While gathered at your family's dinner table, observing your relatives' fights, habits and terms of endearment, have you ever wondered, "Who are these people? Why does our family act like this?" These questions could lead you to a new career: cultural anthropology.
Boiled to its core, cultural anthropology (also known as social anthropology) involves the study of how humans live, function and interact with each other [source: AAA]. Experts in the field usually gather research and collect data by living among and interviewing subjects within specific cultures and regions. They can then contrast the culture and ideologies of these groups with their own or those of surrounding regions or other peoples from across the globe. In this way, we can all benefit from the firsthand research cultural anthropologists gather: how and why cultures develop differently among humans.
Many cultural anthropologists have made a name for themselves in the scientific community, as well as among everyday folk. Some served as pioneers, made startling discoveries, published controversial work and even applied their training to other fields.
In the next few pages, you'll meet some of the world's most famous cultural anthropologists, both past and present, and see why they stood out.
10. Marcel Mauss
Judging by Marcel Mauss's family, this French anthropologist was destined to make great intellectual discoveries. Mauss (1872-1950) was the nephew of Emile Durkheim, the "founder of modern sociology," and followed in his uncle's footsteps by assisting him with his well-respected sociological projects [source: Encyclopedia Brittanica]. The duo, both of Jewish descent, made great strides among their peers.
Mauss, intrigued by the study of religion and ancient languages, and encouraged by his uncle, eventually enrolled in the prestigious Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in 1895 [source: Fournier]. The idea of religion analyzed with a social perspective led Mauss to become a great proponent of "social ethnology" (the comparative, usually first-hand, study of cultures and their social structures) [source: Fournier; Merriam-Webster].
His fame, in particular, comes from his theories regarding gift exchange among groups throughout the world. His work, "The Gift," described the intrinsic bond forged between giver and recipient: Much more than just an object, a gift is a magical and moral link between people. The gift becomes an obligation, whether bad or good, and reciprocity serves as a basis of social relationships [source: Fournier].
To advance the field, Mauss in 1925 assisted in the founding of the Institut d'Ethnologie at the University of Paris. He influenced many of his peers and future generations, including well-known anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss [source: Encyclopedia Brittanica].
Keep reading to find out why our next famous cultural anthropologist is certainly a "gift" to the social sciences.
9. Clifford Geertz
American anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) earned fame for his work on symbolic, or interpretive, anthropology. He made a name for himself analyzing not just the form of cultural objects, but what they meant to specific groups of people [source: Encyclopedia Brittanica].
Geertz served in the military before heading out on his academic path within the social sciences. A few years later, he was one of a few anthropologists chosen to complete field research for a project based in Indonesia. He spent many years in the area, performing extensive work in the region and among its people. He also spent considerable time in Morocco, researching and comparing religions [source: Institute for Advanced Study; Yarrow].
Geertz's field work led to his theory that "things" within a culture can possess important symbolic meaning and contribute to perspectives about the surrounding world [source: Yarrow, IAS]. He became a proponent and pioneer of the use of "thick description" to explain his research methods. The process aims to describe actions and subjects while recognizing their context and deeper meaning [source: Geertz].
In addition to work in the field, Geertz spent much of his time in academia and the publishing world. He became a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, wrote notable works, including "The Interpretation of Cultures" and received many awards from the international community.
8. Paul Farmer
Paul Farmer (born 1959) has made a name for himself beyond the realm of cultural anthropology. He is an avid human rights activist and physician, fighting to provide health care for the world's poorest people.
In a subfield of cultural anthropology known as medical anthropology (examining cultural, social and other factors to discover their influence on overall health), Farmer has become something of a celebrity [source: University of California, San Francisco]. Before entering medical school in 1984, Farmer completed research in Haiti. This poverty-stricken country, and its poorest citizens' inability to attain health care, continue to influence his work.
Farmer is a co-founder of Partners In Health (PIH), an organization that seeks to provide community-based medical care and basic social and economic needs for poor people throughout the world. Haiti's recent earthquake has doubled PIH's efforts in that region, helping the country's most vulnerable [source: PIH].
Besides working in Haiti, Farmer has worked on controlling infectious diseases and promoting basic human rights in Peru and Russia. Being a physician and medical anthropologist has offered Farmer unique insight into understanding native healers, while offering his own treatments. Additionally, Farmer has received many illustrious awards, including the Margaret Mead Award from the American Anthropological Association and a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Award [source: Farmer].
Find out who else conducted anthropological research in Haiti on the next page.
7. Zora Neale Hurston
One of the most celebrated writers from the Harlem Renaissance, and a pioneer for African-American female authors, Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) continues to receive recognition for her contributions to the literary world [source: Encyclopedia Brittanica]. However, some people may not remember, if they ever knew, that Hurston was also a cultural anthropologist who studied with some of the most preeminent minds in the field.
After studying anthropology at Barnard College as the institution's first African-American student, Hurston went on to graduate studies at Columbia University [source: Columbia University]. She trained with some of the most well-known anthropologists in the world, including Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict. Her work, studying culture and folklore in her home state of Florida, as well as in the American south, Haiti and the Caribbean, laid the foundation for literary pieces that authentically portrayed the people in these areas [source: Columbia University]. Study of voodoo practices in the Caribbean and folklore in the south served as rich inspiration for some of Hurston's most acclaimed works, including "Mules and Men," "Tell My Horse," and the still widely read, "Their Eyes Were Watching God."
6. Lewis Henry Morgan
His controversial book and its somewhat divisive conclusions helped make Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881) a very famous anthropologist [source: Union College]. Though he began his professional life as a lawyer, his interest and research in the Iroquois and other Native American peoples overtook most of his time. He developed a particular interest in the way that related people (specifically indigenous groups) interact and refer to each other and how that affects relationships and overall society (also known as kinship systems).
Morgan's travels and field work brought him to theorize that social evolution could be classified in three stages, "savagery," "barbarism" and "civilization," laid out in his 1877 book, "Ancient Society" [source: Moore]. He suggested that human social progression parallels surpluses of food and advancements in collecting that food.
The book and Morgan's evolutionary theories of staged progression received their share of critics, among them were notable anthropologists such as Franz Boas [source: Moore]. However, Morgan made undeniable advancements in the social sciences, from focusing on research that's gathered in the field to emphasizing the importance of kinship relations.
5. Eric Wolf
Born in Vienna, Austria, Eric Wolf (1923-1999) moved with his Jewish family to the United States in order to escape Europe's violent anti-Semitism. He eventually took up the study of anthropology, where he preferred to include history as a major component of his cultural research. His work, influenced by Marxist ideals, earned him the attention of certain faculty members, and he was eventually sent to gather data in rural sections of Puerto Rico. His research later took him to Mexico and Europe, where he observed peasant societies in those regions [source: Moore].
Much of Wolf's work focused on peasant communities and their connectedness within a greater system. He aimed to link local behaviors and patterns to larger socioeconomic and political forces. Besides his argument that culture needs to be studied with a global perspective, he also stressed that culture, including that of non-Western people, is dynamic and doesn't stay the same for long. In his book, "Europe and the People Without History," Wolf theorized that as European society grew, affecting natives throughout areas such as Africa and the Americas, the latter aboriginal communities' behaviors and practices changed as well [source: Moore]. Wolf argued that as powerful, capitalistic nations expanded into new lands, the expansion unavoidably caused a chain reaction within the native people and eventually changed their habits and ways of relating to each other.
Beyond the anthropological world, Wolf was an activist and opponent of the Vietnam War. His work on peasant cultures and the inclusion of historical contexts when studying anthropology has made a big impact in the field.
4. Claude Levi-Strauss
Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-2009) is one of the most famous, respected and important social anthropologists of all time. He's known as the "founder of structuralism" and made a name for himself far beyond academia and his circle of anthropologists.
Levi-Strauss, who grew up in France, came from an artistic Jewish family. After studying law, philosophy and sociology at the University of Paris, he earned a teaching position in Sao Paolo, Brazil [source: Moore, Leach]. While in Brazil, Levi-Strauss began his field work studying the Bororo Indians. He spent years there analyzing and taking notes on other native groups in surrounding regions.
Applying the theories of structural linguistics to the field of anthropology, Levi-Strauss gained fame for a new way of thinking called structuralism. The idea he put forth was that worldwide unconscious structures, or laws, exist in everything that we do (for example, kinship, mythologies and rituals), providing a means for comparing and analyzing cultures [source: Moore]. His formidable four-volume work, "Mythologiques," examined the structure and duality of primitive tribes' myths throughout the Americas and their influence on culture. His other notable works include "Tristes Tropiques" ("A World on the Wane") and "Le Pensee Sauvage" ("The Savage Mind").
3. Ruth Benedict
One of the first women to earn international recognition for her work in anthropology and folklore, Ruth Benedict (1887-1948) made huge strides in her research regarding culture and personality.
After studying literature and poetry as an undergrad, and then getting married, Benedict returned to academia as a doctoral candidate in anthropology. Franz Boas, her mentor and teacher, played a big part in her professional development at Columbia University.
Benedict studied tribes in the American Southwest, which served as the basis for her hugely popular book, "Patterns of Culture." She emphasized that understanding primal cultures could help us understand modern man, and she also explored the connection between culture and individual [source: Benedict].
Besides time spent in the field, Benedict worked for the U.S. Office of War Information during World War II, researching and evaluating published material about outside cultures [source: Moore]. In fact, she helped write an anti-racist pamphlet, "The Races of Mankind," for U.S. soldiers in 1943, describing the scientific basis for equality.
Find out who became great friends with Ruth Benedict on the next page.
2. Margaret Mead
If there's such a thing as a rebel anthropologist, Margaret Mead (1901-1978) is probably the closest thing the U.S. has produced. Her easy-to-follow style of writing, controversial research regarding sex and outspoken personality only heightened her fame, especially beyond the world of anthropology.
Mead was inspired by her Columbia University mentors Ruth Benedict and Franz Boas, and in the early 1920s she decided to study anthropology [source: Moore]. Her research brought her to the South Pacific, specifically Samoa, where she suggested that culture, not just biology, impacts adolescent behavior (published in her first book, "Coming of Age in Samoa") [source: Columbia University]. Mead's startling observations of Samoan children, and the ease with which they entered adulthood, drew her to the conclusion that teenage angst and stress had more to do with external factors than anything going on internally.
Mead continued to return to Samoa for research, also collecting information in Papua New Guinea and Bali. This breadth of information led her to publish more than 30 books and hundreds of other works [source: Moore], Much of her work focused on relatable topics such as childhood and parenthood, topics that, as a mother herself, she valued as much as anyone.
Besides anthropology, Mead was interested in applying her work to affect change in others, especially in areas such as child rearing and women's rights.
Her openness about her own methodologies as well as her addressing of sensitive research topics such as sexuality, made her one of the most talked about anthropologists and read authors in the world.
1. Franz Boas
Though born in Germany, Franz Boas (1858-1942) eventually became known as "the father of modern cultural anthropology" [source: American Museum of Natural History]. He helped establish an anthropology department at Columbia University that nurtured some of the world's brightest students (including Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead), demystified outdated beliefs and advanced theories that helped develop entirely new ways of observing and analyzing the human race.
Boas came to the U.S. in his late 20s and began his career as an editor for a scientific journal. His academic interests in a variety of subjects, among them physics and geography, would influence his push for comprehensive anthropology [sources: Boas, Columbia University]. Unlike some of his peers at the time, Boas made note of research with an eye to other sciences, including linguistics, ethnology and even statistics.
Boas spent time in the field, studying the Eskimos of the Canadian Arctic and Native Americans along the northern Pacific coast. Boas was a pioneer within the field of anthropology, emphasizing that an individual is only as important as his or her social group, and that every cultural setting affects people differently, even those of the same descent.
He refuted the notion of Western civilization's superiority with his theory of relativism. Also, Boas was able to practically apply his theories in the form of disproving racist beliefs of the time. Boas became an outspoken activist, involving himself with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and speaking out against pseudo-scientific prejudice.
Lots More Information
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