A Taste of Anthropology


This list of anthropology terms is basic and exhaustive.  Learning them is a good way to get the basics of anthropology as you go out and learn more.

Acculturation: A way that cultures change when two or more cultural groups are in contact for so long that they both alter.

Agriculture: A type of economic system characterized by growing both vegetation and animals for food.  Agriculturalists practice their economic system seasonally but stay in one area regardless of the season so as to remain close to their crops and livestock.  Agriculture is an economic system performed within the household and the tools involved in performing agriculture are generally made and owned by the worker.  As a human mode of making a living, agriculture has been practiced for approximately 25,000 years.  It is an economic system still practiced today.

Anthropology: The holistic and scientific study of humans through various sub-fields such as cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, linguistics and archaeology.

Artifact: An object left behind by people in an ancient culture.  Archaeologists search for, and analyze, artifacts in order to discover the lifestyles and values of ancient cultures.

Data: Evidence gathered during scientific research that can be used to test a hypothesis.  The type of data gathered in anthropology will depend on the subfield and the research being conducted.  Anything from notes, to film, to recordings, to bodily fluids, to maps, to bones and beyond could be data gathered by an anthropologist in search of scientific knowledge.

Dating Methods: Techniques used in archaeology to determine the age of a site and/or artifact.  Dating methods fall into one of two basic categories; relative dating methods (like stratigraphical succession) and absolute dating methods (like radiocarbon dating).

Capitalism: A type of economic system that is characterized by wage work for others in an industrialized culture.  Capitalists practice their economic system throughout the year and generally stay in one area so as to stay close to their workplace.  Capitalism is an economic system performed outside of the household and the tools involved in performing capitalism are not generally made or owned by the worker.  As a human mode of making a living, capitalism has been practiced for approximately 200 years.  It is an economic system still in practice today.

Childbirth: A human universal and a rite of passage that every living human has experienced at least once.  While the biological process of childbirth is nearly the same in every case, how that process is allowed to proceed, with whom in attendance and with what kinds of technology and focus all depend on cultural and historical influences.

Culture: What we learn as a member of a group and what we teach to others.  Along with biology, culture is how humans have adapted to live on planet Earth.  No matter the subfield, all anthropologists study culture.  Culture also refers to a group of human beings.

Cultural Relativity: A way of looking at or understanding another cultural group using only the values, practices and expectations of that culture.  As a way to understand other cultures, cultural relativity is limited and primarily results in simply restating the beliefs of the culture without gaining much insight into the culture.

Diffusion: A way that cultures change when an artifact from one culture is adopted into another.

Domestic Technology: Tool use that involves instruments made in the household usually by the person who will use them in their work.

Economic System: A human mode of making a living that is culturally and environmentally defined.  Economic systems provide people with what they need to live in their culture.  There are many economic systems that humans have used, and still do use, to make a living.  Four of the ones that appear in anthropological work the most are foraging, agriculture, pastoralism and capitalism.

Ethnocentrism: A way of looking at or understanding another cultural group using only the values, practices and expectations of one’s own culture.  As a way to understand other cultures, ethnocentrism is limited and primarily results in restating one’s own cultural beliefs without learning anything much about the other culture.

Ethnography: The written account of an anthropologist’s research.  Ethnographies seek to describe, for those who don’t know, the cultural practices of the peoples anthropologists study.

Evolution: This is the contemporary term for what Charles Darwin called “descent with modification”.  Evolution is a scientific theory that has over 100 years of data to support its assertions that life on this planet interacts with the environment on a biological level such that certain biological traits are more or less adaptive in different environmental circumstances.  Adaptive traits are passed on to subsequent generations and this allows for biological variation in species, like humans, that reproduce sexually.  Evolution is a model that helps explain biological change through data and research.  It is not a moral code or a substitute for personal values regarding correct cultural behavior.

Fact: An objective statement based on verifiable data collected through research.  A fact is true as long as there is enough data to support its assertions.

Foraging: A type of economic system characterized by gathering vegetation and hunting meat in the (natural) world.  Foragers practice their economic system seasonally and move to keep up with seasonally changes in food availability.  Foraging is an economic system performed within the household and the tools involved in performing foraging are generally both made and owned by the worker.  As a human mode of making a living, foraging has been practiced for as long as humans have lived on this planet -- approximately 100,000 years.  It is an economic system still in practice today.

Gender: Culturally and historically determined categories of Woman/Girl, Man/Boy and Other that indicate economic and child-rearing role, behavior, name, clothing, etc. in every human culture.  Gender is a human universal.  Unlike sex, what constitutes each gender can change from culture to culture and through time.

Holism: Something that is whole and complete unto itself.  A field is holistic when it is involved in the entirety of the experience of that field.  Anthropology is holistic because it studies the whole of the human condition.  Anything and everything that humans do can be viewed through the lens of anthropology.

Human: A bipedal primate or hominid that, like other primates, is characterized by a reliance on a social group, social interaction, learning and communication for survival.  This reliance on social interaction for survival means that humans, like other primates, have enlarged areas of the brain that deal with things like vision, communication and touch.  Humans, like some other primates, are also characterized by their use of tools.  Humans also have certain fundamental traits/practices – like adornment, spiritual practices, art and elaborate uses of vocal communication – that seem to set them apart from other primates and mammals.  Humans are both culturally- and biologically-determined.  As a species, humans have survived on Earth for approximately 100,000 years.

Humanity: A field that is interested in human values.  A humanity is a way to understand the world around us through the values people hold highly in their cultures and time periods.  Anthropology is an example of a humanity.

Industrial Technology:  Tool use that involves instruments made through industry (or a collection of makers) generally not by the person who will use them in their work.

Language: A form of communication humans use to relay/gain information to/from others.  Language is learned and taught within a cultural context and has facets that make the most sense to those who know the culture from which the language sprang.  Linguists study language as a way to gain deeper insight into human culture.

Language Context: A form of language analysis in linguistics that looks at the ways humans differently and similarly use language according to various cultural situations or contexts.  Language context also looks at the ways speakers will perform their speech so as to give the listener needed cues as to how to understand what is being said and how each part of what is being said relates to the other.

Language Socialization: A form of language analysis in linguistics that looks at the cultural influences on the ways humans are taught to speak their first language.  What is taught when and how are all influenced by cultural norms as they relate to babies and children.  Language socialization focuses on how learning a language is a life-long endeavor that can be acquired even when teaching others how to speak (as in adults with children).

Modern: An historical time period that extended from roughly the 1700’s to roughly the 1980’s.  Modern is not a judgement about what a culture has or does not have.  Anthropologists use the term modern to describe the cultures they studied from the 1700's to the 1980's.

Opinion: A subjective statement based on personal belief.  An opinion is true to those who agree with it and false to those who do not.

Participant Observation Research: The scientific research conducted by anthropologists that entails both participating in and observing a culture.  This is intimate research that requires the anthropologist to live with the people they study and/or near enough to them that they become a de-facto member of the group privy to the inner workings of people in the culture at large.  Anthropologists seek to be reflexive through this kind of research in order to gain as much insight into a culture as they can.

Pastoralism: A type of economic system characterized by raising four-legged, hooved and herding animals.  Pastoralists practice their economic system seasonally and move seasonally to ensure a consistent food supply for their animals.  Pastoralism is an economic system performed within the household and the tools involved in performing pastoralism are generally both made and owned by the worker.  As a human mode of making a living, pastoralism has been practiced for approximately 25,000 years.  It is an economic system still practiced today.

Postmodern: An historical time period that extends from roughly the 1980’s to the present.  Postmodern is not a judgement about what a culture has or does not have.  Anthropologists use the term postmodern to describe the cultures they study from the 1980's to the present.

Power Structure: The way that power is distributed in a culture.  Power structure is easily seen in all areas of cultural practice and norms.  There are two basic forms of power structure that can be found in any human culture.  One is egalitarian which means that power in the culture is distributed such that everyone has equal access to power irrespective of any differences that may be discerned between people.  The other is stratified/hierarchical which mean that power in the culture is distributed such that some people have more or less power than others.  Stratified/hierarchical cultures define who has more or less power according to values about differences between people.  At base, all stratified/hierarchical cultures stratify based on gender and age.

Progress: A statement made as a way to judge something getting better over time.  Although this term is sometimes used as if it is an objective term, judging what is or is not “better” is based on opinion.  When one applies one’s own culture’s definitions of progress to other cultures one is being ethnocentric.

Primate: An animal belonging to the mammalian biological order Primates.  Primates are characterized by such things as upright torsos, prehensile hands, feet and/or tails, binocular vision, stereoscopic vision, social group organization, extended gestation, slow maturation, reliance on life-long learning and omnivorous or herbivorous eating patterns.  Primates cane be divided into three basic groups – prosimians, monkeys and apes.  On the whole, primates (in one form or another) have survived on this plant for approximately 40 million years.

Race: A way that some cultures categorize humans that indicates the rank, power and behavior of those placed in these categories within these cultures.  There is no biological basis for race.  Race is a cultural and historical truth that changes from culture to culture and through time.

Reflexivity: A way of looking at or understanding another cultural group using both the values, practices and expectations of one’s own culture as well as those of the culture being viewed.  As a way to understand other cultures reflexivity has some advantages over either cultural relativity or ethnocentrism.  Since it seeks to understand cultures from more than one perspective, deeper insight into the logic behind cultural practices can be revealed.

Rite of Passage: A human universal that marks the transition from one cultural identity to another.  Rites of passage occur in three different stages: separation, liminality and reincorporation.  Examples include funerals, weddings, baby showers and birthdays.

Science: A field that seeks to answer questions of interest and important to the field.  Science is a way to understand the world around us and it utilizes the scientific method and data to verify or refute scientific assertions.  Anthropology is an example of a science.

Scientific Method: The step-by-step process through which scientists answer the questions they ask.  The scientific method consists of 5 steps: 1) Asking a question of interest in a scientific field, 2) Answering that question with a best educated guess or hypothesis, 3) Creating a relevant experiment to test this hypothesis, 4) Conducting the test and collecting data, and 5) Analyzing the results to determine if the hypothesis was proven correct or incorrect.  A hypothesis that is proven true in numerous experiments is a theory.  In other words, a theory is a well-supported and proven  hypothesis.

Sex: Biologically determined categories of female, male and hermaphrodite that indicate physical attributes (genitalia, genes, pelvic bone shape and secondary sexual characteristics) that distinguish one category from another.  Unlike gender, sex stays the same from culture to culture and through time.

Stratigraphy: Geological and archaeological layers of earth and sediment used by archaeologists to determine the relative age of their findings.

Technology:  Human tool making and human tool use.  Technology comes in two basic forms - domestic and industrial.

Universal: This is something that is found in every single human culture but it may differ from culture–to-culture and through time in one culture.  Anthropologists are interested in comparing and contrasting human universals because they offer the opportunity to gain further insight into how and why different cultures work in the ways that they do.  Some examples of universals include marriage, language, weddings, family, funerals, rites of passage, gender, economic system, technology and medicine.

 

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