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Anthropology Thought and Theory


Historical particularism was an approach popularized by Franz Boas as an alternative to worldwide theories of socio-cultural development proposed by both evolutionists and extreme diffusionists. Boas concluded that each society has its own unique historical development, thus the historical particularism theory (Scupin 2002:124). The Boasians were convinced that there were several and varied stimuli that propelled the development of cultures. They, therefore, believed that these developments could only be understood after examining the particulars of a specific culture, thereby identifying the sources of stimuli for such developments. In his arguments, the view of all societies as part of one single human culture evolving towards a cultural pinnacle was imperfect.

Boas’ approach of historical particularism therefore required almost total suspension of the common discourse between fact and theory thorough ethnographic study of the societies. He was of the view that until such an investigation has been done, that theories derived from historically based studies could be constructed to form a pattern of cultural development. These theories were later carried on and further developed by Boas’ students such as Alfred L. Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, Robert Lowie, Paul Radin and Edward Sapir.  However, these “students would only admit that Boas had trained them to pursue their varied interests mindful of data, free of prejudice, and distrustful of all schemes” (Harris 2001:250).


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Boas did not believe that one could understand and interpret cultural change unless he conducted observations based on the perspective of those he is studying. He rather advocated for the examination of all available evidences for a society before starting an investigation on that society.

Kroeber, just like Boas, believed in the necessity of understanding the historical background culture in order to fully understand the culture rather than generalizing development of culture on unempirical grounds.  He became largely famous for his concept of “superorganic” theory which he defined as certain cultural aspects that do not directly originate from individuals within the society (Harris 2001: 327). In conforming to the theory of historical particularism, Kroeber considered culture as an entity that should be analyzed by methods specific to its nature rather than studying individuals within the society, “thus for Sapir language came very close to being the very kind of superorganic entity which Kroeber thought culture was” (Bidney 1967:94).

However, Kroeber differed with Boas’ perception of individuals as key players in cultural development and change. He argued that both culture and individuals are distinct entities and considered culture to be much more superior to the individuals within it. According to Kroeber, culture’s superorganic force is beyond change by few individuals.  His idea of culture’s superiority on individuals is derived from the fact that individuals are determined by the culture, and not the vice versa. He further refute Carlye’s “The great Man Theory” that asserted that culture advanced due to the contributions of the great men and women in the society (Harris 2001: 327).

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His refute was based on his perception of culture as superorganic and therefore cannot be manipulated by just few individuals. He then observed that individuals only become great if they are in the right culture. As a result, Kroeber believed that in a pattern that exceeds and controls individuals to determine their behavior. However, Kroeber criticized Boas for concentrating too much on abstract explanation of cultural change rather than concentrating on the empirical aspects that could easily be explained.

As opposed to Kroeber’s belief that culture is independent from the individuals within it, Ruth Benedict held that each culture chooses from the “great arc of human personalities” but only dominant traits emerge in people.  She gave much attention to the integration and the role of the individual within culture. While strongly embracing Boas’ idea and use of fieldwork, Benedict asserted that one must study the daily functions of a society, not simply traits (Upadhyay 1993:14). She then saw integration as the source of society’s strength by her observation that weaker cultures results from their lack of integration in which deviation is not allowed in such cultures.

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Benedict also concurs with Kroeber in her view that culture provides the raw materials of which individuals make life. This view resembles Kroeber’s refute of  The Great Man theory that suggested that culture only advances due to the effort from the few advantaged members of the society. It is Benedict’s conviction that one can only achieve their full potential if there is a strong culture to promote such ventures. While Boas in the historical particularism, advocated for the study of both individuals and their interrelationships within the culture, Benedicts considered the two as distinct entities and, therefore, culture should be considered as a full entity without tying its study to the individuals within it.

Sapir as a student of Boas took the path of cultural particularism when in his article “The Unconscious Patterning of Behavior in Society”. He opted not to concentrate on the behavior of the society as an entity but rather became specific in the individual behaviors. As opposed to his fellow Boasians such Kroeber, Sapir consider it a misconception if the strict individual behaviors are ignored for the study of more complex activities of a society as a whole. He says “it may be seem worse than doubtful when we leave the kinds of behavior that are strictly individual and deal with those more complex kinds of activity which, rightly or wrongly, supposed to be carried on …society” (Sapir 1985:544) As much as both Kroeber and Sapir agree on particularism, Sapir becomes more of a reductionist by reducing the concept of cultural particularism to the study of individuals’ behavior.

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In his treatment of unconscious patterning in the society, Sapir considered social behavior as the behavior referred to groups of human beings which act as a single entity, regardless of the mentalities of the individuals in such a group.  He further doubted the existence of such groups. Even though he recognized the difference between social and individual, Sapir argued that there is very little difference between them and, therefore, any kind of psychological explanation for the individual behavior would also apply to the social behavior (Sapir 1985:545). Having applied psychological approach, Sapir saw the idea of society as an autonomous entity to be incompatible with the explanation of human conduct in the society. To support his idea, he points out that every kind of behavior is individual and that the difference in terminology has been brought about by differences in view points.

While applying the laws of chemistry, Sapir described as absurd the belief that human beings can behave individually at one moment and socially at another moment. It is therefore his conviction that the study of behavior patterning in the society can only be done appropriately  through the study of the individual behaviors in that society (Sapir 1985:545). This was his form of adopting historical particularism by not generalizing the individual behaviors to the society levels, which he considered incompatible with his psychological approach in social science. However, Sapir tries to agree with Benedict’s concept that individuals do affect the society’s culture. He says that all cultural behaviors are patterned, thus most of the individual behaviors such as what they do, think and feel do not only affect them as a biological organisms but it is reflected in the whole society (Sapir 1985:546).

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In his book “Primitive man as a philosopher” Radin differed from almost all of his fellow Boasians concerning the concept of historical particularism. While making his assumptions for the study, he says that among primitive people there exists the same distribution of temperament and ability as among us. In his assumptions, Radin seeks to generalize the distribution of temperament as equal in every society even though he is knowledgeable about the manifest differences in the configuration and orientation of different cultures.

However, he sought to clarify that the prediction of such distributions are not the outcome of the theories he holds, but a result of his interaction of the perceived primitive aboriginal tribes. It is, therefore, clear that as much as he might be persuaded to make generalizations about such facts, he is convinced to maintain the historical particularism view that a study must be made before any concept can be generalized across societies.   

In his work, Radin decided to collect data from the native point of view in which they were allowed to give the emic point of view. His work was more of a translator than a researcher. This was, however, an approach of gaining full understanding of the factors that surrounded the aborigine tribe so as to indicate the extent to which they share and participate in their social system. As such, Radin sought to encounter the prevalent descriptions of primitive people as representing the beliefs and customs of the non-intellectual class among them.

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While advocating for historical account of culture, Radin points at the historical particularism as the best way through which ethnologists can fully understand the ways in which certain attitudes, whether tacit or conscious, affect society. Though from ethnological point of view, Radin believes that this approach to cultural knowledge would help in understanding the philosophy of the primitive mind. However, the reality of ethnography as a new field, during his time, Radin admitted that the description of these primitive people would not be controlled in the same way as the established subjects, such as history.

While other Boasians like Kroeber and Benedict focused more on the group than on individuals, Radin saw individuals as important in the study of culture and therefore focused more on the individuals.

Cultural materialism

Cultural materialism is an anthropological school of thought founded by Marvin Harris in which he majorly based his arguments on Marxist materialistic school. In proposing his ideas about cultural materialism, Harris has inclined greatly to the epic approach rather than the emic point of view.  According to Harris “socio-cultural systems consist of three levels, adapted from Marxist Cultural Model” (Harris 2001: 345-356).  The levels included infrastructure, structure and superstructure. In the superstructure level, he classified cultural behaviors such as arts, including dance, music, literature and advertising. Second in his list of cultural superstructures were cultural rituals, sports, hobbies and science. The cultural mental superstructures, according to the cultural materialists were cultural values, emotions and traditions (Harris 2001:53).

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While advocating for the cultural superstructures through the principle of infrastructural determinism, Harris insisted that mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life (Harris 2001:55). He emphasized that it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but rather the social existence of men that determines their consciousness.

Harris expanded infrastructure, structure and superstructure levels of cultural model levels. In this study, Harris ignored the emic point of view for epic. He sought to explain cultural organizations, ideology and symbolism within a materialistic framework; he held that the key task of anthropology is to give causal explanations as per the similarities and differences among cultures. He believed that “ society developed on a trial and error basis in which the society abandoned what was considered not beneficial to its productivity and reproductively” (Harris 2001:34). 

It was the belief of the proponents of cultural materialism that government, law, religion and family values among other social factors had to be beneficial to the society, otherwise, the society would drop them. It is on this basis culture grew.  Therefore, in order to understand the society, cultural materialist believed that the material constraints such as the need to produce food, shelter, tools, and machines and the need to reproduce human population had to be studied first.

These factors are believed to be the starting point in the study of culture, as they are the determinants of the society’s superstructures. This school considered material factors as the starting point to understanding cultural change rather than looking at the cultural change as resultant of dialectical contradictions, the cultural materialists such as Harris consider cultural evolution a resulting from accumulation of useful traits and rejection of those that are deemed not useful for the society’s productivity.

In his book, “The Theory of Cultural Change: the Methodology of Multilinear Evolution” Julian Steward sought to expose the processes and causes of cultural evolution by explaining the choices made by these cultures in the face of the options presented to them by their history and environment. Here, Steward emphasized ecological factors as important in determining culture change. In coining the term Cultural Ecology, Steward insists that “the cultural ecology concept must be used to supplement Historical approaches to anthropology, if the creative process through which culture adapts to its environment is to be determined” (Harris 2001:27). From cultural ecology perspective, the introduction of man to the ecological scene, which had been biologically framed by Darwin, leads to creation of man’s super-organic factor of culture which affects and is affected by the total web of life.  

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From the emic point of view, Steward has considered prior enquiries by social ecologists as having treated culture just as one of the many features in the ecology, thereby applying biological tools to the analysis of culture (Harris 2001:25). In his view, cultural patterns should not be analyzed in the same way as organic features, since these patterns are not genetically derived. He states that “man reacts to the web of life as a cultural animal rather than as a biological species” (Harris 2001:24).

For man’s survival, he acquires new techniques and ways of doing things, but each acquisition of a new technique, or a new use of an old technique alters man’s relations with organisms around him and changes his position in the biotic community. Steward uses epic approach in the study of culture by borrowing from biological ecologists in the adaptations of organisms in a given habitat. Steward sees environment effects on culture as having been neglected by both anthropologists and social ecologists, from emic point of view he considers social ecologist as having been so much preoccupied by universal ecological principles to the extent of sidelining environment and its effect on culture as an afterthought (Harris 2001:23 ). 

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Geertz believed that every culture is unique and, therefore, seeking universal laws among different cultures made no impact. With such understanding of culture, he defined the role of anthropologists as that of figuring out signs and symbols in specific societies and ordering them according to their significance in such societies.  Geertz, therefore, called on all anthropologists to take not an emic point of view but also the epic approach while addressing issues of culture in any society. While referencing functionalists such as Malinowski, he stated that “religion, especially rituals, reinforce traditional ties between individuals where social structures are strengthened and perpetuated through the ritualistic or mythic symbolization of the underlying social values” (Bidney 1996:357).

Emically, Geertz viewed religion and rituals from their disruptive, disintegrative and psychologically disturbing aspects as opposed to other functionalists who had majorly focused on those religious aspects of harmonizing, integrating, and psychological structures. As the epical functionalists such as Malinowski demonstrated the manner in which religion preserved the social and psychological structures, Geertz realized that they overlooked the manner in which religion transformed or destroyed the same structures (Bidney 1996:372). While referring to Redfield’s work in Yucatan, Geertz felt very disappointed by the functionalists who have treated cultural change in terms of progressive disintegration, Geertz perceived this trend culture change in Yucatan as leading to a lot of secularization, individualization and, most unfortunately, disorganization of culture. 



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