Cultural anthropology, also called socio-cultural anthropology, is one of four commonly recognized fields of anthropology, the holistic study of humanity. It reflects in part a reaction against earlier Western discourses based on an opposition between "culture" and "nature," according to which some human beings lived in a "state of nature." Anthropologists argue that culture IS "human nature," and that all people have a capacity to classify experiences, encode classifications symbolically, and teach such abstractions to others. Since culture is learned, people living in different places have different cultures. Anthropologists have also pointed out that through culture people can adapt to their environment in non-genetic ways, so people living in different environments will often have different cultures. Much of anthropological theory has been motivated by an appreciation of and interest in the tension between the local (particular cultures) and the global (a universal human nature, or the web of connections between people in distant places).
A Brief History
Modern socio-cultural anthropology has its origins in 19th century "ethnology." Ethnology involves the systematic comparison of human societies. Scholars like E.B. Tylor and J.G. Frazer in England worked mostly with materials collected by others – usually missionaries, explorers, or colonial officials – and are today called "arm-chair anthropologists." Ethnologists were especially interested in why people living in different parts of the world sometimes had similar beliefs and practices. Ethnologists in the 19th century were divided: some, like Grafton Elliot Smith, argued that different groups must somehow have learned from one another, however indirectly; in other words, they argued that cultural traits spread from one place to another, or "diffused." Others argued that different groups were capable of inventing similar beliefs and practices independently. Some of those who advocated "independent invention," like Lewis Henry Morgan, additionally supposed that similarities meant that different groups had passed through the same stages of cultural evolution.
20th century anthropologists largely reject the notion that all human societies must pass through the same stages in the same order. Some 20th century ethnologists, like Julian Steward, have instead argued that such similarities reflected similar adaptations to similar environments (see cultural evolution). Others, like Claude LÚvi-Strauss, have argued that they reflect fundamental similarities in the structure of human thought (see structuralism).
By the 20th century most socio-cultural anthropologists turned to the study of ethnography, in which an anthropologist actually lives among another society for a considerable period of time, simultaneously participating in and observing the social and cultural life of the group. This method was developed by Bronislaw Malinowski (who conducted fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands and taught in England) and promoted by Franz Boas (who conducted fieldwork in Baffin Island and taught in the United States). Although 19th century ethnologists saw "diffusion" and "independent invention" as mutually exclusive and competing theories, most ethnographers quickly reached a consensus that both processes occur, and that both were plausible explanations for cross-cultural similarities. But these ethnographers pointed out that such similarities were often superficial, and that even traits that spread through diffusion often changed their meaning and functions as they moved from one society to another. Accordingly, these anthropologists were less interested in comparing cultures, generalizing about human nature, or discovering universal laws of cultural development, than they were in understanding particular cultures in their own terms. They and their students promoted the idea of "cultural relativism," that a person's beliefs and behaviors could only be understood in the context of the culture in which he or she lived.
In the early 20th century socio-cultural anthropology developed in different forms in Europe and the United States. European "social anthropologists" focused on observed social behaviors, and "social structure", that is, relationships among social roles (e.g. husband and wife, or parent and child) and social institutions (e.g. religion, economy, and politics). American "cultural anthropologists" focused on the ways people expressed their view of themselves and their world, especially in symbolic forms (e.g. art and myths). These two approaches frequently converged (e.g. kinship is both a symbolic system and a social institution), and generally complemented one another. Today almost all socio-cultural anthropologists refer to the work of both sets of predecessors, and are equally interested in what people do and what people say.
Today socio-cultural anthropology is still dominated by ethnography. Nevertheless, many contemporary socio-cultural anthropologists have rejected earlier models of ethnography that treated local cultures as bounded and isolated. These anthropologists are still concerned with the distinct ways people in different locales experience and understand their lives, but they often argue that one cannot understand these particular ways of life solely in the local context; one must analyze them in the context of regional or even global political and economic relations. Notable proponents of this approach are Arjun Appadurai, James Clifford, Jean Comaroff, John Comaroff, James Ferguson, Akhil Gupta, George Marcus, Sidney Mintz, Michael Taussig, Joan Vincent, and Eric Wolf.