Culture: An Anthropological Perspective

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Culture is understood in countless ways by numerous disciplines and professions. However, the way anthropologists understand culture is in a more holistic view. Sir Edward Tylor, a British anthropologist, said that culture is, “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (Haviland 28). As was learned, culture is more than the behaviors one sees and can observe. Culture is when a society shares their ideas, values, emotions, and perceptions. It is the basis of a person’s experience and behavior (Haviland 28). There are various parts and concepts of culture, which include culture being socially learned than inherited biologically and growing up with said culture. Some other aspects include, “enculturation, rituals, religious activities, even the time one eats” (Haviland 28).

Enculturation is a process where people learn their culture with what they see, what they experience and feel, and what they are told. Many aspects of culture interrelate because culture determines how the basic needs such as “food, sleep, shelter, companionship, self-defense, and sexual gratification,” are met (Haviland 28).  With this, an anthropologist can see the differences and similarities between the numerous cultures around the world. They are able to focus on the connections of the human experience, both biologically and culturally. Anthropologists are able to take a holistic approach or an approach that helps an anthropologist see all sides of a culture (Haviland 5). Culture is changed, culture is learned throughout the years. This has been happening since the beginning of civilization. This can be shown and seen in the past by the different biological features. For example, how humans changed from primates to humans. One can even see, through the biological difference between primates and humans, the cultural differences that changed through time.

Primates are human’s closest living ancestors. Because of this, there are many biological features that are similar to humans, which provide a biological basis for cultural attributes. This is because a human’s cultural capabilities are partially founded on biological features (Haviland 96), along with various variations within the human species. Primates relied increasingly on vision rather than smell, the eyes rotated forward to become enclosed in a protective layer of bone. Biologically, “humans are apes” (Haviland 96). Something that makes us all similar is the opposable thumbs, fingernails, and grasping hands and feet. Humans have large bodies, broad shoulders with no tails. We are considered primates, and this was revealed through studies of both apes and humans. Ape behavior was studied and anthropologist now sees that there are many shared biological features and shared learned behaviors. Primates also tend to have larger brains, similar to humans. When it comes to human culture and non-human primate culture, both are very sociable. For example, both have social groups are a big part of both. Looking at the similarities and differences between human and nonhuman primates gives the evolution of humans (Haviland 96).

Culture can be either adaptive or maladaptive. Culture being adaptive means going through different changes that is smooth and a very good thing. When a culture adapts, they adapt in the right direction, as though it is seamless. Adaption, or changing and growth are all a part of it, however, how one adapts and integrates to a new culture shows how adaptive or maladaptive a culture can be (Haviland 27). Culture being maladaptive means that adaption, on the contrary to adaptive culture, is not helpful. In fact, it is more harmful. Many cultures experience maladaptation. In other words, maladaptive culture is the opposite of adaptive. It is a part of the culture that harms or reduces a person’s ability to meet its needs. An example of this is the hygiene practices of food foraging peoples. More specifically, one can see this through their human waste disposal habits. When the amount of people is low, their cultural behaviors toward garbage and disposal are okay. However, this cannot be sustained in a large population, because it causes problems for an individual’s health. This is because the chemicals and plastics and other waste can have consequences to a person’s health. For example, when one looks at slums in urban areas, one can see that this is also maladaptive in high population densities (Haviland 27). This shows how a culture can be both adaptive and maladaptive.

It is important to understand that culture can be both adaptive and maladaptive because “what is adaptive in one setting can be maladaptive in another” (Haviland 27). One must understand that culture can be changed, and always does over time. “Sometimes what is adaptive in one set of circumstances or over the short run is maladaptive over time” (Haviland 42). Culture adaptations helped humans live in many extreme environments, and it helps contribute to our survival, whether it be extreme cold or hot weather (Haviland 4). This also shows how both adaptive and maladaptive cultures come into play.

Culture is interpreted in many ways, but an anthropologist’s view on culture is more holistic in nature. Culture is so important to study because it is how humans evolved and survived to this point in time. Anthropologic work helps humans understand more about themselves and our origins. There are many aspects of culture, which helped shape how many individuals view the world and behave in society. Culture will continue to change, whether it be adaptive, maladaptive, or both, which is why it is important to it.

Work Cited

Haviland, William A., et al. Cultural Anthropology: The Human Challenge. Cengage Learning, 2012. Wadsworth, Cengage. 14th Ed. ISBN: 9781133957423