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Lecture Week 1 - Defining Cultural Anthropology Why take a...

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Defining Cultural Anthropology Why take a course in cultural anthropology and human diversity? In order to meet university requirements? I hope not, at any rate not only. To learn something about seemingly “exotic” peoples and cultures? There is nothing wrong with this, but there is another important goal. Learning about others teaches us about ourselves and helps us to be successful in our increasingly complex world. People’s actions may not mean what we take them to mean, and much misunderstanding can be avoided by taking cultural differences into account in our dealings with other people. The practical uses of anthropology are great, but its true goal, the one that it sets for itself, is nothing less than to describe and explain the ways of humanity. The word ‘anthropology’ is derived from two ancient Greek words: anthropos , “human”, and logos, “ account ”. The aim of this discipline is to study and explain one particular phenomenon: Homo sapiens , the human species. It is interested in all human beings – whether living or dead. Anthropology strives to learn about as many different peoples and ways of life as it can. In other words, its aim is to describe in the broadest possible sense what it means to be human. It sets as its goal the study of humankind as a whole, and it strives to comprehend the entire human experience. As a formal field of study anthropology was largely a product of the nineteenth century in Europe and America. In that era, contact between cultures increased enormously. Political, economic, and social movements, including colonialism, empire building, and industrialization, meant that Europeans were in far more frequent contact with others than they had ever been before. Anthropology began as an attempt to understand other people in a
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scientific and objective way. However, early European anthropology had some flaws. It came to believe that that in evolutionary respect some cultures and peoples were inferior, not progressed far enough and were still in various stages of savagery and barbarism. In the 20 th century, in such countries as Nazi Germany and Austria, some anthropologists began to profess and propagate overtly racist views. In the United States, anthropology developed in a somewhat different way. Its German- born founder, Franz Boas argued that all cultures are products of their own histories and that all human beings have equal capacities. Boas’s unwavering support of racial equality and the value of other cultures made him hero to some and a villain to others. In Nazi Germany his books were burned. But in the United States his views were embraced by his students and the next generations of anthropologists who argued for the equality of men and women and for social justice, as well as for rights for African Americans, immigrants, and Native Americans.
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