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The individual human being, stripped of his humanity, is of no use as a conceptual base from which to make a picture of human society. No human exists except steeped in the cuture of his time and place. ~ Mary Douglas

Anthropology is the study of human beings. The term "anthropology" is from the Greek anthrōpos (ἄνθρωπος), "man", understood to mean humankind or humanity, and -logia (-λογία), "discourse" or "study." The essence of anthropology has been, since its tradition, cross-cultural comparison, and cultural relativism has become the canon of anthropological inquiry.

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  • Economics and cultural anthropology … have as their clear presuppositions one or the other of the two states of nature. Locke argued that man’s conquest of nature by his work is the only rational response to his original situation. … Economics comes into being as the science of man’s proper activity, and the free market as the natural and rational order. … Rousseau argued that nature is good and man far away from it. So the quest for those faraway origins becomes imperative. … What economists believe to be things of the irrational past—known only as underdeveloped societies—become the proper study of man, a diagnosis of our ills and a call to the future. … Economists teach that the market is the fundamental social phenomenon, and its culmination is money. Anthropologists teach that culture is the fundamental social phenomenon, and its culmination is the sacred. Such is the confrontation—man the producer of consumption goods vs. man the producer of culture, the maximizing animal vs. the reverent one.
    • Allan Bloom (1987) The Closing of the American Mind. p. 361-363
  • Anthropology has reached that point of development where the careful investigation of facts shakes our firm belief in the far-reaching theories that have been built up. The complexity of each phenomenon dawns on our minds, and makes us desirous of proceeding more cautiously. Heretofore we have seen the features common to all human thought
    • Franz Boas (1898/1975) Facial paintings of the Indians of northern British Columbia. p. 4
  • To know that a human being truly is, he must be examined in the arena where he most fully realizes his nature, thus where he is most truly himself. Excellence (arete) is the object of ethics. Anthropology is therefore inseparable from ethics.




  • Every culture faces the same fundamental challenges. Men and women come together, children are brought into the world, nurtured and sheltered; elders are led into the realm of death as fearlessly as the imagination allows. To be human is to know the terror and splendour of a night sky, the crush of storms, the blood cries of enemies sweeping in with the dawn. Such is our common experience. To bring order to chaos, sense to sensation, we have created rules, which cross-culturally are remarkable in their consistency. ... Yet within this common fabric, this cloak of humanity, lie the individual threads of specific and highly specialized ways of life, distinct cultures, each with its unique and wondrous dream of the Earth. Unravelling the cloth and holding the strands to the light is the practice and contribution of ethnography.
    • Wade Davis, Light at the Edge of the World (2007)
  • Our ultimate task is to find interpretative procedures that will uncover each bias and discredit its claims to universality. When this is done the eighteenth century can be formally closed and a new era that has been here a long time can be officially recognised. The individual human being, stripped of his humanity, is of no use as a conceptual base from which to make a picture of human society. No human exists except steeped in the culture of his time and place. The falsely abstracted individual has been sadly misleading to Western political thought. But now we can start again at a point where major streams of thought converge, at the other end, at the making of culture. Cultural analysis sees the whole tapestry as a whole, the picture and the weaving process, before attending to the individual threads.
    • Mary Douglas and B. Isherwood (1979). The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption. London, Allen Lane, page 63




  • Before we can apply the tools of anthropology to reconstruct the real history of money, we need to understand what's wrong with the conventional account.
    • David Graeber (2011) Debt: The First 5,000 Years. p. 22


  • Both social and biosocial factors are necessary to interpret crosscultural studies, with the general proviso that one's research interest determines which elements, in what combinations, are significant for the provision of understanding.
    • Gilbert Herdt (1998) "Bisexuality and the Causes of Homosexuality: The Case of the Sambia"


  • Studying primitives enables us to see ourselves better. Ordinarily we are unaware of the special lens through which we look at life. It would hardly be fish who discovered the existence of water. Students who had not gone beyond the horizon of their own society could not be expected to perceive custom which was the stuff of their own thinking. The scientist of human affairs needs to know as much about the eye that sees as the object seen. Anthropology holds up a great mirror to man and lets him look at himself in his infinite variety. This, and not the satisfaction of idle curiosity nor romantic quest, is the meaning of the anthropologist's work in nonliterate societies.
    • Clyde Kluckhohn (1949) Mirror for Man. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., p. 11


  • Among the various forms of science which are reaching and affecting the new popular tradition, we have reckoned Anthropology. Pleasantly enough, Anthropology has herself but recently emerged from that limbo of the unrecognised in which Psychical Research is pining.
  • Anthropology is destined to revolutionise the political and the social sciences as radically as bacteriology has revolutionised the science of medicine.
    • M.G. de Lapouge cited in: Thorstein Veblen (1898) "Why is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science" in: The Quarterly Journal of Economics Volume 12, 1898.
  • Adventure has no place in the anthropologists profession; it is merely one of those unavoidable drawbacks, which detract from his effective work through the incidental loss of weeks or months
  • Teaching and research are not to be confused with training for a profession. Their greatness and their misfortune is that they are a refuge or a mission.
  • The great attraction of cultural anthropology in the past was precisely that it seemed to offer such a richness of independent natural experiments; but unfortunately it is now clear that there has been a great deal of historical continuity and exchange among those "independent" experiments, most of which have felt the strong effect of contact with societies organized as modern states. More important, there has never been a human society with unlimited resources, of three sexes, or the power to read other people's minds, or to be transported great distances at the speed of light. How then are we to know the effect on human social organization and history of the need to scrabble for a living, or of the existence of males and females, or of the power to make our tongues drop manna and so to make the worse appear the better reason? A solution to the epistemological impotence of social theory has been to create a literature of imagination and logic in which the consequences of radical alterations in the conditions of human existence are deduced. It is the literature of science fiction. … [S]cience fiction is the laboratory in which extraordinary social conditions, never possible in actuality, are used to illumine the social and historical norm. … Science fiction stories are the Gedanken experiments of social science.
    • Richard Lewontin "The Last of the Nasties?" in New York Review of Books (2/29/96)


  • For Immanuel Kant, the term anthropology embraced all the human sciences, and laid the foundation of familiar knowledge we need, to build solidly grounded ideas about the moral and political demands of human life. Margaret Mead saw mid-twentieth-century anthropology as engaged in a project no less ambitious than Kant's own, and her Terry Lectures on Continuities in Cultural Evolution provide an excellent point to enter into her reflections.


  • The anthropologists got it wrong when they named our species Homo sapiens ('wise man'). In any case it's an arrogant and bigheaded thing to say, wisdom being one of our least evident features. In reality, we are Pan narrans, the storytelling chimpanzee.


  • Cultural anthropology is not valuable because it uncovers the archaic in the psychological sense. It is valuable because it is constantly rediscovering the normal.
    • Edward Sapir Cultural Anthropology and Psychiatry (1932), p. 515


  • Anthropology is not social work.
    • Vanderstaay (2005, 371) cited in: Susan Dewey (2011) Neon Wasteland: On Love, Motherhood, and Sex Work in a Rust Belt Town. p. 19


  • On Earth, when anthropologists can’t find instant meaning in any cultural artifact, they say, “This obviously had deep religious significance.”
    • Howard Waldrop, The Dead Sea-Bottom Scrolls (2013), reprinted in Rich Horton (ed.) The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2014 (p. 422)

See also

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