Socio-Historical Contexts

Lesson Objectives:

  • identify the role of anthropology within the context of history
  • recognize the relationship between power and representation
  • review different theoretical approaches within the discipline
  • analyze a real-world example using Said’s theoretical framework

Now that we have established a basic foundation for understanding a few rudimentary aspects of Culture, Language and Anthropology, we can move forward to explore different ways to investigate and analyze cultural diversity. We will begin by touching on a brief history of the development of anthropology as a field of social inquiry and the theoretical foundations that provide the basis for anthropological perspectives today.

Travels of Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo

Early Anthropological Models: Documenting Difference
According to Marvin Harris (1968), the history of anthropological inquiry emerged from two particular trends: 1.) an interest in comparing people, and 2.) an interest in the history of human processes. Some of the earliest known ‘anthropological’ works date back to the writings of Greek and Roman historians, such as Herodotus and Tacitus, who documented detailed accounts of the tribal groups and communities, such as  early Celtic and Germanic cultures, encountered and subsequently conquered by early empires. During the 13th and 14th centuries, prolific travelers such as Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta , produced descriptive narratives of their travels and the different communities and cultures they visited. Yet, it was not until the 15th century when anthropology became part of a systematic attempt to understand the ‘natural order’. This period, referred to as the ‘Age of Enlightenment,’ was a time when European intellectuals and scholars engaged in an empirical analysis of reality through different fields of inquiry.

Social Evolution & Ethnocentrism

It is important to note however, that the emerging field of social inquiry that is now known as anthropology was initially embedded in ‘natural history’ studies which were a key part of European colonialism during the 16th-20th centuries. During this time, colonial administrators and a cohort of European intellectuals produced ethnographies of indigenous people and groups who lived in occupied territories, and the accounts and descriptions of ‘primitive people’ produced by colonial scholars incorporated local people as part of the natural environment. By the 19th century, anthropology began to emerge as a distinct field, yet it remained theoretically informed by biological ‘laws’ and ‘principles’, such as evolutionary theory, that had gained immense popularity at that time. As a result, early anthropological models produced by scholars such as E.B. Tylor and Emile Durkheim were based on linear evolutionary models that situated all societies along a single pathway from ‘primitive’ to ‘advanced’. These ethnocentric models were centered on the notion of progress and represented non-European people as being ‘backward’, ‘behind’ and in need of ‘development’. Unfortunately these early representations of indigenous people were often used to justify the occupation of foreign territories and the atrocities committed by colonial regimes, and ideas about social evolution contributed to the development of the ‘social hygiene’ movement, also known as ‘eugenics’ in the United States. We will cover this in greater detail in the Social Relations module.

Prejudice and Orientalism
We can see that throughout the history of anthropology, there has been a distinctive pattern associated with power and representation. In most cases, representations are produced by those who are in power, and the powerless are usually the ones being represented. In his book, Orientalism (1978), Edward Said points out the social and political implications associated with power and representation as he described the inconsistencies between outsider representations of Arab men and his own experiences as an Arab man. According to Said, prejudiced outsider interpretations are shaped by the attitudes of imperialists in order to justify the occupation of foreign territories and the exploitation of indigenous people who live in those territories. Although Said’s analysis primarily targets artistic representations of the Middle East by European artists and writers, his orientalist critique has been expanded to address pejorative representations of colonized and oppressed people worldwide.

Some Examples of Early Orientalism

Paternalistic images such as the photograph above aimed to construct indigenous people as ‘savage’ and ‘primitive’ and ignored the rich ecological knowledge and cultural systems that characterized each community. The photograph published in Reader’s Digest states ‘…the people of Algeria have much to learn about hygiene.’ Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman was a Khoisan woman  in the late 19th century. She was taken to Europe as part of a circus side show. Films often portrayed the natural environment, and even people, as wild and dangerous. In the film “Africa Speaks!’ below, the sophisticated kingdoms and civilizations throughout Africa were virtually ignored.

Until recently, very few representations of indigenous people depicted daily life and social relations that emphasized similarities rather than differences with European culture. The screenshot from the 2010 film, Babies, posted below portrays a moment and sentiment that virtually every parent, regardless of race, culture or ethnicity, has experienced. Images that promote cross-cultural connections like this one can compel the viewer to seriously call to question policies that marginalize and exploit people.

Screenshot from the documentary film, ‘Babies’. (not orientalism)

The decline of European colonialism opened the door for new anthropological perspectives and approaches to understanding cultural diversity and difference. The field has embarked on a 100-year theoretical journey to explore and understand humans and society. We will take a closer look at some of the more pervasive theoretical frameworks in contemporary anthropology toward the end of the semester. For now, it is important that you familiarize yourself with a general idea of the earlier anthropological perspectives and their contributions to contemporary anthropology.


Toward the turn of the 20th century, anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) began to engage in long term fieldwork and participant-observation research methodologies within cultural communities and eventually challenged linear evolutionary anthropological models. Malinowski (1922) deviated from evolutionary frameworks by focusing his research on investigating what he referred to as “the native’s point of view”, which necessitated ‘participant-observation.’ His theoretical approach emphasized a functionalist perspective that explored the ways that social institutions and cultural practices served to meet a person’s needs. This approach positions culture as an adaptive strategy to survive in unique social and historical circumstances, and this paved the way for anthropologists to take a closer look at the role of structures in shaping the human experience.

By the mid-twentieth century, anthropologists began investigating the role of meaning and purpose within institutional structures. Structuralism in anthropology owes its roots to the linguistic work of Ferdinand deSaussure.  A.R. Radcliffe-Brown focused on the ways that institutions in societies worked to maintain order and harmony, an approach known as structural functionalism. Later, anthropologists such as Claude Levi-Strauss drew on linguistic theory and developed a structuralist approach which argued that people see and organize the world in interconnected ways known as structures. This approach relied on the structural theory of philosopher Immanuel Kant who stated that human beings do not have direct or unmediated knowledge of the world, experiences of the world are mediated through the human mind, which universally structures perceptions. Early structuralist approaches emphasized binary oppositions (black:white, man:woman, worker:employer) and gained considerable popularity among neo-Marxist anthropologists who adopted the theoretical framework to interrogate economic relations such as private property and class struggle.

In the 1970s, functionalism and structuralism fell out of favor as social theorists such as Michel Foucault and Judith Butler criticised structuralism for being too rigid and ahistorical. This perspective argues that a variety of meanings and interpretations can exist simultaneously according to different experiences and histories. Post-structuralism rejects the notion that there is a singular Truth (sometimes referred to as ‘truth with a capital ‘T’), and instead aims to interrogate the ways knowledge, or Truth, is produced. Post-structuralists are particularly interested in systems of power. Critics of post-structuralism have argued that the perspective destabilizes meanings and paralyzes scholars from making any conclusive claims. In some ways, post-structuralism shares several parallels with Cultural Relativism.

Cultural Relativism
Cultural relativism emerged from the work of early anthropologist, Franz Boas, who wrote in 1887 that “…civilization is not something absolute, but … is relative, and … our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes.” Boaz was responding to the wealth of racist and ethnocentric representations and ideas that were being produced by anthropologists of his time. In an article published in Science, Boas explained how cultural evolution ignored a major contribution from Darwin’s evolutionary theory – context:

“It is only since the development of the evolutional theory that it became clear that the object of study is the individual, not abstractions from the individual under observation. We have to study each ethnological specimen individually in its history and in its medium”

Boas pointed out that, like the people anthropologists study, anthropologists also interpret reality (and the people they study) from their own cultural lens – this gives way to bias and ethnocentrism. His sentiment became a common thread among the work of his students and largely informed the ideas of Ruth Benedict who pointed out that it is only by studying and appreciating other cultures, that the anthropologist will become aware of their own cultural biases. Her arguments laid the foundation for a post-structuralist approach to anthropology and as a methodological framework for anthropology as cultural critique.

Anthropology as Cultural Critique
Critical Anthropology aims to identify unacknowledged biases and implicit values that form and frame previous ethnographies and popular assumptions within euro-centric culture. It uses critical theory to understand human behavior and cognition within social, historical and cultural contexts (Soyini Madison 2005). This approach to ethnography interrogates power relations in regards to race, gender, nationality and other factors that not only shape the human experience but also affect anthropological research. Critical ethnographers incorporate reflexivity into their methodologies by identifying themselves and their own cultural background as part of the research process. This approach not only acknowledges that the research findings are shaped by the researcher’s own interpretive framework and personal experiences, it recognizes that the process of collecting data is also affected by the researcher. Because of this, critical ethnographers present findings from their ethnographic research as their own interpretation and perspective rather than a scientific finding based on conclusive evidence, or Truth.

Anthropology Today
The above synopsis of the development of the field of anthropology and anthropological theory is a small chip off the tip of an enormous iceberg, but it should shed light on the ways that the discipline has come a very long way; From racist and subjective evolutionary models that portray non-European peoples as primitive and backward to a more reflexive approach that critically analyzes the producers of information and the ways that power shapes representation. As we move through the next module, it is important to consider how unique historical processes shape the human experience in different ways and thereby produce diversity.
The next section will briefly touch on the ways that social bonds and culture provide the framework for people to meet their needs through the development of exchange networks, societies, and civilizations. We will then jump into the colonial era and explore the historical contexts that established the Modern World System and the Contemporary Global Economy.

As you move through this module, it is important to situate the community you have selected for your final project within these specific historical processes in order to identify how those experiences affected, and continue to affect, peoples and cultures of the world.

Readings: Hoglund, Johan. 2008. Electronic Empire: Orientalism Revisited in the Military Shooter. Games Studies Vol 8 Issue 1 (September)

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Discussion: As the Hoglund reading points out, orientalist representations continue into the present. Hoglund applied Said’s theoretical framework to show how the depictions of Arab men in American video games contribute to pejorative representations that serve to justify occupation – in this case, the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Search the internet for another example of contemporary orientalism and conduct your own analysis using Said’s theory: What is the prejudiced outsider interpretation ? Who is the ‘imperialist’ and how is the representation shaped by the attitudes of imperialists? In what ways does it serve to justify the occupation of foreign territories and/or the exploitation of people? Be sure to include a weblink to the image or representation in your post.

When you complete the discussion, move on to the Societies & Civilizations lesson.