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Welcome back to 1002!

Anthropology in the world

Ryan Schram

Mills 169 (A26)


August 1, 2018

Available at http://anthro.rschram.org/1002/1.2

Welcome back to anthropology!

  • This class introduces you to anthropology, and how to think like an anthropologist.
  • We, the teachers and tutors, are also making an argument
    • Anthropology is relevant to understanding contemporary life.
    • Anthropology's key concept - culture - helps us to understand what happens when different societies influence each other, and how people in different parts of the world relate to each other.

Putting people's lives in a cultural context

Anthropology is a distinct way of understanding human behavior and community. Anthropology looks at the world through a specific set of lenses.

Some key elements of the anthropological perspective are:

  • Society and social forces are real. Social forces determine how individuals think, act and cooperate with each other. To understand why people live a certain way, we must look at how their life fits into a larger social context as part of a system.
  • Societies are not fixed or inflexible. Social rules are not simply constraints on individual choices.
  • Cultural differences are not accidents; they are part of a system. When people acquire cultural patterns of thought and behavior, they are also being recruited to a larger social whole which works toward specific goals.
  • Cultures don't die. All cultures change, but changes in a culture do not mean that the culture is being lost. Many kinds of change help a culture to adapt to new kinds of situations, and find new ways to reproduce itself and continue to pursue its goals.
  • Dichotomous categories often mislead us. Real situations cannot be understood in either-or terms. Modernity-tradition, rational-emotional, etc. distort the real situations in which people live.

Claude Levi-Strauss, classical anthropologist

From his memoir Tristes Tropiques (1973 [1951]):

“There's nothing to be done about it: civilization is no longer a fragile flower, to be carefully preserved and reared with great difficulty here and there in sheltered corners of a territory rich in natural resources: too rich, almost, for was an element of menace in their very vitality; yet they allowed fresh life and variety into our cultivations. All that is over: humanity has taken to monoculture, once and for all, and is preparing to produce civilization in bulk, as if it were sugar-beet. The same dish will be served to us every day.” (1973 [1951], 38)

Examples of monoculture

From Tristes Tropiques:

  • “The Polynesian islands have been smothered in concrete and turned into aircraft carriers.”
  • “The whole of Asia is starting to look like a dingy suburb.”
  • “The first thing we see as we travel round the world is [the West's] own filth, thrown in the face of mankind” (Levi-Strauss 1973 [1951]: 38).

Classical anthropology

Some of the key elements of classical anthropology are:

  • Society is a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts.
  • The parts of a social system fit together in functional ways.
  • Societies have boundaries and order.
  • The purpose of anthropology is to explain why a social system stays the same and remains intact.

Play Misty for me

Classical anthropology has always been haunted by melancholy. The anthropologist was one who observed “a world on the wane.”

  • North American anthropology began as “salvage ethnography” of Native Americans.
  • British social anthropology was used by colonial administrations to govern native societies.
  • Australian anthropology viewed indigenous societies as “dying” cultures.

Where is the world heading?

Many people believe that history has a direction, and that all societies eventually progress toward a goal.

They don't see this as a tragic loss, like Levi-Strauss does, but a hopeful future.

For instance, Steven Pinker, has said the following about cultural differences:

[I]n fact, our ancestors were far more violent than we are, that violence has been in decline for long stretches of time, and that today we are probably living in the most peaceful time in our species' existence.

Why? He offers many possibilities, but they all share one idea–progress. As human history has unfolded, people gradually stopped fighting.

Steven Pinker is the new Doctor Pangloss!–He believes that “all is for the best in, this, the best of all possible worlds” (Voltaire 2006 [1759]).


“Everything changes and nothing stands still. You cannot step into the same river twice.”

Heraclitus, Greek philosopher, ca. 535-475 BCE

Global monoculture?

Solange and Les Sapeurs

Image 1: Solange Knowles and Les Sapeurs of Brazzaville on the set of her 2012 music video, “Losing You” (Morrissey 2012).


Sámediggi, the seat of the Norwegian Samí parliament

Image 2: Sámediggi, the seat of the Norwegian Samí parliament, in Karasjok, Norway (Mayer, 2014).

Talk pigeon?

Papua New Guinea Pidgin (Tok Pisin) is sometimes called Neo-Melanesian English.

pait (v.): fight, strum.

Man i paitim gita. The man strums the guitar.

stap (v.): stop, be.

Ol i stap long Mosbi. They are in Port Moresby.

rot (n.): road, road, way, method, plan, strategy.

Husat save rot? Who knows the way?


“The first commercial impulse of the local people is not to become just like [the West], but more like themselves” (Sahlins 1992, 13).

As a Kewa leader once told an anthropologist (paraphrase): “You know what we mean by 'development?': building a hauslain [a village community], a men's house, and killing pigs. This we have done” (quoted in Sahlins 1992, 14).

Developman: the enrichment of their own ideas of what mankind is all about” (Sahlins, 1992, 14).


Mayer, Thomas. 2014. “Sami Parliament Karasjok.” Thomas Mayer Archive. Accessed June 25. http://thomasmayerarchive.de/details.php?image_id=51064&l=english.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1971. Tristes Tropiques. John Weightman and Doreen Weightman, trans. New York: Penguin Books.

Sahlins, Marshall. 1992. “The Economics of Develop-Man in the Pacific.” Res 21: 13–25.

Morrissey, Tracie Egan. 2012. “Solange’s ‘Losing You’ Video Solidifies Her Spot as Coolest Girl in the World.” Jezebel, October 2. Accessed July 28, 2018. https://jezebel.com/5948185/solanges-losing-you-video-solidifies-her-spot-as-coolest-girl-in-the-world.

Voltaire. 2006 [1759]. Candide, or Optimism. Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19942/19942-h/19942-h.htm

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