Sociocultural Anthropology

In the United States, anthropology usually is considered to consist of four subdisciplines, or ‘‘subfields’’: archaeology (describing and understanding past human behavior by examining material remains), physical or biological anthropology (describing the evolution and modern physical variation of the human species), anthropological linguistics, and sociocultural anthropology. Most university departments of anthropology have faculty in three or four of these subdisciplines. Sociocultural anthropology often is called simply cultural anthropology in the United States, although a few academic programs use the term ‘‘social anthropology,’’ the common designation in Europe. Some anthropologists identify applied anthropology as a fifth subfield, while others consider it part of sociocultural anthropology.

Anthropology is defined as the study of human commonalities and differences and expressly includes the entire temporal and geographic range of humankind in its scope. The database of the discipline is large, including prehistoric populations as well as every variety of contemporary society. In distinguishing itself from other social sciences, anthropology emphasizes the holistic, comparative, culture-centered, and fieldwork-dependent nature of the discipline.

In Europe, social anthropology is more closely allied with economics, history, and political philosophy than it is with physical anthropology and archaeology, which often are taught in separate programs. As social anthropology evolved in Europe, it came to be associated with studies of the economy, ecology, polity, kinship patterns, and social organization of non-Western peoples, particularly in colonial Africa and Asia. The European approach to theory was associated with sociological (especially functionalist) and, more recently, historical approaches. In the United States, where research focused initially on Native Americans and was strongly influenced by the particularistic descriptive approach of Franz Boas’s ethnography, anthropology came to be associated with culture, that ‘‘complex whole’’ (in Edward Tylor’s words) encompassing customs, language, material culture, social order, philosophy, arts, and so on. European social anthropologists have not failed to address culture and Americans have not neglected social structure, yet the difference in terminology distinguishes an emphasis on social relations from an emphasis on shared meaning and behavior.

The heart of sociocultural anthropology is ethnography, the written description of a culture group. Ethnography has undergone many changes since it began with field reports by missionaries and colonial officials. The pace of change has increased since the 1960s, as recognition of global links has become standard, other social scientists have adopted ethnographic methods, and postmodernism has imposed stricter self-reflective criteria on writers. The methodological partner of ethnography is ethnology, the comparative study of societies. In its first decades, anthropology established the ideal that a complete ethnographic record of the world’s cultures would allow comparative studies that would lead to generalizations about the evolution and functioning of all societies. Cross-cultural studies continue to be one of the distinctive contributions of anthropology to the social sciences.


Anthropology and sociology share common origins in the nineteenth-century European search for a science of society. Sociocultural anthropology and sociology also share a theoretical history in the ongoing struggle between the desire for a generalizing, rule-seeking science and that for a humanistic reflection of particular lives. Throughout the twentieth century, academic specialization and differences in research topics, geographic focus, and methodological emphasis separated the two disciplines. In the last several decades, globalization has fostered a partial reconvergence of methods and subjects, though not of worldviews, ethos, or academic bureaucracies.

Sociocultural anthropology often is contrasted with sociology: It is said that anthropologists study small-scale societies, assume that those societies are self-sufficient, and are usually outsiders (politically, ethnically, and economically) to the groups they study. These generalizations are partly true. The methods of sociocultural anthropology have emphasized the usefulness of seeking ‘‘the large in the small’’ by becoming intimately acquainted with a single band, village, tribe, island, or neighborhood, and anthropology’s early link to colonialism and its base of support in Europe, Japan, China, and the United States has privileged wealthy outsiders as observers of peasants, tribal peoples, and marginalized groups. However, anthropology has always kept the larger picture in mind, and for every study of an ‘‘isolated’’ population, there are ethnographies that reveal links at the regional, national, and global levels. The affiliation of sociocultural anthropology with archaeology and paleoanthropology ensures that the long term and the large scale are never far from sight. Ethnographies of industrialized societies, ranging from ethnic minorities to corporate cultures, begin with the microcosm but connect to larger questions. Sociology has been associated from its beginnings with studies of modernization and globalization in Western societies. In the postwar world, anthropologists became of necessity students of these processes in the same small communities that had been their prewar subjects of study. Anthropologists have sought ways to encompass urban life, regional processes, and global economic and political transformations in their work, leading them to develop skills in quantitative social research as well as their traditional qualitative methods.

Developments in method and theory in the twentieth century have led to a widely perceived split between sociocultural anthropologists who seek a ‘‘natural science of society’’ and those who emphasize anthropology’s humanistic role as an interpreter of cultural worlds. These differences are reflected in the distinction between ‘‘emic’’ and ‘‘etic’’ strategies. Based on the linguistic concept of the phoneme, emic work calls for the researcher to understand the ‘‘inside’’ view, focus on meaning and interpretation, and ‘‘grasp the native’s point of view . . . to realize his vision of his world,’’ in Bronislaw Malinowski’s words. A good ethnography enables readers to understand the motives, meanings, and emotions of a different cultural world. The etic (from ‘‘phonetic’’) approach seeks generalizations beyond the internal cultural worlds of actors, applying social science concepts to the particulars of a culture and often using cross-cultural comparisons to test hypotheses. A good ethnography presents data that can be compared with other cases. In recent years, the writing of ethnography has self-consciously struggled to develop a style that can evoke the sensibility of a culture while including descriptive information in a format that allows cross-cultural comparisons.

Sociocultural anthropology begins with description and usually intends that description (ethnography) to be a prelude to cross-cultural comparison that will lead to generalizations about types of societies or even about human universals. At the same time, anthropologists are as likely as other social scientists to be influenced by fashions in theory.


The nineteenth-century origins of anthropology, like those of sociology, are rooted in the expanding inquiry into the nature of human society that characterizes the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but anthropology’s roots also involve the questions of biological and social evolutionism characteristic of the era, as epitomized in the work of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer. Anthropology and sociology share origins in the foundational work of Durkheim, Weber, and Marx. However, cultural anthropology adds to its pantheon of ancestors Tylor, Morgan, and Frazer; it is in the work of these three men that one can see how anthropology was set on a different trajectory. The American Lewis Henry Morgan (Ancient Society, 1877) and the British Edward Burnett Tylor (Primitive Culture, 1871) and James Frazer (The Golden Bough, 1890) are counted among the founders of anthropology because they sought to establish general laws of human society through the comparative study of historical and contemporary peoples. Tylor, Morgan, and Frazer were unilineal evolutionists who believed that universal stages of evolution could be identified in the transition from simple to complex societies and that modern peoples could be ranked in this evolutionary scale. These two strands—the belief that comparison can produce scientific generalizations and the search for evolutionary processes—continue to characterize anthropology, though the racist evolutionism of these early approaches was discarded as anthropology was established as a discipline in the 1920s and 1930s.

While the work of the nineteenth-century social theorists presaged both anthropology and sociology, by the turn of the century, each field was established in separate academic departments and increasingly distinct research programs. In the United States, anthropology as a scholarly project emerged through the work of scholars drawn to the task of reconstructing Native American cultures and languages, especially under the auspices of the Bureau of American Ethnology and the formative political, administrative, and scientific work of Franz Boas. Boas responded to the prevailing ideas of unilineal evolutionism with a theory that came to be called historical particularism, rejecting broad generalizations about stages of evolution in favor of detailed studies of the environmental context and historical development of particular societies. Boas also trained the first generation of professional anthropologists in the United States, and his students, such as Alfred L. Kroeber, Robert Lowie, and Edward Sapir, pioneered new theories that could replace unilineal evolutionism. Sapir’s and Benjamin Whorf’s work on links between language and culture, Margaret Mead’s on enculturation and psychological anthropology, Ruth Benedict’s on ethos, Zora Neale Hurston’s on folklore, and Kroeber’s on the superorganic all fostered decades of theoretical development that pushed American anthropology in distinctive directions. Field studies with Native Americans and other North American minorities honed the skills of the first generations of American anthropologists in linguistic work, informant interviews, life histories, and historical reconstruction and established the holistic style of American anthropology, integrating archaeology, linguistics, and physical anthropology with the study of society and culture.

While Boas’s students filled library shelves with detailed and impressive ethnographies, a new theoretical orientation developed in Great Britain that would have a great impact on the culturecentered world of American anthropology. This was functionalism, and its key proponents in anthropology were Bronislaw Malinowski (psychological functionalism) and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (structural functionalism). The period of interest in the ways in which cultural institutions maintain social order—which affected the United States when Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski spent time at American departments of anthropology in the 1930s—marks the point at which most texts officially distinguish British social anthropology from American cultural anthropology. Radcliffe-Brown countered Boasian particularism with an emphasis on the search for general laws of society and stimulated a generation of European and American students to do the same. British social anthropologists turned their analytic focus on the study of persons and relations in persisting social structures and pushed themselves and their students to develop the close observation, incisive analysis, and careful record keeping that marked the coming of age of long-term participant observation as a research method. Functionalist studies took place in the context of colonialism, with the limitations and power imbalance that that implies, yet remain impressive for the quality of detail and their capacity to integrate descriptions of political, economic, and kinship relations. Many ethnographic classics were produced by British social anthropologists of that era (e.g., Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific in 1922 and Evans-Pritchard’s Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande in 1937 and The Nuer, 1940) and their students, including Raymond Firth, Meyer Fortes, Audrey Richards, Lucy Mair, Edmund Leach, Max Gluckman, and Fred Eggan.

While American anthropologists added the study of social structure and function to their repertoire, they did not abandon their interest in historical developments, language, personality, and ethos and retained a ‘‘four-fields’’ orientation in the training of graduate students. While some social anthropologists found the idea of culture impossibly vague, American anthropologists reveled in the complexity of the concept, with Kroeber and Kluckhohn assembling a compendium of more than 150 definitions of ‘‘culture.’’ Stimulated by the challenge of British social anthropology, the work of Kroeber, Mead, Benedict, and Sapir from the 1920s through the 1950s explored culture as a distinct level of analysis and a way to grasp the distinctive ethos and worldview of each culture, along with the active role of the individual’s acts and words in shaping a culture.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the influence of materialist approaches in the social sciences, while limited by the anticommunism in American public life (explicitly Marxist approaches did not appear until the 1970s), was manifested in a new set of evolutionary and generalizing approaches in American anthropology. The work of Julian Steward and Leslie White laid the groundwork for a new approach to studies of adaptation and cultural change. White argued for an evolutionary scheme in which culture (the uniquely human capacity to manipulate symbols), as the superorganic human adaptive mechanism, develops through evolutionary stages marked by the increasing ability of human groups to capture energy through technological systems. Steward worked on a smaller scale, arguing for the analysis of structural similarities among cultures at a regional level, which can be understood by recognizing the hierarchical relations among three ‘‘levels of sociocultural integration’’: technoeconomics (infrastructure), sociopolitical organization, and ideology (superstructure). Steward’s scheme allowed anthropologists to catalogue cultures as structural types and encouraged the study of change over time in a ‘‘multilineal evolutionary’’ process that he contrasted with White’s more abstract global stages.

Materialist studies continued to develop and to shape archaeology as well as cultural anthropology. Marshall Sahlins and Elman R. Service merged White’s and Steward’s approaches in a neoevolutionist theory that encouraged both archaeologists and materialist-oriented sociocultural anthropologists to consider the regional and large-scale classification and development of societies. Marvin Harris, Eleanor Burke Leacock, and Morton Fried attempted to explain cultural diversity and change in the context of the causal primacy of production and reproduction. In the 1960s and 1970s, the new field of cultural ecology developed a ‘‘neofunctionalist’’ approach that allowed scientists to include cultural and social aspects of human behavior in natural science research. Roy Rappaport’s 1967 Pigs for the Ancestors began with an effort to measure the energy intake and outflow of a highland new Guinea population; the 1984 edition included a lengthy discussion of criticisms of neofunctionalist theory and the applicability of adaptive and evolutionary concepts to human groups.

In France, Claude Levi-Strauss was developing ideas that would transform the world of social science through structuralism, which emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as a totalizing theory aiming at uncovering the common structures of the human mind. Structuralism, which was influenced by the linguistics theories of Saussure and Jakobson, treated the products of culture as symbolic systems and examined the formal patterns of those systems in order to envision discern universal structures and cognitive patterns of the human mind. Structuralism was applied to myths, kinship, relations to art, and every other aspect of culture. The work of Levi-Strauss, Edmund Leach, and other structuralists drew sharp rebuttals from theorists who sought explanations of human diversity in material and social conditions rather than in mental templates. Although the abstractness of structuralism eventually limited its interest to students of culture, it continues to be a useful technique, particularly in the analysis of the symbolic products of culture.

Ethnoscience, which emerged in the 1950s, also examined the mental categories underlying cultural products. Drawing heavily on linguistic theory and methodology, ethnoscience tried to develop fieldwork methods sufficiently rigorous to delineate the mental models that generate words and behavior and, in its emphasis on the emic approach, insisted on the necessity of fully accessing the native understanding of cultural domains. As ethnoscience faded in importance in the 1970s, it was succeeded by cognitive anthropology, the cross-cultural study of cognition.

Structuralism, ethnoscience, and responses to materialist neoevolutionist theory stimulated the emergence of symbolic anthropology and cultural analysis in the 1960s and 1970s, and this in turn led to the ‘‘interpretive turn’’ that has continued in cultural anthropology through the rest of the century. Again, linguistics proved influential, as David Schneider, Clifford Geertz, and Victor Turner explored new ways to study the cultural construction of meaning and the public representation of meaning in cultural elements. Most symbolic anthropologists focus on the description and interpretation of particular cultural cases, emphasizing the ethnographer’s role in explicating cultural events or products, though a few symbolic anthropologists, such as Mary Douglas, have sought general models of symbol systems. Symbolic anthropology shifted in the 1980s toward interpretive anthropology, which in turn generated a decade of reflection on the writing of ethnography, seeking modes of representation that would represent the worldview, internal logic, and emotional sensibility of a culture. Emerging from interpretive approaches have been experiments in ethnography, renewed interest in life histories, and extensive critiques of an etic-oriented ethnography that relies on the authoritative voice of an ‘‘outside’’ observer and author. The 1980s also saw a new interest in history, spurred in part by the work of French scholars such as Braudel, Bourdieu, and Foucault and also playing a part in drawing some sociocultural anthropologists toward humanistic approaches.

American cultural anthropology has always taken an interest in evolutionary questions, and in the 1970s, the biologist E. O. Wilson used sociobiology to challenge social scientists to study the role of natural selection in human behavior. Anthropologists’ immediate response was to criticize sociobiology as sociologically naive, culture-bound, and potentially racist and sexist. In the longer term, however, this challenge renewed anthropologists’ interest in the holistic approach to culture, stimulating new approaches to the flexible and complex linkage of genetic inheritance and cultural malleability. Archaeologists, physical anthropologists, and cultural anthropologists share an interest in these longterm questions, which now are studied as ‘‘human behavioral ecology.’’


While anthropological theory has participated in many of the trends in the social sciences in this century, anthropologists most often speak of themselves in terms of the topics they study and the geographic areas in which they are expert. A cultural anthropologist might say that she studies ‘‘gender issues in the Middle East,’’ ‘‘political hierarchy in Polynesia,’’ or ‘‘hunter-gatherer ecology in the Arctic,’’ with the implication that her theoretical school is a less useful category or that one might include several different theoretical or methodological approaches to one’s topic.

A review of textbooks in anthropology and courses offered in larger departments provides an indication of the overlap and the difference in range between sociological and anthropological topics. Traditional topics in anthropology include the categories of sociopolitical life (political anthropology, the anthropology of religion, social organization, patterns of subsistence, economic anthropology), cross-cultural approaches to all social science topics (ethnicity and identity, psychological anthropology, urban anthropology, ethnohistory, gender), theoretical approaches (symbolic anthropology, cultural ecology), applied topics (legal anthropology, developmental anthropology, culture change, medical anthropology, education and culture), and topics reflecting the persistent holism of the anthropological enterprise (language and culture, genetics and behavior).

Anthropologists’ regional focus traditionally has been small-scale non-Western societies, but this has changed dramatically in the last fifty years. While sociologists and other social scientists have become more active in non-Western contexts (particularly economic development and modernization), anthropologists have become more active in studying Western societies, using their traditional skills of small-community ethnography, cultural models, and comparison in these situations. However, as part of their postgraduate training, most American and European anthropologists do a lengthy period of participant observation research in a small-scale society, usually a foraging band or a tribal or peasant society.

One stimulus to anthropologists’ willingness to become wholeheartedly involved in the study of Western, industrialized, and mass societies has been the growth in applied work. While sociology was committed to researching public policy issues from its beginning, anthropology has only intermittently taken on research directed at social problems and policy issues. Beginning with government work during World War II and the postwar Fox and Vicos projects in applied anthropology and as a result of globalization and limited academic job opportunities for anthropologists, there has been an increase in putting anthropological concepts and methods to the service of immediate outcomes rather than academic research. The greatest demand for applied anthropology is in economic and social development, medical anthropology, the anthropology of education, and international business.


Anthropology was born in the theories of ‘‘armchair anthropologists’’ who based their theories about the evolution of human beliefs and societies on the reports of colonial officials, missionaries, and merchants. Since that time, the commitment of researchers such as Boas, Mead, and Malinowski to detailed, long-term field studies has generated the impulse that has sustained generations of anthropologists in an effort to produce detailed, fine-grained, firsthand descriptions of the world’s cultures. Cultural anthropology has long held that long-term participant observation, including mastery of local languages, is the best way to produce valid ethnographic description. Participant observation is the source of anthropology’s ethnographic database and the foundation on which controlled cross-cultural comparison is built.

The work of field research and the writing of ethnography have received much attention in recent decades. Participant observation is now an umbrella term for a research project that, while it extends over the long term (usually at least a year) and relies on the use of the local language, key informants, and living ‘‘close to the ground’’ with the people being studied, is likely to include a range of additional research techniques. Sociocultural anthropologists also are trained in kinship analysis, unstructured and structured interviews, questionnaires, scales, taxonomies, and direct and unobtrusive observation. In the past decade, there has been a growing expectation that researchers will combine qualitative and quantitative research methods, increasing both the validity and the reliability of ethnographic work. Applied anthropology has generated its own methods, some of them shaped by the time and cash restraints of nonacademic research, such as rapid rural assessment, participatory appraisal, and decision-tree modeling.

Cross-cultural comparison has been a goal of anthropology from the start. The first armchair anthropologists used sometimes unreliable secondhand information to generate categories and stages of social evolution, but researchers soon employed more scientific methods. Archaeologists’ work on regional and chronological linkages encouraged ethnologists to trace the development, distribution, and diffusion of culture traits (especially in the United States, with Boas’s encouragement). British social anthropologists and the neoevolutionists urged the use of regional and global comparisons to generate models of structural stability and change. George P. Murdock greatly facilitated large-scale comparison when he created the Human Relations Area Files, the physical form of the great database of human cultures anthropology had long sought. Cross-cultural studies in anthropology have allowed anthropologists to generate and test midlevel hypotheses about cultural patterns and allowed social scientists to test the broader validity of hypotheses generated in Western contexts.

Current Issues

In surveying the history of anthropological theory, one often notices the persistent tension between materialist and idealist ways of studying culture. In the current environment, after a decade of postmodern critiques, this tension has actually split a few academic departments, severing archaeology and biological anthropology from cultural anthropology, or ‘‘scientific’’ from ‘‘humanistic’’ approaches. Research specialization and job-market pressures also interfere with the holistic fourfields approach that American anthropologists have long considered their hallmark. In addition, sociocultural anthropology has been pressed by the inroads of literary criticism, cultural studies, ethnic studies, and other related fields into its traditional preserve. Like other social sciences, anthropology feels that it is living through a ‘‘crisis’’ that represents both a point in a repeated cycle of theoretical change and a response to national and global contexts.

However, the end of the twentieth century has seen a wider range of research and applied work than had ever been done previously (see recent issues of American Anthropologist, American Ethnologist, Current Anthropology, and Human Organization). Current work in anthropology includes traditional detailed ethnographies that aim to increase the descriptive database of the world’s cultures, problem-focused fieldwork aimed at elucidating theoretical puzzles, reflexive ethnography that attempts to find a moral and artistic center from which to write, analyses of organizations and evaluations of programs intended to guide policy decisions, and hypothesis-testing data crunching. The long-standing distinction between materialist and idealist approaches continues as interpretive, postmodern anthropology seeks new ways to do the job it has been critiquing for a decade and as ecological, evolutionist, and materialist approaches argue with renewed vigor for a scientific discipline.

Sociocultural anthropology and sociology share modern interests in agency; power; the relative role of social structures and individual action in culture change; the intersections of ethnicity, class, and gender; and the historical shaping of modern institutions and cultural representations. In all its interests, ongoing input from archaeology, biological anthropology, and linguistics has given sociocultural anthropology a uniquely broad and deep perspective on the human condition, and its stream of theory is fed from these other sources of knowledge about the human condition. In describing the commonalities that unite cultural anthropology, Rob Borofsky speaks of anthropologists’ shared ethics: a desire to publicize ‘‘human commonalities’’ (especially in countering racism), the valuing of cultural diversity, and the use of cultural differences ‘‘as a form of cultural critique’’ of the anthropologist’s home culture and in general of industrial mass society. Despite an explosion of variation in what sociocultural anthropologists do, anthropologists’ holistic and comparative worldview remains distinctive.

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