What Is Cultural Anthropology?


“What is then this ethnographer’s magic, by which he is able to evoke the real spirit of the natives, the true picture of tribal life?”
                                Bronislaw Malinowski


Anthropology is the study of the human as at once an individual, a product of society, and a maker of history and culture.  It’s the nature of the human condition to live within structures of symbol, belief, and power of our own fashioning: religion, art, gender, war, ecosystems, race relations, embodiment, kinship, science, colonialism, language, nations and states, play, subsistence strategies, mass media, illness, pain, and pleasure.  In a word, culture.  And anthropologists study all this and more. 

Anthropology comes from the Greek, literally “the study of the human.”  As such, we overlap with history, sociology, psychology, political science, literature, documentary studies, and other fields.  What distinguishes anthropology is less what anthropologists study, than how they do it, and in particular the investigative techniques of participant-observation.  Researchers live with and share the daily experiences of the people they are studying, often for years at a time. They also conduct formal and informal interviews; carry out surveys; gather oral histories, myths, and genealogies; and take notes, film, and record.     Things that seem irrational, scary, and downright weird on first arrival become second nature, and things that seemed natural and unquestionable at home can start to seem rather odd. Anthropologists believe that this position of being betwixt and between, or liminal, is a powerful place for understanding. 

Coursework in anthropology gives students powerful tools for making sense of society and culture, and an appreciation of both different cultures and of hierarchies and inequality in the 21st century world.   This broad training in understanding culture and society is a perfect foundation for a wide array of careers, from medicine and the law to art and   politics.  As a discipline, anthropology combines the rigor of science with the creative unexpectedness of art; it endeavors, as Malinowski said, to evoke the real spirit, the true picture of human life in all its complexity, context, and contradiction. Our courses offers students critical understanding of key questions of war, poverty, and creativity; many also focus on particular regions of the world (for example, China, Latin America, Africa, and Europe), taught by faculty members who are leading world experts in these areas.  Anthropology also has a tradition of activism and advocacy (in fact, the famous anthropologist, doctor, and humanitarian Paul Famer – founder of Partners in Health and now a member of the Duke Board of Trustees – is a graduate of our department).  Anthropology is also a big tent discipline that has welcomed people who may not feel represented in the “mainstream” because of their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or background (some examples include Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude Levi-Strauss, Don Kulick, Michel-Rolph Trouillot).  Many of our faculty lead DukeEngage programs (including to China and Northern Ireland), and our faculty members established the Duke in Ghana Global Education program. 

As the discipline evolves our historic tools, honed in small-scale societies, are increasingly applied to other “tribes” like computer programmers, lab scientists, gamers, genetic clinicians, high energy physicists, sports teams, stockbrokers, and the people (and other beings) affected by their work, including test tube babies, nuclear down-winders, patient advocacy groups, fan cultures, and environmental activists. Actual people, in their singularity and specificity, are central to anthropology as it also ponders the big questions of life, death, justice, and power.

    • Rivera - Ausbeutung durch die Spanier
    • Professor Irene Silverblatt is an expert on the Spanish Conquest of the Americas

    • Photo Credit: Wolfgang Sauber
    • Diane with
    • Cultural Anthropology Professor Diane Nelson with Guatemalan crossdresser. She studies subjectivity and power in Guatemala.

    • Anne Latest
    • Cultural Anthropology professor Anne Allison studies hope, survival, and social change in Japan

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