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  The term anthropology (Greek anthropos + logos, ‘discourse of humankind’) was coined by Otto Casmann in 1594. Since its inception as a discipline in the 19th century, anthropologists have focused on the study of non-Western, small-scale, so-called primitive peoples. By the 1960s, the subject was broadened to investigate how people conduct their lives in various social and cultural contexts around the world, village and urban, including the anthropologists\' own societies.

Remote and unfamiliar peoples have been a topic of interest since recorded times. In Europe, from the 15th century onwards, accounts from travellers about peoples encountered in distant territories were widely available. During the Enlightenment, the idea of ‘primitive’ man existing in a simple communal society became prevalent. In 1761, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau lauded the ‘noble savage’ who lived in a communal and dignified state—an ideal that was preferable, he claimed, to the economic iniquity and social deterioration of European societies.

The great thinkers of the 19th century viewed the ‘primitive’ in a different light. Their theories of race and evolutionism stressed the progressive development of societies from a state of ‘primitive’ savagery to the peak of contemporary European civilization. Physical anthropologists were engaged in documenting biological features of humans, in support of these theories. European colonial expansion created the means for wider contact between different societies, and anthropologists worked in colonized areas, such as Asia and Africa, where they conducted studies of social organizations, customs and religions. During this period, anthropology was established as a specialist discipline separate from European sociology and philosophy.

By the beginning of the 20th century, anthropologists rejected earlier theories of the ‘primitive’, established by evolutionism and physical anthropology, as ill-conceived and biased. In 1914, Bronislaw Malinowski ushered in a new era in anthropology, focusing on the way societies functioned in the present. He advocated that anthropologists engage in extended field work in order to gain clearer insights into the communities they were living with. This method, which he termed participant-observation, was the basis of his theory of functionalism. Functionalism concentrated on how present social practices and institutions were systematically linked together. By examining the internal logic of and relations between kinship, ritual, political and economic practices, each society was considered as a complex interrelated whole. Around the same time, American anthropologists established the discipline of Cultural Anthropology, which prioritized the study of culture as the system of values, ideas and beliefs, in contrast to British Social Anthropology which emphasized social roles, norms and organizations.

In the 1960s, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss initiated a radical break with previous methods of analysing culture by applying structuralist models, derived from linguistics. With these models, he sought to investigate the conceptual structures of the mind through the observable pattern of social and cultural elements such as myths, symbols and totemism. His theories were widely influential. Nonetheless, they have been the target of several anthropological critiques. Structuralism, like its predecessor functionalism, did not adequately consider historical processes within each community or its ethnohistory. It also ignored the constructive role of the individual in society which to some extent was accommodated in later transactionalist theories.

Interpretative anthropology of the 1970s grew out of the American school of Cultural Anthropology to consider the way individuals assigned symbolic meanings in cultures. While maintaining the complexity of multi-layered, local interpretations about cultural symbols, these anthropologists believed meanings could be extracted from the world-views of the people in question. The interpretative project highlighted the process of reflexivity which examined the possibility of anthropologists imposing their own meaning in the process of translation from one culture to another. This has become central to contemporary anthropology\'s self-critical awareness of its role as mediator between different societies.

Prior to the 1960s, the political relations between the community and the anthropologist\'s own society, both historical and contemporary, were overlooked. Marxist anthropologists, originally from France, picked up on these concerns to offer more historical, political and economic orientated analyses of particular societies and their relation to countries with a colonizing history. The 1960s was a time in which most non-Western countries had shaken off their colonial rulers, but Marxist anthropologists claim that neocolonialism persists because ex-colonial countries still dominate world affairs by virtue of their political and economic power. Anthropologists began to re-evaluate their roles in these societies, considering whether anthropological research could be utilized to maintain or challenge the status quo between different groups in societies or between nations. For instance, anthropology challenged assumptions about the universal subordination of women by showing that gender roles were cross-culturally subject to considerable variation.

Such global considerations mean that anthropology can no longer be described as the study of small-scale ‘primitive’ societies. It has expanded its field of enquiry, incorporating as well as influencing other disciplines such as sociology, psychology, philosophy, political, economic and literary theories. This interdisciplinary domain is necessary to the consideration of societies, which involves an all-round understanding of human motives and capabilities. Anthropology is now in a strong position to make its arguments relevant to the contemporary world in which communities are connected in a complex of regional and global affairs.

These wider issues have led to a host of anthropological perspectives, all of which have in common the need to clarify and define concepts according to their particular social context. Life can be experienced and perceived in different ways which have led anthropologists to regard phenomena as culturally determined rather than as pre-determined by nature. Anthropology has now become a discursive investigation into the different ways people organize their lives, beliefs and values rather than a discipline seeking ultimate ‘truths’ with which to explain them all. As such, anthropology has proved useful in drawing attention to ethnocentric assumptions about other peoples\' ways of life.

Recent areas that have commanded anthropological attention have expanded the formerly limited horizons of both the discipline and the subject. Such areas include development, tourism, visual anthropology, emotions, ethnicity and global systems which concentrate on the way travel, migration, political, economic and media networks affect communities around the world. Anthropological discourse is now a dialogue between diverse cultural perspectives and aspires to a better understanding of others as well as of ourselves. RK

Further reading Roger Keesing, Cultural Anthropology, A Contemporary Perspective; , Adam Kuper, Anthropology and Anthropologists; , I.M. Lewis, Anthropology in Perspective.



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