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Thinking Like an Anthropologist:

A Practical Introduction to Cultural Anthropology Book by John Omohundro

About this book
This is a unique and enlightening introduction to anthropology, with problem-based guiding principles, and each chapter carefully organizes the relevant knowledge of anthropology around a key issue.
The author uses field stories to reveal the way anthropologists discover and analyze problems, and vividly shows what are the core concepts and problems faced by anthropologists.
The author believes that the thinking and investigation methods of anthropology should be promoted and mastered as general education.

Core content.

According to the definition of cultural anthropology, culture is a group of people’s common understanding of what they do and the meaning of everything through acquisition.
Culture causes differences in the lives of different ethnic groups.
It is an interrelated integrated system; it is constantly strengthened by values within the group; symbols play an important role in the learning, inheritance and transmission of culture.

When anthropologists study culture, the most important method is to complete the “ethnography” through fieldwork.
Anthropologists will focus on thinking: how to allow themselves to observe natural and representative phenomena?
How to use the “holistic view” to explain cultural phenomena?
How to understand the true meaning of a cultural symbol?

With regard to academic ethics and methodology, this book holds that anthropology should uphold cultural relativism, but should not ignore phenomena that harm human survival.
Scientific method is still the most effective way of research.


What do anthropologists do?
Anthropology is now a relatively large discipline, including linguistic anthropology, biological anthropology, archaeology and so on.
Strictly speaking, the way of thinking in this book belongs to the cultural anthropology.
What do cultural anthropologists do?
Is to make an accurate description, objective interpretation and understanding of the differences in thought and behavior of different groups of people, such as different nationalities and different professional groups.

The topics they study may be similar to sociology, history and biology, such as family marriage, economic behavior, religious etiquette in a society, and so on.
But anthropology and other disciplines combine problems in different ways.
For example, historians focus on what trends have emerged in the past, while biologists focus on the adaptation of biological systems to the environment.
What cultural anthropologists think about is how to accurately understand and interpret the culture of this nation.

So why do we need to understand this way of thinking?
Let me cite a famous example: after World War II, when the United States formulated its policy toward Japan, an important reference was the study of the Japanese by the cultural anthropologist Benedict. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword Book by Ruth Benedict

In addition, Omohundro, author of the book and professor emeritus of anthropology at the State University of New York, gives us a set of reasons.
He said that a person who contributes to the future world will play one of the following five roles: reformer, critic, researcher, humanist or cosmopolitan.
If we want to fulfill the responsibility of transforming the world, we must understand the real formation mechanism of phenomena such as poverty and war, and if we want to promote human communication, we must have a full understanding of cultural diversity.
It all requires thinking like an anthropologist.
To put it simply: a good world should be a pluralistic world. People should not only learn to understand other cultures, but also learn how to be understood by other cultures.

In this book, Omohundro sums up his decades of anthropology teaching and fieldwork into 11 questions, 11 chapters.
My presentation focuses on three of these key issues.

What is the culture referred to by cultural anthropology and how does it manifest in group life? What do we really want to know?

What is culture in the eyes of anthropologists?
Or what are they studying?

All humanities and social sciences can be said to be studying culture, and they all have their own definition of culture.
The great philosopher Kant first used the word “culture” in 1796, but the definition he gave at that time was almost the same as our current understanding of the concept of “civilization”.
Civilization is a system of political management, commerce and ideology built around modern metropolises and intensive food production.
As we know today, it is only one of the various forms of human life that coexist.
If we equate civilization with culture, it is tantamount to requiring all cultures to keep up with the standards of civilization and change their way of life, which is not in line with the point of view of anthropologists.
Anthropologists put forward their own definition of culture in the mid-19th century, that is, culture is a group of people through acquisition, a common understanding of what they do and the meaning of everything.

Maybe it’s a little roundabout, so you just remember two key words: acquisition and co-ownership.
Acquisition can only be acquired through learning, from childhood, or from the people around you.
In anthropological terms, this process is also called osmosis: “growing up in something”.
Co-ownership is common within the group.
These things that are commonly used internally may seem a little strange to outsiders, that is, people in other cultures.
For example, the author went to Newfoundland in Canada to do fieldwork and found that fishermen there never went to other people’s homes through the front door or the back door of the kitchen without knocking, but just pushed the door and get in.

Because local folklore believes that death and trouble come from the front door, only troopers and funeral parlors go to the front door when performing official duties; knocking on the door is harassment, because in legend, only ghosts knock.
This common and learned culture can cover groups as small as a community, as large as a nation, or even in many countries-the most typical is religious culture.
In a large society, there will also be small relatively independent groups that have their own internal culture, which is subculture.
For example, in the United States, there is a programmer culture, campus culture and rock culture in Silicon Valley, and a newly emerging ACGN culture among young people in Japan and China.

Culture is superior to race and nationality.
The research of anthropologists also supports this point, and the research of biological anthropology proves that human beings are a species with great genetic diversity, and there is no isolated and isolated race.
The physiological differences between individuals of the same race are no less than those between the two races, and there is no difference between “racial pros and cons”.
As the Great Historical Research Institute in recent years shows, the historical differences between modern nation-states are caused by “guns, germs and steel”.
What cultural anthropology studies is not what people’s race is, but what kind of nation people in various cultures imagine themselves to be.
How do they label them?

It is culture that causes the real differences between different ethnic groups.
This book tells a funny example: an English woman anthropologist went to Nigeria to study a tribe there.
The first thing she needs to do is to be accepted by this group.
So, on a leisurely rainy day, she began to tell the male elders of the tribe about Hamlet, the country’s most classic play.
The audience interrupted her as she spoke.
They believe that Hamlet met not the ghost of his father, but the zombie sent by the witch.
And Hamlet is so young that only clan male elders are qualified to take revenge.
Besides, isn’t it absolutely right that Hamlet’s uncle married his own sister-in-law?
They just wondered, how could a king have only one widow to his brother? shouldn’t there be a large group?
When they heard that the heroine Ophelia’s brother was so sad that he was about to jump into their sister’s grave, they all nodded and exchanged meaningful glances.

By the end of the story, the anthropologist was out of anger.
Her story was “shredded” by the local audience, who began to comfort her by saying, “your story is not bad, and you haven’t made many mistakes.”
You should ask us for more advice in the future, so that you can understand the true meaning of these stories.
When you return to your hometown, your elders will find that you have been taught by wise people in foreign countries and have grown a lot. “
This is not a simple joke, let alone to laugh at the tribal elders.
From the perspective of anthropologists, this is a phenomenon of cultural differences.
In that Nigerian community, power revolves around elders and witches.
In order to mediate the bloody incident that broke out because of the scarcity of women, they established their own marriage and kinship.
Therefore, Hamlet from another culture is interpreted in a completely different way.

So, if we want to understand other cultures not by subjective feelings, but by scientific methods, we must first know: what are the specific characteristics of culture?

First of all, culture is an integrated system, that is to say, one part of it is summed up and the other part is related to each other.
We also say that fishermen in Newfoundland have this custom: the house of a young couple should be next to the house of the husband’s father or brother.
You may think that this is out of a traditional Chinese concept of family ethics, right?
But it’s all because of the way they organize production.
Newfoundland’s fishing fleet is made up of father and son and brothers. They set out at four o’clock in the morning. After returning in the afternoon, the women and children of each family began to pick up the catch and dry the nets, so the family must live next to each other.
Of course, the relationship of cultural integration is not all so self-consistent, but also contradictory.
For example, the author found that men in Newfoundland can go out to sea on winter nights outside, but are afraid of the darkness when the lights are not on at home.

Another feature of culture is that culture will be strengthened by values.
The expression of values in culture is what everyone thinks is good and what is bad.
The way in which values are involved in culture needs to be carefully identified.
For example, fishermen in Newfoundland never work on Sundays.
After analysis, the author finds that this habit is not lazy or in order to enjoy life, but is reinforced by the traditional concept that “one must be diligent”.
The vast majority of rural New Finns are devout Christians, and the Bible makes a distinction between the working day and the Sabbath, believing that anyone who works on the Sabbath will become weak for the other six days of the week.
It is precisely because they believe that people must work hard that they particularly abide by the rule of not working on rest days.

The third important feature of culture is symbolization.
Symbols are abstract forms of cultural accumulation and transmission, which can be language, images, gestures and expressions.
The forms of expression of culture are specific and diverse, among which anthropologists pay special attention to the study of the symbolization process of culture.
Within the group, learning and inheriting the common culture are mostly accomplished by learning symbols.
Anthropologists have found that there is no universal symbol in the world.
The same thing has completely different meanings and functions in different cultures.

For example, take the Chinese symbol that we are most familiar with.
Author Omohundro has studied for a long time in the Philippines.
His Chinese assistant greets him in Chinese every day, saying, “你吃了吗? (have you eaten?)”
He had studied Chinese, but he didn’t know that it was actually a greeting symbol. Every time it was literally understood as “你吃了米饭没有 (have you eaten rice or not?)” he replied honestly, “I haven’t eaten yet.”
For a long time, he didn’t understand why the assistant was always a little embarrassed when he heard this answer.

How do anthropologists understand and observe a nation or group culture? How do you ensure that what is observed in shorthand is true?

In this part just now, anthropologists tell us that culture is a group of people’s common understanding of what they do and the meaning of everything through learning. it is an integrated system with its own values and symbolic system.
Next, let me tell you: what kind of thinking method do they use when they start to study an unfamiliar culture?

The 11 issues mentioned in this book.
From the point of view of the nature of the question, the “what is culture” just mentioned is a conceptual question.
In the next thinking, anthropologists will keep asking themselves a lot of speculative questions, which are: how can I understand this strange culture?
Is it the same with other groups?
What is the background of this cultural phenomenon?
What was it like in the past?
What is the relationship between it and biology and specific environment?
What are the political and social influences on it?
These questions include observing culture and thinking about all aspects of culture.

Let’s first talk about the research methods of anthropologists.
The common form of expression of these thinking achievements is “ethnography”.
The earliest ethnography, was “telling our own people what we have seen and heard in other ethnic groups”. In history, there are many such books, such as Great Tang Records on the Western Regions Book by Xuanzang and The Travels of Marco Polo.
After the emergence of anthropology, professionally trained scholars established a set of discipline norms for writing ethnography.

The overall structure of ethnography written by anthropologists depends on the author’s research ideas.
From whole to part, for example, the author Omohundro’s doctoral thesis is the survey of Chinese in the Philippines, which lasted for many years.
From the whole to the individual.
The first few chapters of the thesis first introduce the historical and cultural background of overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia, and then describe the research results in detail to show readers why the minority group of overseas Chinese can achieve commercial success among foreigners.
In addition, some ethnography first dissects individual cases, and then raises key questions, which are related to the cultural topics of the nation as a whole.

There are many ways for anthropologists to collect cultural information, but the most important source of information is always to go into this group to do fieldwork.
Participate directly in their lives as much as possible, by observing what they do, listening to what they say, examining the objects they make, and writing about them in ethnography.
The author says that without fieldwork, there would be no anthropology.
In fact, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” has a regret: due to the shortage of time, Benedict can only consult materials and interview Japanese nationals in the United States, and does not have the opportunity to go to Japan for field visits. Otherwise, the research level of “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” can be even higher.

Anthropologists see them as consultants and even teachers, but within their own nation, they may also be seen as whistleblowers, and anthropologists need to protect sources and their personal information.
This book shows the author’s information questionnaire at that time, including the natural information of the overseas Chinese surveyed, as well as marriage, immigration history, work experience, business relations, social relations, kinship relations, as well as participating organizations, relations with local politics in the Philippines, and so on, in great detail.
Then he would index the cards and file them, and finally analyze the data together.
It was the 1970s, and with computers, the job became much more convenient.

In the course of investigation and research, anthropologists should first think about the “natural problem”, that is, “is the observed behavior natural and representative in this culture?”
When the respondents are surveyed, they often have a “expectation effect”, which is to subconsciously please the investigator and involuntarily say the answer they want to hear.
Therefore, anthropologists should design an objective and unguided way of asking questions.
Another kind of interference is called the Hawthorne effect, in which people behave abnormally as long as they are aware that they are being observed.
It is also used in management. There used to be a saying that turning up the lights in the workshop can improve the enthusiasm of workers.
After comparison, scholars found that the key is not the light stimulation, but because the workers feel that they are being paid attention to.
Omohundro watched a Filipino summoning ceremony on a bamboo building. In the end, the wizard did not summon ghosts.
The next time, without him watching, the ceremony went well.
He reflected that this was because he used a tape recorder and flash, which made the locals feel uncomfortable.

So how to solve this problem of “naturalness”?
Is to get involved deep enough to make the observer adapt to himself.
Omohundro found that Filipinos are proud to invite foreigners to weddings, so he and his wife often attend these events to gather information from locals at weddings.
He found that these occasions will not be out of shape because of his arrival, and the information collected is also true and valid.
As a result, many anthropologists go deep into the jungle and tribes, live with the locals in shorts for many years, participate in religious rituals like them, summon the dead, and strive to be part of the local community.
This is a long and hard work.

Another important way of thinking for anthropologists is related to the fact that “culture is an integrated system”, which is called “holistic view”.
What it means is to analyze the observed behaviors and ideas as interrelated elements in a larger context.
Think of culture as a big web, which contains complex structures, symbols, laws and rules that interact and influence each other.
Only in this way can we see clearly the meaning behind some seemingly meaningless behavior.
Take a small example: fishermen in Newfoundland eat all kinds of seafood, but not rays and dog sharks.
It looks a little strange. People by the sea know what kind of fish is delicious best.
Omohundro found in the survey that this is related to the childhood memories of adult Newfoundlanders.
As we mentioned earlier, they help adults pick up fish and do chores from an early age.
One of them is to feed sled dogs. Many years ago, dog sharks and rays were specially fed to dogs.
In their memory, these two kinds of fish are dog food in the law of food distribution, and people will not want to eat them.
Today, although skates are no longer used to feed dogs, and rays are expensive, this impression has not disappeared in the group memory of Newfoundlanders.
This also affects their fishing habits. When they hit a dog shark, they will throw it back into the sea.

In the first part, we also mentioned the characteristics of “symbolization of culture”.
Anthropologists attach great importance to the interpretation of the “key symbols”.
The question they most often ask themselves is: what exactly does this symbol mean in this culture?
How do you understand it?
The internal communication of a group is not only through language symbols, but also through the subtle and complex symbols in myths and rituals.
For example, the symbols in the most typical rituals have three functions: the first is to condense complex meanings into simple, easy-to-understand content; the second is to reveal the internal relations of different concepts; and the third is to evoke strong emotions. urge the participants to take some kind of action.

In a trial in the United States, there is a typical ceremonial symbol: the bailiff asks the witness to put his left hand on the Bible, raise his right hand and take an oath with him, ensuring that in the witness of God, “tell the truth, the whole truth.” and only the truth.
This ceremonial symbol is in line with the three points mentioned above: the Bible condenses complex beliefs; combines the justice and truthfulness of secular law with the pious tenets of religious beliefs; and in front of the court audience, the emotion of the deponent is strongly stimulated by the ceremony of the bailiff’s loud oath and the touch of his hand on the frosted cover of the Bible, which constitute complex and powerful symbols.

How do anthropologists interpret these symbols?
They will first observe the details of the external form and what is special, such as which hand is placed on the Bible and who leads the witness to take the oath; then analyze how the participants understand its meaning; and then interpret more historical and implicit meanings.
For example, in the oath just now, the act of raising your hand is similar to a religious ceremony in Catholicism, which means that believers invite the Holy Spirit into their bodies.

Anthropologists interpret a culture, just like translating a language. They feel that if the subject listens to their interpretation and says, “Yes, this is what we say and do,” it represents the success of our observation and research.

After observation, how should we analyze it? Can you have your own position and point of view in the process of analysis?

Anthropologists have been observing, describing and explaining; so can they declare and intervene when they see behaviors they disapprove of?
A few decades ago, there was a famous Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, which you may have seen: a vulture landed on the side of the road, waiting to eat a starving African refugee girl.
The photo was so shocking that after winning the award, the audience began to criticize the photographer: why only took pictures at that time without helping?
The photo made the photographer famous overnight and made him commit suicide because he was overwhelmed with mental burden.

Anthropologists often face such moral dilemmas.
If you don’t do it, your conscience will be condemned; if you do, there may be trouble.
An anthropologist who studies the indigenous peoples of Venezuela has vaccinated them because of a local measles outbreak.
Subsequently, an investigative reporter wrote a book to criticize him, saying that this did not get the knowledge and consent of the local people, and indirectly contributed to the spread of the epidemic.
From an academic point of view, some anthropologists think that such behavior may violate academic ethics, because scholars do not have the power to interfere with and change the lives of local people.
Omohundro also gave a frank answer to these controversial and inconclusive questions.

First of all, should we do it or not?
He said that when anthropologists from Western society are faced with an unfamiliar culture, they usually feel shocked and even cause all kinds of discomfort, which is called “culture shock” in the term.
But most anthropologists stick to cultural relativism.
That is, to evaluate and analyze the phenomenon in the category of the nation’s own history and culture.
Do not use your own culture or other cultural standards to make moral judgments.
At the same time, avoid comparing different cultures.
This book reminds us that questions such as “people in which country are more polite and civilized” cannot be effectively proved.
Because each culture has its own different definition of “politeness” and different symbol system.
Anthropologists have always had two academic traditions: one is that one culture claims to represent universal standards, and the other is that one culture claims to be superior to other cultures, says Omohundro.

So, should we not care about what we see?
He does not think so. Although cultural relativism is the basic viewpoint of anthropology, it does not mean that anthropologists cannot make value judgments or intervene in some problems.
Although anthropologists do not rashly define what is “good” or “bad”, they can identify what is obviously “wrong”.

As for error, he agrees with a clear definition: when a culture reduces people’s chances of survival in reality, causes physical and mental damage to its members of society, and causes universal and high dissatisfaction, it is an obvious mistake.
Anthropologists can no longer turn a blind eye.
For example, the Malin people living in the valleys of Papua New Guinea are overly vegetarian in their diet, resulting in a lack of protein and are prone to disease.
Anthropologists also found that when they encounter the death of close relatives, they reduce their food intake and stop working for a long time, which exacerbates their health problems and seriously hinders population growth.
On the other hand, the Maling people believe that the decline in population is caused by the use of witchcraft, which in turn leads to conflicts among families.
This is where scholars should come to the rescue.
Omohundro believes that specific intervention criteria can be referred to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

In addition, anthropologists often face arguments about scientific methods.
There are also critics of the scientific research methods adhered to by most anthropologists who believe that science is only one of many words and is gradually becoming a tool of power.
Scientific linear thinking, that is, the kind of thinking that “A leads to B and B leads to C”, is not suitable for explaining complex realistic culture, which is a network structure of feedback loop, that is, the three ABC influence and transform each other.
The complete use of scientific methods will distort the problem because of simplification.
Omohundro believes that scientific thinking is not really so one-sided and arrogant.
The evidence is that after using scientific methods to study human phenomena, anthropology has been very successful in understanding and predicting human thoughts and behaviors.
The phenomena mentioned in the above criticism will not destroy the scientific method, but will allow it to continue to improve.


First of all, how does cultural anthropology define culture?
Culture is a group of people’s common understanding of what they do and the meaning of everything through acquisition.
Culture causes differences in the lives of different ethnic groups.
It is an interrelated integrated system; it is constantly strengthened by values within the group; symbols play an important role in the learning, inheritance and transmission of culture.

Then, I introduce to you the way anthropologists study culture and the way they think.
The most important method is to complete the “ethnography” through fieldwork.
Anthropologists will focus on thinking: how to allow themselves to observe natural and representative phenomena?
How to use the “holistic view” to explain cultural phenomena?
How to understand the true meaning of a cultural symbol?

With regard to academic ethics and methodology, this book holds that anthropology should uphold cultural relativism, but should not ignore phenomena that harm human survival.
Scientific method is still the most effective way of research.




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