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Cultural anthropology is a subset of the larger discipline of anthropology, the study of humanity.
Cultural anthropology focuses on the following:
- Cultural variation among humans
- Notes that human beings acquire culture through the learning processes of socialization
- People living in different places develop different cultures
Franz Boas (1858-1942) is considered to be the founder of cultural anthropology. Born in Germany, Boas immigrated to the United States and became a professor of anthropology at Columbia University. Among Boas' students were Margaret Mead and Zora Neale Hurston. Boas rejected the notion that all societies move through the same evolutionary stages, a theory that put Western Europe at the pinnacle of human achievement. Boas argued that each culture needed to be studied on its own merits.
One of the main tools of cultural anthropology is the ethnology. The anthropologist becomes a participant observer of a culture, immersing him or herself in the culture in order to gain intimate understanding of the culture on its own terms. Margaret Mead became famous for her ethnography of Samoa. Ethnography, as an expression of cultural anthropology, often narrow research into a few, or even one case within a culture. Detailed and complex descriptions of the culture and people emerge, with data collected through interviews, cultural artifacts, and the day-to-day living within the culture.
Cultural anthropology revolves around the social order or society. Social order involves the manner in which laws and rules are applied in the service of regulation and control. Various agencies and institutions are intimately involved in the concept of social order, including religion and government. In primitive societies and industrial giants as well, some construction is in evidence that reflects cultural concerns, beliefs, and values. Order enhances predictability, which is a desirable element with regard to both cognitive and emotional comfort. Though an occasional "surprise" might be appealing to most of us, we ordinarily prefer the ordinary - the usual, the expected. Thus, one function of order is to enable members of the social group to anticipate future events and plan for them based on past experiences. Additionally, order is important to society because it enhances the probability that both individual and group needs will be met. If one contrasts order with chaos, it is evident that the former is more likely to facilitate goal attainment than the latter. However democratic and individualistic a society may be, the need for concerted effort is acknowledged.
Within institutions and agencies and other groups, individuals are arrangement hierarchically with regard to the right to create and enforce policy. When a group of individuals is working collaboratively, the need for delineation of the statuses of various participants is critical to the success of the endeavor. Sometimes decisions must be made rapidly with no time available for consultation with each group member. Thus, the concepts of "boss" and "not-boss" are required at minimum. Typically, the hierarchy is considerably more complex.
But what happens if an individual is aware of the social order but refuses to honor it? He or she is likely to come into contact with control agencies. In some cultures, the disapproval of the group or castigation by one's peers is sufficient. In others, there is considerably greater structure and formality to the process.
Religion plays an important role in the control mechanism. Actually, its role is unique in that it serves a preventative function as well as a punitive one. Development of conscience or its equivalent made result in restraint before the fact, before the act. Thus, social order is important because it works for us most of the time. When there is social unrest, distress is predictable because our ability to predict and control our experiences is in jeopardy.
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