Anthropology: The Textbook Definition


Conrad Kottak’s Anthropology: The Exploration of Human Diversity (12th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008), having gone through 12 editions since its first publication in 1974, deserves its reputation as a widely-used comprehensive introduction for undergraduates to the field of anthropology. As with other recently published textbooks, it is a multifaceted, colorful production that includes an ‘ebook’ version, a CD-ROM, and supplementary Website material. With this extensive array of material it applies the latest pedagogical techniques to systematically introduce the student to the issues that are critical to the field.

As a general introduction, this textbook represents a highly instructive ‘snapshot’ of anthropology’s own self-image as it views itself today. A primary text in anthropology education, it includes a distinguished editorial board of practicing anthropologists and academics who review the text and provide the author with substantive feedback. Though the book betrays its own biases and views (the author is a cultural anthropologist from the American Midwest), Professor Kottak is careful to outline the field of anthropology in as broadly useful and neutral manner as possible for American students. The book is truly global in its context, and it is careful to avoid any of anthropology’s past failings relating to Eurocentric bias by including all countries within the scope of anthropology.

Though not a critical instructional component for beginning students, Professor Kottak makes clear in an appendix that the textbook’s definitions, structure, and outline are distinctive to modern anthropology as it is practiced in the United States, and that many features are notably different in other countries. Though a section at the end discusses the various theories of anthropology within an historical framework, the author spends little time with the history of anthropology itself.

As one can see from the book’s table of contents at the left, modern anthropology is divided into the two primary sub-fields of physical and cultural anthropology, the former being composed of physical anthropology (primatology and paleontology) and archeology, and the latter comprising ethnology and linguistic anthropology. Kottak characterizes this as the “four-field” breakdown of anthropology: archeology, physical, cultural, and linguistic anthropology, and notes that American universities generally organize their anthropology departments around these four subfields. He traces the origins of this breakdown back to the American anthropological interest in Native Americans in the late 19th century (with Boas playing an important role in the development of cultural and linguistic anthropology). Though interest in native populations strongly contributed to the development of anthropology in the United States, I would question whether this interest in itself played a role in the four subfield breakdown of the field in American universities. Rather, its development would need to be investigated as part of the institutional history of American higher education, and indeed Boas played an important role in establishing the four-field organization of anthropology in American universities. Nonetheless, the subfields themselves all have their roots in the 18th century Enlightenment.

As one would expect from such a wide-ranging and diverse field, Chapter One is devoted to defining the scope, methods, and key issues in anthropology. Since--as one can see from the chapter breakdown on the left--anthropology would appear to cross over into a number of other disciplines: sociology, psychology, zoology, and history, it is important to characterize right at the beginning what distinguishes anthropological study from the other disciplines, and Kottak achieves this very effectively in the first pages of the book. The key to understanding what makes anthropology distinctive is its holistic approach, and to its focus on studying the breadth of human diversity and adaptability both historically and geographically.

Kottak notes explicitly that this can mean a Kenyan village, a Turkish cafe, a Mesopotamian tomb, or an American shopping mall. His examples are poignant, since they clearly show that modern anthropology covers humanity in all its diversity, and not just “developing countries” or “primitive societies” as was the case in the past. Indeed, a crucial development in modern anthropology is recognizing and overcoming individual and cultural biases. From Kottak’s text it is clear that anthropology has largely overcome the Eurocentrism that dominated the field prior to the Second World War.

The textbook also touches on other fields using an anthropological approach in their work, fields such as medical anthropology and the application of anthropological approaches to education and business. The application of anthropological techniques in these related fields clearly demonstrates the existence of a well-defined anthropological method that can be utilized in other disciplines. Medical anthropology, for example, possesses a distinctly different set of approaches and objectives than that of medicine itself.

One can see all of these aspects of anthropology clearly delineated in the more detailed breakdown of Chapter One at the left, with the emphasis on studying human adaptibility, variation (diversity), the relationship and breakdown of the four subdisciplines, related fields, and the use of the scientific method in studying man. A key aspect of the anthropological approach that Kottak does not mention explicitly in the introduction is the assumption that anthropology studies man in his place as an animal in nature. This assumption informs and courses through all four of the subfields of anthropology, and it is a critical part of the holistic approach that defines the field in general.

Anthropology as a Scientific Discipline

Most significantly, Chapter One makes clear that anthropology is a science in its striving to apply rigorous scientific methods and values, something that also distinguishes it from related humanities areas of study. In highlighting the diversity of humankind, for example, anthropology uses the comparative method to “compare and contrast, and to make generalizations about, societies and cultures.” Ethnology attempts to explain cultural differences and similarities. Kottak quotes Clyde Kluckhohn (1944) in defining anthropology as “the science of human similarities and differences.”

When considering Kottak’s comparative basis of anthropological method, it is interesting to keep in mind the definition of science from Webster’s Dictionary: science is a “systematic field of study or body of knowledge that aims, through experiment, observation, and deduction, to produce reliable explanations of phenomena, with reference to the material and physical world... [Scientists] “strive to improve understanding by testing hypotheses... In science, understanding means explaining. Explanation rely on associations and theories.” In turn, “a theory is a set of ideas formulated to explain something. A theory provides a framework that helps us understand why (something exists).”

To paraphrase Kottak’s text, a theory is an explanatory framework containing a series of statements. An association simply states an observed relationship between two or more known variables. Typically, some elements of a theory are unobservable. If an association is tested and found to recur again and again, we may consider it proved and it becomes a fact. Theories, by contrast, are unprovable. Although much evidence may support them, their truth isn’t established with certainty. Nonetheless, theories that haven’t been disproved are accepted because the available evidence seems to support them.

Scientists strive to be objective, but complete objectivity is impossible. There is always observer bias. While working within a scientific framework, anthropologists must avoid untested or unconscious assumptions, which can strongly condition or influence one’s conclusions. This is much more challenging than in the other natural sciences, since as a human the anthropologist in many ways participates in the humanity that is part of the study itself.

To summarize, the text box on the left is from the textbook itself, and both delineates and highlights the foundational approaches to anthropology. The four subfields of anthropology are defined:

  1. 1)Cultural anthropology examines cultural diversity of the present and recent past.

  2. 2)Archeology reconstructs behavior by studying material remains.

  3. 3)Biological [physical] anthropology study human fossils, genetics... and primates.

  4. 4) Linguistic anthropology considers how speech varies with social factors and over time.

Kottak’s general characterization of anthropology can be summarized as follows:

  1. 1) Anthropology is the holistic, systematic, and comparative study of humanity.

  2. 2) The four subfields of humanity are: cultural, archeological, biological, and linguistic.

  3. 3) Cultural forces mold human biology; societies have distinctive standards of physical attractiveness.

  4. 4) Cultural anthropology explores diversity focusing on the present. Archeology focuses on the past. Biological anthropology documents diversity of prehistoric man through fossils and genetics, and studies contemporary human and primate biology. It is noteworthy that Kottak does not explicitly contextualize, or spend much time at all, with man’s place in nature and the animal world, which betray his own cultural biases, as we shall see below.

  5. 5) Linguistic anthropology studies diversity among languages.

  6. 6) Anthropology, as the science of man, has close relations to other fields in the sciences and humanities. Anthropology has strong links to the humanities. “One might well argue that anthropology is among the most humanistic of all academic fields because of its fundamental respect for human diversity.”

  7. 7) “As scientists, anthropologists attempt to identify and explain cultural differences and similarities and to build theories about how social and cultural systems work. They strive to improve understanding by testing hypotheses.” Theories both describe and attempt to explain associations.

As we have seen elsewhere in the Blumenbach Website, anthropology has taken a long time, much longer than most practicing anthropologists recognize to get th this point in the development of anthropology as a science. Rather than beginning in the 20th century with Boas, as many anthropologists assume, the very issues that have led to the concrete definition and outline above first arose in the 18th century as the study of man first embraced modern scientific principles. Many of anthropology’s challenges and dilemmas are addressed in the outline above, both explicitly and by implication, and virtually all of the most significant ones had already appeared in the late 18th century. Blumenbach himself was keenly aware of many of them, and much of his work can be interpreted as a way of addressing anthropology’s challenges. As we will see in the next section, the cultural embeddednesss of the practicing anthropologist is something that, even today, is very difficult to address. The question whether the localized cultural values that an anthropologist embodies as an individual within his or her own community context can be controlled (or even eliminated) is one that is still, today, pervasive in anthropological theory.

Situating Anthropology Within its Cultural Context: The Book’s Own Cultural Biases

In spite of Kottak’s carefully scientific and comprehensive approach to anthropology, he is not able to circumvent structuring his narrative around the predominant values of his own cultural milieu. As a professor at a major midwestern American university, Kottak works within a cultural context that is strongly influenced by the Midwest’s distinctive understanding of Christian values and mores. This is a particularly sensitive issue for American anthropologists living in regions of the United States where a more fundamentalist, literal form of Christianity is practiced, and who tend to hold ambivalent views toward anthropological research and practice. When teaching a large hall of 18-20 year olds from the midwestern states, Kottak utilizes the same cultural sensitivities he advocates in his book. This influences his textbook in a number of ways.

Most likely in deference to the Midwest’s peculiar modesty relating to the human body, for example, Kottak’s textbook is virtually devoid of photographs showing the human body without full clothing. This is in stark contrast to older or European anthropology
books, which have tended to emphasize man’s more natural state. As we shall see, presenting humanity firmly embedded as part of the animal kingdom is the case with the other book analyzed here in this study, Human, published in the United Kingdom, as well as with anthropology books generally from the European countries that hold more open and healthier views regarding the human body. The photograph to the right, with women turned away from the camera, exemplifies the general tone of Kottak’s book (the purpose of the photograph is to present, through these competitive swimmers, how the human physique is influenced by social factors and environment).

The aversion to showing human behavior or the body in a more natural state even extends to the book’s treatment of love and sex. The following are the only images that are used in a special section entitled Touching, Affection, Love, and Sex:

In a similar manner, in the section on mating and kinship Kottak takes pains to emphasize the differences between humans and other primates, rather than to discuss their fundamental similarities:

In the chapters on paleontology and with primatology, Kottak also carefully constructs his narrative to downplay man’s membership in the family of primates. In a section entitled “Similarities Between Humans and Nonhuman Primates”, Kottak begins by strongly emphasizing the differences first, with the first sentence in the chapter beginning: ”There is a substantial gap between primate societies and fully developed human culture.” This is a curious way to begin a section on similarities! In like manner, in the chapter on paleontology Kottak begins a section entitled “What Makes Us Human” by asking the question: “In trying to determine whether a fossil is a human ancestor, should we look for traits that make us human today?” The answer, for his midwestern audience, is tactfully equivocal: “Sometimes yes; sometimes no.” It would be difficult to imagine the inclusion of the empathetic title image found in chapter 7 of the Blumenbach Website in Kottak’s textbook.

In such a situational context, a context that finds a predominantly midwestern American Christian society possessing a pronounced ambivalence regarding the theory of evolution, it is understandable that Kottak’s narrative must also approach the subject very carefully. As we can discern in the opening of his section of evolution, Kottak begins by emphasizing man’s uniqueness, and through his examples, man’s superiority over other animals:

Indeed, man’s place in nature and the animal kingdom is in general notably underplayed and does not overtly appear in the text. The narrative approach is throughout much like the example text above, with man’s peculiar abilities and uniqueness being highlighted, and with little mention or time spent with man’s essential animal nature.

Most revealing of Kottak’s need to structure his narrative in a way that does not offend his cultural milieu is a special section entitled Intelligent Design Versus Evolutionary Theory. In reality a short essay, the three-column one-page piece is largely taken up with a factual description of the recent court case on teaching intelligent design in the classroom in Dover, Pennsylvania. Kottak includes a neutrally factual description of the views of the proponents of intelligent design before concluding the essay with clearly stating the proven factual nature of evolution. He does not explicitly compare the two views, nor does he provide any commentary or analysis. He does not discuss why intelligent design is untenable within a scientific context. In so doing, he presents the issue in a non-confrontative manner, though one can validly question whether Kottak provides enough guidance to the students in truly understanding the problems inherent with the intelligent design movement.

As in the other examples above, by being tactful about how he structures his narrative, Kottak is not necessarily expressing sympathy with the predominant values of his cultural context, nor is he relativizing the methods and values of anthropology. Rather, his approach is a reflection of his (and his publisher’s) need to present the material in as accessible and non-threatening a manner as possible to his midwestern students. In so doing, his text does reveal that even critical teaching tools as important as a widely used general textbook are firmly rooted and situated within their respective cultural contexts. Would the style, emphases, and general narrative of the textbook have been different if Kottak was a long-time professor at UC Berkeley or Columbia? What if he had been a professor at Oxford or the University of Amsterdam?

Anthropology From the Saddle: The Textbook’s Amero-centric View of Anthropology’s Past

In a brief appendix, Kottak provides the only background material in the textbook on the history of anthropology. In addition to noting the early ethnographical interest in the native peoples of North America, and hence the emphasis on fieldwork in the American West, he interestingly, and coincidentally, mentions several “fathers” and “mothers” of anthropology, but not Blumenbach. All of them are cultural anthropologists and, except the British Victorian anthropologist E. B. Tylor, they were active in the 20th century and had spent at least a part of their careers in the United States. Kottak’s listing of several founders of anthropology stems from the fact that the designation of being a ‘father’ (or ‘mother’) of a discipline is an informal one, but it also is an indication that the appendix itself is intended only as an impressionistic historical narrative, and not as a more systematic history.

Thematically, the appendix is mainly interested in distinguishing between ‘evolutionism’ in the history of cultural anthropology (social evolution), and that of the more holistic and synchronic biocultural approach found in Kottak’s textbook. If the implications of his historical perspective are taken at face value, anthropology is a young scientific discipline indeed, one that did not really become established until well into the 20th century. Unfortunately, the text is misleading in what it leaves unmentioned, and it does not do justice to the rich and complex history that makes up anthropology. Blumenbach is indeed noted in many general texts on anthropology, mostly in reference to his role in founding physical anthropology and in the development of the race concept, but not in Kottak’s text.

Kottak’s rather impressionistic and cursory look at anthropology’s history is not unusual for college textbooks, and his focus on cultural anthropology betrays his own professional background. As with any science, anthropology is littered with long-discarded practices and theories; its experimental approach is forward-looking and directed to practical purposes. For this reason the history of a discipline is not regarded as being of central importance to its practice.

Such texts as this introduction to anthropology betray a wide variety of historical narratives for anthropology. Most American anthropologists are unfamiliar with the much older history of anthropology in Europe. Unlike physics or chemistry, since there is no accepted, or authoritative, history of anthropology, and since anthropology as a concept encompasses a much wider range of subject disciplines than just scientific anthropology, students or scholars attempting to understand anthropology’s development will discover significant diversity in the characterization and interpretation of anthropology’s historical past.


Defining Anthropology Today: The View From Anthro 101

This brief analysis will look at a representative general anthropology textbook that is widely used in American universities today. As one would expect in a text used in introductory anthropology courses, the narrative begins with a definition and general description of anthropology. The author, Conrad Kottak, is a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan.

The Textbook’s “Fathers” and “Mothers”
  Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881): American ethnologist and politician
  Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917): English anthropologist, proponent of cultural evolutionism (as was Morgan)
  Franz Boas (1858-1952): German-American anthropologist, generally regarded as the Father of American Anthropology.
  Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942): Polish cultural anthropologist, developed the London School of Economics into a center of anthropological study; taught for several years in the US before taking a position at Yale.
  Ruth Benedict (1887-1948): American cultural anthropologist whose Patterns of Culture (1934) became a classic in the field.
  Margaret Mead (1901-1978): American cultural anthropologist influential in the 1960s.