The origins of cultural anthropology

The origins of cultural anthropology

Ryan Schram

ANTH 1001: Introduction to anthropology

Monday, March 2, 2020 (Week 2)

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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:

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1952. Race and History. Paris: UNESCO.

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.

Stocking, George W. 1982. Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tylor, Edward B. (1871) 1920. Primitive Culture, vol. 1. London: John Murray.

A guide to the unit