Brady F. Anderson

How to Think Like an Anthropologist

My Notes

Anthropologists use the central concept of cultural relativism as their guide. Cultural relativism is the idea that a person’s beliefs, actions, and values are best understood in the context of that person’s culture.

Fieldwork is a key part of anthropology. Researchers live among their subjects, often times for years, to observe how their culture functions.

The goal of anthropology is to realize the subject’s vision of their world.

People from more technologically developed places often forget that those from different cultures are living at the same time as they are. E.g. An UK citizen perceives Inuit fisherman as living in the past. This is classified as a coeval mistake: a failure to recognize your contemporary peers. 

In Mashai, Lesotho, Basotho men refused to sell off their cattle during a drought which caused 40% of the livestock to die. This decision appears irrational: why not cut your losses? Yet owning cattle was the most important thing. Cattle were given as bride wealth, lent out to members of the community, a pension fund after retirement from mining, and owned by men whereas the entire family has claim to money. Cattle held more value than the economic wealth they could have generated to a point where it was worth taking the risk of keeping livestock. 

Psychologists often do studies on whoever they can get to participate near them (most often college students). An anthropologist questions whether claims about cognition or human nature are generalizable given the similar, limited cultural backgrounds of study participants.

Many anthropologists love to study rituals as a means to get a better grasp on the larger culture.

No one quite knows why judges in the United States wear black robes. There is no requirement to wear them.

When President Obama had to swear an oath during inauguration, he stumbled on a few words. Advisors were worried this meant he wasn’t really president, so they repeated the oath again a day later. It was a quiet affair; President Obama didn’t even put his hand on the Bible. The Chief Justice arrived to conduct the ritual in his robes. But was he really not the president because of a ritual error? Why did the Chief Justice still feel a need to wear those robes?

In the Trobriand Islands, red shell necklaces and white shell bracelets circulate between different islands in a pattern dubbed the “Kula Ring.” The island peoples do not wear this jewelry, much of it is too small for even children. The exchange of the necklaces and bracelets is never simultaneous in order to perverse the tradition that they be gifted. Men set off on lengthy and dangerous sea voyages to obtain these objects, only gift them again after about 1 to 2 years. The necklaces and bracelets do not hold any “use value” or “exchange value” and yet the islanders treasure them.

If you want to figure out why someone is doing something, don’t ask them why they do it. They will typically make up an answer on the spot that is likely inaccurate.

Asking someone why they did something can result in confirmation bias. E.g. “Did you push Susie of the swing because you were mad?” “I guess so.”