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Recent Trends in Anthropological Thought

Recent Trends in Anthropological Thought
Written by Shahzad F. Malik

How perspective of Anthropology can be used to study global trends like global warming erosion of biodiversity? (CSS 2017)


At the outset to point out that although this seeks to describe the development of theories in anthropology since 1950, it is necessary, in order to put this in a proper perspective, to review the past in brief. It shall also be necessary to look at the developments in other disciplines, particularly in linguistics, because they came to provide the basic ideas on which much of the progress in anthropology in recent times largely depends. Anthropological thought has always progressed along two mutually exclusive paths and based on two basically different principles materialist and ideological. The materialists consider that the aim of anthropological study is to find out the basic law that governs the development of society and culture. Among the earlier exponents of this line of thought were Morgan, Tylor, Fraser, Spencer etc. The School of Evolution stood for scientific study of society and culture. In recent times, Cultural Ecology, Ecological Anthropology, Cultural Materialism etc. subscribe to this view.

The idealists, on the other hand, consider culture essentially a mental or psychological phenomenon and deny the existence of any natural laws. The proponents of this thought were Franz Boas and his followers. They believed that each culture was unique, and a product of its own ecological and historical circumstances, which cannot be duplicated. Their concept of cultural relativism precluded the possibility of cross-cultural comparisons and universal generalizations. The school of culture and personality also was essentially similar. In recent times, Ensconce, Cognitive Anthropology, Structural Anthropology, Symbolic Anthropology, Post Modernism etc. belong to this group. The two functionalist schools that developed in Europe in 1920s and 30s, stood midway between the two perspectives.

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By 1940, anthropology had come to a deadlock as regards theory of society and culture. It had become a descriptive rather than an analytical discipline. The arrival of neo-evolutionists once again revived the explanatory role of anthropology. Gordon Chide and Leslie White emphasized the materialist perspective. This was the stage of anthropological thought by 1950, which is the starting point of theory. The anthropological theories since 1950 progressed in two different lines. It will be more fruitful to look at them in lineal sequence. Therefore, it will not always be possible to follow a strictly chronological order. We shall begin with the materialist line, taking first a branch of Neo-evolutionism the Cultural Ecology.


The emergence of cultural ecology as an area within anthropology is formally associated with the publication of Julian Steward’s “Theory of Culture Change” in 1955. Steward was interested in the evolution of cultures. However, unlike White or 19th Century evolutionists, he believed that cultures developed not in a single direction but in any number of patterns depending on their environments. He called his approach Multi linear Evolution, and the methodology for the delineation of the evolution as Cultural Ecology. His methodology focuses on environment as presenting adaptive problems & opportunities. He argues that adaptive processes shape cultures to achieve patterns that are best suited to given environment, not just any possible.


Cultural Studies is an interdisciplinary “feld” that draws together ideas about culture, political philosophy and social theory to analyze the everyday, ordinary ways we are positioned as participants within a social/global context. The course “Introduction to Cultural Studies” provides an introduction for students in anthropology and similar areas about how to conduct cultural studies. As new information and digital technologies become part of the everyday (of some much more than of others), it becomes increasingly relevant for students to be able to critically reflect on theories and phenomena around information technologies. How do new communication technologies and the Internet affect ethnographic methods, the field of cultural studies, and ethnographies? In order to make informed decisions about their future research field students need to know about limitations and opportunities and implications.


Japanese Civilization in the World Context this is the first English version of Tadao Umesao’s classic, published first in Japanese in 1957, with a full description of his ecological theory of civilizations of Eurasia.

4.  Ecological Functionalism or New Ecology | ANTHROPOLOGICAL THOUGHT

Partly as a result of dissatisfaction with problems of Cultural Ecology, and as new insights developed, a second school of ecological anthropology emerged in late 1960s. Though built on Cultural Ecology, this new approach emphasized,

(i)    Taking populations rather than cultures as the unit of study,

(ii)   Cybernetics rather than linear causality,

(iii)  Study of non-subsistence traits, especially ritual and population regulation.

Because of focus on how traits functioned to maintain populations in balance with their resources, and emphasis on homeostatic regulation, this approach is often termed “Ecological Functionalism” or “NE functionalism” or New Ecology.

5.  Cultural Materialism

Cultural Materialism is a scientific research strategy that accords priority to the material, behavior and etic processes in the explanation of the evolution of human socio-cultural systems. It was first introduced in The Rise of Anthropological Theory (1968) by Marvin Harris who is the originator and has been the main figure in cultural materialism.

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6.  Sociobiology

Sociobiology is a very controversial new paradigm. It is a research strategy that seeks to explain human social life by means of the theoretical principles of Darwinian and neo-Darwinian evolutionary biology. The basic Darwinian principle is that individuals with those variations best suited to their environments will reproduce more than others. Sociobiology argue that because humans are biological organisms they are subject to the same evolutionary laws as other organisms.

7.  Human Materialism

Recently, in 1993, Paul Magnarella of the University of Florida has proposed yet another paradigm called Human Materialism, which he styles as A Model of Sociocultural Systems and a Strategy for Analysis. Stimulated by the Cultural Materialism of Marvin Harris, and retaining the basic conception of Infrastructure, Structure and Superstructure, Magnarella insists they stand for different set of contents and relationships in Human Materialism. We now turn to the second group of anthropological thought which is based on the psychological explanations of culture, and is heavily dependent on the methodology of linguistics. As said earlier, the insights offered by Linguistic Relativism and the Prague School of Linguistics are mainly responsible for the development of the thoughts that now follow. We are back in time to about 1950.

8.  Ethnoscience, Ethnosemntics, or New Ethnography

At about this period, validity of ethnographic data had become a matter of general concern for the anthropologists. As trained anthropologists started fieldwork in growing numbers, it was found that the ethnographies of places revisited did not always match the ethnographies of a previous generation. Ethnographic studies were often equated with laboratory experiments of the natural sciences, and thus crucial to anthropology’s claims to scientific authority. But, as the Redfield-Lewis controversy of the early 1950’s illustrated, different anthropologists studying the same people could gather very different data, unlike the situation in a” true laboratory.”

9.  Cognitive Anthropology

Building upon the work of Ensconce, Cognitive Anthropology proposed to analyses the native categories of thought, which would lead to the knowledge of how human mind functioned. Cognitive anthropology is closely aligned with psychology, because both explore the nature of cognitive processes. It has also adopted theoretical elements and methodological techniques from structuralism and linguistics.

10.  Symbolic Anthropology

Although sharing the basic idea that the culture is a psychological or mental phenomenon with ethno science, structural linguistics, and cognitive anthropology, symbolic anthropology differs from them in several ways. One of the major differences is the Symbolic anthropologist’s belief that symbols are external expressions of meanings and are not locked inside the heads.

11.  Structural Anthropology or Structuralism

This approach is associated with one of the most famous, and at the same time most controversial, anthropologists of 20th century Claude Levi-Strauss. His writings exhibit the direct influence of Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, and his methodology the ideas of Saussure and Jakobson of Prague School of Linguistics. However, his presentations are original and a little too thick for an average reader.

12.  Phenomenological Anthropology

From the study of human thought to the study of human feelings was but a single step, and it would have been surprising if this step had not been taken by the anthropologists. And it was taken recently in the shape of Phenomenological Anthropology. It refers to a way of doing ethnography and ethnology which emphasizes the study of consciousness. Speaking generally, a phenomenological study is one that is grounded in the direct experience of aspects of ones own consciousness. Phenomenological anthropology is concerned with methods that may be utilized in fieldwork to “get into the native’s head” and understand what the native is experiencing.

About the author

Shahzad F. Malik

Shahzad Faisal Malik is the administrator of CSSTimes.pk and is responsible for managing the content, design, and overall direction of the blog. He has a strong background in Competitive Exams and is passionate and sharing information with others.
Shahzad Faisal Malik has worked as a Graphic Designer/Content Creator at CSSTimes in the past. In his free time, Shahzad Faisal Malik enjoys watching Cricket, writing blogs for different websites and is always on the lookout for new and interesting content to share with the readers of this website.
As the website administrator, Shahzad Faisal Malik is dedicated to providing high-quality content and fostering a welcoming and engaging community for readers. He looks forward to connecting with readers and hearing their thoughts and feedback on the website.

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