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Postmodernism in Anthropology Research Paper

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Society is constantly undergoing a change which is reflected in its products of creative activity and attitudes. Since the beginning of the creation of human culture the peculiarities of the way people treated themselves, their origin, their lives, etc. were different, thus marking the epochs in human thinking. After the flourishing culture, arts, and philosophy of Ancient times began the dark Middle Ages when the culture became secular, thus prohibiting any love of life, and creativity and imagination, etc.

The Renaissance became the real resurrection of optimism, freedom, and flourishing of creation and arts – this was the sign of returning cultivation of the human body and the human spirit. After the Renaissance there were other epochs that always signaled the end of one philosophy and the beginning of another one – for example, Realism and Romanticism had absolutely different grounding for the events, the human life, and motives, the philosophy of human conduct and ideology of human aspirations. These epochs were first of all directly reflected in the products of human activity, i.e. the works of art – sculpture, literature, music paintings, and others.

Anyway, it is necessary to admit that any shift in the artistic tendency was indispensably connected with the society – it was its product, so it could not help influencing the way the society perceived and studied itself. Thus, the change of epochs in the human philosophy was also the shift in the scientific focus on society, i.e. the social sciences could not escape the influence of the shift and followed it, adjusting the examination techniques to the patterns of contemporary social philosophy and perception.

Anthropology as a science about people can be a vivid example in the discussed context – plainly speaking, it is a science about people. But it is a commonly understood fact that nobody but people may conduct the research in the world – this is why the way research may be conducted is also determined by people doing this. Consequently, anthropology is also subject to change and the purpose of the present paper is to define in which way the shift in the philosophy of human beings has influenced anthropology and anthropological research, background, and activities.

Postmodernism as a Cultural Tendency

The first stage necessary to follow while discussing postmodernism is to define its essence and difference from modernism, the cultural tendency that it chronologically follows. Modernism was concentrated on the contemporary studies of all subjects taking place or existing now and here, but which, however, became there and then with the flow of time. Thus, modernist thinking was highly temporary and quickly became outdated. “The fundamental act of modernity is to question the foundations of past knowledge” (Weiss and Wesley, 2009).

The major shift happened as a result of the further development of modernity, as the scientists and cultural researchers did not stop on the achieved and went further, proceeding to the postmodern type of thinking. The impact of postmodernism is widely recognized in modern society –

A school that originated in French and U.S. American philosophy in the late 1970s, and had a profound influence on various branches of art and esthetics (architecture, cinema, literature, etc.) (Postmodernism, 2009).

The most outstanding activists in the sphere of postmodernism are Jean-Francois Lyotard (who stated that the studies of culture cannot be accomplished because of the subjectivity of reality), Jean Baudrillard (who considered the world as a set of models and stated that nothing new would be produced by the society; he also attributed the shift from modernism from postmodernism to the emergency of mass media and creation of artificial reality in the world), Jacques Derrida (who dealt with the issues and meaning and reasoning employed in texts), Michel Foucault (who studied patterns of power and the change of experience throughout the course of history) and Nancy Scheper-Hughes (argue the initial meaning of culture as compared to other deriving notions of ethics and morality) (Weiss and Wesley, 2009). The ideologists of postmodernism were divided into skeptical and affirmative postmodernists – the former is more radical about modernism and deny the importance of theory in any science, considering it excessive as well as abundant, while the latter is less radical, criticize theory but do not oppose it so strictly and are obsessed by actual problems of the contemporary reality (Weiss and Wesley, 2009).

In terms of general understanding, the philosophy of postmodernism may be regarded as pessimistic since with the development of mass media, mass culture and artificial reality the creative spirit diminished and the faith in the power of human creation weakened. Postmodernists argued that humanity has already created all it had and everything new emerging in this world was nothing more but a compilation of something that has already been made.

In fact, the debates over what postmodernism actually means and how it was implemented in the aesthetic and cultural life of humanity are still going – the phenomenon was too complex to be identified explicitly. It was too unlike modernism for any parallels to be drawn between them. Nevertheless, as its direct follower, it can be compared to modernism to a certain extent.

Postmodernism emerged as a rebellious reply to the rationality of modernism – it was the tendency that involved irrationality as the main clue to understand reality and to find out the truth. Postmodernism rejected the meaning of reason and relied heavily on intuition; it refused from applying the experience of the past and insisted on direct participation, living through events, and taking part in the experience. The philosophy of the postmodern movement consisted in rejecting novelty, annihilating the belief in the power of human creation, and trying to create something new out of pieces of something that has already been created in the past.

Postmodernism has at least two meanings: (a) as a descriptive label for a specific historical era, characterized by fragmentation of dominant Western myths and collage-like assemblages of meaning… and (b) as a term for the above-mentioned academic and artistic schools, which consider fragmentation and collage as esthetic or intellectual ideals (Postmodernism, 2009).

Postmodernism and modernism are different in many terms, so the detailed comparison of movements may essentially help in the understanding of the philosophy as well and the ability to apply this understanding to the shift in anthropological perspective that took place with the rise of postmodernism.

The first point worth paying attention to is the way philosophical thinking was organized under both aesthetic directions. Reasoning during modernism was arranged in chronological order, raising from the beginning of times and raising upwards to the contemporary reality. In contrast to it, postmodernism is arranged in multiple realities, basing its judgment on multiple thinking. The distinguishing feature of postmodernism is also its mass media background and is web-based. Science also takes a significant place in the peculiarities of thinking – modernism heavily relied on universal optimism while postmodernism shifted to the realism of limitations (i.e. modernism accepted the continuity of experience and cohesion of scientific findings, while postmodernism did not accept these foundations and limited the scope of human cognition) (Weiss and Wesley, 2009).

Another interesting issue pertaining to the perception of the world by modernists and postmodernists is their attitude to the part and the whole – modernists believed that the construction of the whole is simple, being comprised of its constituent parts. In their turn, postmodernists looked at the matter deeper and further, believing that the whole is more than its parts, possessing something else but the pure composite structure (Weiss and Wesley, 2009).

The attitude to God was varied as well: modernists considered God in terms of violation of natural laws and immanence of everything in the world. The attitude of postmodernists includes the vision of God as “top-down causation”. The language of postmodernism is referential, in contrast to one of the postmodernist’s attributes meaning in a social context through usage (Weiss and Wesley, 2009).

Among other significant differences, one should keep in mind the issues of strategic importance differing for modernism and postmodernism. The theoretical foundations of both theories are basically different, marking the substantial difference distinguishing them. First of all, it is necessary to pay attention to a more standardized outlook of modernism – it rests on the principles of precise design while postmodernism relies on chance rather than structuralism. The structure of both theories is also differing in the way they systematize knowledge and human activity – modernism uses the principles of hierarchy, which again implies the explicitly based structure of modernism, while postmodernism prefers anarchy, attributing more power to improvisation and randomness (Weiss and Wesley, 2009).

Another share of contrasts is the distance modernists preferred to keep in relation to the subject they studied, i.e. humanity, history, philosophy, creation, etc. In addition to the distanced observation, they use interpretation, which implies that they make inferences based on objective knowledge. Looking at the postmodernist attitude to the subject of consideration it is necessary to define their attitudes as participation in the action rather than observing it, together with the rejection of interpretation relying solely on the results of action (Weiss and Wesley, 2009).

Creation is juxtaposed with deconstruction, metaphysics is opposed to irony – this is the gap that divided the thinking patterns of humanity in the course of the 20th century and marked the change of humanity’s perception of itself – the opinion about the shift is not unanimously positive, however, nobody can deny its existence. Following the opinion of one of the researchers of postmodernism, Frederic Jameson,

The standardization of our environment, a saturation of our consciences by mass media, and local dislocations caused by the globalization of production have produced a new dominant consciousness: a postmodern schizo-fragmentation characterized by floating emotions, inability to “organize… past and future into coherent experience” (Strauss, 1997).

It is not proved to which extent science may have been influenced by postmodernism being a detached study of different spheres of human activity; however, some sciences have not been affected as they deal with pure knowledge, for example, such as biology, chemistry, economics, physics, etc. The main reason for this may be that these sciences are not considered connected with the aesthetical and moral considerations of human beings. No doubt the effect of postmodernism on contemporary social sciences, namely, the impact on anthropology is indisputable:

there are postmodernist strains in cultural and social anthropology, none at all in physical anthropology. This, of course, has resulted in the bifurcation of Anthropology Departments at some universities (Leiter, 2008).

In general, judging postmodernism from the point of its being the way to organize the reasoning and the human philosophy of perception, it is necessary to note that modernism was more optimistic than the tendency that came as a shift of focus – people who denied the reality and looked for meaning in symbolism, started to pay more attention to inter-textual and hyper-textual meanings transformed their understanding of reality into postmodern one, refusing from a part of the rational beginning of everything existing in the world.

Refusing from rationality and adopting chaos and improvisation as a scientific method of analysis they supported their attitude to reality as a set of chaotic implications of their selves, proving the crisis into which the creative spirit of humanity sadly got. It is hard to say definitely whether the impact of postmodernism on the development of society is negative or positive because of its huge influence produced on many spheres of human activity; however, inter-contextuality and hypothesis about the repeated patterns of creativity also have sense, in other way the tendency would not be recognized all over the world.

Anthropology and Postmodernism

Anthropology is the science that studies people; this is why postmodernism could not help affecting the course of research and study of this science. It has a long history of existence and has accumulated the experience that guides its development nowadays:

As an academic subject, anthropology traces its roots back to the nineteenth century, when the first systematic comparative studies of human cultures world-wide were published. Four national traditions soon became dominant within the discipline – the British, French, German and American schools. Today, after more than a century of dialogue between these traditions, there is a broad consensus as to the subject’s analytical goals and methodology (Anthropology, 2009).

Anthropology is a social science studying the society and tendencies that prevail in its development, the rules they follow and the customs according to which they co-ordinate their relations. The subject of anthropology has always been studying of other cultures, so postmodernism with its denial of observation and systematization produced the direct effect on the way of conducting research in anthropology.

The central factor influencing the development of anthropology is the postmodernist opinion that no objective knowledge may be derived from the detached observation of the subject:

The theoretical school of postmodernism claims that it is impossible for anyone to have objective and neutral knowledge of another culture. This view comes from the notion that we all interpret the world around us in our own way according to our language, cultural background, and personal experiences (McGee and Warms, 2004).

For the reason of objectivity being denied by postmodernism the shift was towards the anthropologists’ participation in the experiment they conduct to find out the truth and to achieve empirical results. The result of the shift was that the observer may never be unbiased- this is what postmodernists assumed to prove the inconsistency of the traditional approach to anthropological studies. The new view of anthropology is the assumption that the observations are always influenced by political or social contexts – for this reason the results can never be substantiated by objectivity. This main shift resulted in a change in the procedure of collecting and sorting out the information – other types of information became relevant in the course of making conclusions pertaining to anthropological studies.

It is hard to say that the shift is equally well and positively accept the change in the perception of the shift:

Some anthropologists claim that the postmodernists rely on a particular moral model rather than empirical data or scientific methods. This moral model is structured by sympathy to those who do not possess the same privilege that the mainstream has in Western societies (McGee and Warms, 2004).

One more challenge encountered by the postmodern anthropology is the assumption made by some scientists that anthropology in the postmodern understanding is too biased and influenced by the philosophical tradition of postmodernism. For example, Sidky argues that anthropology is based on “ideological foundations” and causes only “distortions and misrepresentations” in the classical science of anthropology. The conclusion he makes is that “science and scientific method are defunct and immoral and must be discarded” (Sidky, 2009).

The attitude of Sidky signifies that the scientists should base their judgment on the structured, objective and scientifically grounded information, which contradicts the main assumptions of postmodernism about the chaotic, improvising and subjective observations that a researcher may obtain. Nevertheless, one should keep in mind while studying the peculiarities of the change anthropology went through in the course of transforming to postmodernism that the social science like anthropology is more subject to the influence of postmodernism than any other science or sphere of scientific activity:

While few anthropologists as such have been regarded as seminal in the larger postmodernist field, anthropology in general has been viewed as a particularly sympathetic arena of the human sciences within which to pursue the postmodernist agenda, especially with regard to issues of ‘otherness’, critiques of the programs of the Enlightenment and elaborations of the notion of culture (Postmodernism, 2002).

Anthropology is an object of direct influence of postmodernism, which can be seen from the changes that appeared in the course of anthropological attention – one of the pieces of evidence for this assumption may be found in the postmodernist attitude to the concept of the part and the whole – modernist attitude to it was regular for anthropology and suited the whole profile of the science: to conduct research, to make inferences and base the judgments on the received materials:

But for anthropologists (and to their credit, most likely) the relation between part and whole has been made problematic by the nature of the anthropological object itself: that is, the ethnographer clearly has more often than other kinds of observer to recognize that the conception of the whole is a construct of the observer, and that the part is not readily assimilated to that construct: specific evidence still does not contain its own theorization into a totality (Smith, 2009).

The basic set of differences between the two philosophic directions is underlying the change that happened in anthropology with the introduction of postmodernist changes into it. The detailed information about the core differences in philosophies may be found in the following table:

Schematic Differences between
Modernism and Postmodernism
Modernism Postmodernism
romanticism/symbolism paraphysics/Dadaism
purpose play
design chance
hierarchy anarchy
matery, logos exhaustion, silence
art object, finished word process, performance
distance participation
creation, totalization deconstruction
synthesis antithesis
presence absence
centering dispersal
genre, boundary text, intertext
semantics rhetoric
paradigm syntagm
hypotaxis parataxis
metaphor metonymy
selection combination
depth surface
interpretation against interpretation
reading misreading
signified signifier
lisible (readerly) scriptible
narrative anti-narrative
grande histoire petite histoire
master code idiolect
symptom desire
type mutant
genital, phallic polymorphous
paranoia schizophrenia
origin, cause difference-difference
God the Father The Holy Ghost
Metaphysics irony
determinacy indeterminacy
transcendence immanence

Note: From Weiss, S. and K. Wesley (2009). Postmodernism and Its Critics. Department of Anthropology College of Arts and Sciences. The University of Alabama.

The table clearly shows the way postmodernism affected the human perception of facts, events taking place on the Earth, the human activity, past, present and future – all this is explicitly described there. Anyway, with the purpose of further clarification it is necessary to mind some most significant peculiarities that have not been discussed yet.

First of all, one should pay particular attention to the issue of design juxtaposed with chance and presence juxtaposed with absence. Again, returning to the essence of anthropological research, which is field research, it is evident how the influence of postmodernism changed the course of anthropological studies. The researcher used to follow a clearly stipulated plan which he or she designed before conducting field research or analyzing the received data. Nowadays, under the influence of postmodernism, it is more preferable to follow chaotic research in the context of a community the researcher focuses his or her attention at and becoming the spontaneous witness of the unexpected events. Under the condition that postmodernism in general does not accept subjectivity of the anthropological research and implies a heavy bias researchers usually have, such conditions of conducting the research include a greater measure of objectivity than the pattern they used to follow.

One more emphasis should be made on the difference of perception based on depth or superficiality in research or, in general, in perception of information. The postmodernist vision argues that surface is more preferable than depth, because all in-depth analysis has already been done before, nothing new may be researched and found out, this is why there is no need to conduct it.

Summing everything up on considering the received information, it is possible to say that despite the debate over the propriety of postmodern influence on anthropology it is evident in many aspects. They are understandable and can even be systematized. For example, Sybil Amber (2008) in her work on the critique of the change in anthropology considers the evidence of the change in the works of other scientists and theoreticians:

Andre Gingrich names three prerequisites of this postmodern change in anthropology, 1 the reforms within the discipline concerning structuralism and functionalism, 2 the phase of stagnation and descent of anthropology in North America and the German-speaking countries, and 3 the new perspectives introduced by the 1960ies, women’s liberation (Amber, 2008).

Thus, the change is clear and unavoidable – despite the fact that many scientists deny the evolution of anthropological scientific thinking and want to avoid it, it has already come and been introduced in the theoretical and practical research in anthropology. The impact of the changing philosophy changes the way research is conducted, making scientists closer to the studied objects, adding improvisation but in addition to it – credibility to the research and obtained results.


Postmodernism has come to substitute modernism in the sphere of aesthetics and morality, philosophy of human conduct and perception of themselves. Postmodernism is the ideology that denies all possible theorization, standardization and hierarchy; it is the flow in culture that refuses from norms, principles and guidance by some outer forces – it is focused on chaos, participation, absence of interpretation but pure use of received data. This shift seriously undermines the basics of every science introducing changes in the core perception of data and questioning the very means of collecting information.

Looking closer at anthropology in its essence it is clear that the science could not help experiencing the influence of postmodernism on the way it develops and they way its achievements are considered, as well as gained. The philosophy of anthropologists used to imply that a person getting into a strange social context was able to become a detached observer, thus being able to understand all peculiarities of the society’s functioning, the hidden rules that restricted the members’ behavior, imposed penalties or shaped the profile of communication.

In comparison with other sciences, anthropology experiences relatively much pressure and influence from the side of postmodernism – however, there is still some hope that the influence will soon become selective and will only improve and enrich anthropological experience.


Amber, S. (2008). Postmodern Anthropology – Positioning. Web.

Anthropology (2009). Online Dictionary of Anthropology. Web.

Leiter, B. (2008). Web.

McGee, R. J and Richard L. W. (2004). Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History. New York: McGraw Hill.

Postmodernism (2002). Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Web.

Postmodernism (2009). Web.

Sidky, H. (2009). A Critique of Postmodern Anthropology – In Defense of Disciplinary Origins and Traditions. Web.

Smith, P. (2009). Writing, General Knowledge, and Postmodern Anthropology. Web.

Strauss, C. (1997). Partly Fragmented, Partly Integrated: An Anthropological Examination of “Postmodern Fragmented Subjects”. American Anthropological Association. Cultural Anthropology, 12(3): 362-404.

Weiss, S. and K. Wesley (2009). Postmodernism and Its Critics. Department of Anthropology College of Arts and Sciences. The University of Alabama. Web.

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