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Introduction to Anthropology

3.5 Modes of Cultural Analysis

Introduction to Anthropology3.5 Modes of Cultural Analysis

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain how evolutionary theories have been applied to the study of human culture.
  • Identify two critiques of evolutionary approaches.
  • Describe how anthropologists have studied the functionality of culture.
  • Distinguish Malinowski’s functionalism from Radcliffe-Brown’s structural functionalism.
  • Explain how ontological anthropology defines the study of reality.

Anthropologists have a number of ways of studying the elements and aggregates of culture. Some approaches emphasize the development of a particular aspect of culture over time, while other approaches examine how the different parts of culture fit together.

Evolution, Adaptation, and Historical Particularism

Some anthropologists are interested in the origins of human cultural forms and how these forms have changed over long periods of time. Just as Charles Darwin applied the notion of evolution to explain how biological species change over time, many 19th-century anthropologists used evolution to explain how cultures changed over time. This approach is called cultural evolutionism. Like Darwin, these anthropologists believed that simple forms evolved into more complex forms. Comparing different cultures of the world, they assigned the ones they considered more rudimentary to earlier evolutionary stages, while the ones they considered more complex were assigned to the more advanced stages. For example, British anthropologist Edward Tylor argued that human culture evolved from savagery through barbarism to civilization. He identified savagery with people who used gathering and hunting to meet their basic needs. The domestication of animals and plants was associated with barbarism. Civilization resulted from more advanced forms of farming, trade, and manufacturing as well as the development of the alphabet. Not surprisingly, British scholars identified their own culture as highly civilized.

Elaborating on Tylor’s scheme, American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan subdivided each of these three stages into an even more elaborate model and proposed a mechanism for moving from stage to stage. Morgan focused on technology as the primary driver of cultural evolution. New and better ways of making things, according to Morgan, resulted in new patterns of social practice and thought. Advanced technology was associated with advanced civilization.

But is technology the only measure of cultural accomplishment, or even the best one? Members of societies in which people gather and hunt for a living have vast stores of knowledge about their environments. Typically, they can name hundreds of plant species and tell when and where to find each of them. Many hunters can examine animal tracks to discern the species, sex, age, and condition of the animal as well as how long ago the tracks were laid. People in these societies also actively sustain and nurture diversity in their environments, careful to avoid depleting important resources. Is it really accurate to think of such cultures as simple? All cultures are complex, though in different ways. Technology is highly valued in American culture, while environmental knowledge and sustainability have historically been less valued. Is it any wonder that early American anthropologists ranked other cultures according to one of their own most cherished values? Perhaps people in more environmentally sustainable cultures might consider the United States to be an example of environmental savagery.

Both Tylor and Morgan, like most anthropologists of their day, thought that all cultures passed through this single set of stages in the march toward civilization. This kind of theory is called unilineal evolution. Disagreeing with this way of thinking, anthropologists such as Franz Boas argued that there is no single line of cultural evolution but that each culture changes according to its own unique historical trajectory. Moreover, cultures evolve not in isolation but in constant interaction with one another. Rather than focusing on technological changes within a culture, Boas highlighted the diffusion of material objects, practices, and ideas among cultures in complex relations of trade, migration, and conquest.

Though theories of unilineal cultural evolution have been largely abandoned, some anthropologists are still interested in discovering regular patterns that might govern how human cultures change over long periods of time. In the 1950s, American anthropologist Julian Steward developed an approach called cultural ecology, recognizing the importance of environmental factors by focusing on how humans adapt to various environments. Steward’s approach showed how humans in each environmental zone develop a set of core cultural features that enable them to make a living. Central to each cultural core are ways of getting or making all the resources necessary for human survival—in particular, food, clothing, and shelter. Similarly, anthropologist Marvin Harris developed a theory called cultural materialism, arguing that technology and economic factors are fundamental to culture, molding other features such as family life, religion, and politics.

Though recognizing the importance of cultural change, many anthropologists reject the notion that all cultures change according to a general universal model, such as cultural materialism. Drawing from the Boasian notion that each culture follows its own historical path; many cultural anthropologists analyze change in terms of historical particularism. In this approach, contemporary processes are understood as products of the unique combination of internal and external forces unfolding over time in a particular culture.


Rejecting the comparative unilineal models that assigned each culture to an evolutionary stage, a number of cultural anthropologists developed a radically different approach that attempts to understand each contemporary culture in its own terms. Functionalism seeks to understand the purpose of the elements and aggregates of culture in the here and now.

Bronislaw Malinowski, an early proponent of this approach, argued that the function of culture is to meet human needs. All humans need to satisfy the need for food, clothing, and shelter. The fundamental purpose of culture is to provide a means of satisfying those needs. In the course of meeting those basic needs, humans in all cultures develop a set of derived needs—that is, needs derived from the basic ones. Derived needs include the need to organize work and distribute resources. Family structures and gender roles are examples of cultural elements addressing these derived needs. Finally, cultures also address a set of integrative needs, providing people with guiding values and purpose in life. Religion, law, and ideologies fulfill these integrative needs. Malinowski sought to understand both the biological and psychological functions of culture.

At first glance, this approach may not seem all that different from evolutionary approaches that identify the core set of cultural features devoted to human survival. What was so different in Malinowski’s approach was his attempt to show that even so-called primitive societies had functionally complex cultural systems for meeting the full array of human needs. Malinowski’s three-volume ethnography of the economics, religion, and kinship of the Trobriand people of Papua New Guinea demonstrated this fact in striking and elaborate detail.

A second version of functionalism, advocated by British anthropologist Alfred R. Radcliffe-Brown, identified the functions of various elements of culture in a slightly different way. Rather than looking for the way culture satisfies biological or psychological needs, structural functionalism focused more on how the various structures in society reinforce one another. Culture is not a random assortment of structural features but a set of structures that fit together into a coherent whole. Common norms and values are threaded through the family structure, the economy, the political system, and the religion of a culture. Structural functionalists conceptualized culture as a kind of machine with many small parts all working in tandem to keep the machine operating properly. While recognizing the value of this approach, contemporary anthropologists have complicated the mechanistic model of culture by pointing out that the various elements of culture come into conflict just as often as they reinforce one another. Although few anthropologists would now identify themselves as structural functionalists, the holistic approach to culture as an integrated system is derived from this important theoretical foundation.


In the previous paragraph, you learned about structural functionalism, an approach that marries functionalism with social structure. In a different sense, the term structure can refer to patterns of thought embedded in the culture of a people—that is, conceptual structure. French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss pioneered this approach, sometimes called French structuralism. Lévi-Strauss considered culture to be a system of symbols that could be analyzed in the various realms of culture, including myths, religion, and kinship. In these realms of culture, objects and people are organized into symbolic systems of classification, often structured around binary oppositions. Binary oppositions are pairs of terms that are opposite in meaning, such as light/dark, female/male, and good/evil. For example, kinship systems are varied and complex, but they are fundamentally structured by oppositions such as male versus female, older versus younger, and relation by blood versus relation by marriage. Lévi-Strauss examined myths as well, showing how the characters and plots emphasize binary oppositions. Consider the many European folktales featuring an evil stepmother (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty), a character that combines the opposition of good versus evil with the opposition of blood relation versus relation by marriage. Lévi-Strauss argued that myths operate as public arenas for conceptually pondering and processing the fundamental categories and relations of a culture.


In recent decades, some cultural anthropologists have come to focus on the nature of reality, including but not limited to human perspectives and experiences. Ontology is the study of the true nature of existence. In some cultures, for instance, the social world consists not only of embodied persons but also of spirit beings, such as ancestors and witches, who interact with people in mysterious ways. And in some cultures, people are not just bodies but assemblages that include souls, spirits, characters, or fates. Ontological anthropology explores how culture constructs our social and natural realities, what we consider real, and how we act on those assumptions. Reaching beyond human realities, ontological anthropology also attempts to include nonhuman perspectives, relationships, and forms of communication.

For instance, in his provocative ethnography How Forests Think (2013), anthropologist Eduardo Kohn describes how the web of life in the Amazon rainforest consists of continual communication among plants, animals, and humans. He examines how Amazonian peoples engage with dogs, spirits, the dead, pumas, rivers, and even sounds. Humans and these nonhuman beings are both antagonistic and interdependent in this interactive web. Predators and prey read one another’s behavior, interpreting intentions and motivations. Kohn’s effort is to get beyond conventional modes of human thought and language to understand how humans are embedded in nonhuman ecological realities.

Profiles in Anthropology

Dame Mary Douglas


Dame Mary Douglas.

Personal History: Mary Douglas was born in San Remo, Italy; her British parents had stopped off on their way home from Burma, where her father had been working as a colonial civil servant. As children, Mary and her younger sister lived with their mother’s parents in England until they were old enough to be sent to Catholic boarding school—a fairly common practice for the children of colonial officers. After the death of her mother and her dearly loved maternal grandfather, young Mary found security in the order and routine of the convent school (Lyons 2011). This respect for rules and order combined with a reverence for the Catholic Church to shape her lifelong commitment to studying the sacred aspects of the social order.

Area of Anthropology: At Oxford, Douglas studied with the prominent structural functionalist E. E. Evans-Pritchard. From him, she learned that African belief systems such as witchcraft were structured by an underlying logic. In this approach, the goal of fieldwork is to examine oral forms of culture as well as ritual and social practice in order to discern the underlying logic that governs culture as a whole. Douglass went to the Kasai region of what was then the Belgian Congo, where she studied how the Lele people used animals in practical and symbolic ways. She was particularly interested in a strange animal called the pangolin. Though a mammal, the pangolin has scales and no teeth.

A color photograph of a small rat-shaped animal with large scales, a long tail, and a long snout. This one is walking across a muddy space of ground with plants in the background.
Figure 3.11 This pangolin is classified as a mammal but has scales like a reptile or fish. Pangolin were considered sacred to the Lele people, who did not classify them as a food animal. (credit: Official photographer of the U.S. Embassy in Ghana/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Douglas described how the Lele observed a fundamental distinction between edible and inedible animals. Animals who lived among humans, such as rats and domesticated chickens, were considered part of society and therefore inedible (most of the time). Only wild animals were considered food. Pangolins are wild animals, but the Lele did not eat them (usually). Why? Douglas argued that the weirdness of the pangolin made people single it out for special consideration. Pangolins have scales like fish, but they live on land and climb trees. They look vaguely reptilian, but they do not lay eggs, instead giving birth to live young. Rather than teeth, they have long snouts that they use to vacuum up small insects. Thus, the pangolin defied the conventional categories the Lele used for dividing up the animal world. This breach of categories made the pangolin both repellent and sacred to the Lele. Members of a special fertility cult engaged in rituals in which they ate pangolins to ingest the power of this anomalous animal.

As this examination of cultural categories and anomalies suggests, Douglas was also influenced by Claude Lévi-Strauss and the approach of French structuralism. Like Lévi-Strauss, Douglas viewed culture as a coherent system of categories that were expressed in oral culture and social practice.

Accomplishments in the Field: Following her work on the Lele people, Douglas went on to conduct a broadly comparative study of objects, practices, and people that were considered ritually dangerous, subject to rules of prohibition called taboos. She showed how the subjects of taboos are often “matter out of place” (Douglas 1966, 44), things that defy conventional categories for dividing up the social and natural world. In her most famous work, Purity and Danger (1966), Douglas examines a wide range of taboos, such as rules against eating certain foods or engaging in sex at certain times or with certain persons. She examines the set of social and dietary rules established by ancient Hebrews, detailed in the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament. According to these rules, the Jewish people were forbidden from eating pigs, shellfish, and certain wild animals. They were not allowed to wear garments made of cloth that combined different fibers—such as, for example, a linen-cotton blend. Men were prohibited from having sex with menstruating women. In fact, women were considered so unclean during menstruation that anyone or anything that touched a menstruating woman became contaminated for the rest of that day.

What do all of these prohibitions have in common? Douglas shows how each forbidden object or condition produced discomfort because it transgressed conventional categories. Shellfish, for instance, are sea animals, but they don’t have fins or scales, and many of them do not swim. Menstruation is blood loss, but it does not indicate injury. Moreover, menstruation is hidden and connected to the dangerous states of pregnancy and childbirth. In Hebrew law, menstruation itself was considered a dangerous and contaminating exception to the purity of persons and objects.

In her later work, Douglas applied this style of analysis to a variety of other social phenomena, including humor and trickster figures. She argued that humor functions as a release for thoughts and actions that might threaten the social order. Whereas taboos regulate and prohibit interaction with dangerous objects, animals, and people, humor seeks to sap them of their dangerous power by making light of them.

Importance of Her Work: After more than 25 years of teaching at the University of London, Douglas moved to the United States, where she held positions at the Russell Sage Foundation and Northwestern University. She continued to publish widely on such topics as consumerism, environmental risk, and decision-making in bureaucracies. When she retired, she moved back to England. In 2006, she was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She died in 2007 at the age of 86.

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