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Anthropology can be defined as the comparative study of humans, their societies and their cultural worlds. It simultaneously explores human diversity and what it is that all human beings have in common. Although the study of human diversity concerns all societies, from the smallest to the largest and from the simplest to the most complex, most anthropologists today recognise that all societies in the contemporary world are involved in processes of enormous complexity, such as migration, climate change, global economic crises and the transnational circulation of ideas.

Just as they did in the past, anthropologists explore the importance of kinship in contemporary societies and raise questions about power and politics, religion and world-views, and gender and social class, but today, they also study the impact of capitalism on small-scale societies and the quest for cultural survival among indigenous groups, just to mention a few areas of inquiry.

Alma Gottlieb | Anthropology at Illinois

Although there are different theoretical schools, as well as many special interests both regionally and thematically, the craft of social and cultural anthropology consists in a toolbox which is shared by all who are trained in the discipline. Anthropology does not in itself profess to solve the problems facing humanity, but it gives its practitioners skills and knowledge that enable them to tackle complex questions in very competent and relevant ways.

Noel Salazar, European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA)

The key terms are cultural relativism, ethnography, comparison and context. Rather, a professional, or scientific, perspective represented in anthropology emphasises the need to understand what humans do and how they interpret their own actions and world-views. This approach, known as cultural relativism, is an essential methodological tool for studying local life-worlds on their own terms. This is the view that societies are qualitatively different from one another and have their own unique inner logic, and that it is therefore misleading to rank them on a scale. For example, one society may find itself at the bottom of a ladder with respect to literacy and annual income, but this ladder may turn out to be completely irrelevant if it turns out that members of this society have no interest in books and money.

Cultural relativism is indispensable in anthropological attempts to understand societies in neutral terms. It is not an ethical principle, but a methodological tool. It is perfectly possible to understand other people on their own terms without sharing their outlook and condoning what they do. A second important tool in anthropological research is ethnography, or fieldwork, as the main form of data collection. Ethnographic fieldwork is neither capital-intensive nor labour-intensive — it is inexpensive and, in the field, anthropologists spend much of their time apparently doing nothing — but instead, it is very time-intensive.

Anthropologists typically spend a year or more in the field. This is necessary because the aim of the ethnographic method is to develop sound knowledge and a proper understanding of a sociocultural world, and for this to be possible, they must learn the local language and take part in as many local activities as they can. Unlike qualitative sociology, which is typically based on intensive interviews, anthropologists do not see interviewing as a main method, although it forms part of their toolbox.

Rather, they collect data through participant observation , during which the anthropologist simply spends time with people, talks with them, sometimes asks questions, and learns the local ways of doing things as thoroughly as possible. Anthropologists use people to study other people. The method demands that the researcher gets to know people on a personal level, meets them repeatedly and, if possible, lives with them during fieldwork.

For this reason, ethnographic data are of very high quality, although they often need to be supplemented by other kinds of data, such as quantitative or historical data, as the number of people whose lives anthropologists study through participant observation is necessarily limited. The ethnographic method enables anthropologists to discover aspects of local worlds that are inaccessible to researchers who use other methods.

For example, anthropologists have studied the world-views of European neo-Nazis, the functioning of the informal economy in African markets, and the reasons why people in Norway throw away more food than they are willing to admit. By combining direct observation, participation and conversations in their in-depth ethnographic methods, anthropologists are able to provide more detailed and nuanced descriptions of such and other phenomena than other researchers. This is one of the reasons why ethnographic research is so time-consuming: Anthropologists need to build trust with the people they try to understand, who will then, consciously or not, reveal aspects of their lives that they would not speak about to a journalist or a social scientist with a questionnaire, for example.

New insights into the human condition and new theoretical developments in anthropology often grow out of comparison, that is the systematic search for differences and similarities between social and cultural worlds. Although comparison is demanding, difficult and sometimes theoretically problematic, anthropologists always compare, whether explicitly or implicitly.

By using general terms such as kinship, gender, inequality, household, ethnicity and religion, anthropologists tacitly assume that these categories have comparable meanings in different societies, yet they rarely mean exactly the same thing. Looking for similarities and differences between social and cultural worlds, anthropologists can develop general insights into the nature of society and human existence. Comparison has the additional quality of stimulating the intellectual and moral imagination.

A detailed, compelling study of a society where there is gender equality, ecological sustainability and little or no violence is interesting in its own right, but it can also serve as an inspiration for policy and reform in other societies. By raising fundamental questions in a neutral, detached way, basic research can sometimes prove to be more useful in tackling the problems that the world faces than applied research. When anthropologists study peaceful, ethnically complex societies, they offer models for coexistence which can be made relevant for policy and practice elsewhere.

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They often come up with unexpected insights such as, for example, the fact that the Internet can strengthen family ties rather than isolate people , that religious participation helps immigrants to integrate into European societies rather than divide them , and that peasants are more economically rational than plantation owners rather than being hopelessly traditional. The main objective of comparison is not to rank societies on a ladder of development, human rights or environmental sustainability.

This does not mean that anthropological knowledge is irrelevant for attempts to solve problems of this kind — on the contrary, the neutral, cool-headed method of anthropological comparison produces knowledge that can be used as a reliable foundation on which to build policy. Anthropologists carry out fieldwork, make comparisons and do so in a spirit of cultural relativism, but all along they are concerned with context, relationships and connections.

The smallest unit that anthropologists study is not the isolated individual, but the relationship between two people.


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Culture is what makes communication possible; it is thus activated between minds, not inside them, and society is a web of relationships. To a great extent, we are constituted by our relationships with others, which produce us and give us sustenance and which confirm or challenge our values and opinions. This is why we have to study and engage with human beings in their full social context. In order to understand people, anthropologists follow them around in a variety of situations and, as they often point out, it is not sufficient to listen to what people say. We also have to observe what they do, and to analyse the wider implications of their actions.


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Because of the fine-grained methodology they employ, anthropologists are also capable of making the invisible visible — be it voices which are otherwise not heard or informal networks between high-status people. In fact, one writer who predicted the financial crisis long before it took place was Gillian Tett, a journalist who, thanks to her training in anthropology, understood what the financial elite were actually doing, not just what they told the public.

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There is often a strong temptation to simplify complex issues, not least in an information society. But not simpler. For anthropologists, some of the most important things in life, culture and society are those that cannot be measured. This does not mean that they do not exist. Few would doubt the existential value of love, the social importance of trust, or the power of Dostoyevsky's novels; yet, none of this can be counted and measured. Menu Admissions. Apply Now Why Anthropology?

Student Financial Aid Visit Illinois. Give Now. Alma Gottlieb. Department of Anthropology S Mathews Ave. Contact Instructor Tues. Edit Your Profile. Emeritus Professor. Additional Campus Affiliations. For fieldwork on Beng infants, summer Summer For writing of Parallel Worlds co-authored with Philip Graham. Release from two semesters of teaching plus fieldwork funds Fellowship, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. For new fieldwork project among Cape Verdean immigrants in Lisbon, summer