What Is Cultural Anthropology?

Cultural anthropology (also known as sociocultural anthropology) is the scientific study of the cultural, social, biological, and environmental aspects of human life from the past to the present day.

This sub-area of anthropology concentrates on studying peoples’ culture, beliefs, practices, and social organization. Concentrating on the similarities and differences among living societies and cultural groups and how people with common cultural systems organize and shape the world around them.

The three remaining sub-areas of anthropology are:

  • Archaeology anthropology
  • Physical (or biological) anthropology
  • Linguistic anthropology.

History Of Cultural Anthropology

Cultural anthropology originated as an area of study in the 1800s when scholars such as Lewis Henry Morgan and Edward Tylor carried out comparative studies of cultural systems. Their initial research findings were generally dismissed until Franz Boas came to their defense. In the U.S. Franz Boas is widely hailed as the father of anthropology in the United States after his students went on to establish anthropology departments across the country.


Ethnography is a research method based on conducting a long-term, detailed study of a community enabling researchers to gather detailed information from within the community they are studying.

The aim of this type of research is to gain a deep understanding of how and why people within a particular community, think and behave the way they do. Research from ‘within’ the community being studied is known as an ’emic perspective’ or ‘insider standpoint’. This method of research is very time-consuming and intensive, the most intensive being Immersive Fieldwork.

Immersive Fieldwork

Immersive fieldwork (sometimes also called Participant Observation) is the more distinct research method employed by cultural anthropologists. The practice of living and working with the community they are studying is very time consuming and resource intensive but gives a much deeper understanding of the community’s cultural systems, processes, and actions.

Areas Of Interest

Anthropologists ask both specific and generalized questions about humankind for example:

  • What are the effects of globalization on culture?
  • How do understandings of gender, race, sexuality, and disability vary across cultural groups?
  • Do humans have common emotions or are some emotions culturally specific?
  • How do systems of kinship and family vary among different cultures?

There is no area of human life that is beyond the interest of a cultural anthropologist with wider areas including:

  • Art
  • Medicines
  • Ways of life
  • Hunting and gathering
  • Food
  • Gender
  • Sexuality
  • Religions
  • Clothing
  • Relationships.

…and many more.

Instead of researching distant cultures, cultural anthropologists are increasingly turning to observations of their own societies and the cultural subgroups within them. An example would be understanding the increase in violence or drug abuse within a particular sub-section or area of the community.

FREE presentation download: What Is cultural Anthropology?

Additional reading: An Introduction To Cultural Anthropology (External Link)

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Posted in Cultural Anthropology.