Ryan Schram's Anthrocyclopaedia

Anthropology presentations and learning resources

User Tools

Site Tools

View page as slide show

The origins of cultural anthropology

The origins of cultural anthropology

Ryan Schram

ANTH 1001: Introduction to anthropology

Monday, March 2, 2020 (Week 2)

Available at http://anthro.rschram.org/1001/2020/1.2.1

Required readings

Claudia Roth Pierpont “The Measure of America,” The New Yorker (March 8, 2004): 48–63.

In our genes?

People are acutely aware of human diversity, but many look only to biology—especially genetics—to understand it. For example:

  • Ancestry, e.g. genetic testing for genealogical research
  • Disease, especially the emerging science of genetically-tailored drugs
  • People still say that race is connected to IQ scores! It isn’t! (And IQ is garbage anyways.)

Why are explanations based on biology so powerful?

Two opposed ideas about human difference

In many ways, this society is still stuck in the same debate from centuries ago about how to interpret human diversity.

  • On one side, humanity is a ladder. People are different, so they are unequally human.
    • Aristotle: Greeks are natural rulers, everyone else is a barbarian and should be enslaved
  • On the other side, people are fundamentally the same in spite of differences
    • Bartolomé de las Casas: The Indians of the New World may be different, but they have souls, and they have natural rights like Europeans (Anthony 2015)

Two ideas of the human, two anthropologies

One anthropology examines human life as a branch of natural sciences, and investigates human differences like the study of animal species.

  • Differences among humans are objective, physical differences. Differences in people’s ways of life are explained as the result of these physical differences
  • The size of the skull is an indicator of people’s intelligence, and many argued that races had different average skull sizes—on the basis of flawed and distorted data (Gould [1981] 1996)
  • We can call this kind of thinking pseudoscientific racism

The other anthropology, our anthropology, adheres to the thesis of the psychic unity of humankind.

  • All people are fundamentally the same; they have the same kind of psychological faculties.
  • Any person can acquire any culture

Edward Burnett Tylor: Culture is acquired

Culture or Civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society. (Tylor [1871] 1920, 1)

What does psychic unity really mean?

Let’s explore this idea of psychic unity. Go to the Quizzes page on Canvas and take the quiz for today.

Consider why you have chosen your answer. Talk to other people about what they chose. Do you agree with the thesis that there is this kind of psychic unity among all human beings?

The evolutionary approach to culture challenged one kind of racism, but not completely

Importantly, Tylor’s response to pseudoscientific racism still allowed room for another kind of objective scale of measurement. See what follows from his definition of culture:

The condition of culture among the various societies of mankind, in so far as it is capable of being investigated on general principles, is a subject apt for the study of laws of human thought and action. On the one hand, the uniformity which so largely pervades civilization may be ascribed, in great measure, to the uniform action of uniform causes: while on the other hand its various grades may be regarded as stages of development or evolution.... (Tylor [1871] 1920, 1)

Edward Burnett Tylor: Culture is singular

  • The opposition of primitive and civilized cultures is another kind of ladder of humanity, even if it posits that culture is acquired.
  • People are different, but for Tylor, culture is singular. He never speaks of cultures in the plural (Stocking 1982), except in one very late writing (Price 2012, sect. 4.4).

Cultures in the plural

Franz Boas is responsible for creating a properly cultural anthropology in which difference can be explained with a new idea of culture.


Anthony, Dani. 2015. “Bartolomé de Las Casas and 500 Years of Racial Injustice.” Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective. July 2015. http://origins.osu.edu/milestones/july-2015-bartolom-de-las-casas-and-500-years-racial-injustice.

Gould, Stephen Jay. (1981) 1996. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1952. Race and History. Paris: UNESCO. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000002896.

Pierpont, Claudia Roth. 2004. “The Measure of America.” The New Yorker, March, 48–63.

Price, Megan. 2012. “Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917), Parts 1 and 2.” The Invention of Museum Anthropology: Scoping the Local Material Resources for an Intellectual History of a Global Discipline. 2012. https://web.prm.ox.ac.uk/sma/index.php/articles/article-index/336-edward-burnett-tylor-1832-1917-part-2.html.

Stocking, George W. 1982. Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. http://books.google.com?id=aOP43AlmLP8C.

Tylor, Edward B. (1871) 1920. Primitive Culture, vol. 1. London: John Murray. http://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.42334.

A guide to the unit

1001/2020/1.2.1.txt · Last modified: 2020/03/01 21:16 by Ryan Schram (admin)