Discipline and Method: Anthropology


Anthropology Disciplinary Epistemology


First that word: Etumon = the true sense Ology = study of. So we get the study of word origins. The term ETYMON is used to refer to the source word or morpheme for a modern word.

You may recall we mentioned agnostic last week. A-GNOSTIC meaning Not Knowing. The Greeks had at least two words for knowledge. One, Gnosis, refers to particular facts, knowledge, in a sense, for yourself.

You might recall this from the words of the Delphic oracle: gnothi seauton Know thyself

The other EPISTEME refers to a body of truths. Aristotle uses this word when he talks about what results from science.

So we have EPISTEMOLOGY as the study of body of truths, the study of how/why we think we know what we know.

In Greek, the word ANTHROPOS refers to "man" as in "human" - as opposed to ANDROS which is man as in not woman (GYNOS). Thus, a misandry and misogyny are hatred of men and women, respectively, but a misanthrope just doesn't like people. And his or her opposite is a philanthrope - our word philanthropy.

So, if what we study in anthropo-logy is humans, what does that mean and how do we do it? That of course opens up several cans of worms at once. As you know, we study how people live - social and cultural anthropology - their use of language - linguistic anthropology - and how we have evolved as organisms - biological and physical anthropology. Then too we have archaeology which studies all of the above through physical remains and artifacts. Sometimes we list archaeology under anthropology, sometimes it's listed under history.

2. Method » Epistemology

When we ask "how do we do it?" our answer in the current context means "method." But methods has several levels of meaning. We have hinted at the most mundane level already - technique: how many people do I need to sample? how should I word questions in a survey? The intermediate level has to do with strategy: which methods are appropriate to answering a particular question: look in the archives? do a survey? excavate? interview?

The highest level of meaning of "method" has to do with epistemology. The study (ology) of how we know things - epistasthai = to know, epistēmē = knowledge

3. Longstanding Question in Anthropology

Perhaps more than its sister disciplines has wrung its hands over epistemological issues for a long time, even to the point, in recent decades, of asking fundamental questions about whether anthropology is possible or whether it is simply complicit in a world system of power and knowledge.

But asking and debating hard questions about its status as a system of knowledge is not new.

Paul Radin argued in 1933 that "The method of describing a culture without any reference to the individual except insofar as he is an expression of rigidly defined cultural forms, manifestly produces a distorted picture"

Edward Sapir made a similar point in 1931: "While we often speak of society as though it were a static structure defined by tradition, it is, in the more intimate sense, nothing of the kind, but a highly intricate network of partial or complete understandings … It is only apparently a static sum of social institutions; actually it is being reanimated or creatively reaffirmed from day to day by particular acts of a communicative nature which obtain among individuals participating in it"

4. A Space Between the Natural and the Personal

If we are going to study "human beings" we have to locate ourselves between two poles. On the one side we have humans as homo sapiens, a biological entity, for all practical purposes the same every where, an organism subject to the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, neuroscience, etc. This is the NATURAL pole. One would need to be a rather radical thinker to deny that much of what it takes to understand humans can be found in those precincts where "all humans are the same."

At the opposite pole we have the recognition that all humans are individuals. This seems self-evident based on our experience of ourselves and those around us. As Simmel pointed out in his essay "How is Society Possible?" one of the a priori conditions of human social life is the fact that we cannot ever know the other entirely. Each individual has a potentially inaccessible inner life and some degree of control of her or his own thoughts.

Thus, over against the "NATURAL" perspective we have the INDIVIDUAL PERSPECTIVE which holds that to understand humans you have to understand their individuality.

In between these poles is a wide space that admits of a third possibility - shared, but non-universal characteristics. At the risk of being sloppy, we drop the SOCIO-CULTURAL on this zone.

Keeping it simple, for the moment, we'll say that stuff lands in this zone when it is outside of individual discretion and yet variable across time and social space (which might mean geography or groups or networks).


Individual pole. Sociocultural. Natural.

That sociocultural part is also labeled collective and shared meaning.

It is not hard for us to sense this in ourselves. And to "see" it in groups of others.

But how DO you study it? Arguably, you can't se IT, all you can see is the behavior it supposedly influences.

We have our familiar micro-macro problem.

Culture - macro Patterns

Micro behavior

What is the mechanism?


Language has long been the paradigmatic example of socio-cultural stuff. You can't really do language alone. A group of individuals could make up a language1, but as soon as they put it out there, the language's conventions have a hold on them and it's no longer an individual thing. More generally, language has this peculiar characteristic that it only really exists if individuals USE it, but those same individuals are constrained to use it CORRECTLY.

Some of you may recognize in this set up something very basic in the study of sociology and anthropology: the dialectic of structure and agency.

A group with a spoken and written language exhibits this very peculiar phenomenon: they invest in talking among themselves about how they talk among themselves and they "invent" or construct the idea of their language as a thing. But it doesn't really exist as a thing. Even if they manage to write a grammar and a dictionary and capture all the idioms people use, it looks like a thing, but you might argue that it's just a model of a not-thing thing.

This brings us to an epistemological sticking point: when we talk about something like language, do we mean to suggest that it's a whole thing, that it has an actual unity in the world? Or that just something we make up because it is a way for us to think about "it"?


Linguists have given us a tool for thinking about this distinction: langue and parole. Parole is what speakers do, what people say. "Langue (French, meaning "language") and parole (meaning "speaking") are linguistic terms distinguished by Ferdinand de Saussure in his Course in General Linguistics. Langue encompasses the abstract, systematic rules and conventions of a signifying system; it is independent of, and pre-exists, individual users."


How do we want to think about it? How do we want to study it?

If there is a non-individual, non-natural component to humans, is it possible to understand?

One way we talk about this - derived in part from phenomenology - is to say that the self always has a world - a set of ideas, outlooks, assumptions, beliefs, recipes, etc. that it uses to get along in the world. And these are necessarily social/shared insofar as a good bit of our getting along in the world involves other people.

So now our question might be "is it possible to understand another persons's world?"

But this points to an even more fundamental one : "can a person understand their own world?" Can you grasp your world as a world or is the idea that it's a world thing just a conceptual shorthand?


Let's suppose you can make heads or tails of other worlds, can you interpret it in terms of your world? Can you look at the two worlds and identify analogous features? Or are you an ethnographic particularist, a complete cultural relativist who thinks you can only understand another world in its own historical and cultural context?


Let's suppose you are a complete relativist, what should you make of the content of the world you are learning about? Should you try to make sense of it? Or Can you only relate the sense made of it by its "residents"?


How will you keep in view the recognition that the world people have did not arrive in an Amazon box on their doorstep. The world and worldview only exists insofar as they enact it.

Are you going to be more a materialist who focuses on actual social relations or an idealist who looks at what people mean? Which comes first, social relations or culture?


If you want to study a group's world, will you try to see how it's parts fit together? If you have a bunch of information on the group and how it sees things, will patterns emerge from it? Must there be some order there? Or is that just you?


The questions we ask all tend to revolve around themes of SAMENESS and DIFFERENCE.

And a longstanding recognition that anthropological work is always already tied in with

  • cognition
  • biology
  • pyschology

Our epistemological questions come down to what we call "pre-theoretical assumptions":

  • What kind of thing is a human?
  • What kind of a thing is culture?

These underlie the fundamental question: do all humans think the same?

If we are going to investigate this we need to know whether

IT is possible to know other worlds? How other people think?

What is the relation between culture and thought?

Tripartite individual

On the rationalism - empiricism scale we will place anthropology over on the empiricist side. But there may be universal truths that you can figure out.

Comparative method



kinship and social organization

ly 20th century: biological or physical anthropology; social, cultural, or sociocultural anthropology; and archaeology; plus anthropological linguistics. T

ural anthropology is guided in part by cultural relativism, the attempt to understand other societies in terms of their own cultural symbols and values.[20] Accepting other cultures in their own terms moderates reductionism in cross-cultural comparison

Ethnology involves the systematic comparison of different cultures. The process of participant-observation can be especially helpful to understanding a culture from an emic (conceptual, vs. etic,

Ethnography as a method
There's more to ethnography than hanging around

We are trying to "write down" a culture or ETHNOS

What we are studying is collective ways of being in the world.
Beliefs, practices, interpretations, social constructions, artifacts,

kind of research
kind of insight
inside outside
observed's perspective, observer's perspective

Choose whether you want to see these as complementary or in conflict

"The emic approach investigates how local people think" (Kottak, 2006): How they perceive and categorize the world, their rules for behavior, what has meaning for them, and how they imagine and explain things. "The etic (scientist-oriented) approach shifts the focus from local observations, categories, explanations, and interpretations to those of the anthropologist. The etic approach realizes that members of a culture often are too involved in what they are doing to interpret their cultures impartially. When using the etic approach, the ethnographer emphasizes what he or she considers important."[2] (Wikipedia)

Kenneth Pike 1954
phonetics phonemics

allophones all the different sounds that correspond to a single phoneme
complementary allophones = you have to use a particular one in a particular context
free variation = choice and style

/p/ in pin and spin. different sounds physically but we don't use the one or the other interchangeably

six allophones of the phoneme /t/, namely unreleased [ t̚] as in cat, aspirate

six allophones of the phoneme /t/, namely unreleased [ t̚] as in cat, aspirated [tʰ] as in top, glottalized [ʔ] as in button, flapped [ɾ] as in American English water, nasalized flapped as in winter, and none of the above [t] as in stop. However, they may become aware of the differences if, for example, they contrast the pronunciations of the following words:
Night rate: unreleased [ˈnʌɪt̚.ɹʷeɪt̚] (without word space between . and ɹ)
Nitrate: aspirated [ˈnaɪ.tʰɹ̥eɪt̚] or retracted [ˈnaɪ.tʃɹʷeɪt̚] (wikipedia allophones)

minimal pairs

if I say /p/in and /b/in you'd say I am saying a different word. But if I say

The use of tools like minimal pairs was originally in linguistics under the title of reducing languages as something people do to writing. So, to when we are doing anthropology, the logy of it is writing down. So we need techniques for doing that.

Treat culture seriously: it is a thing.

with thigh thy

Stadt Statt stat die Staat = Ort, Stelle
die Stadt = city
der Staat = state

which gives rise to the term Stadtstaat which still exist but mostly we associate with Ancient Greece or Mesopotamia (land between the rivers). THat same potamos gives us hippopotamos and that hippo gives us the hippocampus because that very important part of our neurobiology is shaped a bit like a sea horse. campus being not sea but probably related to curves and so they were hooked or curved horses. kampo seems to be "to bend"


Cultural norms. Figure and ground. Visibility

statt = instead

What Are We Studying?

The methods we use and the epistemologies we deploy are oriented toward the explanation and understanding something. So what is it that the anthropologist tries to understand?

What is an epistemology? OK, a definition: "the" epistemology (of a field) is that fields theory of knowledge, it's standard of what counts as knowledge and how we know we know. Concretely this means its methods (how it finds out and how it confirms or disconfirms claims), its standards of validity (what it says counts), and its scope (what it has something to say about). Within its scope what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.

The logic of interaction goes like this: do you accept Xology (and its methods and epistemologies)? do you agree that I followed the rules? then you should accept my claim unless you can find a fault within the system - that I have not followed method, that something new has come along, that there is a flaw in the method.

1990s to Present

La culture e mort vive la culture.


2. Method » Epistemology

3. Longstanding Question in Anthropology

4. A Space Between the Natural and the Personal