Sunday, February 9, 2014

Folklore, Language and Ritual

We were treated to a fascinating look at cultural anthropology by Dr. Catharina Laporte. Catharina began as a student at Lone Star - CyFair College and is currently teaching cultural anthropology for Texas A&M's School of Military Science. We were so glad to welcome her back to help us think like anthropologists and give a glimpse of some of her times with different cultures.

Anthropology is the study of the whole human condition and pulls from many different disciplines to look at a group's biology, society, language and more. Anthropology is typically made up of four subfields:

  • Archaeology- data based on artifacts
  • Physical Anthropology- data based on human remains and primates to explore the evolution of humankind
  • Linguistic Anthropology- data based on interviews and textual artifacts
  • Cultural Anthropology- data based on ethnographic observation, interviews and surveys
Catharina specializes in cultural anthropology, and one of her first experiences in this field was studying immigrant women working as maids in Singapore. A key topic within the field is cultural relativism--how we react when we see people who do not look, think, or act like us. It is easy for people to be ethnocentric when encountering cultures different from their own, where they judge other cultures based on the standards of their own culture. However, in order for cultural anthropologists to to be successful in their field they must take on a cultural relativist perspective and reject the idea that any culture contains a set of ideal standards.

To exemplify this need to understand practices from the viewpoint of a culture's members, Catharina noted that Nepalese women often have multiple husbands. While this may seem strange to us, it is born out of the fact that land ownership in Nepal is passed through the male line, and in order to keep the land together, some brothers will marry the same woman. 

It can be especially difficult to maintain a relativist perspective when cultural practices challenge our value systems or are harmful to some members of society or the environment. This is something that cultural anthropologists struggle with on occasion when observing in the field. 

Here are some ethnographies that Catharina recommended for further reading:

Nisa, the Life and Words of a !Kung Woman by Marjorie Shostak and Nisa. (1981)
Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea. (1989)
Coming of Age in Samoa by Margaret Mead. (1943)
Ya̦Nomamö, the Fierce People, Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology. Napoleon Chagnon. (1968)

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