What is Cultural Anthropology?

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  • 0:01 Definition of Terms
  • 2:32 Archaeology
  • 3:14 Anthropological Linguistics
  • 4:02 Ethnology
  • 4:54 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 be a brief overview of cultural anthropology. It will highlight the concept of culture while also defining the main branches of archaeology, anthropological linguistics, and ethnology.

Definition of Terms

Anthropology, the study of humankind, has sometimes been compared to a big tent that covers interest in everything human. Using this tent metaphor, we could say there are several subfields of anthropology that act like tent poles. For instance, there's physical anthropology, which deals mainly with biology, trying to understand physical variations among people groups. Then there's cultural anthropology, which is the study of the commonalities and differences of both past and present cultures. This one focuses more on social things, like class structure, language, law, politics, religion, magic, art, and technology.

For today's lesson, we're going to take a closer look at the tent pole of cultural anthropology. With this in mind, let's get its definition down one more time. Speaking quite technically, it is the study of universals and variations in cultures of the past and the present. In very simple terms, it's the study of how human culture has changed and sometimes even stayed the same throughout history.

However, in order to understand cultural anthropology, we definitely need to take some time on the term 'culture.' Scholastically speaking, Carol and Melvin Ember's book, Cultural Anthropology, defines culture as the set of learned behaviors and ideas, including beliefs, attitudes, values, and ideals that are characteristic of a particular society or population. More plainly said, culture could be explained as the way a people group behaves, the things they believe, the things they value, and even the things they produce. It encompasses a people's language, religious beliefs, music, diet, work habits, family structures, technology, and much more.

Keeping in mind how broad the concept of culture is, most cultural anthropologists narrow their area of interest. For this reason, cultural anthropology is usually broken down into three main branches. Again, using our metaphor, if anthropology is the tent and cultural anthropology is a tent pole, the three branches of cultural anthropology could sort of be our seating sections under the tent. These three are archaeology, anthropological linguistics, and ethnology. For the remainder of our time, we'll take a brief look at each of these three main branches of cultural anthropology.


As the study of the physical remains of past cultures, archaeology shares much in common with the study of history. However, unlike historians who usually only deal with written records, archaeologists go way back to prehistory, the time before written record. Of course, this offers some serious challenges, forcing archaeologists to sort of reconstruct a culture's history using only the physical things that have been left behind. In other words, while a historian can use the works of men like Martin Luther to study the era of the Reformation, an archaeologist is often left with pieces of pottery, or maybe some unearthed tools, to study the culture of ancient Babylon.

Anthropological Linguistics

The next of our branches of cultural anthropology is anthropological linguistics. As a science, this can simply be defined as the study of human language.

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