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The Story of Anthropology: How our Perceptions of the Development of Societies & Cultures have Evolved

cwalker's picture

Coral A. Walker

May 9, 2011


Dalke & Grobstein

Webpaper #4


The Story of Anthropology:

How our Perceptions of the Development of Societies & Cultures have Evolved

               The story of evolution has been thoroughly investigated throughout the ages; it has always triggered the interest of intellectuals. Today the term evolution is usually connected to biological evolution, and usually in reference to Charles Darwin and his theories of natural selection. But the concept of evolution has been investigated since much earlier than Darwin, the study of the evolution of societies and cultures. Being an anthropology major means that my interests tend to stray towards topics focused on cultures and societies, my mind has been condition to connect theories of evolution to anthropological theories on how cultures and societies have developed. I have a difficult time separating the idea of evolution, from theories about cultural and societal evolution[1] (not to be confused with Social Darwinism), and the truth is that this type of evolution strikes my interests a lot more than biological evolution. But my interests are really a biased interest on what evolution is, because cultural and social evolution and biological evolution go hand in hand, these two fields are deeply interlaced, after all in recent anthropology there is a field of biological anthropology and another in evolutionary anthropology.  Theories of evolution have most commonly derived from anthropological theories of societies. In this paper I will explore how anthropological thoughts have influenced/formed understandings of the evolution of civilizations(Erickson and Murphy 2010).

               The first un-official anthropologists were colonizers, missionaries, explorers and traders. The goals of these individuals was not precisely to preserve and understand other societies and cultures, but there writings have greatly encouraged and developed our understanding of humans, cultures, societies and civilizations. The collections of stories have helped us develop an understanding of history and the conditions in areas outside of the western world. Christopher Columbus, Hernán Cortes and Juan Ponce de Leon, to name a few, were explores and colonizers that wrote accounts about their experiences in the Americas. Their texts have served as an understanding of the societies they encountered. This type of un-official anthropology refers to non-European cultures, as “the other” often giving these societies a primitive and negative description of underdevelopment and uneducated. Although the goal of these explorers was not really to represent the societies they encountered, there work served as the primary sources for anthropological studies.

               During the seventeenth century there is a rise in philosophers and intellectuals attempting to decipher the complexities and development of societies. In this era we see the emergence of philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, whom believed that people in their natural state, without civilization and societal structure were in a time of constant war and uprising. He theorized that it was a time of constant violence were humans were in constant fear of one another, but through reason, humans were compelled to form social contracts with one another that would ensure peace. His theories in Leviathan suggest that the social contract where humans consent to be governed by a commonwealth with supreme authority. This commonwealth is both created and enforced by fear, because if an individual threatens the state of peace they will face repercussions. John Locke’s theories are similar to those of Hobbes; he believed that social contracts are the key to social peace. Locke theorized that humans in their natural state were likely to revolt and be in a state of constant war, but humans give up some of their natural rights for the sake of having them protected by the government, which can do a more effective job at protecting them than an individual person. These two philosophers created theories that hoped to explain why humans transitioned from a state of nature to organized societies with social contracts, governments and rules.  During the early eighteenth century amidst the French Revolution, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau disputed Hobbes and Locke’s theories on the rise of social contracts and what they have caused. Rousseau believed that many philosophers had incorrectly defined what humans’ state of nature meant, they took for granted that property, moral inequality, etc. are not part of human’s natural state.  He theorized that humans in the state of nature were peaceful and had no disagreements; they had no property and no needs other than food, sleep and reproduction so they were in a state of ignorant bliss. Eventually these needs became necessities and eventually they became slaves to their needs, and inevitably some were forced to fulfill the needs of others, which created a state of domination and coercive control over others. This form of domination and control was the birth of a state of war and disparities. Rousseau’s theories hoped to explain how humans and societies have evolved to a state where they will undoubtedly find themselves in states of conflicts, with social disparities and inequalities, themes often encountered in anthropology.

               The nineteenth century was the formal rise of anthropology, with the birth of the ethnology; these are based on material collected by others, like colonizers, missionaries, etc. which often recorded their information with biased points of views. The anthropologists, such as E.B. Tylor and J. G. Frazer, of this era are often referred o as “arm-chair anthropologists”, they had an interest on why people lived different in different parts of the world and why they have varying believes and practices. Ethnologists had differing theories on why cultures had similar techniques and believes, some believed in the theory of diffusion, by which certain cultural traits were learned from one another. The other theory which gained a lot more popularity was advocated by Lewis H. Morgan, the theory of independent invention, he believed that every culture and society go through the same linear evolution, they each go through the same evolutionary stages. Morgan’s theories invited people to think of differing cultures as primitive, and uncivilized, that these cultures had not reached their stage of civilization. Around this time was also the rise of Charles Darwin’s theory on biological evolution that followed a linear progression through natural selection. This era of anthropology attempted to explain societal evolution as one with stages with a linear progression. It believed that some societies were more developed than others, and that the primitive cultures needed to be taught how to act civilized, it often used comparison techniques in attempt to prove their theoretical ideas, although they are based on biased observations. This anthropological era attempted to create theories about human nature and an attempt to discover universal laws of cultural development.

               The anthropology of the twentieth century brought a long even more diverse theories; it is the anthropology we know today. This era was focused on refuting the focal theories of nineteenth century anthropology because they witnessed cultures and societies moving through different stages that did not reflect the previous anthropological theories. The ethnologist, Julian Steward stated that similarities in cultures and societies did not occur through diffusion or linear progression, but rather they portrayed comparable adaptations to similar environments. While others like Claude Lévi-Strauss believed that similarities reflected fundamental similarities in human thought. These varying theories are the result of the observations made by recent anthropologists.  These observations were based on the new forms of investigations, developed by Bronislaw Malinowski and Franz Boas, ethnographical research; this form of research is focused on observation and participation with unbiased observations on the culture they are investigating.

               Another crucial change in twentieth century anthropology was the distinction between the anthropology in Europe and what emerged in the United States. European anthropology is best known as social anthropology, developed and promoted by Malinowski and A.R. Radcliffe Brown, which focus on social groups and institutions, like economics, religion and politics. European anthropologist observed social behaviors in social structures, like in the social roles of relationships. Whereas Boas was the influence of cultural anthropology in the United States, which focuses on symbols and values, like myths, rituals and kinship. This type of anthropology looked into understanding how people expressed their view of themselves and their world. Today’s anthropology tends to be the union of both theoretical focuses, socio-cultural anthropology. Although ethnographies from this era were more holistic than the previous ethnologies, they still demonstrated bounded and isolated cultures and failed to represent how cultures and societies are often influenced by the “outside” world. This era was also influenced by anthropologists like Marcel Mauss, Margaret MeadRoy Rappaport, Clifford Geertz and many more. These anthropologists looked to explain and understand different cultures and societies in hopes to both preserve and have a greater understand of global cultures and thoughts.  

Today’s anthropological methods are very similar to those of the twentieth century. Recent anthropologists use ethnographic techniques, like embedded anthropologists, in which the anthropologists is an active participant and observer in the society they are investigating, this form of research gives a more holistic view and understanding of the situation. These forms of ethnographic work is used by socio-cultural anthropologists like Phillipe Bourgois, a professor at University of Pennsylvania, and Jegg Schnoberg, in their ethnographic work Righteous Dopefiend (Bourgois and Schonberg 2009)which they produced with visual and written ethnographies by immersing themselves in the world of homeless heroin addicts in San Francisco. Other forms of ethnographic methods include multi-sited ethnographies used by anthropologists like Nancy Scheper-Hughes. This type of ethnography is focused on understanding global networks, this tracks how subjects move across spatial and temporal boundaries. Current anthropology is also focused on turning an eye and investigating the “Western” culture, it attempts to exoticize what we see as every day naturalized affairs, this is best portrayed in the Horace Miner’s  article “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” (Miner). The anthropological work we see today has shifted from looking at cultures and understanding to what the American Anthropological Association defines as “the study of humans, past and present. To understand the full sweep and complexity of cultures across all of human history, anthropology draws and builds upon knowledge from the social and biological sciences as well as the humanities and physical sciences. A central concern of anthropologists is the application of knowledge to the solution of human problems,” (AAA 2011). These anthropological methods attempts to decipher between the understanding of cultural development and how globalization has influenced these societies, while attempting to interact with the idea of ethics of anthropology.

 Anthropology is the study off human being and the study of anthropological theory consist of understanding how human interactions have evolved in culture and societies. While the common thought of evolution is usually focused around Darwin’s theories of biological evolution and natural selection, anthropology also studies theories of evolution and it attempts to decipher how human being and societies evolve and adapt to their current surroundings and circumstances. The field attempts to decipher why some cultural practices are more prevalent than others and why some are extinct or nearly extinct. It hopes to discover why certain adaptations have taken place and what has made some societies wealthier and dominant over others. While randomness does have a role in this evolutionary process studied by anthropology, current anthropologists are focused on understanding what historical situations and events have caused the current perceptions of life in certain societies. In other words historical factors especially global political influence has a lot to do with current political and social situations; these are theories and patterns which current anthropology tends to focus on, especially anthropologists studying countries with neoliberal policies, and countries referred to as “second world” and “third world” countries or “undeveloped” and “underdeveloped”.








 2011 What is Anthropology?: American Anthropological Association.

Bourgois, Philippe I., and Jeff Schonberg

 2009 Righteous dopefiend. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Erickson, Paul A., and Liam D. Murphy

 2010 Readings for A history of anthropological theory. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Miner, Horace

 Miner's "Body Ritual among the Nacirema".



[1] In this paper when I refer to social and cultural evolution I am strictly referring to the development of cultures and societies, and not at all to the controversial Social Darwinism.