Cultural Anthropology

Cultural Anthropology is getting more popular these days, especially as globalism prompts the Western world to open up more to the Non-West. We are getting to be smarter world citizens, and seeing that very important histories parallel our own. And not only are there good stories, but there are tragic ones too… stories of people who have been exploited, enslaved, or just forgotten by the industrialized world. Cultural Anthropology aims to insert some justice into this situation, and bring world cultures to light in a more fair way.

This is a noble goal for many reasons. If we are to know the truth about history – even who we are – we need to know what has happened in the whole earth. As Christians, we want to have God’s perspective on the world, which includes the Third World and forgotten peoples. For no people group is beyond His knowledge or His touch. As we have learned about them, we have cared about them. And the world missionary movement has exploded like never before because we feel a burden to reach out to others far from us. No longer afraid of foreign looks or ways, Christians can partner with cultural anthropology to learn more about the people they are trying to help. We can be better “salt and light” if we know who it is we are reaching, and what their needs and beliefs are.

That said, cultural anthropology from an academic standpoint is a tricky endeavor. It is tricky because most of cultural anthropology is anti-Western and anti-Christian. Many of the founders of the field and activists today are looking to propagate Western guilt and overturn Western ways—whether in parenting, gender, polity, or other codes of conduct. It can be difficult to separate the facts from the interpretations.

Take Margaret Mead’s foundational work on the Samoans, for example. Mead was dedicated to her profession and had a real love for the Samoans. But she was decidedly anti-West and interpreted all her data (mostly qualitatively gathered) to say that Samoan ways were better than American ways. She based her conclusion on a Freudian worldview which condemned Western parenting for creating neurotic children. Today, Jean Liedloff is the baton-carrier for Mead’s work, basically propagating the same ideas. The respect for Bali and the native cultures she studies is tarnished by the political import she brings in to interpret. While personally appealing, her work has turned the parenting literature in Western society upside-down. And it has misleadingly led people away from helpful Western values.

The Freudian paradigm is one of two deceptive worldviews within academic cultural anthropology. If you do not want to be Freudian (or neo-Freudian, more accurately), your other choice is social constructionism. Social constructionism asserts that people are the way they are because of culturally constructed values, such as education or peer pressure. Cultures are not innately anything, or the result of psychologically innate needs (as Freud said); instead they are relative, indeterminate, changeable. This “nurture” side of the spectrum gets off into the weeds too, however, because it provokes you to think that everything about culture is just smoke and mirrors — it looks like the customs, taboos, and roles are meaningful, but they really aren’t. Change a couple variables in the equation, and the outcome is different. The scary conclusion to this paradigm is that cultures can be changed, even engineered—so perhaps we should take advantage of that. Whereas Freudians see value (sometimes too much) in a culture’s original state, Social Constructionists are progressive and want to see everyone come to a common, global, advanced image. Individual anthropologists may nuance their perspectives along this line, but the spectrum is accurate, generally speaking, and the two camps are the only real options the Academy recognizes at this time.

As a Christian then, cultural anthropology is a fun but tricky field. As a social science, there is not as much pressure to quantitatively prove your theories (although statistics and data analysis are required). Much research is based on qualitative methods such as surveys, anecdotes, and existing icons/artifacts. But there is still pressure to interpret data in one of two ways, both of which can be pretty extreme, and neither of which is particularly appealing. Biblically, God portrays cultures as being originally fragmented by the Dispersion at Babel, and polluted or corrupted by sin. Romans 1 is a brief overview of the fallen process, and why cultural degradation including sexual perversion and idol worship is so common in unevangelized nations. This “big picture” explanation throws much light on why we see what we see when we study ancient or native cultures, but it is entirely left out of the academic picture because it is politically incorrect. Also, God paints cultures as unegalitarian—different cultures contribute different things to the world scene, and not all are equally favorable or helpful. In fact, both Old Testament and New Testament use strong language concerning the believer’s distance from irreligious practices/beliefs. This is not an excuse for personal prejudice or stereotype (since God’s Word also condemns partiality and discrimination, even against aliens or unevangelized people). But it does mean we should weigh carefully the beliefs and practices of others, not equating them as all equally believable, good, or beautiful. Discernment should be tactful but firm.

With these things in mind, a Christian can find much worth in cultural anthropology. Your professors will may be more conforming in their anti-conformity than they think: the non-western dress and shoes, native jewelry, masks and totems in their office, etc. But not disclaiming what they have found, the Christian can gain a knowledge and respect for other cultures that the general populace is not privy to. And this knowledge can be constructively used for the Kingdom as long as one is so inclined. It is certainly of God that we open our eyes to one another, globally, and see what He has always seen.

We recommend reading “Discovering God:  The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief” for a serious academic treatment of comparative religion. Rodney Stark is one of the world’s leading sociologists of religion, and has written a heavily researched book which will give you a strong background in different kinds of religion, areas where the atheistic presuppositions have biased the science, and the forgotten history of the subject of anthropology. A much lighter treatment of the subject which would still give you ideas to work with would be “Eternity in their Hearts” by missionary Don Richardson. Don Richardson touches briefly on theory, but spends most of his time looking at a number of tribes and how their view of religion may have been more than just “mythology.”

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  1. Dear Academic Renewal,
    This is an interesting site. I’m glad to have found it. I appreciate the post above for its generally positive tone towards knowledge derived from non-Christian sources. However, as an anthropologist, I don’t find the description of the discipline to be all that recognizable. Although Margaret Mead was a celebrity of her day, her work is not particularly influential in contemporary anthropology. Freud is certainly marginal to the discipline. “Social constructionism” is, as you say, an important perspective in cultural anthropology, but it is not a specific theoretical perspective, rather a more general world view.

    More importantly, our methodology – participant observation and ethnography – is qualitative, but not anecdotal; it involves the systematic gathering of data through personal and in depth interaction with a population over long periods of time. The everyday quality of the data provides insight that surveys, focus groups, interviews, and other more detached/formal forms of social research cannot. Most cultural anthropologists do little with statistics or data sets, but this is a strengths of the discipline. We gather knowledge through our mastery of language, cultural context, the development of social relationships, and personal insight. For those predisposed to privilege modernist rationality and scientism as superior forms of knowledge, this might seem flaky, but the reason anthropology is growing today is for the explanatory power ethnographic approaches provide in the face of complex globalizing, dynamic, multicultural worlds.

    In December, Jenell Williams Paris and I will be releasing an introductory text book on cultural anthropology with Baker Academic. This is the first introductory anthropology book for Christians in more than 20 years. I hope you and your readers will find it helpful in exploring cultural anthropology for all the positive reasons you’ve given above.

    Brian Howell
    Assoc. Prof. of Anthropology
    Wheaton College (IL)

  2. Brian. Thanks for your comments. Perhaps the Scholarly research has moved on from those like Margaret Mead, but undergrad courses I am familiar with have not, perhaps it will be a while before it filters through to the texts and curricula

    I look forward to your upcoming text. CA is a discipline where a Christian Text could provide a lot of insight.

    I think that the recent film “The Enemy God” about the Yanomamo demonstrates some of the problems inherent with CA, however. As I’m sure you know this group was also a highly studied and vaunted icon of researching native cultures, in which the native cultures are usually romanticized.

    The tell all story from a shaman representing a part of the tribe that converted to Christianity undermines such romantic views, however. In some sense, our bias in such investigations is against our (Western, ‘civilized’) selves, rather than for ourselves as it is assumed to be.

    The question of the flow of “revelation” is a very fundamental one, as well. Should we consider revelation to flow from primitive societies because they are undisturbed, or should we consider it to flow from “civilization” because the Gospel has fundamentally been impacting it and changing it for 2000 years? This has bearing on things like private property, fundamental to the wealthy nations of the world, and rarely held in any primitive society.

  3. I haven’t seen the film you’re referring to, but I have read Mark Ritchie’s book about the Yanomamo and met a Yanomamo Christian man in the U.S. to promote the book. I’m well aware of efforts to romaticize indigenous, “primitive” peoples (see Avatar), but cultural anthropology has actually been at the forefront of debunking such images. I would argue that it is more politically motivated people who use anthropological research to promote images of the Noble Savage.

    Regarding your question about revelation: I would argue that revelation flows from God, not from “civilization” or any other social form. God did much of His work among the relatively “primitive” people of ancient Israel. While Israel did have a concept of private property, they were also commended to counteract the forces of inequality through the practice of Jubilee, a practice fairly incompatible with the capitalism of the contemporary global economy. What scripture reveals is that God uses a variety of economic, political, kinship, and social forms to accomplish His purposes. While He clearly gives moral structure to the practice of these things, there is nothing in scripture to suggest that “civilization” is inherently more in line with God’s will than less complex forms of social organization.

  4. Brian, Again, appreciate your interaction here. I agree that at least in typology pagan civilization is Babylon, the antithesis of the plan of God. In that sense, the Bible is biased against civilization, generally speaking. The pyramids may be great wonders but they were built on the bodies slaves with a life expectancy of something like 20. On the other hand, my reading of history is that Jesus interrupted the flow of ancient civilization through his coming. The moral system he taught invaded and continues to invade every civilization or society it encounters and transform it. Therefore, I don’t think we need to be culture or civilization neutral.

  5. I’m not sure how you’re using the word “civilization” exactly. Are you using it as a synonym for society, or as a term denoting a particular kind of society? I would say that Jesus himself came into a particular ancient civilization, not “civilization” in some general way. Of course we cannot be culture neutral. All cultures reflect the fallenness of humanity, as well as the grace of God. Christ calls all to repentance and to the renewal of their minds. However, I think to say that particular social forms – such as private property, or democracy – are de facto more in line with God’s will is problematic to say the least. God is not a respecter of such human systems. Every system can be idolatrous. Having wealth is not always (or perhaps even usually) a sign of God’s favor. Jesus, after all, had no place to lay his head.

  6. Brian. I wish I could get more commenters who are as engaged as you are. When I mentioned “wealth”, I wasn’t thinking in the relative sense, as I believe the Bible criticizes, but in the absolute sense — such as clean drinking water, access to modern medicine. The technology for things like this arose from a particular cultural context, and that cultural context itself arose as the result of centuries of Christian values working their way into the architecture of that culture/civilization.

    I see God as a God who wants to bless people, and I’m fine making the value statement that it’s better to have access to clean drinking water, than to lack it. I feel the same way about representative forms of government. Whether modern Repubulican-Democracy is the best of all forms is debatable, but it is a form that enables much greater human freedom than say, despotism. It enables people to live relatively without fear of injury, etc. Private property is the same. Possessing it, in some form, allows people to have their own lives, apart from the control of a dictator, mafia boss, or chief, or someone else who has the ability to force things upon them. I again connect this with the heart of a God who does not force things upon us, but allows us a free choice.

    I used the term “civilization” above interchangeably between specific civilizations, and more generally as an umbrella for the pattern of organized life before Christ as distinct from after Christ.

    I don’t say all of this because my intention is to be a Western Imperialist. I think the Gospel is a seed which has to be planted into the soil of each culture on its own terms, and will bear fruit in that context over time. In fact, as Philip Jenkins has demonstrated, it was planted into the soils of many cultures of the ancient world, it was just that most of those were wiped out or marginalized by the contours of history. At the same time, I see some of the things which are thought of as Western distinctives as originating directly with the Gospel message. As we move away from the Gospel, we can expect, and do in fact see, those distinctives eroding.

  7. I certainly agree that in the circumstances of the modern world, clean drinking water is good, democracy is better than despotism, and freedom is better than slavery. I also agree that some cultural forms and ideals reflect God’s character more than others.

    But it’s also true (and here’s the anthropologist in me) that hunter-gatherers, outside the environments degraded by industrialism, generally had access to clean water. For much of human history, most water was fairly clean. Moreover, these societies have/had little political coercion or control. No chiefs, war lords, kings, or police. With the advent of agriculture, urbanization, and other technological advances came simultaneous blessings and curses.

    I would suggest that the growth of technology in the Greco-Roman, or Northern European cultures cannot be causally traced to Christianity, certainly not as a singular cause and perhaps not even as a primary one. Jared Diamond’s _Gun, Germs and Steel_ does a nice job of illustrating the various cultural, ecological, and historical factors that converged for key advances at various moments to shape the direction of history.

    I don’t want to sound like a anti-Western critic; there is much to laud in the Enlightenment/post-Enlightenment cultures of the West. I very much enjoy the system that allows me to type on my laptop while chatting with smart people who-knows-where on earth. But I know these things do not please God, nor probably displease Him, in and of themselves. He is pleased by the state of my heart, which I know is often corrupted by the ease of my life, and the inequality with which I too easily become comfortable.

  8. I follow someone like Rodney Stark, who I find brilliant in any topic he addresses, and the work of the Acton Institute, over and against Diamond, who my father-in-law likes a lot. I guess I’m somewhat of a cultural determinist. I agree there are many factors, but culture is the decisive one. The so-called Arab Renaissance, which could have led to something like the development of modern technology was aborted by the religious demands of medieval Islam. The Greco-Romans had good technology and geography, but they had a culture which legitimized slavery, thus providing little incentive for innovation.

    I’m not going to pretend to know much about primitive culture in a discussion with an anthropology professor. I’ll look forward to your book and the perspective it provides.

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