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"The “Anthropology for Beginners” blog by Suman Nath is one of the most user/reader friendly sites relative to such an endeavor." - Global Oxford "This blog contains lots of study materials on Anthropology and related topics" - University of Kassel University of Houston includes Anthropology for beginners in their recommended reading list. This is a humble endeavour to collect study materials on anthropology and then share it with interested others. How to use: 1. One can see materials by clicking "Blog Archives" which is arranged chronologically. 2. Or can search in the search box provided by using key words. I have not tried to be exhaustive, but its just elementary materials which will help newcomers to build up their materials better. Because of the rising number of requests from people across the world, Anthropology for beginners has started a youtube channel. Those who are willing to have some explanations to the materials available in this blog can subscribe to this link: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC_cq5vZOzI9aDstQEkru_MQ/videos Watch the introductory video to get an overview of the youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RY9DOnD0Uxo You can write me about the posts. Feel free to write me at sumananthro1@gmail.com Best, Suman

Wednesday 20 December 2023

Archaeology of power and identity: the political use of the discipline


Archaeology of power and identity: the political use of the discipline. 1

The two ways of looking at archaeology and its use and abuse of power and identity: 1

Power and politics embedded within archaeological records: 1

Power and discipline of Archaeology: 1

The conceptual parameter of Identity: 2


Archaeology of power and identity: the political use of the discipline

Archaeology by and large does not directly engage in the key political struggles of the modern world. Archaeologists do not in any noteworthy way direct armies, shape economies, write laws, or imprison or free people from bondage (McGuire, 2018). However, archaeology has been and is being used by politics, ideology and identity in a profound way. Hodder (2005) argues that On the one hand, ideology represents the interests of the dominant group in society. The dominant perspective becomes absorbed and ‘taken for granted’. We become mystified and duped. On the other hand, ideology can be seen as enabling as well as misrepresenting. He opined that it is important to take the second stand and investigate how archaeological data are being misrepresented.

The two ways of looking at archaeology and its use and abuse of power and identity:

Gamble (2004) suggests we can look at the idea of power and politics in archaeology from at least two different perspectives, first, the entity of power as embedded within the archaeological record, and second within the discipline of archaeology, in its theory and practice.

Power and politics embedded within archaeological records:

We can investigate the social inequality of the past societies from archaeological records which range from grave goods and ornaments to the settlement pattern. However, as we investigate them, we also need to keep it in mind that we are using the categories and perceptions of our investigation from the kind of experiences that we have in our present world. The major categories such as gender, ethnicity, class positions, etc. can be derived along the axis of power. Although, these categories of findings are often seen as ‘objective’ and scientific in nature and are not really linked to existing socio-cultural hierarchies, their use by the ruling dispensation like what Hoddar (2005) argues are nevertheless part of politics, politics of identity construction and formulation.

Power and discipline of Archaeology:

Perhaps the second and more important category of understanding the political use of archaeology is to look at the ways in which archaeologists have actively shaped our understanding of the world. Trigger (1984) has described archaeologies as being nationalist, colonialist or imperalist.

Archaeology has been, and is still, important in the establishment of national identities. Therefore, archaeological records are being vividly interpreted and used by the competing political regimes to establish and rationalize their particular ideology and frames of rule. Using this lens one can understand in what ways Hindu Nationalism has proliferated in India in recent decade and has pushed the secular forces towards the margins. One of the many reference points has been the archaeological establishment of Hastinapur as a city connected to the epic Mahabharata, or for that matter the construction of Ram temple in Ayodhya.

Colonial archaeologies denigrate non-Western societies to the status of static yet living museums from which the nature of the past might be inferred. The unchanged and living museum like character has been used in legitimizing the colonial rule over its subjects. In fact, the categories such as ‘primitive’, ‘native’, ‘barbar’, ‘savage’, and later on like ‘under-developed’, ‘backward’, has been ‘scienfically’ projected to not only legitimize the colonization but also to dehumanize the ‘other’. Archaeology has been systematically used in such a process. Archaeologists, most of them, during the colonial period has not only helped establishing and rationalizing the colonial rule over the rest of the world, but also was directly responsibly for establishing institutions which are carrying this legacy even in the post-colonial period. The Archaeological Survey of India for example was established during the British period. These institutions have also helped transporting the archaeologically significant entities from their places of origins to the colonizers museums, most famously, the British Museum.

Imperialist archaeologies (largely those developed in Britain and America) exert theoretical hegemony over research in the rest of the world through extensively engaging in research abroad, playing a major role in training either foreign students or those who subsequently obtain employment abroad, and in the dissemination of texts. The American expression of the new archaeology, advocating high-level generalization and a crosscultural comparative perspective, 'asserts the unimportance of national traditions . . . and of anything that stands in the way of American economic activity and political influence' (Trigger, 1984, p. 366). At an even more general level, Friedman (1986) has inserted archaeology into what he claims to be world cycles of 'traditionalist-culturalist', 'modernist' and 'post-modernist' cultural identities or cosmologies.

The conceptual parameter of Identity:

It is important to understand that archaeological facts which we use to explore the concepts like identity, power, ethnicity and nationalism are quite abstract in nature. The problems of archaeological records, therefore, is the fact that the past is not a neutral subject. It is not something of interests to only the researchers and readers, but it is also of the interests to lobbyists and competing political forces. At one level of the identity spectrum is concered with the construction of our personal identity, that sense of self. At another we also belong to much larger communities that influence what that self will be and against which it will be tested. Here lies the contestation of present and past, and here lies the role of lobbyists and political players. As scholars like Irfan Habib and Romila Thapar variously sees history as a result of the interaction between past and present, archaeological records are being used and interpreted in particular ways so as to go in line with the power groups. They are helped in formulation of national identities and political identities in present era. Similarly, they were used in constructing the multiple and often derogatory identities of the ‘weak’ others.  

Tuesday 26 September 2023

Cultural Relativism


Cultural Relativism          

                        Cultural Relativism expresses the idea that the beliefs and practices of others are best understood in the light of the particular cultures in which they are found. The idea is predicated on the degree to which human behavior is held to be culturally determined, a basic tenet of American cultural anthropology. This is often joined with the argument that because all extant cultures are viable adaptations and equally deserving of respect, they should not be subjected to invidious judgments of worth or value by outsiders. Alternatively, some argue that since all norms are specific to the culture in which they were formulated, there can be no universal standards of judgment.            

                Cultural relativism in American cultural anthropology is often attributed to the critique of social evolutionist perspectives by Franz BOAS and his students, especially Ruth BENEDICT, Margaret MEAD, and Melville HERSKOVITS. Boas criticized the use of EVOLUTIONARY STAGES as the basis for organizing museum displays, arguing that exhibits should display artifacts in the context of specific cultures.          

                Most societies are not relativist: they view their own ways as good, other people's as bad, inferior, or immoral   a form of ETHNOCENTRISM. However, the reverse is also possible, a syndrome Melford Spiro (1992b: 62 7) termed "inverted ethnocentrism," in which some anthropologists go well beyond relativism to assert that Western culture is globally inferior to Primitive or Third World cultures.       

                Cultural relativism as an approach can be contrasted with the search for human UNIVERSALS, the latter often grounded in claims based on such analytic perspectives as Freudian psychology, marxist political economy, Darwinian natural selection, or technoenvironmental determinism. Strong cultural relativists often see anthropology more as an art than a science and prefer to interpret symbolic meanings rather than explain social mechanisms. Clifford GEERTZ (1984b) has been an influential spokesman for this approach.    

                In the broader philosophical context, cultural relativism is sometimes merged with cognate forms of relativism (moral, ethical, cognitive, linguistic, historical, etc.) under the general rubric of Relativism, which is then seen in opposition to Rationalism, or occasionally, Fundamentalism (see M. Hollis & Lukes 1982). In treating the lively debates on cultural relativism in anthropology and philosophy, Spiro (1992b) discussed cultural relativism in relation to both cultural diversity and cultural determinism. Taking the existence of cultural variation as well documented, as do most anthropologists, he distinguished three types of cultural relativism   descriptive, normative, and epistemological   each with its attendant subtypes.           

                These detailed distinctions have not become conventional within the discipline. Most anthropologists remain content to distinguish the first-order methodological use of cultural relativism in anthropology from insensitive ethnocentric attempts to arrive at final ethical, moral, or scientific judgments.

Thursday 17 August 2023

Anthropology-Psychology interface


Anthropology and Psychology interface:


Anthropology and Psychology interface: 1

Beginnings – Culture-Personality: 1

Concepts developed through the interface. 2

Models for humans: 2

Cultural Models: 2

Embodiment and neurophenomenology: 3

Further reading: 3



Anthropologists who work at the interface of psychology and anthropology have developed a field of Psychological Anthropology. It approaches the comparative study of human experience, behavior, facts, and artifacts from a dual sociocultural and psychological most often psychodynamic perspective. It emerged in the early twentieth century as an attempt to understand our common humanity, led by such figures as Franz Boas and his students Edward Sapir, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Melville Herskovits. Psychological anthropology displays an arc of theoretical approaches ranging from scientific positivism, which embraces objectivity and the scientific method, through various hermeneutic humanisms that emphasize the role of subjectivity in fieldwork and writing (Suárez-Orozco 1994).

The 1970s saw the invention of psychological anthropology, the 1980s brought us cultural sychology, in the 1990s we rediscovered the body and phenomenology, and at the same time witnessed the resurgence of cognitive anthropology which, during the first decade of the twenty-first century would appear to dominate the field, contributing to the development of what is today called cognitive science.

Beginnings – Culture-Personality:

The origin of such approaches in rooted to Culture and Personality school, which was a broad and unorganized movement that brought together anthropologists, psychiatrists, and psychologists who agreed on the mutual relevance of their disciplines but lacked a common theoretical position, an acknowledged leader, and an institutional base. Its founders were Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Edward SAPIR, all students of Franz Boas, whose influential concept of Culture had implied a psychological dimension they attempted to spell out and translate into research. They argued that culture played a role in individual psychological development (Mead) and in the emotional patterns typical of particular cultures (Benedict), and also that individuals of a particular society realized its culture in different ways (Sapir). They criticized psychological theories that posited Universals for the human species without taking into account human variability as revealed by anthropological fieldwork in diverse cultures. At the same time, they were influenced by those psychological and psychiatric theories that emphasized social influences on the individual, such as the neo-Freudian formulations of Karen Horney and the interpersonal psychiatry of Harry Stack Sullivan. Although the movement had no formal organization, its anthropological founders were joined at seminars, conferences, and in publications by sociologists, psychologists, and psychoanalysts   including W. I. Thomas, John Dollard, Erik Erikson, Abram Kardiner, Henry A. Murray   and by a growing circle of anthropologists   Ralph Linton, A. Irving Hallowell, Gregory Bateson, Cora Du Bois, Clyde Kluckhohn, and John W. M. Whiting, to name but a few. The field of culture and personality studies was very active during the 1930s and in the postwar period 1945 50, as a new generation of anthropologists conducted studies among Native American peoples and in the Pacific.         

Concepts developed through the interface

Models for humans:

Fundamentally, its object is to be conceived of at the outset as living and as human, not as an information-processing device. This model starts with human physical actuality: the fact that each one of us is, like other living things, biologically speaking autopoietic – self-creating, self-regulating. A newborn baby, infant or young child requires other humans to look after its primary needs, making its ontogeny a social process. Indeed, as living systems that are human, each and every one of us needs others if we are to maintain our autonomy over the course of our own lives and contribute to the lives of others. There is nothing paradoxical about this: rather, it is given to us as human beings that the particular nature of our autonomy resides precisely in the history of our relations with one another. In the unified model, mind is a function not of the brain, nor of the embodied nervous system, but of the whole human being in intersubjective relations with others in the environing world. Implicit is a view of consciousness as an aspect of human autopoiesis. Here consciousness cannot be a ‘domain’  or a ‘level of psychological functioning’; rather, it is that aspect of mind that posits the existence of the thinker and the conceptual self-evidentiality of world as lived by the thinker. Intersubjectivity is shorthand for: I know that you are another human like me, and so I know that you know that because I am human, I know that you are too. Whether, over coming decades, cognitive anthropology will continue to dominate our understanding of mind will have everything to do with the extent to which anthropology as an intellectual project is able to realize and come to grips with the real political implications of the ahistorical concept of human being that lies at its heart.

Cultural Models:

The processes through which we know the peopled world, like the neurological processes of which they are an aspect, are likewise autopoietic, characterized by continuing differentiation through functioning. Once we understand this, it becomes obvious that information-processing (or representational) models of mind cannot capture its inherent dynamics. The idea of continuity-in-transformation is interesting, one can think about onself – the whole person, including the ideas about the world – as a dynamic system of transformations; ageing, for example, is one aspect of the workings of this dynamic system, and so is digestion, and so is reading a book, or having a conversation. One remains autonomously oneself even though, from moment to moment and year to year, the continuity through time is that of a dynamically transforming system. The representational model of mind that mirrors objectively given properties of the world which do not go away with the development in the 1990s of cultural psychology. Shweder, however, did his best to move anthropologists away from what he characterized as the ‘Platonic impulse’ that presumed mind to be a fixed and universal property of the psyche. He argued for a cultural psychology that presumes instead that the life of the psyche is the life of intentional persons, responding to, and directing their action at, their own mental objects or representations and undergoing transformation through participation in an evolving intentional world that is the product of the mental representations that make it up (Shweder 1991: 97).

Embodiment and neurophenomenology:

Anthropologists took encouragement from neurophenomenology … [whose] aim is to incorporate phenomenological investigations of experience into neuroscientific research on consciousness. Neurophenomenology focuses especially on the temporal dynamics of conscious experience and brain activity …. (Thompson 2007: 312) Ethnographic studies of how children make sense of the conditions in the world created for them by adults can contribute to the dynamic systems perspective on human development over time as an autopoietic and historical process – one that grounds the entire spectrum of individual difference (within and across regions of the world) in the way that our biology provides for sociality, specifically for empathy and intersubjectivity, as the bedrock condition of human being. Furthermore, the details of ethnographic studies of ontogeny as an historical process feed directly into the argument that the development of the neural processes that characterize human conceptual development is an emergent aspect of the functioning of an embodied nervous system for which intersubjectivity is a necessary condition.

Further reading:

Toren, Christina. (2012). Anthropology and Psychology. In Richard Fardon et al. ed. The SAGE Handbook of

Social Anthropology, (pp.27 – 41). Thousand oaks: Sage


D’Andrade, Roy. 1995. The Development of Cognitive Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University


Schwartz, Theodore, Geoffrey M. White, and Catherine A. Lutz. 1992. New Directions in Psychological

Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Read also the entry on Psychological anthropology here: http://sumananthromaterials.blogspot.com/2013/11/psychological-anthropology-suman-nath.html


also on the Branches of Social-cultural anthropology here: http://sumananthromaterials.blogspot.com/2014/11/branches-of-social-cultural-anthropology.html

Ethnography and Ethnology


Ethnography and Ethnology


Ethnography and Ethnology. 1

Origins: 1

Usage: 1

Key dimensions: 2

Approaches: 3

Ethnography before Malinowski 3

Malinowskian era and immersion: 3

Writing culture and post-Malinowskian era: 4



Ethnology is the attempt to develop rigorous and scientifically grounded explanations of cultural phenomena by comparing and contrasting many human cultures. By contrast, ethnography is the systematic description of a single contemporary culture, often through ethnographic field. The two concepts are often combined in anthropological writings and they have a close and complex historical relationship.


The words "ethnography" and "ethnology" appear to have been introduced in the late eighteenth century. Hans Vermeulen (1995) cited the German historian and linguist August Ludwig Schlözer's Allgemeine nordische Geschichte (1771) as probably the first use of the term "Ethnographie," which Schlözer seemed to employ interchangeably with the term "Völkerkunde" to designate the descriptive and historical study of peoples and nations. Vermeulen noted Schlözer's involvement with the Imperial Russian Academy of Sciences and his residency in St. Petersburg in the 1760s, where he ed with G. F. Müller, J. E. Fischer, and other German scholars recruited by the Russian government to report on the peoples of the newly explored eastern territories.


There is a duality in the idea of ethnography. On one hand, the word designates observations, ranging from isolated remarks to extended studies of nations, tribes, or peoples, by anyone who has recorded what he has seen or heard. On the other hand, ethnography also designated the aspiration to collect systematically, and according to rigorous procedures, facts about human languages, customs, arts, and achievements. Ethnography in this sense included the culling of material from documents and interviews with visitors returning from foreign lands and the redaction of this material into learned treatises. The scientific ethnographer was someone who staked a fairly large claim on erudition, breadth of learning, and capacious memory; thus ethnography gained a certain reputation as a field for pedants.              

Ethnology and ethnography developed, of course, dialectically. As the antiquity of man became established in the mid-nineteenth century and anthropological inquiry began to focus on evolutionary questions, the need for better data became clear. In 1843, Prichard and two of his colleagues drew up a schedule of questions to guide observations of native peoples (Penniman 1935: 53). Lewis Henry Morgan began sending his first kinship terminology questionnaires to missionaries and commercial agents in January 1859 (Trautmann 1987: 103). In 1874, the British Association for the Advancement of Science published its first edition of Notes and queries on anthropology, for the use of travellers and residents in uncivilized lands. These attempts to guide inquiry sometimes had richer returns than their authors anticipated, as recipients began to engage the larger problem of putting the answers into local context. The outstanding example is the ethnographic  of Lorimer Fison and A. W. Howitt in Australia, culminating in Kamilaroi and Kurnai (Fison 1880), which grew out of the missionary Fison's original correspondence with Morgan (see Stocking 1995: 17 34). By the last decades of the nineteenth century, there were several examples of a new kind of ethnographic book in which the hypothetical pronouncements of armchair theorists were tested against the author's own observations. Robert Henry Codrington's The Melanesians (1891) and Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen's The native tribes of central Australia (1899) exemplify this new, theoretically informed style of extended firsthand observation. Also during this period, the Bureau of American Ethnology began its publication of ethnographic monographs based on systematic field.

Key dimensions:

The underlying contrast between the interview and ordinary (some might say naturalistic) conversation remains at the core of scholarly  on ethnographic interviewing. Most generally, discussions of the ways ethnographic interviewing differs from other kinds of interviewing have tended to emphasise how ethnographic interviewing aims to be more like ordinary conversation. scholars typically focus mainly on two key dimensions of the ethnographic interview process that I have called embeddedness and openness.


The ethnographic interview is distinguished from other kinds of qualitative interview in its striving for a high level of embeddedness. The term embeddedness may be used in two senses: to describe the degree to which the interview is taking place within the social world one is studying, rather than in isolation from it; and to describe the degree to which the interview is conducted from within a field of knowledge about the social, cultural and material world of the interviewee. This embeddedness can result in deeper understanding of the ‘other’ and produce ‘thicker’ description about their life as they live (Geertz 1973).

Second criterion for embeddedness refers to the degree to which the interview unfolds within the interviewee’s everyday social milieu. The most embedded interviews in this sense take place within the context of long-term participant observation, after researchers have made efforts to establish a place within the nets of social relations of the people they will be interviewing. By speaking the local language or local dialect, and by being attentive to social norms, ideally they will have established rapport with their interviewees, and earned their trust. This stands in contrast to interviews that take place in isolated settings in which the interviewee knows the interviewer only as a researcher, and not as neighbour, friend, co-er, or perhaps, (fictive) kin. In much psychological interviewing, there is in fact an effort to minimize the effects of the setting and to make sure the social identity and opinions of the interviewer are obscured, so as to encourage responses that are as little affected by external conditions as possible. In ethnographic interviews, by contrast, interviewers deliberately seek to approach their interviewees with an understanding of the complex social relationships involved. Through a deep appreciation of the context of these relationships, they expect to develop a richer and more layered understanding of the social worlds they are studying.


In addition to embeddedness, the ethnographic  can be distinguished from other kinds of qualitative interview by its degree of openness. It is informal because there are no lists of questions, the ethnographer is not taking on the role of an interrogator, and it happens in the course of everyday social interactions (Agar 1980: 90). In ideal typical terms, structured interviewing, by contrast, involves asking respondents a pre-established list of questions, sometimes using an interview schedule that customizes the direction of the interview based on responses to previous questions. In structured interviewing, the interviewer must be ‘directive and impersonal’, and ideally, ‘nothing is left to chance’ (Fontana and Frey 2000: 650). Between these two extremes are unstructured (or openended) interviewing and semi-structured interviewing.


Ethnographic fieldwork tradition has a long history and it is rooted from the 19th century enlightenment philosophy. Roughly the ethnographic approaches can be divided into the following traditions.

Ethnography before Malinowski

While anthropology was developed with enlightenment philosophy and British territorial expansionism, it is commonly believed that ethnographic fieldwork which tends to dominate much of the practices of anthropology started with Malinowski. Before Malinowski, there were surveys and before that there was anthropology from distance popularly known as the ‘armed chair anthropology’.  A recent edited volume Ethnographers before Malinowski: Pioneers of Anthropological Fieldwork, 1870-1922 by Frederico Delgado Rosa, and Han F. Vermeulen (2022) show that there was serious ethnographic fieldwork being carried out by scholars before Malinowski. Women practitioners and indigenous experts have been documenting society and culture quite like an ethnographer during the era when 19th century evolutionism was the dominant paradigm. For example, it was Franz Boas’ prescription to adapt to ‘their’ customs in order to become a fieldworker hinting towards immersion based work.

Malinowskian era and immersion:

As Malinowski did his seminal work in Trobriand Island and published his principal work, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), which established him as one of Europe's most important anthropologists he successfully influenced a generation of anthropologist with his rather unique of method of participant observation.[i]  He took posts as a lecturer and later as chair in anthropology at the London School of Economics, attracting large numbers of students and exerting great influence on the development of British social anthropology. Over the years, he guest-lectured at several American universities; when World War II broke out, he remained in the United States, taking an appointment at Yale University. During this entire period of his career he has been successful to influence social anthropologists all over the world to embrace participant observation because, being there is seen as resulting in production of much superior information and that has an advantage over the survey methods because there is a difference between what people say they do and what they actually do. Even today, the stereotypical ethnographer is seen as doing participant observation, but researchers also perform quantitative, survey, textual, demographic, and other types of analysis, depending on local conditions and the nature of the research project. Until recently the optimal choice was to seek out as exotic a locale for research as possible; choosing sites closer to home and writing library dissertations were viewed as inferior alternatives. Researchers carrying out traditional fieldwork are supposed to immerse themselves, taking in large amounts of vastly different kinds of data. This range and abundance of "raw" experience and observation helps put the more formally acquired information, gathered through structured interviews, for instance, into context. Supporters of traditional fieldwork also argue that a great deal of learning about people and CULTURE needs to occur through direct experience, as opposed to the distancing and objectivity of the scientific method. Learning through senses other than seeing and hearing   by smelling or imitating habitual body postures, for instance   should occur (Stoller 1989). Through using their senses anthropologists serve as data-gathering instruments and alterations in themselves become a way of knowing; or, as Susan Harding states, "the only certain evidence of the reality that preoccupies ethnographers, of shared unconscious knowledge, is experiential" (1987: 180).

Writing culture and post-Malinowskian era:

The tradition of fieldwork set by Malinowski and later anthropologists continued to embrace immersion and continue to produce an authoritative accounts on the natives until it was late 1980s and especially before the James Clifford and George Marcus’ Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Writing Culture movement in the 1990s was by the “writing against culture” movement, which expressed misgivings about a common form of anthropological thought that imposed excessive and disadvantaging “otherness” on the cultures and peoples studied. This movement implicitly reasserted the humanist universalism of anthropology and pointed up how other cultures were described in terms that distanced and dehumanized them. This was a very direct and forceful challenge to customary descriptive and categorizing practices, and it provoked strong debate in the discipline. Fundamentally they brought out a few uncomfortable truths:

a)      How far an ethnographer’s account of a people is accurate, especially in an era of post-structuralism when it is well known that writing is fashioning and when you write you tend to objectify reality.

b)      If there is a ‘mispresentation’ of reality in ethnographic writings wheather the finished ethnography is poetically written to appease its readers, or political written to appease their masters.

c)       What about the individual biases that might result in (un)intentional creation of fiction about a group of people.

d)      Where lies the truth, is it in the diary that Malinowski wrote (A diary in the strict sense of the term) or in the ethnographic account?

These questions opened up new possibilities for ethnographic work and some of the new directions include:

a)      Experience near ethnography – ethnographies which are being conducted by an ethnographer on his/her own culture

b)      Self reflexivity – when an ethnographer speaks openly about his/her own position in the ethnography and more generally.

c)       Multi-site ethnography – when an ethnographer is no longer documenting everything under the sun but working on a particular research question at multiple sites.

[i] Participant-Observation is long-term, intense interaction with members of a community during which the researcher plunges into their activities as completely as possible, for example, by attending rituals, "hanging out," or washing clothes at the river with other women. It is considered to be the hallmark of traditional anthropological field research. Advantages of participant-observation are numerous. (1) It is virtually the only way to conduct ethnographic research with people who do not speak a written language. (2) The researcher is "there" all the time, and consequently sees what happens when people are preparing for events or mopping up afterwards, behaving according to the rules or breaking them. (3) Immersion in community life results in the fieldworker becoming less intrusive, less of a stranger, and thus in increased trust and tolerance on the part of members of the community. (4) Being on their turf, the researcher can more easily discern the peoples' customary, unexamined habits and perspectives than if they were in a setting less familiar to them. (5) Behavior is observed first hand rather than elicited from peoples' accounts of what happened. (6) Being there and speaking the language vastly increases the chances of comprehending the meaning of what is happening from the peoples' point of view.      

The disadvantages of participant-observation include: (1) the investment of a huge amount of time, some of which is not spent very efficiently. (2) People may resent what they see as snoopy, sneaky behavior by inquisitive anthropologists. (3) Participant-observation is sometimes difficult to explain to people (and university committees interested in informed-consent guidelines). (4) The presence of the anthropologist, at times strongly felt, affects the behavior being investigated. (5) It is virtually impossible to adequately demonstrate to readers of ethnographic reports why one's conclusions, if based on participant-observation, should be accepted beyond the assertion that "since I was there, my perceptions are accurate." This is why participant-observation is not, properly speaking, a methodology (although some speak of it as such: see Spradley 1980) and why researchers always utilize additional structured or semistructured techniques such as censuses, genealogies, projective tests, or structured interviews with a carefully drawn sample.

Monday 22 May 2023

Culture and Personality with special emphasis on Margaret Mead


Culture and Personality


Culture and personality is the name of a broad unrecognized movement which brings cultural anthropology, psychology and psychiatry together from about 1928 to 1955. After 1960s the field becomes known as psychological anthropology. The primary aim is to study human experience, facts and artifacts from a dual socio-cultural as well as psychological point of view. Its founders are Margaret Mead, Edward Sapir, are all students of Franz Boas.


Basic idea:

The study of culture and personality seeks to understand the growth and development of personal or social identity as it relates to the surrounding social environment (Barnouw 1963).  More specifically Mead argues that culture plays role in the development of individual psychology. For Benedict emotional status are typical of particular culture. Sapir shows that people of the same society recognizes its culture differently. In other words, through the examination of individual personalities, broader correlations and generalizations can be made about the specific culture of those members.  This has led to examinations of national character, modal personality types and configurations of personality.



The approaches range from positivism to various hermeneutic humanism. The approaches can be broadly categorized into the following:

A.    Anti culture personality position.

B.     Personality is culture view or configurationalist approach.

C.     Reductionist position

D.    Personality mediation view


A. Anti culture personality position:

            Despite of the psychological inclination of major contemporary theorists such as Lasswell (1930, 1948, 1968) the institutional social science did not accept the assumptions on which culture and personality theoretical position is based. The influence of Durkheim and positivistic philosophy left little space to bring subjective perspective.


B. Personality is Culture or Configurationalist approach (Special emphasis on Margaret Mead)


The approach of Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict and some of their co-workers is known as Configurationalist approach or personality is culture view. They applied the relativist approach to the study of Personality.

            For them Culture and personality are both configurations of behaviour that are manifested and carried by individuals as characteristic of a group. These two are also psychologically interpreted in individual behaviour or in collective products such as myth, ritual, art, recreation, politics etc.

            They argue that personality represents an aspect of culture, in which emotional responses and cognitive capacities of an indivifual are programmed in accordance with the overall design or configuration of his culture, i.e., the cultural patterning of personality (Mead 1928, 1932, 1935 Benedict 1934a, 1934b, 1938, 1939).



Margaret Mead was a distinguished anthropologist, an intellectual and a scientist. She is the author of numerous books on primitive societies and she also wrote about many contemporary issues. Some of the areas in which she was prominent were education, ecology, the women's movement, the bomb, and student uprisings.

She was a student of Ruth Benedict. Her monograph Coming of Age in Samoa (1949) established her as one of the leading anthropologists of the day. It was a work done under the guidance of Franz Boas. Boas went on to point out that at the time of publication, many Americans had begun to discuss the problems faced by young people (particularly women) as they pass through adolescence as "unavoidable periods of adjustment." Boas felt that a study of the problems faced by adolescents in another culture would be illuminating.

And so, as Mead herself described the goal of her research: "I have tried to answer the question which sent me to Samoa: Are the disturbances which vex our adolescents due to the nature of adolescence itself or to the civilization? Under different conditions does adolescence present a different picture?" To answer this question, she conducted her study among a small group of Samoans — a village of 600 people on the island of Ta‘u — in which she got to know, live with, observe, and interview through an interpreter 68 young women between the ages of 9 and 20. She concluded that the passage from childhood to adulthood — adolescence — in Samoa was a smooth transition and not marked by the emotional or psychological distress, anxiety, or confusion seen in the United States. As Boas and Mead expected, this book upset many Westerners when it first appeared in 1928. Many American readers were shocked by her observation that young Samoan women deferred marriage for many years while enjoying casual sex but eventually married, settled down, and successfully reared their own children. In 1983, five years after Mead had died, Australian anthropologist Derek Freeman published Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, in which he challenged Mead's major findings about sexuality in Samoan society, claiming evidence that her informants had misled her. After years of discussion, many anthropologists concluded that the truth would probably never be known, although most published accounts of the debate have also raised serious questions about Freeman's critique (Appell 1984, Brady 1991, Feinberg 1988, Leacock 1988).

Starting as a configurationalist, Mead wrote about national character.  Hired in World War II by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), Mead researched the national character of England and compared it to that found within the United States.  She determined that in each society the norms for interaction between the sexes differed, leading to many misunderstandings between the two otherwise similar cultures.

She continued to write on topics which focused on women's roles, childrearing, and other issues which clarify gender roles in primitive cultures and aspects of American society. These works include "Male and Female," "Balinese Character: A Photo Analysis," "Cooperation and Competition Among Primitive Peoples," "Continuities in Cultural Evolution," and "New Life for Old." She remained an active writer all of her life and her bibliography from 1925-1975 runs more than 100 pages.

Photography was not as common in Mead's lifetime as it is now. However, she did a tremendous job of integrating her photography with her writing skills. In doing this she was able to study CULTURE at a distance. This had never been done before in this manner and served to be an advantage during World War ll in helping to understand the environment of Germany and Japan.

C. Reductionist position:

            Mostly influenced by Geza Roheim (1950), it is an approach that gave exhaustive emphasis of mind over other factors of cultural and social behavior.


D. The personality mediation view:

Abraham Cardiner  (1939) a psychoanalyst in collaboration with anthropologist Ralph Linton (1936, 1945), have formulated this idea. This view splits culture in to two halves. First, maintenance system, i.e., the determinants of personality. Second, projective system, i.e., the outcome of personality. Therefore, personality acts as an intervening factor.


Further reading:

Levine and Levine (1966). Culture Behaviour and Personality.

Thomas Barfield (1996) Dictionary of Anthropology.

Philip Bock (1999). Rethinking Psychological Anthropology.




Culture and personality - a brief introduction (bi-lingual, meant for my students)