Concerning anthropological methodologies for cultural study

We begin this chapter by talking about the objectives of Anthropology and the difficulties of the methods. About the objectives of Anthropology, Boas tries to explain in his lecture in 1932: ‘Perhaps we might define better our task as an attempt to understand the steps by which man became who he is, biologically, psychologically and culturally.’[1] This author continues to show us which are the principal facts we need to grasp about mankind physically, psychologically and culturally.
He continues by saying that ‘The historical method has reached a sounder basis by abandoning the misleading principle of assuming connections wherever similarities of culture were found. The comparative method, notwithstanding all that has been said and written in its praise, has been remarkably barren in giving definite results, and I believe it will not become fruitful until we renounce the vain endeavor to construct a uniform systematic history of the evolution of culture, and until we begin to make our comparisons on the broader and sounder basis . . . Up to this time we have been pleased too much with more or less ingenious vagaries.’ [2]
The method most used in anthropology for cultural study is the participant observation method, which is also called participative observation.   It consists in summary:
a) Definition of the study location and theme;
b) Listing of documentation already extent about the location and theme of study (maps, economic and general data, statistics, public and private data, past research, etc.);
c) Development of the sections with the principal themes to be observed and studied;
d) Listing of the social facts through participant observation, developing the following activities:
- cartographic description of the community, dwellings, public or private sacred or religious places;
- genealogical description (kinship)
- record and description of informal interviews;
- record through photos and/or films
- record of brief biographies;
- record (and recordings) of myths, legends and tales;
- an inventory of up to date statistical data of the population.
            e) The participation takes place by the preparation of a scene for study and understanding of a social fact.
- choose the social fact to be studied;
- plan the moment and scene that will be observed;
- interact with the local people during the observation of the social fact in order to collect impressions, commentaries and descriptions;
- participate in the social fact, when possible and welcomed.
Comparing the descriptions of Washington Matthews and Bourke it is possible to perceive, in an isolated example of anthropological analysis, the weakness of the method applied to a division of clans in totemic societies. If on one hand Matthews detailed the creation of clans among the Navajo based on groupings around a totemic value, however Bourke discovered the creation of clans according to functional divisions. The method had a grave influence on the conclusions of the study.
Evans-Pritchard tells us about the use of masks. In spite of being a rite found among many ethnic groups with the same religious background, for example animist, the origins prove to be diverse and distinct. Some groups use the masks in order to deceive the spirits of the identity of the user. Others use them to personify a spirit and chase away other spirits. Some masks are commemorative and without religious significance; others are purely theatrical or mythological. So we can conclude that the comparative method possesses the weakness of generalizing the values. Similar phenomena have, in various cases, distinct origins and therefore carry in themselves distinct truths. Each case needs to be analyzed separately, alone, to seek the factual aspect there.
There are various methods used historically for cultural study that enables us to divide along general lines in adaptive system and idealist theories.
Adaptive system and Idealist theories.
Kessing[3] is the promoter of the Adaptive System in which ‘the cultures are systems that serve communities to adapt to their biological foundations . . . including their economic organization, social grouping, political organization, religious beliefs and practices.’ In this sense there is a tendency to describe culture as the tool used by a society to maintain its adaption to nature, that is, the environment in which they are placed. This tool includes the concrete and physical aspects, as well as the abilities and formulas of organization.[4]
The so-called idealist theories of culture are subdivided into different approaches. Componential analyse of culture is the first approach, also quoted by Laburthe-Tolra e Warnier[5] under this title, was inspired by American linguistics and specially, according to them, by Bloomfield, disciple of Sapir. It is seen as a cognitive system, that is, the culture is here the result of models created by the members of a community from the own universe, that is, culture is learnt. For example, the standard of beauty is established; the handsome can be tall, or thin, or fat. So, for Goodenough ‘culture is a system of knowledge and consists of everything that someone needs to know and accept, to participate within his society in an acceptable manner.’ [6] The idea in this sense is that culture can be limited to the communicative and meaningful aspects of social life. More recently, the influence of other sciences that are oriented to knowledge, such as linguistics and psychology ‘tend to lead to an increased interest in the connections between ‘culture’ and ‘society’, between the interactive material and the cognitive-emotional, between what the peoples do and what they think and say about themselves.’[7]
The problem that we can meet here is that if culture is a cognitive phenomenon it will be on the same level as language that is learnt and observed. This method is defective because not everything is learnt.   The moral meaning that exists in man naturally, that is without objective teaching, will exist and be used as the criterion for choices and decisions.
The second approach of the idealist theories of culture relates to the structural systems, whose promoter is Claude Lévi-Strauss, who defines culture as ‘a symbolic system that is the accumulative creation of the human mind . . . myth, art, kinship and language. .’[8] Here he elaborates the theory (widely held at his time in Brazil) that the psychic unity of humanity, which would explain the cultural parallels, meant human thinking was submitting to unconscious rules, or a complex of principles that control the empirical manifestations of the group. ‘It is above all a method of investigation of what is the object of discourse ... consists in constructing a body (mythological, for example) as complete as possible.’[9] As an example we can think of the terms for god in some African ethnic groups with ethnographies written that suggest common ideas in peoples that never could have communicated. In Appendix 2, when we quote Amowia (The giver of the sun) in the Ewe culture, it is seen that this people live in an area that is frequently cloudy (the banks of the River Volta) and the sun is a necessary element for the fishing trips. Already Amosu (the giver of rain) of the Frafra culture that dwell in the arid north of Ghana is linked to the necessity of the people for water for the plantations and subsistence. Many other terms for god and gods indicate a link between the objective necessity of society and their religion. For Lévi-Strauss it is a confirmation of universal psychic unity.
Symbolic System
The symbolic system constitutes the last approach, it was developed in the United States of America, especially by Geertz and Schneider.[10] Accordingly culture must be considered as ‘not a complex of concrete behaviour, but a grouping of mechanisms of control, plans, prescriptions, rules, instructions to govern the behaviour.’[11] Geertz explains that every man is genetically able to receive a program, and this program is the culture; it becomes a theory, similar in this aspect to Levi-Straus, in the unity of the species.
For this, Geertz states that ‘all of us are born with the equipment to live a thousand lives, but in the end we live only one,’[12] or, any child could be able to adapt itself in a 1000 different cultures if it had the time and space, but would end up in a lonely fate. To prove his theory he states that all of us know what to do in determined situations, even if we might not know to foresee what we will do. Culture is, therefore, a code of symbols shared by the members of a society. In other words, for what interests us most; man has in himself universal elements common to all.
Therefore it follows the development of three courses of investigation for us. The first is the investigation more human and social of Anthropos. The second is the study of man as a religious being that we call Pneumatos. The third, Angelos, is the study of the possibility of communicating the Gospel on the basis of the information from the first two investigations. In these investigations we will proceed by categorizing, with our feet of the ground, and configuring them by means of comprehensible questions.
[1] Boas, Franz Cultural Anthropology, op cit.
[2]The aims of anthropological research”, Science, N.S., vol 76. 1932 also on
[3] Keesing Roger: ‘Theories of Culture’ 1974.
[4] Online Dictionary of Anthropology
[5]Laburthe-Tolra e Warnier, ‘Ethnologie e Anthropologie Paris: PUF; Éd. rev. et augm (2003). Also in Spanish: Etnologia y Antropologia.
[6] Quoted by Keesing in Theories of Culture 1974.
[7] Online Dictionary of Anthropologys Ob. Cit.
[8] Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté , 1949, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, ed. *Rodney Needham, trans. J. H. Bell, J. R. von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham, 1969.
[9] Laburthe-Tolra e Warnier, Op.Cit
[10] Laburthe-Tolra e Warnier, Op.Cit
[11] Laburthe-Tolra e Warnier, Op.Cit.
[12] The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), Basic Books 2000