Understanding Cultural Determination in Anthropology

Understanding Cultural Determination in Anthropology
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  • 0:01 Definition of Terms
  • 0:43 Early Anthropology
  • 1:33 Franz Boas
  • 2:56 Anecdotal Example
  • 5:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will seek to explain the theory of cultural determination. In doing so, it will highlight the concept of culture, as well as the work of Franz Boas, the Father of American Anthropology.

Definition of Terms

On its own, the concept of cultural determination, or the theory that culture determines behavior and emotion, is rather simple. To put it in modern terms, cultural determination, or determinism, can be summed up as the idea that we are all products of the cultures in which we were raised. For this reason, our lesson on cultural determination will be a bit more anecdotal than some of our other anthropology lessons. However, in order to really understand the importance of cultural determination, we need to take a step back and look at the history of anthropology itself.

Early Anthropology

For starters, 'anthropology' is a fancy word for the study of humankind. It's based on the idea that human behavior can be best observed and explained by comparing it to other human behavior.

Early anthropologists viewed cultures as on, or progressing up, an evolutionary ladder from savagery to civilized. Unfortunately, this view, not to mention the connotation of the word 'savage,' served to solidify the rather superior position that many in the West felt they held. In other words, it placed the modernized West above the primitive cultures of, say, parts of Africa. Sadly, this anthropological paradigm served to perhaps propagate the exploitation of more primitive cultures, for lack of a better word, at the hands of those who considered themselves more evolved.

Franz Boas

Fortunately, this all began to change as men like Franz Boas came on the scene and turned anthropology's attention toward culture and not merely physical makeup. As one of the most influential of early anthropologists, he asserted that a person is not merely a product of their physical race or attributes.

In other words, a guy living in the rainforests of South America is not primitive because of his skin color or his body shape. Instead, he is primitive because his culture is primitive. In the same manner, if a modernized English baby was raised within the rainforests, he too would act primitive. Yes, biology was still studied, but it took a backseat to the idea that culture determined behavior. With this, Boas earned himself the nickname 'Father of American Anthropology,' and the theory of cultural determination came to the forefront of study.

As I said before, cultural determination can be neatly summed up as the theory that the culture in which we live, especially during our younger years, determines who we are and who we will be. It's the idea that we are who we are because of our culture, the set of learned behaviors and ideas that are characteristic of a society. It's the belief that our emotions and our behaviors are determined by our culture, not our physically inherited traits.

Anecdotal Example

To give this theory some sticking power, let's look at an example from everyday life that has nothing to do with physical race. I'll use my family.

My dad comes from an area of the country that is very rural. He lived there with his parents and his ten siblings. In a rather uncanny way, he and his siblings look very much alike. Due to this, my cousins and I, and there are lots of us, really tend to resemble one another. Obviously, this is biology through and through. We share some pretty serious dominant genes.

Now, based on what we've discussed already, it might be safe to say that earlier anthropologists would have assumed that my cousins and I would also act very much alike. After all, if we share the same biology, we should share the same behaviors and emotions. Ironically, nothing could be further from the truth, and this is where many anthropologists would say that cultural determinism makes its mark.

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