Anthropology Primer


The centre of my universe is anthropology. Socio-cultural anthropology and languages are my passion. There's a whole world out there waiting to be discovered, and I am the best armchair explorer I know. :-)

The following is an introductory primer to the subject.


Culture has been defined in an infinite number of ways.  The goal is of course to find a fully encompassing and functional definition, that separates culture from other closely-related terms such as society.   Culture is something that is divided between the tangible essence of a social whole and the intangible essence.  Obvious, physical culture is seen in the artifacts of a given society.  But, less obtrusive is the ideas, beliefs, behaviours, etc. these still manifest themselves within the culture, but aren't necessarily as overt.   More or less, the whole definition of culture establishes a paradigm for cultural conformity.

But what is society then?  This much better defined. It's the people of a given location that share the same cultural traditions.  It can comprise of people of varied backgrounds and cultural persuasions, but their common goal of surviving together, creates a society.  A broader term is, social structure.  This is the relationship that holds the society together.  The society can be comprised of a variety of culture groups.  These are the subcultural variation found within a society.  The subcultural variation is a distinctive set of standards and behaviour patterns by which a group within a larger society operates.  In a society where there is a large number of subcultural patterns, the society is called pluralistic.

The process by which a society's culture is transmitted from one generation to the next is called enculturation.  This is not to be confused with integration.  Integration is the tendancy for all aspects of a culture to function as an interrelated whole.

Other aspects of culture include adaption.  That is having characteristics that foster the survival of organisms in the special environment.  Now there's a definition right out of Darwin.  People adapt to different environments as well as the natural adaptive processes that are inherent in different cultural groups.

Revitalization movements are a unique social movement that we have seen often today.  These social movements serve the purpose of completely reforming a society.  This occurs when the culture fails to fulfill the needs of the people and they require a significant change.

In this day and age of multiculturalism, there are 2 very important buzz words.  The first is Cultural relativism.  The idea that cultures are so unique, that they can only be evaluated within their own standards and values.  This is opposed by Ethnocentrism.  That is, the belief that one's own culture is superior and therefore the guide to examining all other cultures.


Language is defined as a system of communication using symbols that are put together in meaningful ways according to a set of rules.

Symbols are sounds or gestures that stand for meanings among a group of people.  Signal, on the other hand, is a sound or gesture that has a natural or biological meaning.

Phonetics is the study of the production, transmission, and reception of speech sounds.  Linguistics is the study of all aspects of language.  Phonology is the study of the sound patterns of language.  Ethnolinguistics is the study of the relation between language and culture.  Sociolinguistics is the study of the structure and use of language as it relates to its social setting.  Theoretical linguistics is an approach to descriptive linguistics that makes a framework and a system for describing what happens in the whole encoding and sentence-making process for all languages.

A phoneme is the smallest class of sound that make a difference in meaning.  Morphemes are the smallest units of sound that carry a meaning. Note the subtle difference between the two.  Allomorphs are the variants of  a single morpheme.  Morphemes can be bound or free.  Bound morphemes are sounds that can occur in language only in combination with other sounds, as 's' in English to signify the plural.  Free morphemes are those that can occur unattatched in a language; for example, 'dog' and 'cat' are free morphemes in English.

Syntax is the rules of phrase and sentence making.  Grammar is the entire formal structure of language consisting of all observations about the morphemes and syntax. Paralanguage is the extralinguistic noises that accompany language, for example, those of crying and laughing.  Kinesics is a system of postures, facial expressions, and body motions that convey messages.

Descriptive linguistics is the study of language concerned with registering and explaining all the features of a language at one point in history.  Historical linguistics studies the relationships between earlier and later forms of a language, antecedents in older languages of developments in modern languages, and relationships among older languages.   Language family is a group of languages which are ultimately decended from a single ancestral language.  Language subgroups are languages of a family that are more closely related to one another than they are to other languages of the same family. Linguistic divergence is the development of different languages from a single ancestral language.  Glottochronology is a method of dating divergence in branches of language families.

Dialects are varying forms of a language that reflect particular regions or social classes and that are similar enough to be mutually intelligible.  Code switching is the process of changing from one level of language to another.


Self-awareness is the ability to identify oneself as an object, to react to oneself, and to appraise oneself. Patterns of affect are how people feel about themselves and others. Personality is the distinctive way a person thinks, feels, and behaves. Basic personality structures are personality traits that are shared by nearly all the members of a society.  Modal personality is typical of a society as indicated by the central tendancy of a defined frequency distribution.

Incest taboo is the prohibition of sexual relations between immediate kin, such as a parent and child.

Dependence training is the child-rearing practice that foster compliance in the performance of assigned tasks and dependence on the family rather than reliance on oneself.  Independence training is the child-rearing practice that promote independence, self-reliance, and personal achievement on the part of the child.

Ethnic psychoses are mental disorders peculiar to particular ethnic groups.  It is actually a form of paranoid schizophrenia that takes on a ethno-specific form.  For example, the Windigo psychosis is peculiar to northern Algonkian peoples who  fear they are becoming a Windigo. [A flesh-eating monster] They begin to see other people as edible animals.  Ironically it's based in a deep-seated fear of cannibalism.


The study of cultures of the present. Ethnography is the fieldwork associated with this branch.


Adaption is the possession of anatomical, physiological, and/or behavioral characteristics that foster the survival of organisms in the special envrionmental conditions in which they are generally found.   Preadaption, in culture, is existing customs with the potential for a new cultural adaption.
Culture area is a geographic region in which a number of different societies follow a similar pattern of life. Culture type is the view of a culture in terms of the relation of its particular technology to the environment explored by that technology. Culture core is the features of a culture that play a part in matters relating to the society's way of making a living.

Horticulture is the cultivation of crops carried out with hand tools.  Pastoralist is a type of subsistence pattern in which food production is based largely upon the mainenance of animal herds.  Preindustrial cities are kinds of urban settlements that are characteristic of nonindustrial civilizations.

Ecosystems is a system or a functional whole, composed of both the physical environment and the organisms living within it.  Carrying capacity is the number of people who can be supported by the available resources at a given level of technology. Density of social relations is the number and intensity of interactions among the members of a camp or other residential unit.

Cultural ecology is the study of the interaction of specific human cultures with their environment.


Marriage is defined as a transaction and resulting contract in which a woman and a man establish a continuing claim to the right of sexual access to one another, and in which the woman involved is eligible to bear children.  The conjugal bond is the bond between a man and a woman who are married.  Group marriage is a form of marriage where several men and women have sexual access to each other.  Levirate marriage is a custom by which a widow marries a brother of her dead husband.  Sorate marriage is a custom by which the widower marries his dead wife's sister.  Serial marriage is a form of marriage where a man or woman lives with a series of partners in succession.

Affinal kin are relatives by marriage. Consanguineal kin are the relatives by birth ['blood' relatives].  Kindred is a group of people closely related to one living individual through both parents.  [To see illustrated kinship systems click here.]

Endogamy is the rule that marriage must be within a particular group or category of individuals.  Conversely, exogamy is the rule that marriage must be outside the group. Monogamy is a marriage in which an individual has a single spouse. Polygamy is an individual having more than one spouse.  Polygyny is a form of polygamy where a man has several wives.  Polyandry is a form of polygamy where a woman has more than one husband.  Hypergamy exists in a caste-structured society, the practice of allowing marriage into the next higher caste.

Nuclear family is a family unit consisting of a mother, father and dependent children.  Consanguine family is a family consisting of related women, their brothers, and the offspring of the women.  Extended family is a collection of nuclear families, related by blood that live together.

Patrilocal residence is the pattern that the married couple lives in the locality of the husband's father's relatives.  Conversly, matrilocal is the pattern where the married couple lives in the wife's relative's locality.  Ambilocal residence [aka bilocal] is the pattern where the married couple lives in either family's locality.  Neolocal residence is a pattern in which a married couple form a household in a location that has no connection with either the husband or the wife's families.  Avunculocal residence is the pattern where the married couple live with the husband's mother's brother.

Bride price is a compensation paid by the groom or his family to the bride's family upon marriage.  Bride service is a designated period of time after marriage during which the groom works for the bride's family.

Descent group is any publically recognized social entity such that being a lineal descendant of a particular real or mythical ancestor is a criterion of membership.  Unilineal descent establishes group membership exclusively through either the mother's or the father's line.  Matrilineal traces exclusively through the female line for purposes of group membership.  Patrilineal traces exclusively through the male line for the purposes of group membership.
Double descent is a system according to which descent is reckoned matrilineally for some purposes and patrilineally for others.  Ambilineal descent is that which the individual may affiliate with either the mother's or the father's descent group.

Lineage is a corporate descent group whose members claim descent from a common ancestor and who can trace their genealogical links to that ancestor.  Fission is the splitting of a descent group into two or more new descent groups.  Clan is a noncorporrate descent group with each member claiming descent from a common ancestor without actually knowing the genealogical links to that ancestor.  Band is a small group of related people occupying a single region.

The top level is Moiety;
the second is Phratry;
the third is Clan; and
the fourth level is Lineage.


Age grade is a category of people based on age; every individual passes through a series of such categories in the course of a lifetime.  Age class is a collection of people occupying an age grade.  Age sets are groups of persons initiated into age grades at the same time and who move through the series of categories together.

Common-interest associations are not based on age, kinship, marriage, or territory that result from an act of joining.  Stratified society is a class-structured society in which all members do not share eqully in the basic resources that support life or in influence and social prestige.  Egalitarian societies are political systems in which as many valued positions exist as there are persons capable of filling them.  Social class is a set of families that enjoy equal, or nearly equal prestige according to the system of evaluation.  Caste is a special form of social class in which membership is determined by birth and remains fixed for life.

Symbolic indicators in a statified society are activities and possissions that are indicative of social class. Mobility is the ability to change one's class position.  Open class societies are stratified socieities that permit a great deal of social mobility.


Substantivism is the view that the principles of market economics cannot be applied in the study of societies that do not exchange goods for gain.  Capital is any resource that is not used up in the process of producing goods.

Reciprocity is the exchange of goods and services, of approximately equal value, between two parties. Generalized reciprocity is a mode of exchange in which neither the value of the gift is calculated nor the time of repayment specified. Balanced reciprocity is a mode of exchange in which the giving and the receiving are specific as to the value of the goods and the time of their delivery.  Negative reciprocity is a form of exchange in which the giver tries to get the better of the exchange.

Leveling mechanism is a social obligation compelling a family to distribute  goods so that no one accumulates more wealth than anyoine else.    Silent trade is a form of barter in which no verbal communication takes place.  Redistribution is a form of exchange in which goods flow into a central place, sucha as a market, and are distributed again.  Conspicuous consumption is the display of wealth for social prestige.



The State in anthropology is a centralized political system with the power to coerce.  Sanctions are externalized social controls designed to encourage conformity to social norms.  The Law is a social norm, the neglect or infraction of which is regularly met in threat or in fact, by the application of physical force on the part of an individual or group possessing the socially recognized privelege of so acting.  Negotiation is the use of direct argument and compromise by the parties to a dispute to voluntarily arrive at a mutually satisfactory agreement.  Mediation is settlement of a dispute through negotiation assisted by an unbiased third party.  Adjudication is mediation with the ultimate decision made by an unbiased third party.

World view is the conceptions, explicit and implicit, of a society or an individual of the limits and workings of its world.


Folklore is a term used to refer to the traditional oral stories and sayings.  Myth is a traditional narratative of semi-historical events htat explains ultimate questions of human existence.  Legends are semihistorical narratives coming down from the past that recount the deeds of heroes, the movements of peoples, and the establishment of social customs.  Epics are long oral narratives, sometimes in poetry or rhythmic prose, recounting the glorious events in the life of a real or legendary person.  A tale is a creative narrative recognized as fiction for entertainment.  A motif is a story situation in a folktale.

Ethnolmusicology is the study of a society's music in terms of its cultural setting. Tonality in music is the scale systems and their modifications.


Invention is the discovery by a single individual of a new tool or principle that becomes socially shared. Diffusion is the spread of customs or practices from one culture to another.

Acculturation is a major culture change that occurs as a result of prolonged contact between societies. Substitution is the replacement of a preexisting trait or complex by another that fills its function, with minimal structural change. Syncretism is the blending of old traits to form a new system. Addition is the addition of new traits or complexes.  Deculturation is the loss of a substantial part of a culture.  Origination is the development of new traits to meet the needs of the changing situations. Rejection is that changes may be so rapid that a large number of persons cannot accept them, resulting in either total rejection, rebellion, or revitalization movements.

There are a variety of revitalization movements. Traditional is attempts to speed up the acculturation process in order to share more fully in the supposed benefits of the dominant culture. Millenarism attempts to resurreect a suppressed pariah group which has long suffered in an inferior social position and which has its own special subcultural ideology.  Nativisitic [revivalisitc] is a movement that tries to reconstitute a destroyed but not forgotten way of life.  Revolutionary is from within directed primarily at the ideological system and the attendant social astructure of a culture.

Modernization is the process of cultural and socieoeconomic change whereby developing societies acquire some of the characteristics of Western industrialized societies.

Structural differentiation is the division of single traditional roles, which embrace two or more functions into two or more roles, each with a single specialized function. Integrative mechanism is cultural mechanisms , such as nationalistic ideologies, formal governmental structures, political parties, legal codes, labor and trade unions, and common-interest associations, that oppose forces for differentiation in a society.  Tradtion in a moderinizing society is old cultural practices which may oppose new forces of differentiation and integration.


Pantheons are several gods and godesses of a people.  Animism is a belief in spirit beings which are thought to animate nature.  Animatism is belief that the world is animated by impersonal spiritual powers.  Totems are symbols with religious significance usually animals but sometimes plants, natural forces, or objects, used by a clan as means of identification.  Totemism is the belief that people are decended from  animals, plants, or natural objects.
Monotheism is the belief in a single deity.  Polytheism is belief in multiple deities.  Atheism is to believe that there is no supreme being and that humans are solely responsible for themselves.

Priest or Priestess is a full-time religious specialist.  Shaman is a person who has special religious power acquired through his or her own initiative and is thought to possess certain speical abilities to deal with supernatural beings and powers.

Rites of passage are religious rituals marking important stages in the lives of individuals, such as birth, marriage and death.  Rites of intensification are religious rituals that take place during a real or potential crisis for a group.  Separation in rites of passage is the ritual removal of the individual following separation and prior to incorporation.  Incorporation is then, the reincorporation of the individual into society in his or her new status.

Sympathetic magic is that which is based on the principle of like produces like.  Contagious magic is based on the principle that things once in contact can influence one another after separtion.  Witchcraft is often seen as an inborn and unconscious capacity to work evil.  Sorcery is deliberate actions undertaken by human beings for the purpose of doing specific harm. Divination is a magical procedure by which the cause of a particular event, such as illness, may be determined or the future foretold.