It often said that “anthropology is the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities”.This is the context in which an anthropologist studies and works. Anthropology is the study of humanity, its origins, diversity, histories, institutions, languages, beliefs and values. as human beings and their institutions. It is a relatively recent addition to the social, biological and humanistic sciences. In its American version, anthropology evolved as a merger of four core fields — physical/biological, linguistic, archaeological, and social-cultural studies.
Cultural anthropology tends to be the focal point of anthropological activity and lens through which the other three sub-disciplines approach their subject matter. Cultural anthropology is the study of Culture as defined by Edward Tylor.
“Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”
This definition has been modified, changed, narrowed and expanded as the study of these elements have revealed new and different feature. It runs from the nature and outlook of the individual based on personal experience as an individual and member of a group to the Grand Traditions of the great and lesser civilizations found both in history and in today’s world.
For some, Cultural anthropology is the study of the “Superorganic” (Herbert Spencer, Kroeber, A. L Kroeber, Leslie White for example). The superorganic nature of culture relates to Tylor definition where the substance is ideational and axiomatic beliefs, values and knowledge that is learned by the child and passed on to others and its offspring. This individual focus on the “superorganic” tends to be more humanistic and psychological (in the broad sense).
For others the focus becomes the group or society that holds and passes on a set of beliefs and traditions that distinguish the group from other groups. We use the term “ethnic” group to distinguish between such societies. This approach tends to be more “sociological” in focus looking at the rules and relationships of human society.
Thus, Cultural Anthropology can be summed up as the core subject and focus of Anthropology. And Anthropology is the study of a species, Homo Sapien, by Homo Sapiens, It is the physical existential study of the human animal and the ideational (humanistic) search for understanding why this animal is unique.
Anthropology, like all Subject areas has developed over the years and changed. In my perspective, it has become more of a point of view and way of interpretation of experience. In the past, anthropologists focused on the fringes of Western Society. That is, they studied the past and what was thought to be “the past” in an evolutionary, non-western, colonial sense of the present. Within this context, the focus has been on the “human” animal.
The 20th Century has seen the end of western colonialism, the emergence of national anthropologies where locals trained in anthropology have begun to study their own socio-cultural systems based in part on the western ideal of science and also from a humanistic perspective of auto-ethnography. Aside from a diffusion of anthropology from the American and European cultures to the former colonies, there has also been the pressure toward specialization. Such specialization, using the American model, can be seen in the evolution and change in the structure of the discipline, its organizations and its training institution/programs.
Today, in the 21st century, we see this dynamic continuing toward a more complex and diversified body of knowledge — both scholarly and applied. Like music has changed,there are multiple styles of anthropology based on time and place and society and culture, all different and yet all the same. Just as you can sense the difference between “music” and “noise”, today anthropology is a point of view with many subtle differences.
Boas, in America, defined the field as being composed of four primary sub-discipline reflecting the four basic voices of the human spirit — tradition (history), language (communication), physical limitations (biology), and collective sharing (social order). In Boasian terms, these were reflected methodologically as archaeology (what human activity left behind), physical anthropology (the range and biological variation in the human species), linguistics (the range and diversity of language) and culture ( the values, beliefs, and meaning shared by individuals).
As one can see from above as we learned more about others, more detail, we began to diverge in area and temporal specialties. As technologies improved we diverged based on the tools we had to learn to use and employ in our studies. As the primitive became part of the global world, they developed their own voices employing the tools shared with other anthropologists but interpreted in their own manner.
In the 21st Century, there is a great diversity in what is and is not anthropology. But it is like music rather than an academic department. It is a point of view shared by “anthropologists”. Like musicians, you can’t define it, but you can share it. It is real but you can’t point to it. Most of all, it very simple —- you know it when you see and feel it. Anthropology is a point of view on the world and your place in it. How you got here, where you are and where you are going (with you being both the individual and YOU being the social animal).