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Chapter Outline

Why Is the Concept of Culture Important?

How Do Anthropologists Define Culture?

Culture, History, and Human Agency

Why Do Cultural Differences Matter?

What Is Ethnocentrism?

Is It Possible to Avoid Ethnocentric Bias?

What Is Cultural Relativism?

How Can Cultural Relativity Improve Our Understanding of Controversial Cultural Practices?

Genital Cutting, Gender, and Human Rights

Genital Cutting as a Valued Ritual

Culture and Moral Reasoning

Did Their Culture Make Them Do It?

Does Culture Explain Everything?

Culture Change and Cultural Authenticity

The Promise of the Anthropological Perspective

Main Points:

  1. Anthropologists have argued that culture distinguishes the human condition from the condition of other living species. Human culture is learned, shared, patterned, adaptive, and symbolic. It did not emerge all at once, but evolved over time.
  2. Many anthropologists have long thought holistically about human culture. Anthropological holism argues that objects and environments interpenetrate and even define each other. Thus, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Human beings and human societies are open systems that cannot be reduced to the parts that make them up. The parts and the whole mutually define, or codetermine, each other and coevolve. This book adopts a coevolutionary approach to human nature, human society, and the human past. Human beings depend on symbolic cultural understandings to help them resolve the ambiguities inherent in everyday human experience.
  3. Anthropologists believe that ethnocentrism can be countered by a commitment to cultural relativism, an attempt to understand the cultural underpinnings of behavior. Cultural relativism does not require us to abandon every value our society has taught us; however, it does discourage the easy solution of refusing to consider alternatives from the outset. Cultural relativism makes moral decisions more difficult because it requires us to take many things into account before we make up our minds.
  4. Human history is an essential aspect of the human story. Culture is worked out over time and passed on from one generation to the next. The cultural beliefs and practices we inherit from the past or borrow from other people in the present make some things easier for us and other things more difficult. At the same time, culture provides resources human beings can make use of in the pursuit of their own goals. Thus, the anthropological understanding of human life recognizes the importance of human agency.
  5. Many anthropologists have criticized use of the term cultures to refer to particular, learned ways of life belonging to specific groups of human beings. Critics argue that this way of talking about culture seems to endorse a kind of oppressive cultural determinism. Supporters, however, argue that in some cases this version of the culture concept can be used to defend vulnerable social groups against exploitation and oppression by outsiders.


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