2003 to 2011, her previous community relationships enabled the completion of a landmark study examining the human geography and cultural impact of tuberculosis from 1930 to 1972. From 2008 to 2015, her work in cultural resource management took her to the Canadian High Arctic archipelago to create a museum dedicated to the Defense Research Science Era at Parks Canada, Quttinirpaaq National Park on Ellesmere Island. When she is not jumping into Twin Otter aircraft for remote field camps, she is exploring cultural aspects of environmental health and religious pilgrimage throughout Mexico.

Image of the author Priscilla Medeiros

Priscilla Medeiros is a PhD candidate and instructor at McMaster University, Canada, and is defending her thesis in fall 2017. Her primary research interests center on the anthropology of health. This involves studying the biocultural dimensions of medicine, with a particular emphasis on the history and development of public health in developed countries, sickness and inequalities, and gender relationships. Priscilla began her community-based work in prevention, care, and support of people living with HIV and AIDS seven years ago in Nairobi Province, Kenya, as part of her master’s degree. Her current research focuses on the absence of gender-specific and culturally appropriate HIV prevention initiatives and programs for women in the Maritime Provinces, Canada, and is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. When she is not working in rural areas or teaching in the classroom, Priscilla is traveling to exotic destinations to learn to prepare local cuisine, speak foreign languages, and explore the wonders of the world. In fact, she is the real-life Indiana Jane of anthropology when it comes to adventures in the field and has many great stories to share.


Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. Boston: Houghton and Mifflin Company, 1934.

Boas, Franz. Race, Language, and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940.

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1859.

Kroeber, Alfred. The Nature of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. London: Routledge and Sons, 1922.

Mead, Margaret. Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1928.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. London: Benjamin Motte, 1726.

Tylor, Edward B. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Customs. London: Cambridge University Press. 1871.

  1. Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Customs (London: Cambridge University Press, 1871), preface.
  2. Lewis Henry Morgan was one anthropologist who proposed an evolutionary framework based on these terms in his book Ancient Society (New York: Henry Holt, 1877).
  3. Bronislaw Malinowski. Argonauts of the Western Pacific (London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1922), 290.
  4. Benjamin Lee Whorf, “Science and Linguistics,” MIT Technology Review 42 (1940): 229–248.
  5. Peter Gordon, “Numerical Cognition Without Words: Evidence from Amazonia,” Science 306 no. 5695 (2004): 496–499.
  6.   Boas’ attitudes about cultural relativism were influenced by his experiences in the Canadian Arctic as he struggled to survive in a natural environment foreign to his own prior experience. His private diary and letters record the evolution of his thinking about what it means to be “civilized.” In a letter to his fiancé, he wrote: “I often ask myself what advantages our ‘good society’ possesses over that of the ‘savages’ and find, the more I see of their customs, that we have no right to look down upon them ... We have no right to blame them for their forms and superstitions which may seem ridiculous to us. We ‘highly educated people’ are much worse, relatively speaking.” The entire letter can be read in George Stocking, ed. Observers Observed: Essays on Ethnographic Fieldwork (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), 33.
  7. Quoted in McClaurin, I. (December 27, 2014). Zora Neale Hurston, the making of an anthropologist. Savage Minds: Notes and Queries in Anthropology [blogpost]. Accessed March 22, 2017 at
  8. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Culture (New York: Basic Books, Geertz 1973), 89.