Anthropological Theories

Anthropological Theories




Anthropological Theories

Anthropology is among the new disciplines, and its development is believed to have started in the nineteenth century and twentieth century. However, in France and Germany anthropology already existed in the seventeenth century and eighteenth century though it was exactly called anthropology. It was referred to as volkerkunde, ethnology, etc. anthropology is the study of humans and their cultures in the past and the present to understand ourselves by understanding the past cultures and the cultures of others. In the current world, anthropology entails humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences (Italo Pardo, Giuliana B. Prato, 2016, p. 82). Early anthropology dates back to classical Greece and Persia where it was focused on studying observable cultural diversity.

Anthropology has four main fields, that is, archaeology, linguistic anthropology, cultural anthropology, and physical anthropology. Physical anthropology is concerned with the study of humans as biological organisms, archaeology on the other hand deals with the study of human culture through the recovery and analysis of environmental data and material remains excavated from various caves where the supposed first humans lived. Cultural anthropology studies the customary patterns in human behaviors, thoughts, feelings, etc. It covers humans as culture bearers each time. Linguistics anthropology studies human language throughout history while trying to relate the structure of human language with social and cultural frameworks (Moore, & Keene, (Eds.). 2014).

Various scholars have taken part in the development of various theories of anthropology over time. New theories are developed as the older ones wear out due to criticism. Theories act as a framework of reference echoing on the concepts and hypothesis surrounding a phenomenon. The purpose of this paper is to discuss various theories of cultural anthropology and undertake a comparison and contrasts of the theories.

Cultural evolution theory

Cultural evolution is a theory that represents evolutions and changes in culture and majorly social change. In this theory, it asserts that evolution occurs in people’s lives that is customs, cultural beliefs, language, social norms, knowledge among others. Charles Darwin is best known as the father of evolution. Even though cultural evolution can be explained using Darwinians case, it greatly varies from biological evolution and genetic evolution since it majors on human activities and how they evolve. Herbert zeroed helps in explaining the development of the society using the theory of evolution. The other evolutionists are the British Anthropologist E. B. Tylor and the American Anthropologist L. H. Morgan who is considered as the creators of the nineteenth-century evolutionism (Moore, & Keene, (Eds.). 2014). Tylor borrowed from the work of Darwin in his famous contribution ‘primitive culture.’ Cultural evolution generally was not given much attention in the 20th century until after Dawkins proposed that culture evolves through the differential selection of “memes,” units of inheritance analogous to genes in 2006 that is when many anthropologists begun to look into it keenly (Mesoudi, Whiten, and 2006).

The scope of culture and civilization included knowledge, art, custom, law, belief, morals, and all the acquired habits of man in society. According to Tylor, evolution in the society goes through three stages; savagery, barbarism, and civilization. He postulated that the hunters and gatherers and other non-western cultures were living in less civilized societies unlike the counterparts in the west. The westerners, particularly in Europe, were living a higher level of existence according to him and his theory of evolution. He also proposed that the development of religion took an evolutionary path. At first, humans were in a non-religious state then slowly people started believing in souls and phantoms. Up next, people started building beliefs in ghosts which later evolved to believe in spirits. After believing in spirits, individual guardianship of spirits and species beings developed and was closely followed by the idea of polytheism. According to, Henrich, & McElreath, (2007) paleo archaeological research, they suggests that substantial cumulative cultural evolution has likely been occurring for at least the last 280,000 years, and is thus a key element in understanding human genetic evolution. The evolution of religion came to a complex end when people started believing in the existence of supreme beings.

L.H. Morgan worked on ‘Ancient society.’ He proposed that several things such as politics, language, family, religion, a property developed through evolution (Carneiro, 2018, p. 194). He gave an example of a family. In the early days, people lived in primitive hordes where they were engaged in unregulated sexual behavior, and people did not know their rightful fathers. After that, the brother-sister and group marriages followed. Matriarchal societies come after the marriages, and the final stage that followed was patriarchal societies when men decided to be in charge of the economy and politics. Morgan came up with this school of thought explaining the evolution and origin of families. He also talked about evolution in the art of subsistence. Evolution of the subsistence sector went through stages as well in this order; natural subsistence, fish subsistence, cultivation, meat and milk subsistence, and field agriculture (Ekdale, Singer, Tully, & Harmsen, 2015). He also touched on the evolution of social institution which he says it started from kingship based societies to politically based societies. He focused on the evolution of a couple of specific things such as politics, family, etc (Carneiro, 2018). Family roles have changed since the 18th century and currently we have many mothers taking up the roles of fathers. Initially the father was the head of the family.

Most scholars and thinkers widely accept this school of thought during its time. However, the school of scholars that followed afterward criticized the cultural evolution theory. The first criticism is the theory being biased and stereotyping the non-western societies as less intelligent, uncivilized, less developed, and less sophisticated as compared to the westerners who were considered as more civilized. The other criticism is that scholars such as Morgan used secondary data and philosophical speculations to back up their arguments. The evolutionists did not go on any systematic field work but rather borrowed the knowledge for instance from Darwin. Less of primary resource was used in studying cultural changes in societies and many theorists made assumptions.

Theory of Diffusionism

In science, diffusion refers to the movement of particles from the places of high concentration to lowly concentrated areas. Same way culture moves to different parts of the world from the place of origin. This theory of diffusionism postulates the spread of ideas, customs, or practices from one culture to another. This school of thought grew in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. According to this school of thought, every aspect of civilization for instance technology originated from Egypt before it was later spread to all the other parts of the world (Kuper, 2006, p. 89). The scholars believe that Egypt is the source of all cultures. They also assert that humans are not innovative or are lazy to go down the invention road but rather prefer borrowing ideas from others. The borrowed ideas can be modified or incorporated the way they are originally.

However, critics have pointed out that diffusionism may be insufficient since there are some cultures with no resemblance with prominent Egyptian culture. Some cultures are just so distinct from having borrowed from the Egyptian culture. On their defense, the diffusionism scholars have affirmed that there is such difference in cultures because some cultures have degenerated over the past years. Degeneration has led to the modification of the cultures as some aspects are dropped at some point in time. Also, the degeneration of cultures can be attributed to incomplete diffusion. Not all aspects can be borrowed. Therefore, the aspects are bound to relapse and differ in different parts of the world. This could explain the different cultures of the world. Different people borrow and interpret ideas differently which is why all cultures may be similar but not the same altogether.

Some diffusionism scholars, however, do not believe in the idea that Egypt is the home of all cultures. Father Wilhelm Schmidt, for instance, believes that human is poor in invention and would rather borrow from others but does not believe that there is only one source of cultures. He believes that there existed several culture centers where cultural diffusion occurred in different cultural circles (Rogers, & Shoemaker, 1971). So according to him the origin of cultures is not limited to only place such as Egypt but rather had multiple origins in what he terms as cultural circles.

Apart from that, other scholars believed that diffusion always has an impact on the receiving culture. Diffusion can change the receiving culture which may be an explanation to the allegations that culture originates from only one place. The new culture completely assimilates the ideas of the receiving cultures into their own and thus kills or modifies the existing way of life. One can live two lifestyles at a go thus a new culture arises all together in the host cultures.

The theory of diffusionism faced criticism just like any other anthropological theories. For starters, the theory rules the non-western cultures as inferior. The theory could explain the ethnocentric ideology that some cultures are better than others. Secondly, the explanation of the idea that culture has one origin is insufficient and less convincing. For instance, the claim that Egypt is the source of all cultures is insufficient. Lastly, people can still interact with each other without mixing their cultural traits. For this reason, diffusion is not necessarily the cause of culture change. People can still interact in different societies but maintain their cultural aspects.

Simmilarities and differences

The theory of diffusionism and the theory of evolution have various distinctions and a couple of similarities. To start with, both theories are the focus on explaining the development of cultures in society. Diffusionism maintains that culture is spread from one society to another. According to a couple of scholars, culture developed in Egypt before it was spread to the rest of the world. The theory holds that cultures have a source from where they are diffused (Ellen, 2010). Humans are better at emulating inventions rather than going down the invention road which explains the widespread of culture throughout the world while culture has a distinct origin.

Same way, cultural evolution holds that culture develops in stages. For instance, the family did not just start the way family set ups are during ancient times. In the beginning, it was hard to establish the father of one’s children since people lived in primitive hordes where sexual activities were random (Rogers & Shoemaker, 1971). However, the phenomenon evolved to creating marriages between siblings and groups. Later on, maternal societies rose up before finally men took over the economy and politics, and patriarchal societies came next as the final stage of evolution of families. Family is a culture in the present world that developed through evolution.

Both theories also have criticisms from the new school scholars. As much as they explain the origins of the cultures of the world today, they have shortcomings and loopholes. Diffusionism, for instance, is insufficient in the way the scholars explain the sources of cultures. The new school scholars have determined that people could interact, but the social values and cultures can remain in a tuck. Such argument limits the theory of diffusion since it is believed that diffusion is inevitable. Cultural evolution, on the other hand, has a shortcoming of demeaning the non- western cultures. The scholars believe that the cultures of the bunters and gatherers are less sophisticated and the people from such walks of life are less civilized as compared to the Europeans. Cultural evolution views the less civilized societies as living low lives with poor lifestyles which shows the stereotyping in evolutionism (Mesoudi, Whiten, and Laland. 2006). Also, the evolutionists have been reported to have used second-hand research material while analyzing and backing up their claims. Scholars such as Tylor did not conduct any field research but rather used second-hand data which may be a subject to bias.

The contrast between the two theories, on the other hand, rules out that the diffusion theory and the evolution theory are total opposites (Shao, 2014). When one attempts to explain more about diffusionism, the theory negates evolutionism. Diffusion theory is the complete opposite of evolution theory. Cultural evolution is rendered invalid by diffusion. Diffusion has occurred in extraordinary extends which make the theory appear more real as compare to evolution which dwells on transformation into complex phenomena over time.

Social and cultural evolution borrows from diffusion (Ellen, 2010). Cultural evolution uses stages to explain the development of several things such as politics, family, religion, etc. this concept is derived from the theory of diffusion. People develop their cultures not because of the resources or how the resources affect them but because of observation of the people living next to them. Tribes derive a lot from their neighbors which stimulates them to develop certain cultural patterns. The patterns can be seen to have roots from the neighbors, and the neighbors will also cite some of their cultural patterns which are acquired through diffusion.

Cultural evolution also asserts that the alleged stages of development should be adhered to and skipping any of the stages would be conflicting. In social evolution, for instance, one stage leads to the next stage, and therefore all the stages are necessary. Tylor asserts that for a man to be civilized he passes through stages, that is, savage, barbarism, then finally he becomes civilized. If he skips one of these stages, it will reflect in the outcome (Moore, & Keene. (Eds.). 2014). The level of civilization will not match the level of civilization of people who went through the stages in the stages theory of social evolution.

In diffusion, on the other hand, stages do not matter. What matters is how the new culture is emulated by the receiving culture. Either way, diffusion has changed in the culture of the receiving society, and the stages of diffusion do not exist or would not matter if they did. Value is not attached to the stages. Stages theory is reported to borrow from diffusion fully. For instance, culture was transmitted from Egypt to the rest of the world, and there was no denomination assigned in terms of stages to the changed (Shao, 2014). The changes diffused through and assimilated the other cultures of the world.

In conclusion, the above theories, that is, diffusionism and evolutionism explain the origin of the cultures of the world. Different scholars came up with such theories in an attempt to understand past cultures and the current ones. The theories each have unique concepts to back the ideas it postulates which gives rise to their similarities and contrasts such as cultural evolution borrowing the concept of stages theory in social evolution from diffusionism.


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