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It is essential to mention the fact that cultural anthropology explores the features of human communication and culture. In particular, it investigates the cultural institutions, customs, traditions, way of living, language, and socialization features in different cultures, and problems associated with these aspects of people’s lives. In addition, this sub-science, which is quite often combined with social disciplines, describes and explains social and cultural similarities and differences. There are many opinions and debates as to whether cultural anthropology refers to the humanities or natural science. Some scientists first identified themselves with one category and then changed their minds. The purpose of this paper is to consider two given points of view and to provide arguments for their justification.
The cultural branch of anthropology examines not only the results of field research and data but also the domains based on cross-cultural comparisons. Thus, based on peripheral data, cultural anthropology studies the huge reservoir of scientific knowledge. In addition, it is erroneous to claim that it deals with racial differences and biological evolution; it examines and reflects the realities regarding the cultural differences and the development of human society as a whole (Welsch and Vivanco 7). This discipline studies group behavior, social norms, religion, the mechanisms of authority, as well as the roots of technology. Nonetheless, anthropology reveals a broad humanistic view of society and human interaction. It is important to stress that for the study of primitive societies, the science utilized the biographical methods to obtain data, which do not fall directly into the category of scientific knowledge, however, at present, it utilizes a philosophical and humanistic approach to validate concepts.
Prior to providing the arguments for placing the cultural anthropology within either science or humanities category, it is essential to define the core of this distinction. Some researchers emphasize that these are two extreme ends; nevertheless, many other scientists and theorists stress that this conflict is a false dichotomy. In terms of natural science, it is considered that it is a field of study aimed at observation and an objective approach towards assessment. In their turn, the humanities employ interpretation of data, evidence, and information and follow a subjective approach towards evaluation. Nevertheless, cultural anthropology is a subset of science, which perceives and views the human experience as a coherent entity through the prism of culture (Welsch and Vivanco 101). From the standpoint of humanities, anthropology comparatively investigates social setups in their relation to culture. From the standpoint of natural sciences, it studies a phenomenon relying and placing emphasis on the data. For instance, it uses evidence to provide insights into evolutionary or other characteristics. Thus, this debate is reasonable enough.
It should be noted that studies conducted by Franz Boas have brought another perspective to the way cultural anthropology was perceived. Since then it has been distinguished as a social discipline as, in Boas’s researches, he strived for an in-depth examination of the phenomenon. In that matter, it is reasonable to mention that he used cross-cultural comparisons and, as it has been mentioned earlier, it is the core of the humanitarian perception of this scientific branch. For instance, his research on the Kwakiutl population was a long-term, experimental immersion to cognize the particular society and its culture (Boas 126). To be able to understand and testify the discoveries, he utilized the participant-observation method to obtain the first-hand experience.
In general, the scientist has contributed greatly to the development of cultural anthropology as part of humanities, for example, through the idea of cultural relativism or arguments against racial ideology. In the same manner, Margaret Mead is considered to be one of the greatest researchers who has influenced scientific thought (Gilliam and Foerstel 101). For instance, through her research activities, she advocated for gender equality. She tried to reveal the need for sexual liberation and confronted the oppression of people (Gilliam and Foerstel 107). The guiding thread throughout her scientific research was the promotion and encouragement of multiculturalism. Mead resorted to intensive field studies to investigate the social organization of concrete populations and cultures. She did not aim to study cultural symbolism but the social organization, which denotes the comparative aspect of this anthropological branch.
Nonetheless, the two researchers formed a concept that implied that cultural anthropology is a study, which is holistic in nature due to the fact that it considers a variety of aspects when making assumptions about other cultures. In addition, every society should be viewed as a shared representation (Welsch and Vivanco 103). Thus, the historical past is reached differently by various societies. To comprehend a phenomenon, it is essential to avoid breaking the population down but to investigate the different foundations while looking at a general picture.
Regarding natural science, cultural anthropology can be attributed to this category as well for several reasons. It is crucial to note that the relevance of cultural factors is revealed in the course of the observation, which subsequently establishes a steady repetition of patterns. Moreover, researchers-anthropologists determine the validity of a concept through experiment, which relates to the core of science. Moreover, if a proposed hypothesis is incorrect, it should be modified. In particular, cultural anthropology is engaged in empirical research, and science presupposes the existence of general laws, a platform for the experiment, and testing the initial assumptions through practice (Welsch and Vivanco 203).
Despite the fact that researchers study cultural reality, it occurs in a wide variety of contexts and situations. This suggests the existence of many skills in researchers, including the skill of observation and carrying out fieldwork and, at the same time, every scientist should possess and rely on a strong theoretical base to carry out a cultural analysis. Based on the theoretical framework, a scientist conducts the selection, classification, and option of specific cultural elements. Thus, researchers-anthropologists develop a basis for the determination of similarities and differences. For example, Malinowski used a similar scientific approach to his study of the culture of Trobriand Islands inhabitants. He conducted field research using a variety of methods and checked his findings (Malinowski 5).
Observing the array of phenomena, he singled out the facts that could be considered universal and drew conclusions about their value while checking the data based on the ethnographic material that was available to him. Along with the fieldwork, the scientist engaged in the enrichment of the theoretical framework. The theory was used as a tool for the selection of facts and as a narrative element of the scientific work. Further on, in terms of the comparative nature of this discipline, Rowe claims that “it is anthropology’s recognition of the scientific importance of such differences which chiefly distinguishes it from other disciplines concerned with man and human behavior” (1). Therefore, cultural anthropology is not only a descriptive, empirical science, but it also occupies the level of theoretical generalizations, which involves the detection of common properties and laws in the life of people belonging to ethnic and other communities.
Notwithstanding a large number of counter-arguments, cultural anthropology should be considered a natural science. The main argument in support of this position is its contribution to the development of theoretical models of social organization for different society types and interaction forms between people. Moreover, the paradigmatic status of the scientific branch can be reflected in the application of both traditional scientific and non-traditional approaches to the study of phenomena (Welsch and Vivanco 209).
Cultural anthropology appeals to a variety of theories, concepts, methods, and techniques for the study of context. It also uses a number of cognitive processes such as the selection of cultural classes for the analysis, development of conceptual apparatus, justification of problem statement, identification of specific boundaries of the study, description of categories, establishment of dependency, and identification of links. Further, researchers build analytical models and create a holistic concept based on the identified dependencies (Welsch and Vivanco 54). Moreover, anthropological research is aimed at a complete picture of knowledge and not the particularities. The isolation of specific fragments occurs at different stages; however, the outcome of the research is a universal idea.
Overall, there are certain criteria, which would evidence that an area of study is scientific. The discipline should investigate the empirical phenomenon; it should rely on the theoretical base, be non-contradictory and objective, imply universal laws, and be progressive. As discussed earlier, cultural anthropology does research empirical phenomena, although they are not always replicable and cannot be justified by a controlled scientific experiment due to the progressive nature of society. Nonetheless, it applies scientifically discussed methods and uses a scientific investigation (Welsch and Vivanco 201).
Notably, cultural anthropology relies on historical data and theories to explain the bygone occurrences. However, most importantly, it increases the knowledge, consequently, it is progressive. Therefore, it can be stated that cultural anthropology is a natural science, but it also combines the methods applied in humanities. This compilation allows more holistic and in-depth research and reproduces a picture of the society that is more complete (Welsch and Vivanco 210). In addition, this combination of different approaches enables the discipline to opt for the most suitable methods and theoretical frameworks that would address the research questions more effectively and comprehensively.
Thus, it can be concluded that the debates over the place of cultural anthropology either within natural sciences or humanities is reasonable. It is rational to assert that the main link between cultural anthropology and humanities lies in the fact that it aspires for descriptive integration of particular occurrences rather than general rules. Nevertheless, it can be stated that the study of society does have parallels with science. It can be proved by the fact that it strives to establish generalizations with the help of which the cultural life of societies can be comprehended. Moreover, the methods used in anthropological research are similar to those of scientific studies. The fact that cultural sensibilities or some approaches do not fall into the scientific approach to researching does not make cultural anthropology less scientific.
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Boas, Franz. “The Social Organization of the Kwakiutl.” American Anthropologist, vol. 22, no. 2, 1920, pp. 111-126.
Gilliam, Lenora, and Angela Foerstel. Confronting the Margaret Mead Legacy. Temple University Press, 1994.
Malinowski, Bronislaw. A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Word. Stanford University Press, 1967.
Rowe, John Howland. “The Renaissance Foundations of Anthropology.” American Anthropologist, vol. 67, no. 1, 1965, pp. 1-20.
Welsch, Robert, and Luis Vivanco. Asking Questions about Cultural Anthropology. Oxford University Press, 2015.