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Introduction to Cultural Anthropology ­ SOC401
VU
Lesson 03
MAJOR THEORIES IN CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY
What is a theory?
A theory suggests a relationship between different phenomenons. Theories allow us to reduce the
complexity of reality into an abstract set of principles, which serve as models to compare and contrasts
different types of realities.
Theories are based on hypotheses, which provide a proposition that needs to be tested through empirical
investigations. If what is found is consistent with what was expected, the theory will be strengthened; if not,
the theory will be either abandoned or some more time will be spent on it to revise it.
Anthropological theory changes constantly as new data comes forth. Anthropological theories attempt to
answer such questions as, why do people behave the way they do? And, how do we account for human
diversity? These questions guided the early nineteenth attempts to theorize and continue to be relevant
today. We will explore the in chorological order, the major theoretical schools of cultural anthropology that
have developed since the mid-nineteenth century. Some of the earlier theoretical orientations such as
diffusionism no longer attract much attention; however others such as evolutionism have been modified
and re-worked into something new.
It is easy in hindsight, to demonstrate the inherit flaws in some of the early theoretical orientations.
However, we should keep in mind, however, that contempary anthropological theories that may appear
plausible today were built on what we learnt from those older theories.
Cultural Evolutionism
According to this theory, all cultures undergo the same development stages in the same order. To develop a
better understanding of these various development stages it is important to briefly review these various
stages and their sub stages. Savagery, barbarism and civilization were three classifications that classical
anthropologists used to divide culture.
However in 1877 Lewis Henry Morgan wrote a book titled Ancient Society, in it the three stages of cultural
anthropology were further classified into 7 stages, which are as follows:
Lower Savagery: From the earliest forms of humanity subsisting on fruits and nuts.
Middle Savagery: Began with the discovery of fishing technology and the use of fire.
Upper Savagery: Began with the invention of bow and arrow.
Lower Barbarism: Began with the art of pottery making.
Middle Barbarism: Began with the domestication of plants and animals in the old world and
irrigation/ cultivation in the new world.
 Upper Barbarism: Began with the smelting of iron and the use of iron tools.
 Civilization: Began with the invention of the phonetic alphabet and writing (1877:12)
Evolution is unidirectional and leads to higher levels of culture. A deductive approach used to apply a
general theory to specific cases. Evolutionists were often ethnocentric as they put their own societies on top
of the evolutionary ladder. Yet, it did explain human behavior by rational instead of supernatural causes.
Diffusionism
Like evolutionism, diffusionism was deductive and rather theoretical, lacking evidence from the field. It
maintained that all societies change as a result of cultural borrowing from one another.
The theory highlighted the need to consider interaction between cultures but overemphasized the essentially
valid idea of diffusion.
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Introduction to Cultural Anthropology ­ SOC401
VU
Historicism
Any culture is partially composed of traits diffused from other cultures but this does not explain the existing
complexity of different cultures. Collection of ethnographic facts must precede development of cultural
theories (inductive approach).
Direct fieldwork is considered essential, which has provided the approach a solid methodological base
emphasizing the need for empirical evidence. Each culture is, to some degree, unique. So ethnographers
should try to get the view of those being studies, not only rely on their own views.
Historicists emphasized the need for training female anthropologists to gain access to information about
female behavior in traditional societies. Their anti-theoretical stance is criticized for retarding growth of the
anthropological discipline.
Psychological Anthropology
Anthropologists need to explore the relationships between psychological and cultural variables according to
this theory. Personality is largely seen to be the result of learning culture. Universal temperaments associated
with males and females do not exist in practice, based on research conducted by psychological
anthropologists (for example, it was noticed that there are no universally consistent personality traits like
being hard working on the basis of being a male or a female).
Functionalism
Like historicism, functionalism focused on understanding culture from the viewpoint of the native. It stated
that empirical fieldwork is absolutely essential. Functionalists stressed that anthropologists should seek to
understand how different parts of contemporary cultures work for the well being of the individual and the
society, instead of focusing on how these parts evolved.
Society was thought to be like a biological organism with all of the parts interconnected. The theory argued
that change in one part of the system brings a change in another part of the system as well. Existing
institutional structures of any society are thought to perform indispensable functions, without which the
society could not continue.
Neo-Evolutionism
Neo-Evolution states that culture evolves in direct proportion to their capacity to harness energy. The
theory states that culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year increases or as the
efficiency of the means of putting energy to work increases" (Leslie White,1900-1975).
Culture = Energy x Technology
Culture is said to be shaped by environmental and technological conditions. Therefore, people facing similar
environmental challenges, are thought to develop similar technological solutions and parallel social and
political institutions.
Cultures evolve when people are able to increase the amount of energy under their control according to this
theory. Given this emphasis on energy, the role of values, ideas and beliefs is de-emphasized.
Useful Terms
Theory: a general statement about how two or more facts are related to one another.
Hypotheses: an educated hunch as to the relationship among certain variables that guides a research
project.
Evolutionism: the 19th century school of cultural anthropology, represented by Morgan and Tyler that
attempted to explain variations in cultures by the single deductive theory that they all pass through a series
of evolutionary stages.
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Introduction to Cultural Anthropology ­ SOC401
VU
Savagery: the first amongst the three basic stages (savagery, barbarism and civilization) of cultural
evolution.
Barbarism: the middle of the three basic stages of the 19th century theory developed by Lewis Morgan that
all cultures evolve from simple to complex systems.
Civilization: a term used by anthropologists to describe any society with cities.
Suggested Readings
Students are advised to read the following chapters to develop a better understanding of the various
principals highlighted in this hand-out:
Chapter 4 in `Cultural Anthropology: An Applied Perspective' by Ferrarro and/or Chapter 14 in `Anthropology' by
Ember and Pergrine
Internet Resources
Anthropological Theories
http://www.as.ua.edu/ant/Faculty/murphy/436/anthros.htm
Use the hyperlinks on the above website to read up on the following theories for today's lecture:
Social Evolutionism
Diffusionism and Acculturation
Historicism
Functionalism
American Materialism
Cultural Materialism
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Table of Contents:
  1. WHAT IS ANTHROPOLOGY?:Cultural Anthropology, Internet Resources
  2. THE CONCEPT OF CULTURE AND THE APPLICATION OF CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY
  3. MAJOR THEORIES IN CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY:Diffusionism
  4. GROWTH OF ANTHROPOLOGICAL THEORY (continued):Post Modernism
  5. METHODS IN CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY:Comments on Fieldwork
  6. METHODS IN CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY (continued):Census Taking
  7. COMPARATIVE STUDY OF PRODUCTION, DISTRIBUTION AND CONSUMPTION IN DIFFERENT PARTS OF THE WORLD
  8. ECONOMIC ANTHROPOLOGY (continued):THE DISTRIBUTION OF GOODS AND SERVICES
  9. FOCUSING ON LANGUAGE:Languages of the World, Structure of Language
  10. FOCUS ON LANGUAGE (continued):Levels of Complexity, Cultural Emphasis
  11. OBTAINING FOOD IN DIFFERENT CULTURES:Optimal Foraging, Suggested Readings
  12. FOOD AND CULTURE (continued):Food Collectors, Food Production
  13. OBTAINING FOOD IN DIFFERENT CULTURE (continued):Pastoralism, Agriculture
  14. RELEVANCE OF KINSHIP AND DESCENT:Kinship Criteria, Rules of Descent
  15. KINSHIP AND DESCENT (continued):Tracing Descent, Primary Kinship Systems
  16. THE ROLE OF FAMILY AND MARRIAGE IN CULTURE:Economic Aspect of Marriage
  17. ROLE OF FAMILY AND MARRIAGE IN CULTURE (continued):Family Structures
  18. GENDER AND CULTURE:Gender Stratification, Suggested Readings
  19. GENDER ROLES IN CULTURE (continued):Women Employment, Feminization of Poverty
  20. STRATIFICATION AND CULTURE:Social Ranking, Dimensions of Inequality
  21. THEORIES OF STRATIFICATION (continued):The Functionalists, Conflict Theorists
  22. CULTURE AND CHANGE:Inventions, Diffusion, Donor, Conventional
  23. CULTURE AND CHANGE (continued):Cultural Interrelations, Reaction to Change
  24. CULTURE AND CHANGE (continued):Planned Change, Globalization
  25. POLITICAL ORGANIZATION:Bands, Tribal Organizations, Chiefdoms
  26. POLITICAL ORGANIZATION (continued):State Systems, Nation-States
  27. POLITICAL ORGANIZATION (continued):Social Norms, Informal Mechanisms
  28. PSYCHOLOGY AND CULTURE:Emotional Development, Psychological Universals
  29. PSYCHOLOGY AND CULTURE (continued):Origin of Customs, Personality Types
  30. IDEOLOGY AND CULTURE:Ideology in Everyday Life, Hegemony
  31. IDEOLOGY AND CULTURE (Continued):Political ideologies, Economic Ideology
  32. ASSOCIATIONS, CULTURES AND SOCIETIES:Variation in Associations, Age Sets
  33. ASSOCIATIONS, CULTURES AND SOCIETIES (continued):Formation of Associations
  34. RACE, ETHNICITY AND CULTURE:Similarity in Human Adaptations
  35. RACE, ETHNICITY AND CULTURE (continued):Inter-group Relations
  36. CULTURE AND BELIEFS:Social Function of Religion, Politics and Beliefs
  37. LOCAL OR INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE:Changing Definitions of Local Knowledge
  38. LOCAL OR INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE (continued):The Need for Caution
  39. ANTHROPOLOGY AND DEVELOPMENT:Influence of Development Notions
  40. ANTHROPOLOGY AND DEVELOPMENT (Continued):Contentions in Development
  41. ANTHROPOLOGY AND DEVELOPMENT (Continued):Operational
  42. CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY AND ART:Relevance of Art, Art and Politics
  43. CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY AND ART (continued):Art as a Status Symbol
  44. ETHICS IN ANTHROPOLOGY:Ethical Condemnation, Orientalism
  45. RELEVANCE OF CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY:Ensuring Cultural Survival