What Is Anthropology;Complete Guide About Role of Anthropology

Anthropology is the science of man. Of course, this is literal, etymological and too broad and general. More precise would be: “the science of man and his works and behavior.” But even this needs an addition to make it sufficiently specific, since no one means to claim sciences like physiology and psychology as parts of anthropology. Now physiology and psychology focus their attention on particular men, whom they examine as individuals. This gives a due to the additional limitation we are seeking. Anthropology obviously is concerned not with particular men as such, but with men in groups, with races and peoples and their happenings and doings. So let us take as our provisional basic definition the following: “Anthropology is the science of groups of men and their behavior and productions.” This will include any findings on the total human species, since this constitutes an aggregate of races or peoples, a sort of super-group or total society.

However, man is an animal or organism and he is also a civilized being having a history and social qualities. Thus he is investigated—different aspects of him are investigated—both by the organic or biological or life sciences and by what are sometimes called the historical and more generally the social sciences. True, this latter term, “the social sciences,” though commonly used, is not easy to define satisfactorily. But we can leave this difficulty for the philosopher of science. In practice, anthropology is mostly classified as being both a biological science and a social science.

Some universities recognize this fact by having certain courses of anthropological study count as the one and certain as the other, or perhaps even die same course counting either way. Such a situation of double participation is unusual among the sciences. If anthropology is not concerned so predominantly with man as an animal, or with man as a social human having a history, that it can be set outright in either the life or the social-historical science category, both aspects arc evidently represented significantly in its subject matter. Could it be that the specific subject of anthropology is the interrelation of what Is biological in man and what is social and historical in him. The answer is Yes.

Or, more broadly, anthropology does at least concern itself with both organic and social factors in man, whereas nearly all other sciences and studies deal with one or the other. Anthropology concerns itself with both sets of factors because these come associated in human beings in nature. Often they arc even intertwined in one and the same phenomenon, as when a person is born with hereditary musical capacity and develops this further by study and training. They are not always easy to disentangle; but they must be separated if the processes at work are to be understood. That job is peculiarly the anthropologist’s.

2. Organic And Socio cultural Element In Anthropology

To the question why a Louisiana Negro is black and long-headed, the answer is ready. He was born to. As cows produce calves, and lions, cubs, so Negro springs from Negro and Caucasian from Caucasian. We call the force at work heredity. Our same Negro is reputed amiable and easy-going. Is this too an innate quality ? Offhand most of us might reply Yes. He sings at his corn-hoeing more frequently than the white man across the fence. Is this also because of his heredity? “Of course—he is made so,” might be a common answer, “Probably—why not?” a more cautious one. But now our Negro is singing the “Memphis Blues,” which his great-grandfather in Africa assuredly did not sing. As for the specific song, heredity can obviously no longer be the cause.

Our Negro may have learned it from an uncle, or perhaps from his schoolmates; quite likely he acquired it from human beings who were not his ancestors, or over the radio, acquired it as part of his customs, like being a member of the Baptist Church and wearing overalls, and the thousand other things that come to him from without instead of from within. At these points heredity is displaced by tradition, nature by nurture, to use a familiar jingle. The efficient forces now arc quite different from those which made his skin black and his head long. They are causes of another order.

This particular song of the Negro and his complexion represent the clear-cut extremes of the matter. Between them lie the good nature and the inclination to melody. Obviously these traits may also be the result of human example, of “social environment,” of contemporary tradition. There are those who so believe, as well as those who sec in them chiefly the effects of inborn biological impulse. Perhaps these intermediate dubious traits are die results of a blending of nature and nurture, the strength of each varying according to the trait or the individual examined. Clearly, at any rate, there is room here for investigation and weighing of evidence. A genuine problem exists. This problem cannot be solved by the historical or social sciences alone, because they do not concern themselves with heredity. Nor can it be solved by biology, which deals with

heredity and allied factors but docs not go on to operate with the non-biological principle of tradition or with what is acquired by men when they live in societies.Here, then, is one distinctive task for anthropology: the interpretation of those phenomena into which both innate organic factors and “social” or acquired factors enter or may enter.

The word “social” is the customary nontechnical one for the non-organic or more-than-organic phenomena referred to. It is, however, an ambiguous word and therefore sometimes a confusing one. As will shortly be pointed out, “social” refers to both social and cultural phenomena. Until the distinction between them has been made, we shall either put “social” into quotation marks or use socio-cultural instead.


The organic sciences underlie the sociocultural ones. They arc more immediately “natural,” less “humanized” in their conccxn. Anthropology therefore accepts and uses the general principles of biology: the laws of heredity 3nd the doctrines of cell development and evolution, for instance, and all the findings of anatomy, physiology, embryology, zoology, palaeontology, and the rest. Its business has been to ascertain how far these principles apply to man, what forms they take in his particular case. This has meant a concentration of attention, the devising of special methods of inquiry. Many biological problems, including most physiological and hereditary ones, can be most profitably attacked in the laboratory, or at least under experimental conditions. The experimental method, however, is but rarely available for human being* living in groups. Sociocultural phenomena have to be taken as they come and laboriously sifted and rcsiftcd afterward, instead of being artificially simplified in advance, as is done in laboratory experimentation.

Then, too, since anthropology is operating biologically within the narrow limits or one species, it has sometimes been driven to concern itself with minute traits, such as the zoologist is rarely troubled with: the proportions of the length and the breadth of the skull—the famous cephalic index—for instance; the number of degrees the arm bones are twisted, and the like. Also, as these data had to be used in the gross, unmodified by artificially varied conditions, it has been necessary to secure them from all possible varieties of men, different races, sexes, ages, and their nearest brute analogues. The result is that biological or physical anthropology—”somatology” it is sometimes called in Anglo-Saxon countries, and sometimes simply “anthropology” in continental Europe—has in part constituted a sort of specialization or sharpening of certain aspects of general biology. It has become absorbed to a considerable degree in certain particular phenomena, such as human species or sub-races and methods of studying them about which general biologist’s, physiologists, and students of medicine arc usually but vaguely informed.


The socio-cultural sciences, usually, but somewhat loosely, called the social sciences, overlie the organic sciences. Men’s bodies and inborn equipment arc back of their deeds and accomplishments as shaped by tradition, and arc primary to their culture or civilization as well as to their aggregations in societies. The relation of anthropology to socio-cultural science has therefore been in a sense the opposite of its relation to biological science. Instead of specializing, anthropology has been occupied with trying to generalize the findings of history. Historians can never experiment; sociologists, economists, and other social scientists only rarely.

Historians deal with the unique; for to a degree every historical or social or cultural event has something unparalleled about it. They do not lay down laws, nor do they verify them by the artificial trials or experiment. But anthropology looks for such general and recurrent processes as may occur in the multifarious events of history and in the diverse societies, institutions, customs, and beliefs of mankind. So far as such processes can be extricated or formulated, they arc generalizations.

It has sometimes been said that social and cultural anthropology—that part of the subject which is concerned with the more-than-McCray-organic aspects of human behavior—seems preoccupied with ancient and savage and exotic and extinct peoples. The cause is a desire to understand better all civilizations, irrespective of time and place, in the abstract, or as generalized principles if possible. It is not that cave men arc more illuminating than Romans, or flint knives more interesting than fine porcelains or the art of printing, which has led anthropology to bear heavily on the former, but the fact that it wanted to know about cave men and flint knives, which no one else was studying, as well as about the Romans and printing presses that history tells us about so fully.

It would be arbitrary to prefer the exotic and remote to the familiar, and in principle anthropology has never accepted the adjudication sometimes it rendered that its proper field should be restricted to die primitive as such. As well might zoology confine its interest to eggs or to protozoans. It is probably true that some researches into early and savage history, especially in the initial stages of anthropology, have sprung from an emotional predilection for the forgotten or the neglected, the obscure and the strange, the unwonted and the mysterious. But such occasional personal aesthetic trends cannot delimit the range of a science or determine its aims and methods. Innumerable historians have been inveterate gossips, but one does not therefore insist that the only proper subject of history is backstairs intimacies.



In their more elementary aspects the two strands of the organic or hereditary and the socio-cultural or “environmental” run through all human life. They arc distinct as mechanisms, and their products arc distinct. Thus a comparison of the acquisition of the power of flight respectively by birds in their organic development out of the ancestral reptile stem millions of years ago, and by men as a result of cultural progress in the field of invention during the past generation, reveals at once the profound differences of process that inhere in the ambiguous concept of “evolution.” The bird gave up a pair of walking limbs to acquire wings. It added a new faculty by transforming part of an old one. The sum total of its parts or organs was not greater than before. The change was transmitted only to the blood descendants of the altered individuals.

The reptile line went on as it had been before, or if it altered, did so for causes unconnected with the evolution of the birds. The airplane, on the contrary, gave men a new faculty without diminishing or even impairing any of those they had previously possessed. It led to no visible bodily changes, no alterations of mental capacity. The invention has been transmitted to individuals and groups not derived by descent from the inventors; in fact, it has already influenced die fortunes of all of us. Theoretically, the invention is transmissible to ancestors if they happen to be still living. In sum, it represents an accretion to the stock of existing civilization rather than a transformation.

Once the broad implications of the distinction which this example illustrates have been grasped, many common errors are guarded against. The program of eugenics, for instance, loses much of it* force. There is certainly much to be said in favor of intelligence and discrimination in mating, as in everything else. There is need for the acquisition of more exact knowledge on human heredity. But, in the main, the claims sometimes made that eugenics is necessary to preserve civilization from dissolution, or to maintain the flourishing of this or that nationality, rest on the fallacy of recognizing only organic causes as operative, when socio-cultural as well as organic ones arc active—when indeed the super-hereditary factors may be much the more powerful ones. So, in what arc miscalled race problems, the average thought of the day still reasons confusedly between socio-cultural and organic causes and effects.1 Anthropology is not yet

1 Ethnography is sometimes separated, ii more descriptive, from ethnology, as more theoretically or mote historically inclined.An example is the still lingering fallacy that individual development of organs by use somehow gets incorporated into the heredity of descendants. This fallacy rests on the misapplication to organic situations of a valid socio-cultural mechanism. .

Accordingly, a designation of anthropology as “the child of Darwin” is misleading. Darwin’s essential achievement was that he imagined, and substantiated by much indirect evidence, a mechanism through which organic evolution appeared to be taking place. The whole history of man, however, being much more than an organic matter, a merely or strictly Darwinian anthropology would be largely misapplied biology. One might almost as justly speak of a Copernican or a Newtonian anthropology.

What has greatly influenced some of the earlier anthropology, mainly to its damage, has been no: Darwinism, but the vague idea of progress, to die organic aspcct of which Darwin happened incidentally to give such support and apparent substance that the whole group of cvolutionistic ideas, sound and unsound, has luxuriated rankly ever since. It became common practicc in the older anthropology to “explain” any part of human civilization by arranging its several forms in an evolutionary sequence from lowest to highest and allowing each succcssivc stage to flow spontaneously, without specific cause, from the preceding one. At bottom this logical procedure was astonishingly naive. In these schemes we of our land and day stood at the summit of the ascent.

Whatever seemed most different from our customs was therefore reckoned as earliest, and other phenomena were disposed wherever they would best contribute to the straight evenness of the climb upward. The relative occurrencc of phenomena in time and space was disregarded in favor of their logical fitting into a plan. It was argued that since we hold to definitely monogamous marriage, the beginnings of human sexual union probably lay in the opposite condition of indiscriminate promiscuity. Since we accord precedence to descent from the father, and generally know him, early society must have reckoned dcsccnt from the mother and no one knew his own father. We abhor incest; therefore the most primitive men normally married their sisters.

These are fair samples of the conclusions or assumptions of the classic evolutionist school of anthropology of, say, i860 to 1850, which still believed that primal origins are ultimate causes could be determined, and that they could be discovered by speculative reasoning. The roster of this evolutionist-speculative school was graced by some illustrious names. Needless to say, these men tempered the basic crudity of their opinions by wide knowledge, acuity or charm of presentation, and frequent insight and sound sense in concrete particulars. In their day, two generations or three ago, under the spell of the concept of evolution in its first flush, and of the postulate of.


Not only is culture a unique phenomenon, but it can be said to have a large degree of influence. Of course culture can appear and go on only in and through men, men in some kind of societies; without these it could not come into being nor maintain itself. But, given a culture, the human beings that come under its influence behave and operate quite differently from the way they would behave under another culture, and stall more differently from the way they would act under no culture. In the latter case they would be merely animals in their behavior.

They arc human beings precisely because they are animals plus a culture. Somehow human beings began long ago to produce culture and have continued ever since to produce it. In that sense culture derives wholly from men. But the other side of the picture is that every human being is influenced by other men who in turn have been influenced by still others in the direction of maintaining and developing certain ideas, institutions, and standards. And a shorthand way of expressing this is to say that they are all influenced by the culture they grow up in; in fact, in a broad way, they arc dependent on it for most of the specific things they do in their lives.

Culture And Importance of Anthropology

Culture is therefore a powerful force in human behavior—-in both individual and social behavior. Any given form of culture, whether of the Eskimo or of our contemporary Western civilization, has behind it a long history of other forms of culture by which it was conditioned and from which it derives. And in turn each culture is changing and shaping the forms of culture that will succeed it and which therefore more or less depend on it. Culture thus is a factor that produces enormous effects, and as such we study it.

To be concrete, the reason our Louisiana Negro of a few pages back sings the blues, goes to a Baptist church, and cultivates corn is that these things are parts o£ American culture. If he had been reared in the Africa of some of his forefathers, his dress, labor, food, religion, government, and amusements would have been quite different, as well as his language. Such is what culture does to men. And, as has been pointed out, the process of transmission, a process of acquisition by learning by which culture is perpetuated and operates on new generations, is quite different from the process by which heredity—another indubitable force—operates on them. Equally distinct arc the results. No religion, no tool, no idea was ever produced by heredity.

Culture, then, is all those things about man that are more than just biological or organic, and arc also more than merely psychological. It presupposes bodies and pertonalities, as it presupposes men associated in groups, and it rests upon them; but culture is something more than a sura of psychosomatic quali-tics and actions. It is more than these in that its phenomena cannot be wholly understood in terms of biology’ and psychology. Neither of these sciences claims to be able to explain why dicre arc axes and property laws and etiquettes and prayers in the world, why they function and perpetuate as they do, and least of ali why these cultural things take the particular and highly variable forms or expressions under which they appear. Culture thus Is at one and the same time the totality of products of social men, and a tremendous force affecting all human beings, socially and individually. And in this special but broad sense, culture is universal for man.1

This brings us back to the relation of society and culture. Logically, die two arc separate, though they also coexist. Many animals are social. Ants and bees and termites are very highly socialized, so much so that they can survive only in societies. But they have no culture. There is no culture on the subhuman level. Ants get along without culture because they arc born with many highly specific instincts; but men have only few and general instincts. Society without culture exists on the subhuman level. But culture, which exists only through man, who is also a social animal, presupposes society. The speech faculty makes possible the transmission and perpetuation of culture; and speech could evidently arise only in a somewhat socially inclined species, though the most socialized animals, the social insects, are held together by instinctive drives and do not need speech. In man, however, language helps bind his societies successfully together. And then culture, with its institutions and morais and values, binds each of them together more and helps them to achievc more successful functioning.

Human society and culture arc thus perhaps best viewed as two intimately intertwined aspects of a complex of phenomena that regularly occur only in association; whereas on the subhuman level, societies occur but there is no significant culture.

The occurrcncc of culturclcss true societies among the insects makes it clear that, much as living bodies and “minds” underlie societies and cultures, and precede them in evolution, so also, in turn, society precedes and underlies culture, though in man the two always happen to come associated. At any rate, sociery is a simpler and more obvious concept to gTasp than is culture. That is apparently why sociocultural phenomena—the phenomena of man’s total history in the broadest sense, which necessarily contain both social facts and cultural facts—usually have their social aspects recognized first. The result has been that

* Culture as dealt with by the anthropologist is obviously different from what is signified by speaking of “a man of culture,” or “a cultured person,” in the popular «nse, when high culture, or special refinement of it, is mear.L Similarly with the word “civilization.” When we ordinarily, as laymen, speak of “civilized” and “uncivilized” peoples, we mean, more precisely, peoples of advanced anti backward culture, respectively. By many anthropologists, ever since Tyior, the words “civilization” and “culture” are often used to denote the same thing; and always they denote only degrees of the same thing.

he sccial-plus-cultural combination came at first to be called merely “social,” and in popular and general use still carries that ambiguous name.

For those who like their thinking concrete, it may help if they conceive the sociocultural total in man as similar to a sheet of carbon paper, of which the fabric side represents society and the coated side culture. It is obvious that to use carbon paper effectively, we must distinguish the sides. And yet the sheet is also a unit. Moreover, in certain respects, as when we are not concerned with manifolding but only with some operation like sorting, counting, or packing, a sheet of carbon paper is comparable to and is handled like a sheet of uncoated paper—which in turn would correspond to the culturelcss animal societies. But if what we arc interested in is the use of carbon paper, the impressions made by it, or if we wish to understand how it makes them, then it is the specific carbon coating that we must examine, even though this comes only as a sort of dry-ink film carried by paper of more or less ordinary cellulose fabric and texture. Like all similes, this one has its limitations. But it may be of help in extricating oneself from the confusing difficulty that the word “social” has acquired a precise and limited meaning—society as distinguishable from culture—in anthropology and sociology, while still having a shifting double meaning—society including or excluding culture—in popular usage and in many general contexts.

There is a real difficulty in the confusion that results from the varying usage of the word “society.” The difficulty is unfortunate; but it can be met by keeping it constantly in mind. In the present book, the effort is made to be consistent in saying “culture” or “cultural” whenever anything cultural is referred to. “Scciar or “society” arc used only with specific reference to the organization of individuals into a group and their resulting relations. Culture, on the contrary, whatever else it may also be—such as a tremendous influence on human behavior—is always first of all the product of men in groups: a set of ideas, attitudes, and habits—“rules” if one will—evolved by men to help them in their conduct of life.*

* A further complication arises from the fact that human societies are more than merely innate Or instinctual associations like Beehives or anthills, but are also culturally shaped and modeled. That is, the forms which human association takes—into nations, tribes, sects, cult groups, classes, castes, clans, and the like—all these forms of soda! structure are as much the result of varying cultural influences as are the particular forms of economies, technologies, ideologies, arts, manners, and morals at different times and places. In shoet, specific human societies are more determined by culture than the reverse, even though some kind of social life is a precondition of culture. And therewith social forms become part of culture! This seemingly contradictory situation is intellectually dit&cult. It touches the heart of the most fundamental soda] theorizing. A good many anthropologists and sociologists still shrink from facing the problem or admitting the situation to be significant. The beginner is therefore advised not to try to master the difficulty at this Stage, but to wait till lie has finished the book. He will then presumably understand what the problem is and be in a position either to accept the solution suggested here, or to give his own answer. And if no-., he will still be in the company of a lot of professional social scientists of good standing.


AH the so-called social scicnccs deal with cultural as well as social data. Caesar’s reform of the calendar was a cultural innovation. His defeat of the senatorial party was a social event, but it led to institutional and therefore cultural changes, just as it affected thousands of individual lives for l)citcr or worse. When a historian analyzes Caesar’s character and motivation, he has in fact gone beyond both society and culture and is operating in the field of informal, biographical, individual psychology. In economics, a banking system, the gold standard, commerce by credit or barter, arc institutions, and hcncc cultural phenomena.

Of all the social sciences, anthropology is perhaps the most distinctively culture-conscious. It aims to investigate human culture as such: at all times, everywhere, in all its parts and aspects and workings. It looks for generalized findings as to how culture operates—literally, how human beings behave under given cultural conditions—and for the major developments of the history of culture.

To this breadth of aim, one thing contributed. This was the early anthropological preoccupation with the very ancient and primitive and remote, which wc have already mentioned as a possible foible or drawback. Unlettered peoples leave no biographies of their great men to distract one with personalities, no written histories of rulers and battles. The op.c thing we know about them is their customs; and customs are culture. The earliest men in fact have left us evidence of just two things: parts of their organic bodies, as represented by their bones; and, more abundantly, their culture, as represented by those of tbeir tools and implements which happened to be of stone and imperishable, plus such of their customs as may be inferable from these tools.

Now while some of the interest of anthropology in its earlier stages was in the exotic and the out-of-the-way, yet even this antiquarian motivation ultimately contributed to a broader result. Anthropologists became aware of the diversity of culture. They began to sec the tremendous range of its variations. From that, they commenced to envisage it as a totality, as no historian of one period or of a single people was ever likely to do, nor any analyst of his own type of civilization alone. They became aware of culture as a “universe,” or vast field, in which we of today and our own civilization occupy only one place of many. The result was a widening of a fundamental point of view, a departure from unconscious ethnocentricity toward relativity. This shift from naive self-centercdncss in one’s own time and spot to a broader view based on objective comparison is somewhat like the change from the original geocentric assumption of astronomy to the Copemican interpretation of the solar system and the subsequent still greater widening to a universe of galaxies.

A considerable differentiation of anthropology occurred on this point. The other social sciences recognized culture in its specific manifestations as they became aware of this or that fragment or aspect of it—economic or juridical or political or social. Anthropologists became aware of culture as such. From that they went on to try to understand its generic features and processes and their results.

This is one of the few points that sets off from anthropology a science which in the main is almost a twin sister: sociology. Sociologists began mainly with the analysis of our own civilization; they kept the exotic in its place. Therefore as regards culture they tended to remain autocentric somewhat longer. Also, in dealing with ourselves, they dealt mainly with the present, and from that they went on to deal with the future, immediate and ultimate. This inevitably gave to much of early sociolog)’ some reformist or ameliorative coloring, and often a program for action. On the contrary, the reproach used to be directed at anthropology that it did not concern itself with practical solutions, or aim at betterment. So far as this was true, it had at least the virtue of helping anthropology to remain a general or fundamental science, undistractcd by questions of application from its scarch for basic findings and meanings. One other distinction is that sociology has been more concerned with strictly soda! problems: the relations of classcs, the organizauon of family and society, the competitions of individuals within a group. The names are indeed significant here: sociology lends to be concerned with society, anthropology with anihropos, man, and his specifically human product, culture.

All in all, however, these are only differences of emphasis. In principle, sociology and anthropology arc hard to keep apart. Anthropologists rate Sumner as one of the great names in the history of the study of man; and they feel they stand on common ground with American sociologists like Thomas, Ogburn, Chapin, Sorokin, Wirth, Maclver, Parsons, and Lynd, to name only a few, and with Britons and Frenchmen like Hobhousc, Ginsberg, Durkheim, and Mauss. Sociologists on their side have been if anything even more hospitable. Almost to a man they are culture-conscious, know anthropological literature well, and use it constantly.

The relations of anthropology to psychology are obviously important. The nature of human personality—or let us say simply human nature—must enter vitally into all of man’s social and cultural activity. However, the relations of anthropology and psychology arc net easy to deal with. Psychologists began by taking their own culture for granted, as if it were uniform and universal, and then studying psychic behavior within it. Reciprocally, anthropologists tend to take human nature for granted, as if it were uniform, and to study the diverse cultures which rest upon it. In technical language, we have two variables, “mind” and culture, and each science assumes that it can go ahead by treating the other variable as if it were constant. All psychologists and anthropologists now know that such constancy is not actual. But to deal with two variables, each highly complex, is difficult; and as for specific findings, only beginnings have as yet been made. This whole set of problems of cultural psychology is taken up in one of the later chapters of this book.

The foregoing will make dear why anthropology is sometimes still regarded as one of the newer subjects of study. As a distinct science, with a program of its own, it is relatively recent, because it could hardly become well organized until the biological and the social sciences had both attained enough development to specialize and become aware of the gap between themselves, and until culture was recognized as a specific and distinctive field of inquiry.

But as an methodological body of knowledge, as an interest, anthropology is plainly one of the oldest of the sisterhood of sciences. It could not well be otherwise than that men were at least as much interested in each other as in stars and mountains and plants and animals. Every savage is a bit of an ethnologist about neighboring tribes and knows a legend of the origin of mankind. Herodotus, the “father of history,” devoted halt of his nine books to pure ethnology. Lucretius, a few centuries  later, tried to solve by philosophical deduction and poetical imagination many of the same problems that modern anthropology is more cautiously attacking with concrete methods. Until nearly two thousand years after these ancients, in neither chemistry nor geology not biology was so serious an interest developed as in anthropology.


Leave a Comment