Theoretical Anthropology

Michael J Francisconi. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.

To understand the history of anthropology, it must be remembered that anthropology occurred as a response to twin events. First, it became apparent that Europeans were not alone on earth; and second, their initial theological view of humanity could not answer all questions about the “other.” This questioning accelerated during a period of time we call the Enlightenment, from around 1689 to 1789.

In the 1500s, the European awareness of the “other” greatly expanded. Travelers told of distant, radically different and exotic peoples. The first question was whether these surprising, remote, and alien peoples were, in fact, people. People had souls and could become Christian, from the European viewpoint. Europeans wondered if they were indeed people, then how could they have been created so bizarrely. Peoples outside of Europe were seen as degenerate forms of humanity. As scholars began using science to question the Bible, new explanations were sought and anthropology slowly began to take form.


The Enlightenment was a European movement that became a commemoration of science and reason over blind faith. It reflected the growing rebellion of 18th-century intellectuals. All major institutions and official values were subjected to serious and critical examination.

John Locke (1632-1714) was possibly the earliest architect of this development. He shaped the idea that knowledge was actually intellectual perception, or perceptive intuition, and the foundation of learning. Locke, as an empiricist, announced that there were no innate ideas. The mind at birth was a tabula rasa, or clean slate. Soon after birth, experiences are drawn through the senses. These experiences are rationalized through reflection. Learning is then gained from thinking and from the development of the memory. Substance becomes our facility to recognize and comprehend those traits that come together along the lines of cause and effect. One collection of thought soon produces another clump of thoughts and changes the tendency of how one forms ideas. The way we rationalize the world changes with experience and reflection. Consequently, all knowledge comes from experience as revealed through our senses.

Real knowledge is always limited. Knowledge begins with simple ideas that cannot be broken down into simpler components. This basic knowledge comes directly through our senses. From these simple ideas, we can construct more complex ideas made from compounds of simple ideas. Upon doing this, we can compare two or more complex ideas to see which one best suggests the essence of the basics. From this, we create abstractions that recognize the characteristics that objects have in common. This is called conceptualism and is often falsely confused in the creation of the human imagination with reality.

Primary qualities come directly from our experience of the world around us. Secondary qualities are not through direct experience of the external world, but our attempt to sort information in order to make sense of our experiences. These secondary qualities are not true reflections of the world, but are at best a partial distortion of that reality. Our mind then interprets what it experiences. Through careful observation and reflection about what we observe, comparing one set of results with other careful observations, we come closer to the truth of the external world. Thus, we observe the world around us and systematically analyze our findings, getting closer to reality. We begin to understand the world without reference to the Bible.

The authority of the writings of Locke spread to France, where it effected an entire movement. Voltaire (1694-1778) became a member of the freethinking community, where he assumed the role of comedian, exposing the charade of the religious and political world around him. For this, he was imprisoned in the Bastille for a year in 1717. Teaching a deist philosophy, he believed God created the universe, including the world, according to rational laws discoverable through observation and reason. Afterwards, the universe and human society operated alone, according to these principles. God had no influence.

Voltaire came under the influence of Locke and later moved to England. There, he learned about English literature and theater. He advocated that the meaning of life was not achieving heaven through faith and repentance, as Christianity had taught. For Voltaire, humans could secure happiness only by progress in the sciences and arts, and as a part of the celebration of life on earth. His major passions included religious tolerance, material prosperity for all people, respect for the rights of all people, and the elimination of torture and ineffectual punishments. Ironically, Voltaire believed Europeans were superior to Africans and would always need to lead the rest of the world.

Paul-Henri Dietrich (1723-1789) exemplifies the thought being expressed during the 18th century. In his book, The System of Nature, under the name J. B. Mirabaud, he sarcastically ridiculed the religion of the time. He openly promoted an atheistic and skeptical worldview that was both deterministic and materialist. He saw religion as being false and detrimental. Humans were biological machines like any other animal. Humanity could thus be studied as a branch of biology.

Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (1632-1704) called attention to the importance of language in logical reasoning, while stressing specialized language as particularly designed for scientific investigations. The language of science was based upon a functional understanding of mathematics. Knowledge expanded through systematic, empirical investigations. Throughout history, observations of our “sense perception” were the ultimate underpinning for practical human knowledge in any society. Each of the human senses operates independently and brings information that cannot be accessed by any other source. The mind of a person brings this information together and this knowledge has an effect on the sense perceptions in the future. From this, we study history as human development molded through both education and the environment.

Charles-Louis de Secondat (1789-1755) examined society through the use of ideal types. There were three basic types of society: the republic (which was further divided between democracy and aristocracy), monarchy, and despotism. The virtue of a republic was civic integrity, the virtue of monarchy was honor, and the virtue of despotism was fear. Each type of society was organized in a specific way in which all institutions and elements were reflective of the type of state in existence. The ideal types were broad similarities that categorize different societies into these distinctive groupings because of shared characteristics. Typologies made science possible. In addition, he believed that there were savages who were hunters and made up dispersed bands that could not be united into a larger clan, while barbarians were small nations of herders who could be united into a larger united group. Thus, thought began to arise about the connection between the political economy of a people and its subsistence patterns.

These ideal types are continuously developing and changing. The histories of specific societies are related to particular causes. Not only are other social elements reflective of the type of state, but also political traditions are consistent with the distinctiveness of other elements of society. The critical fundamentals of the type of society are size, territory, and population. Climate and geography are contributing factors.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) believed that the enduring fulfillment and liberty of people rested on a lucid knowledge of natural laws. Through ignorance, people create social orders in conflict with basic human nature. Humans have two conditions: the first is natural and the second is social. The “natural man” is a situation in which a person lives outside society and its influence. If it is decided that a particular social order is inappropriate to freedom, work can be done to change society. This is learned by conceptually removing all the qualities of social derivation until only the “natural foundation” remains. The natural foundation is human nature. The “state of nature” is the essential psychological makeup of the personality. This fiction promotes the understanding of what sort of society would allow individuals the maximum freedom to maximize their full potential.

To understand human needs, it is first necessary to conceive what a person uninfluenced by society would be like. All traits must be removed that have any social or cultural starting point until all that is left is the essential human nature, centered upon unaffected underpinnings. In an imaginary state of nature, there would be a balance between the basic needs and resources at the disposal of the person in a natural state. These uncomplicated and modest needs are for food, rest, protection from the weather, and a mate. Harmony and satisfaction are easily achieved. Theft, brutality, and supremacy are not a part of human nature. Without society, humans are uninterested in the needs of the community. People can feel sympathy for other people because the imagination is part of human nature.

Society originated with families. The individual was no longer isolated, because numbers of people and complicated relationships required people to work together. As more families lived closer together, natural equality within the community slowly eroded. With the advent of agriculture, division of labor encouraged an inequality between families to develop. The prosperous would be called upon to lend assistance to the unfortunate. In return, the poor had to submit to the dominance of the wealthy. Resentment toward this injustice would threaten the security and safety of every member of society. Governments were created to protect property, the source of all wealth. Without a government, pandemonium, belligerence, and obliteration awaited everyone.

Society, made up of individuals, was also perfectible. It was morally wrong and against natural law for the lucky minority to be avaricious with irrelevant embellishments, while the hungry, overworked masses lived in constant unremitting need for the meager requirements and rudiments of life. Through the general will, liberty would require a new measure of excellence. Free and equal individuals would voluntarily form this contract. In small communities, democracy would work. In the larger society, a benevolent and educated aristocracy would coordinate the smaller democracies.

The Enlightenment began to look at history as an evolutionary process. “Primitives” were no longer considered to be degenerate forms of humanity fallen from grace. When Europeans looked at other cultures, they now saw their own past. While Europe held the most enlightened and most advanced of all people, one form of racism replaced another. Yet now science at least was being developed and offered a hope of someday understanding other peoples.

Romantic Conservatism

The Enlightenment unfolded and provoked the pervasive confidence in the prospect of humanizing the human condition through political progress, as well as freedom of and from religion. The revolution shaped a new Europe based upon the point of reference of rationalist philosophy and political beliefs. The difficult position of modern conservatism was one of looking backward to a romanticized past. In the face of constant rationalist innovation, conservatives were often forced to adopt a merely defensive role, so that the political initiative lay always in the other camp.

The main relevance of the Romantic conservatism movement was an aversion to the 18th-century rationalism of the Enlightenment. This included a love of nature and revival of the value of the aristocratic “Middle Ages.” The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars had a profound impact on antimodern and conservative intellectual thought of the day. This brought about a strengthening of idealist philosophy.

Romantic conservatism viewed society as a natural synchronization with divinely inspired internal principles that embraced deep traditional roots that are historical and time honored. Society itself is always ethically greater than the individual. It is society that creates individuals and God who created society. Social relationships and institutions create society, and the individual is but an abstraction created by what is real—the social community. All parts of society are mutually dependent and intimately interconnected. Civilization, customs, beliefs, way of life, organizations, and institutions are, in actual existence, intertwined in a web of associations. Challenges to these traditional bonds threaten the moral fabric of society. Human needs are fixed, eternal, and divinely created. Social institutions are created by God to meet these needs.

This was one of the universals for all of humanity, with Christianity serving as the most positive reflection of this truth. Anything that allowed an individual to stray from God’s plan could not be tolerated. Society, made up of smaller groups like the family and village, was brought together to complete God’s plan. These smaller groups consisted of people who gained the support needed to live. Revolution, civil liberties, democracy, and individualism led to the moral disintegration of society. Only by uniting all of Europe, and ultimately the world, under a single Catholic faith could God’s will be done. Under this doctrine, humans needed ritual, ceremony, and worship rather than rationalism and science. Status and hierarchy, controlled by the church and sovereign, were necessary for society to survive.

Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling taught that human desire for power and carnal lust is more powerful than the rational or the good. This was Adam’s fall from grace. When God became human in the person of Christ, this deception of man was overturned. This creates two possibilities and the result is freedom of choice. God is self-defined by self-conscious projections toward the peoples of the world.

Nature and the human mind formed a shared correspondence. According to Schelling (as cited by O’Meara, 1977), nature is the unconscious mind, and mind is unconscious nature. Through art, nature—the unconscious—is united with the spiritual or conscious. Through art, it can be shown that the absolute communicates openly as the harmony of the subjective and the objective. Freedom of humanity allows for good, as well as evil, and the irrational was at least as real as the rational.

Friedrich von Schlegel, another character of significance, integrated a unique notion of Romanticism with imaginings of medieval Christianity. As a Romantic, his philosophy was the result of the most straightforward interpretation of the major convictions of the character of the church in the Middle Ages. His ideas were a reaction against the scientific rationalization of the study of nature. Schegel emphasized a devotion to vigorous feelings as a source of aesthetic experience, and thus creativity. By introducing new emphasis on such emotions, humans were seen as basically emotional and irrational, and that was a good thing if humans accepted the authority of the crown and the throne. Conservative Roman Catholic legitimism is a common strand in the romantic generation that dominated the conservative thought of the 1820s.

Joseph de Maistre was a most important champion for legitimism. He took a position opposing the principles of the French Revolution, democracy, and separation of church and state. He approved a united monarchical and ecclesiastical authority. Most of all, Maistre was counterrevolutionary and opposed the secularization of society. Traditional authority was a necessary precondition to security and the threat of liberal concerns for civil liberties. Traditional elites were central to the smooth, everyday sanctuary of a healthy society. Maistre created a depiction of humans as being fundamentally weak and emotional creatures born in original sin and given to a life of indulgence, chaos, and wickedness. This state could only be overturned if jointly controlled by the throne of the sovereign and the ecclesiastical altar, and if surrounded by a tough political structure restrained by a fixed monarch, priests, and the ubiquitous intimidation of the executioner. In fact, Maistre is most remembered for disapproving of the Enlightenment and social revolutions of the 18th century for having undermined the supremacy of traditional religion. The reestablishment of the rule of time-honored elites was essential to reestablish order. He granted reverence to the public executioner who was the primary guardian of a divine and sacredly endorsed social hierarchy. Maistre promoted the need for the dominion of Christianity, the unconditional leadership of both the monarch and the papacy, and the institutionalization of public executions as not only necessary, but also God’s will.

Louis Gabriel Ambroise taught that God gave language to humanity and the meaning contained within the use of words is divinely predetermined by revelation. In the end, society must be founded upon the laws of God or it will suffer the consequences. The individual learns the will of God only by living in the community of God led by the church. Knowledge or culture could be learned only by tradition, ritual, the declaration of religious dogma, and revelation. In this doctrine, God stands outside of time and nature, and God is the author of the universe. God also governs humanity as part of this creation. The liberal revolution was God’s punishment for rationalism, science, and other liberal ideas.

The Romantic reaction led to a reintroduction of the book of Genesis as the only history of our ancient past. Only Christianity carried the key to progress and happiness. Non-Europeans, then, were sinners fallen from grace.

Reaction to the Reaction

Hegel and History

For Hegel (1807/1967), reason was integral to the very process of historical development. What is rational is real and what is real is rational. Reason is an indwelling core of the universe, remaining within the historical recounting of the universe. History is the continual unfolding of reason as it evolves toward the absolute. According to Hegel, reason objectifies itself in every single creation through the blending of inborn contradictions. Each new fusion produces a new thesis with a new set of contradictions, which resolves itself with new amalgamation with its own inconsistencies. Each new idea then has its own reality, which is the thesis. This has a limited time frame within history, and the innate contradictions destabilize any consistency. Born out of this conflict is a new thesis and the process continues in a new historical setting. Within each thesis is its own antithesis, and the antithesis has its own set of contradictions.

Hegel’s concern was based on the idea of essence of being, which states that something is negated in the process of creating something new, which leads to the sum of essence—the end of the previous historical setting. The new essence is only an appearance of being as revealed by the absolute. Each new conclusion is only temporary and fleeting. This development, Hegel asserted, is completely conditional on a specific historical setting. History is only a specific manifestation of an approximation of being. The resulting contradiction is the negation of the negation of the essence of being, leading to the actuality of a more advanced harmony. This brings together essence or “real meaning” with “existence.” At each stage in this process, Philosophy is moving closer to the absolute.

Hegel’s assertion that human history follows the same pattern as one epic replaces another, right after the one before it, results in the continual unfolding of the world spirit. History, and not a specific social structure, becomes real. This is important for anthropology and sociology because this leads to a historical, instead of a functional, study of culture.

Young Hegelians, or the Next Generation

Bruno Bauer (1809-1882) was a leader of the left-Hegelian movement, developing a republican interpretation of Hegel, which combined ethical and aesthetic motifs. His theory of infinite self-consciousness, derived from Hegel’s (1807/1967) account of subjective spirit, stressed rational autonomy and historical progress. Investigating the textual sources of Christianity, Bauer described religion as a form of alienation, which, because of the deficiencies of earthly life, projected irrational, transcendent powers over the self, while sanctioning particularistic sectarian and material interests. After the defeats of 1848, Bauer repudiated Hegel. He predicted a general crisis of European civilization, caused by the exhaustion of philosophy and the failure of liberal and revolutionary politics. New prospects of liberation would, he believed, issue from the crisis. His late writings examined the emergence of Russia as a world power, opening an era of global imperialism and war.

In the early 1840s, Bruno Bauer wrote this salient examination on both the gospel of John and the synoptic gospels, which were seen by him as self-aware expressions of a community responsive to the spirit of the time at a particular stage of development. Thus, the works of Hegel were defined as atheistic, radical, and revolutionary.

Feuerbach sets the tone by outlining humans as having the capacity for reason, determination, and love. These are central to our human willpower and the human condition. We create God out of our own imagination and thus become alienated from who we really are. Feuerbach understood the Christian mysteries to be no more than symbols of the human alienation of creative resources unconditionally redefined as divine attributes, thereby crippling the individual through faith. To regain our freedom and human essence, we need to become aware that humans created God and not the other way around. We become powerless and passive in the presence of our creation, God, and rely on figments of the imagination to give us strength to accept what we can change.

The political repression in Europe was not only intense, but also mounting, as radicals had every intention of carrying the liberal revolutions to the next level in opposition to both the liberals, who made peace with the authorities, and the romantic conservatives. Arnold Rue made the accusation that introspective reason was to downgrade philosophy to the acquiescence of obtainable circumstances, thereby strengthening the status quo.

One group of young Hegelians believed that objective detachment, or value-free social science, in philosophy was necessary to understand existing conditions. This group included Max Stirner and the Bauer brothers. Another group believed that theory was, at its core, advocacy and active political engagement. Most noted in this second group was Karl Marx.

The historical materialism that Marx established took a position against the idealism of even the materialist philosophers. Marx addressed the principle that the basis comprising the relations of production, both the forces and relations of production, coordinate the superstructures. The superstructures would include not only political, legal, organizational, and cultural institutions, but also religion, philosophy, and ideology. The various parts are interrelated and historically specific. The movement that exists between the various functions among these areas of configuration, contained by the entirety of any historical era, need to prevail over the contradictions inherent in the society in question. Action of the individual players could be progressive, by easing the transition to the next epic in history, or reactionary by trying to slow down this change. This materialism was intended to be linked to the continuous polemical interaction and intersecting challenging issues, widespread, for the duration of the succeeding history of any social movement.

Utopian Socialists: The Other Rebellion

In 1817, Robert Owen outlined what he saw as a design for a new society. He believed that people were a product of both their social circumstances and what they learned. In poverty, and without any hope, people are educated to survive at any cost. Humanitarian virtues were undermined with the concerns of immediate survival. This was the fault of a society that was structured in a way that benefited the wealthy and powerful.

The dominant theme of powerful individuals in a society is motivated by the wealth and power of the few. The indisputable source of prosperity is the labor of the poor. The poor, as Owen saw them, were denied any real options in life and were reduced to misery and wretchedness. Both the powerful and the powerless were corrupted by this arrangement. Because the ones bound in servitude are denied freedom, the threat of insurgence in these lowest classes also reduces the freedom of those who have control over the lives of others.

For Owen, happiness of the individual reaches its summit in the happiness of everyone in the community. By expanding the joy of everyone, even the rich find their own personal contentment increased. Owen used ethical arguments to explain his economic theory.

Children are born with many possibilities, are taught either to be selfish or generous, and are capable of either. Children learn from which they are exposed. The human nature with which we are born is molded through learning. The values and goals we embrace as adults are reflections of our early childhood education. Education begins within hours of birth, as the infant becomes aware of its surroundings. By teaching the child about other people existing in its world, the child learns to have concern for others. Owen saw this as the beginning of the development of an ethical code. When a child is raised in an environment in which these other people intend injury to the child or its kin, the moral programming is impeded in its instruction.

Owen contended that a person’s happiness is closely tied to the satisfaction of every other person in the individual’s homeland. Contentment is attached to well-being, confidence, heartiness, and serenity; it is the only real prospect for peace. For Owen, this is not speculation, but has been proven repeatedly through practice where given a chance. If properly educated to teach compassion and set up a social enterprise, where empathy is rewarded, then kindness and understanding become a pleasure. Education in the right surroundings becomes a part of everyday life and is enjoyable in its own right.

Because people are a product of their social background, Owen asserted that they become what life has taught them to become. Most laws are irrational, for they punish ignorance. Reeducation is more sensible than retribution. Reeducation is but the first step. The criminal is also a victim—a victim of a scandalously immoderate society. Dispossessed people gain knowledge of survival by learning criminal activities. Owen viewed law enforcement and criminal courts as founded upon a desire for vengeance and not upon an attempt at solving the problem of criminal behavior. Harming others for personal gain is criminal when practiced by the down-and-out. It is good business routine when put into practice by the select few and the advantaged. Owen calls on society to actively create a community in which goodness is rewarded. Then it is possible to teach children virtue. When integrity becomes the norm, then decency is easily achieved.

Because the desire for happiness is the chief motive of the decisions all people make, the failure to achieve universal happiness is behind global evil. This colossal disappointment is the result of not observing that only when the powerless are empowered can national security mean anything. Only when the poor and the disposed reclaim what is rightfully theirs, Owen asserted, can the privileged and the wealthy reclaim their abandoned joy. Through changing how people are educated, and allowing working people control over their workplace and communities, crime will disappear within a generation because the social causes of crime will disappear.

Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) believed that human thought evolved from the theology of paganism to the metaphysics of Christianity and now was to be replaced by science. The study of society must be based upon the same scientific principles as the rest of the sciences. Science would replace religion and scientists would become the new natural elite, replacing both the clergy and the nobility. Science and industry would replace the church as the origin of social values. There were three classes seen by de Saint-Simon in this new society. The first were the elites made up of scientists, artists, and “men” with a liberal education. The next class was the property owners: the former elite in the old order. This was the class of conservatism and could be counted on to oppose the new elite. The last class was the vast majority of everyone else. The lower class could be expected to support the new elite, rallying around the cry for equality. Yet the new elite must never relax control over the mob. What was needed was a shared social ethic that puts the needs of society above the special interests of a single class. This social ethic becomes obvious through science and positive philosophy; objective principles lead the leaders. Laws are natural, discovered through both scientific observation and rational analysis.

Marx and Sociology

Marx and his many followers united the inspiration of the young Hegelian and utopian socialist. Marx claimed there are real regularities in nature and society that are independent of our consciousness (Marx & Engels, 1970). This reality changes, and this change has patterned consistencies that can be observed and understood. Tensions within the very structure of this reality form the basis of this change. These changes add up until the structure itself is something other than the original organization. A new entity is then formed with its own tensions or contradictions.

When studying a society, Marx instructed, the research should begin with a people’s interaction with nature (Marx & Engels, 1970). Humans, through their labor, produce the means of their own survival. The environment—natural and social—in which people provide the basis for their own survival becomes central to the analysis of a society.

Through the means of production, which includes technology, environment, population pressure, and work relationships, people are able to take from nature what they need to survive; this in turn creates what is possible for the various parts of the superstructure. Any study of the historical change of a people must assume economic factors will be of first importance. The economic primacy is not absolute, however, because each of the various parts of a society has its own continual influence on the social whole.

Researchers who study noncapitalist societies become aware that major differences do exist between individual noncapitalist societies. One major difference noticed by social scientists is the degree of complexity in social structures between one society and another. It is argued that the differing degrees of complexity of the social relations are directly related to different productive levels, including how efficiently a technology can utilize a particular environment to support the people of that social structure.

With changes in the organization of labor, there are corresponding changes in the relationship to property. With the increasing complexity of technology and social organization, changing societies move through diverse variations to a more restrictive control over property, and eventually, with a state society, develop restrictions on access to property, based upon membership in different economic classes.

A social system is a dynamic interaction among people, as well as a dynamic interaction between people and nature. The production for human subsistence is the foundation upon which society ultimately stands. From the creation of the specific methods of production in an economic system, people in turn establish their corresponding set of ideas. People are the creators of their social ideology. People are continually changed by the evolution of their productive forces and by the relationships associated with these productive forces. People constantly change nature, and thus they change themselves in the process.

In Marxist thought, the study of history begins with the material or objective organization of people living their everyday lives. This is set into motion by means of a people’s relationship with nature, as expressed in their social and cultural life. Through these relationships, humans produce their own means of subsistence. Each generation inherits and reproduces this means of subsistence, and then changes it to fit their changed needs. This historically and culturally specific setting shapes individual human nature. This means that how people are organized and interact is determined by production.

Production molds all other social relations. This includes the relations of one nation to another, as well as the internal social structure of a single nation. With every new change in the forces of production, there exists corresponding change in the relations of production. These changes lead to changes in the division of labor. With changes in the division of labor, there are changes in the property relations of the nation. Ultimately, this brings ideological changes as well.

Marxism identifies the first historical act as the production to satisfy material life. Following the first historical act is the production of those new needs that are the practical result of satisfying the needs of material life. People reproduce themselves, their families, and their culture daily. These acts of production and reproduction are prearranged by the historical past of a people, but this very activity changes both the people and their culture. With these changes, the needs of a people are changed; old needs are redefined or eliminated and new needs are created. With these ever-changing needs, the development of human life is both social and natural. Humans are both the animal creations of nature and the social creations of society. With this, each society creates its own social organization based upon its own historical mode of production. The nature of society is based upon the mode of production and consciousness. People’s relations to nature mold their relations with each other. Peoples’ relations with one another affect their relations to nature.

Social Evolution in the 19th Century

At the same time the young Hegelians and the utopian socialists were struggling to find a way out of the quagmire of Romantic reaction following the waves of revolutions, a new evolutionary view of humanity challenged the biblical account of human history. Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck (1744-1829), among others, began to advocate an evolutionary model of characteristics acquired from adapting to changes in the environment. What was seen as true for biological heredity would also explain cultural change. Many of these early writers speculated about why there were so many differences among human cultures. Biblical scholars looked upon non-Europeans and non-Christian peoples as being the result of degeneration, both physically and culturally, from the white race brought about by their separation from God’s plan.

The evolutionists challenged this religious view by speculating that nonwhites were a more primitive variety of humans. Science was superior to religion. Monotheism was superior to either polytheism or animism. European civilization was at the apex of evolutionary development. All other cultures were somewhere along the evolutionary trajectory from early apelike hominids to modern Europeans. Humans started their history as savages, and savages could still be found in the 19th century. Some of these savage groups had advanced to the next stage called barbarism, and barbarians could still be found in the 19th century. Civilization eventually replaced barbarism.

Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) maintained that all peoples evolved from simple to complex societies. Change of course happened at vastly different rates, thus the survival of savages and barbarians. Simple primitives were similar to stages the civilized Europeans had already passed through.

Lewis Henry Morgan became a defender of the land rights of the Iroquois of western New York; his interest in primitive peoples led to the publication of Ancient Society in 1877. He also divided peoples into savages, barbarians, and civilization. Dividing savages and barbarians each into low, middle, and high stages of development further refined this model of evolution. Marriage, family, religion, and political organization reflected the stage of technological development. Morgan speculated that the family evolved through the six stages of savagery and barbarism until the family of civilization emerged. The first was the promiscuous horde without any sexual prohibitions or real families. Middle savagery was marked by a group of brothers who were married to a group of sisters. Brother-sister mating was still permitted but not mother-son or father-daughter. Third stage brothers and sisters were not allowed to mate but group marriages were still practiced. Lower barbarism was described by loosely paired male and female couples who could end relationships easily or have sex with other partners. This was followed by male-dominated polygamy. The last stage was one of monogamous families, in which one wife and one husband were married and were comparatively of the same rank.

The problem with Morgan’s conclusions was that recent studies failed to support his views on families among other societies. For example, in general, no society permitted group marriage or tolerated brother-sister mating.

Following Morgan, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) believed that human nature was an ever changing and evolutionary process. This progress followed universal laws of development. Societies that did not adapt to changes in the environment died out. Savages stood in the way of progress and should be eliminated. It was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the expression, “survival of the fittest.”

For Spencer, humans gradually specialize, beginning with biological evolution, toward self-sufficiency and individuation, reflected in liberal capitalism. This innate tendency was revealed in the natural quality of rational self-interest. Those societies and individuals who make the most of this principle survive; those who are slow in learning this truth become extinct. Ethically, individualism was “most important,” and individual growth was “egoistic.” Society and all associations with others were largely made up of instrumental and contractual agreements between individuals. Government should then protect the equality of freedom, and not interfere with a policy of laissez-faire in economic matters. Equality in control over economic resources or in the distribution of rewards undermined efficiency and was therefore wrong.

Evolutionary theory was trapped in a European mind-set of development from simple to complex, from primitive to the advanced. A return to the view of the racial and cultural superiority of Europe, held by scholars of the 18th century, carried with it the same pitfalls of distortions and the same limitations of bad science.

Historical Particularism

In an earnest response to the judgmental mind-set and assessment of 19th-century social evolution, a school of thought called historical particularism came into being. Universal evolution was seen as unscientific because any theory that places “European civilization” as the apex of social evolution was in fact theological and thus began with a preconceived conclusion and then arranged the data to support the subjective and predetermined deduction. With this as its basis, Franz Boas (1963) and his followers in American anthropology went to live with people whom they studied for fairly long periods of time. Through their observations, they collected considerable quantities of actual cultural data. They developed a research method called ethnographic studies in the field. Based on meticulous data, researchers described a specific culture. They were not interested in broad-spectrum theories (e.g., evolution) that relate to all societies and cultures.

Whereas Boas focused on individuals in his research, and deemed such information as a vital source in his cultural investigations, Alfred Kroeber (as cited by Boas, 1948) alleged a society changes consistent with its own internal laws. This cultural feature was the superorganic, where individuals played only a minor role in cultures. Culture could only be explained by bearing this objective force of the superorganic in mind.

Rebirth of Evolutionary Theory in Anthropology

Cultural Ecology and Cultural Materialism

What became apparent was that anthropologists were working with diverse historical settings and needed a way to reflect that. Borrowing from Marx, the concepts of production, human needs, population pressure, and change help us understand social ecosystems. The various human communities found in social and ecological associations are both historically and culturally diverse. To aid in this understanding, Julian Steward (1976) coined the term cultural ecology.This was an extension of his theory of multilinear evolution—a search for regularities in cultural change. Cultural laws are then defined as a way to explain these changes, by searching for outlines of historical change that follow patterns of an interaction between the parts of a society and the larger environment. Cultural traditions have distinctive elements that can be studied in context. Similarities and differences between cultures are meaningful and change in meaningful ways. The evolution of recurrent forms, processes, and functions in different societies have similar explanations. Each society has its own specific historical movement through time.

Cultural ecology studies the adaptation of a unique culture adapted historically in a distinctive environment. Using this explanation, Steward (1976) appraised a creative process of cultural change. Steward focused on recurrent themes that are understandable by limited circumstances and distinct situations. This helps to establish specific means of identifying and classifying cultural types. Cultural type is an ideal heuristic tool designed for the study of cross-cultural parallels and regularities. This analytical instrument allows assembling regularities in cultures with vastly different histories. This type of classification is based upon selected features. With this, it is important to pick out distinctive configurations of causally interdependent features of cultures under study. The researcher chooses specific physiognomies that have similar functional interrelationship with one another.

For example, economic patterns are important because they are more directly related to other social, cultural, and political configurations. Universal evolutionary stages are much too broad to tell us anything concrete about any particular culture. The changes from one stage to another are based upon particular historical and cultural ecological arrangements unique for each society. Exceptionalism, then, is the norm. Global trends and external influences interact with a locally specific environment, giving each society a unique evolutionary trajectory.

Cultural ecology looks at cultural features in relation to specific environmental circumstances, with unique behavioral patterns that relate to cultural adjustments to distinctive environmental concerns.

Cultures are made up of interrelated parts. The cultural core is grouped around subsistence activities and economic relationships. Secondary features are more closely related to historical contingencies, and less directly related to the environment. Cultural ecology focuses upon attributes immersed in the social-subsistence activity within the specific environment in a culturally directed fashion. Changes are, in part, alterations in technology and productive arrangements as a result of the changing environment. Whether these technological innovations are accepted or not depends upon environmental constraints and cultural requirements. Therefore, population pressure and its relative stability are important. Also, internal division of labor, regional specialization, environmental tension, and economic surplus create the cultural conditions in which technological innovation becomes attractive, leading to other cultural changes. These social adaptations have profound effects upon the kinship, politics, and social relations of a group.

Culture, according to Steward (1976), is a means of adaptation to environmental needs. Also, social relations reflect technological and environmental concerns. These social relations organize specific patterns of behavior and their supportive values. A holistic approach to cultural studies is then required to see the interrelationship of the parts.

The researcher begins with the study of the relationship between technologies of a people and how they exploit their environment for their survival. To use these technologies within an environmental setting, certain behavior patterns are established. The interaction between labor (behavior patterns) and the connection between technology and the environment has a reciprocal relationship with other aspects of culture, including ideology.

Leslie A. White (1969) looked at culture as a superorganic entity that was understandable in cultural terms. The three parts of a culture are the technological, the social, and the ideological. All three parts interact, but the technological is the more powerful factor in determining the formation of the other two. Thus, cultural evolution has all three parts playing important roles: The technological influences the sociological to the greater degree, and the sociological in the end shapes the ideological. Culture becomes the sum of all human activity and learned behavior. It is what defines history. Through technology, humans try to solve the problem of survival. To this end, the problem arises of how to capture energy from the environment and use this energy to meet human needs. Those societies that capture more of this energy and use it most efficiently are in a more advantaged position relative to other societies. This is the direction of cultural evolution. What decides a culture’s progress is its capability of harnessing and controlling energy. White’s law of evolution claims that a society becomes more advanced as the amount of energy harnessed per capita, per year, is increased, or as the efficiency of putting the energy to work is increased. This is cultural evolution.

Marvin Harris (1968, 1974, 1977, 1980, 1998) expanded upon cultural ecology, and called his approach cultural materialism. Human communities are fused with nature through work, and work is structured through social organization. This, Harris has asserted, is the basis of the industry of all societies. Social science must reflect this if it is to understand the deeper underlying connections between specific social actions and global trends. Industry, commerce, production, exchange, and distribution establish the social structure, which in turn gives birth to the ideological possibilities of any culture. Along these lines, socioeconomic classes are determined by the interaction between technology and social organization in a particular environment. The needs of every society and the individuals in that society must be met; this in turn creates its own ideological support. With the development of capitalist society, for example, science develops to meet the needs of its economic requirements. Even more important, science is established as the integrating principle of modern industrial capitalism. This is possible because the principle ideas of any class society are that of the ruling class. Workers are subject to those ideas, while the dominant ideology reflects the dominant material relations of the society. In this, Marxism, cultural ecology, and cultural materialism have similar thoughts on the subject.

The complex relationships among the material base of technology, the environment, population pressure, and the ideological superstructure are a constant factor in studying social change. The social consciousness, while being the product of real material relations of society, in turn has an impact on those social relations. This feedback loop is central to understanding the historical dynamics of society. Social consciousness becomes the collective reflection of social relations. Through social consciousness, people become aware of and act upon nature and society. Even though forms of social consciousness reflect a specific social existence, this social whole is not a static or passive relationship. The ideological superstructure is different in each community and changes as the economic relations of society are changed. The ideology of a society reflects the social conditions of its existence. The superstructure and structure are ultimately molded and limited by the infrastructure. The infrastructure sets the limits of what is possible for both the structure and superstructure.

The interaction between social organization (structure) and the use of a technology within an environment (infrastructure) can be used to understand many particulars about the total culture. The evolution from band-level society to tribal-level society, tribal to chiefdom, and chiefdom to state-level society has to take into consideration changes in the organization of labor, including the growing division of labor, and, ultimately, changes in the technology used by a people. With changes in the organization of labor, there are corresponding changes in the relationship to property. With the increasing complexity of technology and social organization, societies move through these various stages to a more restrictive control over property, and eventually, with a state society, restrictions develop on access to property, based upon membership in economic classes.

Marxism, cultural ecology, and cultural materialism all agree that a social system is a dynamic interaction between people, as well as a dynamic interaction between people and nature. The production for human subsistence is the foundation upon which society ultimately stands. In producing what people need to live, people also produce their corresponding set of ideas. People are the creators of their ideology, because people are continually changed by the evolution of their productive forces; they are always changing their relationships associated with these productive forces. People continuously change nature and thus continually change themselves in the process.

Cultural Core

Cultural core is the central idea of cultural ecology. Current scholars in the field add the use of symbolic and ceremonial behavior to economic subsistence as an active part of the cultural core. The result of cultural beliefs and practices leads to long-term sustainability of natural resources. The symbolic ideology becomes as important as economics in the cultural core. Through cultural decisions, people readapt to a changing environment. This opens the door for a critical anthropology; the anthropologist can act as an advocate for groups threatened by corporate agricultural concerns. This humanistic approach does not negate anthropology as a social science. Instead, the new anthropology has a new activist approach by recognizing that different agents may have competing interests in resource management. Any historical analysis of important issues must then include indigenous knowledge to maintain not only long-term sustainability, but also to protect the rights of those most vulnerable.

Eric Robert Wolf

Eric Robert Wolf (1982, 1999) spent his professional career describing and expounding on peasant society, state formation, development of capitalism, and colonial expansion. He worked with the Marxist concept of modes of production as a conceptual tool to study the historical and materialist consideration of people in a cultural and ecological context adapting to a changing environment. Modes of production were looked at in a cultural ecological setting, as a specific adaptation to a particular social and physical environment. Interconnecting relations with other cultures in different environmental settings was a modification of this adaptation.

In the mode of production theory, Wolf, in Europe and the People Without History (1982), classified historical cultures into three basic modes of production: kin-ordered, tributary, and capitalist. Kin-ordered relates to band and tribal societies or stateless societies. In tributary modes of production, the direct producers possess the means of production. The elite expropriate the surplus product by political or other types of noneconomic means. Wolf stated that all precapitalist states were tributary. Asiatic is an example of a strong (centralized) tributary state, while feudal is a weaker (decentralized) one; these two replace one another over time. Europe, from the 16th through the 18th century, was not capitalist but a mercantile tributary (centralized) state, with capitalism emerging in England in the late 18th century. Labor was enlisted under capitalism through the buying of labor power, leaving the workers with nothing left to sell but this labor power. Liberal political revolution, the industrial revolution, and free trade came together in England partly because of its unique history and geography. England then became the homeland of capitalism, which divided the world to meet the interests of the British capitalist.

Through comparative studies, Wolf (1982, 1999) examined peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean who combined Marx’s concept of modes of production with Steward’s (1976) cultural ecological adaptations. This developed a working model of world markets and imperialism with a history of colonialism and U.S. economic domination of the region.

In Envisioning Power: Ideologies of Dominance and Crisis (1999), Wolf investigated the history of ideas, power, and culture and how they interact. He argued that power is important in shaping cultural evolution. Ideology incorporates power, but ideas reflect cultural input. Actual power and belief about power converge through culture. Societies face tensions posed by ecological, social, political, economic, or emotional crises, and use conceptual answers drawing on commonly unique, historically rooted, cultural understandings. In case studies of Kwakiutl Indians of the Northwest Pacific Coast, the Aztecs of pre-Hispanic Mexico, and national socialist Germany, Wolf analyzes how the ruling ideology, together with power, sanctions the significant relationships that govern social labor.


Anthropology is concerned with the study of humanity, putting together and testing hypotheses (provisional explanations of observed occurrences). From this procedure, theories slowly develop. In doing this, anthropologists ask how human life within society is possible. Humans are both animals and socially defined beings that are both creative and created.

Theory is a working model that organizes concepts of the empirical world in a systematic way, to help guide further research and analyze the findings. All theory is based upon empirical and variable facts. The strength of a theory is the skill with which it arranges information that can explain complex information in a manageable form. It must contain empirical statements that can be tested, and explain a complex interaction of observable phenomena. Theory is not a guess; a guess is a hypothesis. Theory is a factual statement.

From the American Heritage Dictionary, theory is defined as follows:

A systematically organized body of knowledge applicable in a relatively wide variety of circumstances, especially a system of assumptions, accepted principles, and rules of procedure devised to analyze, predict, or otherwise explain the nature or behavior of a specified set of phenomena. (p. 1861)

As such, we carefully study myth as a source of data and not the conclusion of our studies.

Myth is a nonrational and sacred, or intact folk explanation, for the origins or creation of natural, supernatural, or cultural phenomena. These explanations are a matter of faith and not subjected to scientific or empirical inquiry. To end with a myth and begin with a myth is teleology, which happens when we begin with a conclusion and arrange evidence to support this conclusion. Teleology can be defined as explaining phenomena by final causes, or being directed toward an end shaped by a preexisting purpose. Science, then, is anti-teleological.

Social science is that application of the scientific method used to study people and society. It is the systematic pursuit of knowledge by recognizing a problem, formulating a question in a way that can be stated in a hypothesis and empirically verified or rejected.

Anthropology takes an approach that is holistic and evolutionary (i.e., historical). In this, anthropology is similar to sociology. Anthropology is global and comparative. Cultural anthropologists compare one culture to another in order to examine similarities and differences, and explain them.

In this chapter, culture is the sum of all shared knowledge, learned behavior, patterns of attitudes, and perceptions of a people. Humans adapt to their ever-changing environment through culture. While adapting to their environment, both social and natural, they change their environment; thus people are constantly readapting and changing their culture while doing so.

Culture and society stand as interconnected, grouped jointly into a single whole. Society is the social organization of any defined group that interacts through pattered communal association of individuals.