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Cultural Anthropology

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Cultural anthropology is the study of human society and culture, the sub-field that describes, analyses, interprets, and explains social and cultural similarities and differences. Cultural anthropology examines cultural diversity of the present and recent past. Of the sub-fields, cultural anthropology has the largest membership. To study and interpret cultural diversity, cultural anthropologists engage in two kind of activity:

(i) Ethnography: Ethnography provides an account of a ‘particular’ community, society, or culture (based on fieldwork). During ethnographic fieldwork, the ethnographer gathers data that he/she organizes, describes, analyses, and interprets to build and present that account, which may be in the form of a book, article, or film. Traditionally, ethnographers have lived in small communities and studied local behavior, beliefs, customs, social life, economic activities, politics, and religion.

Characteristics of Ethnographers: Since culture primarily relates to the way people interact with each other, it is not possible to adequately observe it in a laboratory setting. The first-hand, personal study of local cultural setting is ethnography. Traditionally, the process of becoming cultural anthropologists has required a field experience in another society. Early ethnographers lived in small-scale societies, with simple technologies and economics. Ethnography thus emerged as a research strategy in societies with greater cultural uniformity and less social differentiation than are found in large, modern, industrial nations.

In such non-industrial settings, ethnographers have needed to consider fewer paths of enculturation to understand social life. 

ii) Ethnology: Ethnology examines, interprets, analyzes, and compares the results of Ethnography – the data gathered from different societies. Ethnology is essentially a synthesis of the work of many ethnographers. It used such data to compare and contrast and to make generalizations about society and culture. Looking beyond the particular to the more general, ethnologists attempt to identify and explain cultural differences and similarities, to test hypotheses, and to build theory to enhance our understanding of how social and cultural systems work. Social Anthropology is concerned with the cultures and ways of life of all the world’s societies in both the present and recent past – from remote tribal communities to industrial societies.  

Culture and society is not the same thing. While cultures are complexes of learned behavior patterns and perceptions, societies are groups of interacting organisms. People are not the only animals that have societies. Schools of fish, flocks of birds, and hives of bees are societies. In the case of humans, however, societies are groups of people who directly or indirectly interact with each other. People in human societies also generally perceive that their society is distinct from other societies in terms of shared traditions and expectations. While human societies and cultures are not the same thing, they are inextricably connected because culture is created and transmitted to others in a society.

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