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What is Cultural Anthropology?

Photo by Capturing the human heart. on Unsplash

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The most frequent question I get asked is “What is Cultural Anthropology?” so I thought to share some info with you on this subject. Here are three simple ways of getting to know it better: definition, means and its status as a social science. Let’s go! 

 

Definition of Cultural Anthropology

Cultural anthropology is the study of cultures and people throughout time

Yeah, that didn’t help much, did it? That’s because cultural anthropology is a compound concept based on previously loosely defined two other concepts of culture and anthropology, both having a wide range of study and applicability. Culture is everything that we do, think and hope for. It’s the essence of human beings, of what makes us similar and different at the same time.

 

Cultural Anthropology Means

Anthropology is understanding human beings and their motivation of pursuing one belief or another. Top that with another layer of cultural context and observe how this motivation changes in different cultures by shifting its whole system and lifestyle. The internal heritage that is used is called Deep Culture and the outcome is Surface Culture. You can read more about both in this article where I talk about What is Culture?

For example, think of how you celebrate birthdays around the world. On the surface it mostly involves cake and parties among friends and family – that is the large scale view, but on a deeper level, the motivation and symbolism for each decoration and activity during this celebration is very different. Just take a peak at this article 16 Birthday Traditions Around The World That Might Surprise You.

It might seem fun to observe the variations throughout time and cultures, but the hardest part is to put it in theory and gather solid evidence to prove it. This is what cultural anthropologists do. They study, research, observe, compile data and phrase a theory based on their knowledge and fieldwork. Beyond taking notes about how people from different cultures behave and act, the most pressing question that anthropologists are eager to answer is WHY? Why do people do, think and act differently? What motivates them? How are these motivations formed? How are they keeping them alive? “Because it’s tradition” is not an answer. Why is a question that we are struggling with even on a personal level, now imagine doing that on a global level while continuously adapting to cultural variations. 

Being a cultural anthropologist is the most exciting activity ever! (ok, I “might” be biased here 😏 ) 

 

Uhmm… but is Cultural Anthropology a science? 

The short answer is yes. Cultural anthropology like every other science has its research methods such as participant observation, ethnography, cross-cultural comparison. Also, it is highly engaged with other sciences like history, philosophy, psychology just to name a few. 

Interesting fact is that as a cultural anthropologist you can study how mathematics and its applicability influenced people in different cultures around the world. In this case, even though cultural anthropology is considered a social science, you will have to be actively engaged in understanding how others understand mathematics and translate it in their daily lives. 🤩 

 

So there it is, hope I have answered some of your questions. Leave a comment or message me for more. 

Stay curious, 

Renata 

 

📷 Photo by  Capturing the human heart. on  Unsplash

 

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