Ryan Schram's Anthrocyclopaedia

Anthropology presentations and learning resources

User Tools

Site Tools



Each person has a first-person point of view on themselves. Every one of us has an I-centered picture of the world around them. This perspective is uniquely yours; no one else sees the world the same way, because you see it as yourself and another person sees it as herself or himself. Hence, if anthropology examines all the ways of being human, it must also consider the fact that the human person is a subject, and has a subjective perspective on the world.

One of the ways in which the mind has appeared in ANTH 1001 is the ethical aspect of anthropology. Anthropologists are social scientists. Like scientists, they are interested in the real world, and want to know about people by observing and recordings empirical facts about them. Unlike scientists of the natural world, however, they cannot and do not want to treat people as if they were things. Rather we want to enter another person's mind. For that we need permission, of course. (And many other fields also respect people's autonomy even if the exercise of their autonomy is not part of what they are studying.) It also means giving up a little of one's authority. As the observer, you do not have the final say on a person's values and worldview. Anthropology learns by listening to people and letting other people tell us what we should be paying attention to. The emic perspective matters more than the etic perspective.

Another way in which anthropology deals with the presence of people's minds is in the Boasian concept of culture itself. Everyone has a uniquely first-person perspective on their environment. One does not see or experience the environment as a collection of disconnected things—there's a rock, that's a house, there are a few clouds up there, etc. It is all naturally connected together as a complete world with you at the center. The world is experienced as an integrated whole, and I have been using the word “worldview” in this class to connote this. For Boas, this worldview is acquired, and thus is shared among people who undergo the same socialization in the same community. Although these people are individual subjects, in some ways, it is like they are all thinking the same thoughts because they have learned to see the world the same way.

This makes Boas different from Tylor. Tylor says that people have a psychic unity (or “intellectual unity”), that is, all people have the same kind of mental equipment (see Tylor 1920, 184). What they acquire are different degrees of development of the same basic intellectual abilities. This is culture in the singular. Everyone has the same view of the world. They differ only in what they do, and more specifically, how civilized their forms of organization are. For Boas, cultures are plural, and this is because each cultural group creates its own worldview which is internally complete and makes sense on its own terms. Each cultural group has its own subjectivity, much like each individual person has its own I-centered perspective. A culture itself are is like a mind that lives in the subjective mind of each person who is socialized in that culture. So cultural relativism as a principle is based on anthropology's attention to the subjective dimension of people's lives. A purely objective, etic view of people's lives is also an ethnocentric perspective that assumes everyone thinks, perceives, and experiences the same world that the observer lives in.

There is a curious fact about people's mental life and subjective experience of the world. It can glitch out on you. We tend to assume that conscious experience (the first-person experience) is continuous, but it is not (see Dockrill 2016). People can become aware of this for all sorts of reasons, and can detach from “reality,” or their subjective view of reality anyway. Smoking pot, having a panic attack, sleepwalking, or entering a trance state (“being in the zone”) are all examples of altered states of consciousness that violate the typical beliefs many people have about their own mind. Anthropologists have historically tended to assume that most people operate within the same kind of conscious states. There is still a residual Tylorean view of people's mental experiences. All the differences in people's thinking are at the level of information and ideas they possess and acquire through learning and socialization. Hence cultural differences are mainly seen in the differences in what people learn to see in their experiences, rather than the experience itself, which is mostly the same.

As anthropologists we are open to different ways of living, but not necessarily different ways of being in the world. Many anthropologists have challenged this as a double standard. We tend to treat all differences in subjective experience as cultural. If a shaman claims to be able to communicate with spirits, it is because the shaman holds a belief about spirits which comes from the shaman's cultural environment. Yet each one of us possesses the same capacity to access another conscious experience of the world as the shaman, if only we knew how. If we knew how, and if it was normal to take substances that changed our perception of the world, this changed perception of the world would inform how we saw the world. To the shaman, an anthropologist is blind.

This is a problem that anyone studying religion in a community will face if they are a nonbeliever. As a student, a professor of mine had a class project in which he interviewed members of a religious community that believed that they could create world peace through deep meditation. At the end of his series of interviews, he said to one of his informants, “I think I get it now. I finally see why you believe in meditation.” In reply, the informant said, “Um, no. Because if you did, you would join us.” It wasn't just a difference of cultural beliefs. His informant had a completely different conscious experience of the world, a different kind of mind. Indeed, this is something that people can learn. By learning, people can change their own neural architecture. For instance, the Christians of the Vineyard Church in southern California studied by Tanya Luhrmann say that they can “hear God” when they pray (Luhrmann 2004; see also Luhrmann et al. 2010, Luhrmann 2012). By this, they mean that they can literally hear a friendly, male voice. God speaks to these Christians about all sorts of things, from where their life is headed to what they should wear that day. They do not simply claim that this comes automatically. The Vineyard Christians tell a story of learning to hear the voice and to recognize it as God's voice, and many of them say that they have trouble achieving it while others experience it effortlessly. All of them start without the ability to learn God, and the most advanced can enter into a trance state in which they have a verbal conversation with an invisible being. This is a kind of training of the body that influences how they experience the world, rather than what they see or how they classify it. This is a challenge to psychic unity. Perhaps it is not the case that all people have the same kind of brain, at least not permanently. Instead all people have the same degree of neural plasticity, and the differences of culture are not merely in what we learn to see, but how it feels.


Dockrill, Peter. 2016. “Consciousness Occurs in ‘Time Slices’ Lasting Only Milliseconds, Study Suggests.” ScienceAlert. April 14. Accessed May 28, 2020. https://www.sciencealert.com/consciousness-occurs-in-time-slices-lasting-only-milliseconds-study-suggests.

Luhrmann, T. M., Howard Nusbaum, and Ronald Thisted. 2010. “The Absorption Hypothesis: Learning to Hear God in Evangelical Christianity.” American Anthropologist 112 (1): 66–78. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1433.2009.01197.x.

Luhrmann, Tanya M. 2004. “Metakinesis: How God Becomes Intimate in Contemporary U.S. Christianity.” American Anthropologist 106 (3): 518–528. https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.2004.106.3.518.

——. 2012. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Knopf.

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

Similar pages

mind.txt · Last modified: 2021/06/30 22:26 by Ryan Schram (admin)