The social and cultural anthropology

To understand the complexity of societies and human cultures, being aware of its wealth, is a key factor to understand and accept diversity. A requirement that, in an increasingly globalized world, is becoming indispensable, as well as a competition cross that provides significant added value to any professional profile. (UNIBA 2016)

The anthropology, like sociology, with whom he shares the societies, culture, and diversity, as objects of study, remains the great unknown among the public at Large. Still think of anthropology as a science dedicated exclusively to the indigenous and exotic cultures that are distant and isolated from the western civilization. Nothing more far from reality, because today the anthropology directs its attention both to the societies originating as to the more advanced, understanding the latter as the most affected by the great changes the world has experienced in recent decades: the expansion of capitalism, large migration flows, revolutionary technological advances in communications and transport, etc). As it says Kottak, “anthropology remains an exciting field” that examines in comparative perspective, “all societies, ancient and modern, simple and complex”, and in an increasingly globalized world, anthropology has before it the great challenge of demonstrating its transcendental relevance.

La antropología social y cultural

In the first place, before addressing definitions exhaustive, it is good to know the origin of the term Anthropology. Comes from the conjunction of the Greek words: anthropos (human) and logos (knowledge).

It is usually framed Anthropology in the double field of the social sciences and in the tradition of the humanities. In this sense, many times it is said that Anthropology is a social science integrator that is dedicated to the study of human beings in a holistic way. The holism refers to the study of all aspects of the human being: his past, present and future, his biological nature, and social, language, and culture.

Like any other science, anthropology, applies the tools of the scientific method: observe systematically, recorded carefully and analyzed on the basis of empirical evidence on its object of main study, that is, the culture and its diversity. Within the humanities, the comparative perspective and cross-cultural it provides, it is considered to anthropology as a discipline more humanistic.

Broadly speaking, anthropology is a science that seeks to observe, interpret and represent the voices and approaches of different times, places and cultures. “Through its various subfields, anthropology brings together biological approaches, social, cultural, linguistic and historical. The multiple and diverse perspectives offer a fuller appreciation of what it means to be human” (Kottak 2011).

The anthropology was born in the intellectual atmosphere that starts at the end of the EIGHTEENTH century. Is consolidated as an academic discipline during the second half of the NINETEENTH century, in an environment that confronts the rationalism of the French of Voltaire and the German romanticism of Johann Gottfried von Herder, “the spirit of the lights in front of the relativism in history, the notion of universality in conflict with that of particularity” (Díaz-Polanco, 1999: 10)

Anthropology (or anthropology in general) is divided into four fields: cultural and social anthropology (or socio-cultural), biological anthropology or physical anthropology, and linguistic anthropology, archaeological (more simply known as “archaeology”).

Cultural and social anthropology, which has more followers of the four disciplines of anthropology, studied societies and human cultures, especially their diversity, that is, observes, analyzes and explains the similarities and differences social and cultural rights. There are two types of practices well-established within the field of socio-cultural anthropology: ethnography (based on field work) and ethnology (based on the comparison, cross-cultural). Ethnography attempts to explain the cultural practices of a society or a community in particular. Traditionally, ethnographers are introduced in small communities, living with people for a good time and collected patiently numerous data in order to analyze, interpret and explain the social life, customs, beliefs, religion, political organization, and local economic activities. The ethnology observes, analyzes, interprets, and compares the results of ethnography to the results obtained from the etonografía. Compare and contrast the data gathered in different societies to then make generalizations about society and culture. It can be said that the ethnology takes the particular of ethnology to the general. Ethnologists seek cultural similarities and differences, they formulate hypotheses and develop theories to understand the workings of our social systems and cultural. The ethnology not only compare the data obtained from the ethnography, but also of other fields such as, for example, archaeology, which are essential to reconstruct the socio-cultural systems of the past.

La antropología social y cultural

Anthropology biological or physical studies the biological diversity of human beings in space and time. Within this field, we have consolidated five special interests: 1) human evolution as revealed by the fossil record (paleontology); 2) human Genetics; 3) human Growth and development; 4) Plasticity human biological (the body’s ability to cope with stresses like heat, cold and altitude); 5) The biology, evolution, behavior, and social life of monkeys, apes, and other primates.

Linguistic anthropology studies language in its social and cultural context across space and time. The sociolingüistas try to discover the relations between linguistic practices and the variations in socio-cultural. “Any language is a homogenous system in which all speak in the same way”.

Archaeology studies human behavior and cultural patterns through material remains that humans leave behind.

These “four fields” (or subdisciplines) are intimately interrelated and the results of the investigations of each one of them can affect very significantly on the other.

“Anthropology-general explores the fundamentals of human biology, society and culture and considers their interrelations”. Anthropologists share certain basic assumptions, among them, the most fundamental according to Kottak: “the idea that it is not possible to draw correct conclusions about “human nature” from the study of a single nation, society, or cultural tradition”. To do this it is necessary to the “comparative approach” (Kottak 2011: 9).

An example of this “comparative approach” and the transfer of knowledge between the sub-disciplines of anthropology could be explained by how cultural forces shape human biology. The comparative perspective biocultural [1] of the anthropology asserts that there are cultural forces that shape continuously the human biology. We think that the different cultural traditions promote certain skills and undermine other, implement standards of beauty and well-being, encourage physical activities and sports that vary the sizes, etc, In this sense, culture is understood as a “force environmental” essential that determines to a large extent “how the human bodies grow and develop” (Kottak 2011: 9).

According to the Dictionary of Anthropology, Thomas Barfield (2001: 43-48), cultural anthropology and social anthropology are the intellectual traditions can be distinguished between yes and even independent. The use of the terms “cultural” and “social” to delimit both popularized in the 1930s, though such a divergence had already appeared before. At present, these two terms do not point to a division of focus precisely, in such a way that many anthropologists ignore such a distinction. But for others, the difference remains important, if only to delimit styles ethnographic different.

The terminology “cultural anthropology” is generally applied to ethnographic work of holistic nature that is focused on studying how the different forms of culture affect the individual experience, or to offer a global vision of the beliefs, customs and institutions of a people. The terminology “social anthropology” is applied to the ethnographic work that attempt to delineate a specific system of social relations (the domestic life, laws, politics, economy). In social anthropology it gives greater attention to the organizational basis of social life.

In terms of the international and national influences in the different use of the two terms, cultural anthropology continues to be the dominant tradition in the united States, and The social anthropology it is in Great Britain. But, as we warned Barfield, the two traditions do not exactly correspond with that division. The anthropologist british Edward Tylor (1932-1917) is considered as the precursor of cultural anthropology. On the other hand, is considered the american anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan as the main figure of social anthropology in britain. However, other anthropologists, such as Bronislaw Malinowski, fled from any kind of categorization.

Barfield tells us some asymmetries interesting between the “social anthropology” and “cultural anthropology”. According to Radcliffe-Brown, social anthropologists have seen cultural anthropology as a field of research different, while cultural anthropologists have identified the social anthropology as a subfield of cultural anthropology. The social anthropologists have tended to underestimate some of the major concerns of cultural anthropologists, such as studies of “culture and personality”, on the assumption that they are based on erroneous premises. For their part, cultural anthropologists have referred to anthropologists as “fussy adherents of a doctrine exceedingly narrow”. The manifestation is more explicit on this mutual distrust was the debate that took place in 1951 in The American Anthropologist between George Peter Murdock and Raymond Firth.

Among the topics that linger on the distinction between social anthropology and cultural anthropology, Barfield was asked the following question: how This distinction is merely a matter of style or cultural tradition (colored national identity), or if on the contrary it points to a divergence substantial philosophical and more profound? Barfield explains the argument of this last interpretation:

Cultural anthropology, in the tradition of Boas, aims to apprehend the totality of the cultural life of human. Social anthropology deals with the organizational basis of human societies. In practice, some cultural anthropologists also give priority to analytical the social structure, and some social anthropologists, when analyzing social systems, grasp a large part of the cultural life. Be that as it may, one of the approaches is essentially synthetic, and the other is analytical and inductive. (Barfield 2001: 47)

The distinction between social anthropology and cultural anthropology continues to be present in contemporary anthropology, however, has lost steam, and the greater accuracy that was the mid-TWENTIETH century. According to Barfield, the decline of this distinction could be due to the influence of the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who in 1949 stated that “the social anthropology and cultural anthropology were part of the study of ethnology and virtually indistinguishable”.

Cultures are traditions and customs, transmitted through learning, that form and guide the beliefs and behavior of the people exposed to them. Children learn these traditions to grow up in a particular society, through a process called enculturation. (Kottak 2011: 5)

The culture of a society is made up of many generations that they are consolidating a number of custom and beliefs about how they are and things should be done, the conception of the world, the concept of “good and evil”. The culture is fundamental to the cohesion of the behaviors and beliefs of the individuals living in a given society.

The most important mechanism for the transmission and maintenance of the beliefs and customs of each culture is the learning, a mechanism imminently social much more influential than biological inheritance. “Culture is not itself biological, but it rests on certain features of human biology” (Kottak 2011: 5).

“Cross-cultural”, according to Kottak (2011: 4), is the key element to the anthropological approach. Anthropology has its roots in the “cross-cultural perspective”. Many times we do not fall into the account that the culture in which we inscribe ourselves is “invisible”, we see it as normal, as what has always been, until we experience what is commonly known as “culture shock”, that is, the accumulation of feelings of nostalgia that we experience when we introducimmos in another culture different from our own source and compare them. It is then when our beliefs and our customs are subjected to tension by comparing them with those of other cultures and see how different they are, and even completely contrary to our own. And in this comparative perspective, we can assert a priori that the conceptions about the human being, what things are and how they should be done, not can be defined only by a culture.

In his well-known manual Cultural Anthropology (2011), Conrad Pillip Kottak [2] argues that “no academic field has a commitment to or respect so strong with the cultural diversity as anthropology”.

Anthropology explores human diversity in time and space; study the entire human condition, its past, present, and future; biology, society, language, and culture. Of particular interest is the diversity that comes from the adaptability of human. (Kottak 2011: 4)

Creativity, adaptability and flexibility are attributes of basic human, and the human diversity is the subject of study of anthropology. (Kottak 2011: 5)

At the beginning of the manual, Kottak tells us an interesting experience called “Another look at…” and that has sought to always apply it to their students in class. The purpose of this experience is to discover the biggest differences that foreign students perceive between their culture of origin and the country where they are studying. “The point of view of a foreigner can help to make visible particular characteristics of the own culture”. It is by studying other cultures when “we learn to appreciate, to question and reinterpret aspects of our culture.”

“Another look at…” Kottak would not be in essence very different from what Thomas R. Williams called the “tear of ethnocentrism” in the investigation of the culture.

In the case of the study of the other there is a set of difficulties, of obstacles so that the researcher can grasp or “understand” in its depth and meaning, its function, and so on, the cultural phenomenon he wants to study. One of the main obstacles is in the preconceptions, the notions of ethnocentric perceptions that inevitably the anthropologist cargo such as baggage of his own world. There is, therefore, to wear such ethnocentrism. (Díaz-Polanco, 1999: 17)

The evolution of human beings has depended on two types of adaptation: the biological and the cultural. Understanding by adapting the set of changes that organizations made to cope with and survive the various forces of the environment and the circumstances to which they are subjected, the human over time we have had to adapt, for example, the climate of different places. In this case, the biological adaptation could account for the differences fisionómicas of individuals in different parts of the world; but we also learned to hide from the cold to not go to cold. When we moved from a warmer location to one more cold, we seek the most suitable clothes to withstand the cold. This last is one of the many cultural adaptations that have developed to protect ourselves and adapt to the vagaries of weather and meteorology.

In the following table (Kottak 2011: 8) we can see the different forms of cultural adaptation and biodiversity that we humans to adapt to places of high altitude.

La antropología social y cultural

We can ask ourselves: what between biological adaptation and cultural, of which one has been more the evolution of human beings? If we take into account all the changes that we have experienced since the origin of humanity, it will not be easy to answer this question. Apart from the amount of changes must take into account the qualitative aspects, which, according to the relevance to be given to one and other changes of a different nature (biological and cultural), form part of the extensive and intense debate Biology vs. Culture, which faces, for example, cultural anthropologists and sociobiologists. The controversies of this debate is centered around the idea of whether it has been the culture that has led to biological evolution, human or otherwise. The thesis most commonly accepted view is that biological evolution and cultural evolution have raced couples in a continuous interconnection. However, of the more than 150,000 years of life it is estimated that homo sapiens carried over the Earth in the last 10,000 years the cultural changes have been much more numerous and relevant. In the words of Kottak:

As it develops in human history, the means of adapting social and cultural have become increasingly relevant. In this process, humans have developed various ways of coping with the diversity of environments they have occupied in time and space. The rates of adaptation and change cultural have accelerated, in particular during the last 10,000 years. For millions of years, hunting and gathering of the resources of the nature, the foragingwas the sole basis of human subsistence. However, it is only required of a few thousand years for food production (the cultivation of plants and domestication of animals), which originated about 12,000-10,000 years ago, to replace foraging in most areas. Between 6,000 and 5,000 years before present, emerged the first civilizations. They were large societies, there are powerful and complex, like ancient Egypt, that conquered and ruled over large geographical areas.

More recently, the spread of industrial production profoundly affected human life. Throughout history, major innovations have emerged at the expense of the previous. Each economic revolution has had an impact, social and cultural rights. The current global economy and communications link all the people, contemporary, directly or indirectly, in the modern world system. People must cope with forces generated by systems are increasingly large: region, nation and world. (Kottak 2011: 8)

The study of “adaptations by contemporary” in an increasingly global world is part of this great challenge faced by the anthropology, as indicated at the beginning. “The cultures of the people of the world need to be rediscovered constantly, and they reinvent themselves in historical circumstances changing” (Marcus and Fischer 1986: 24 in: Kottak 2011: 8).

The social and cultural anthropology shares sociology’s interest in the different forms of social organisation and behaviours within them. According to Kottak (2011: 14-15) The most significant differences between cultural and social anthropology, and sociology come from the type of companies to which each is focused on its beginnings. While sociology focused on western industrial societies, anthropology put your point of look at initial in the societies of non-industrial, small and non-literate (without writing). Each discipline developed its own methods of data collection, that each was considered more appropriate according to the type of society. Thus, sociology has made use of statistics and sampling to describe phenomena of industrial societies, while anthropology is supported in the ethnography, “a research process in which the anthropologist observes, records and engages closely in the daily life of another culture; experience labeled as the method of field work, and then write a story about this culture, with emphasis on the detail descriptive” (Marcus and Fischer 1986: 18 in: Kottak 2011: 15). Of great importance in the ethnography is the special investigative technique of “participant observation” which means “taking part in the events that one observes, describes and analyses”.

While we have referred to the substantial differences of both science research methods and the types of companies objects of their study in their beginnings, now socio-cultural anthropology and sociology converge in many areas of study and share methods. To the extent that it extends and complicates the modern world-system, sociologists make more inroads in developing countries and other places that were unique fields of study of anthropology. In like manner, anthropologists now focus more attention in industrial countries, where they study issues of great relevance such as the “declining rural”, the social life of the big cities and the role that the technological advances of the communication plays in the sociocultural changes.


[1] bio-cultural refers to the combination of approaches from biological and cultural to address or resolve a particular issue or problem

[2] Conrad Phillip Kottak (A. B. Columbia College, 1963; Ph.D. Columbia University, 1966) holds the rank Julian H. Steward professor referee in anthropology from the University of Michigan, where he has taught since 1968. He was director of the Department of Anthropology from 1996 to 2006. Professor Kottak conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Brazil (since 1962), Madagascar (since 1966) and in the united States. His general interests are in the processes by which local cultures incorporated and are reluctant to be part of larger systems. This interest links his early work on ecology and State formation in Africa and Madagascar to his more recent research on globalization, cultures, national and international, and the mass media. In research projects, recent, Kottak and his colleagues have studied the emergence of ecological awareness in Brazil, the social context of deforestation and biodiversity conservation in Madagascar, and popular participation in economic development planning in northeastern Brazil.


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Díaz-Polanco, Héctor. 1999. Social anthropology in perspective. Ciudad Universitaria, Mexico, D. F.: National Autonomous University of Mexico, Center of Interdisciplinary Research in the Sciences and Humanities, Coordination of Humanities.

Harris, Marvin. 1996. The development of anthropological theory: a history of theories of culture. Mexico: Siglo XXI Editores.

Kottak, Conrad Phillip. 2011. Cultural anthropology. ed. Mexico, D. F.: McGraw-Hill.

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Marcus, George E, and Michael M. J Fischer. 1986. Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, in: Kottak, Conrad Phillip. 2011. Cultural anthropology. ed. Mexico, D. F.: McGraw-Hill.

Tezanos, Jose Felix. 2006. The explanation is sociological: an introduction to sociology. ed. Madrid: UNED.

UNIBA. 2016. “Degree in Social and Cultural Anthropology of the University Center for International of Barcelona (UNIBA)”. Accessed February 21.

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