Anthropological Theories/Paradigms

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Anthropological Theories/Paradigms
The word theory is used in different ways in different disciplines. In the Natural Sciences (e.g. physical anthropology) a theory explains a large, complex body of facts pertaining to the natural world. A hypothesis (tentative explanation) becomes a theory after repeated testing and when a tremendous amount of confirming evidence supports it. In the Social Sciences (e.g. cultural anthropology) theories explain human behavior, beliefs and customs. Due to the complexity of human behavior, social science theories may be difficult to test. Therefore, theories are accepted if they can reliably explain human behavior. A theory is also known as a paradigm (an orientation with which to view the world). Cultural anthropologists use theories/paradigms to explain and interpret human behavior. Each anthropologist uses a particular (or sometimes more than one) approach with which to conduct research. Below are several theories/paradigms that have been, or still are, used by cultural anthropologists. Keep in mind this is only a partial list:

SOCIAL EVOLUTIONARY THEORY/SOCIAL DARWINISM: Founded late 19th century by European social scientists. Viewed different societies as different grades of cultural development, based on the type of technology present in the society (e.g. bows-and-arrows were seen as primitive and less evolved, while farming technology was advanced and more evolved). No longer used today because it’s ethnocentric and erroneous (i.e. principles of biological evolution cannot be applied to human cultural development).
CULTURAL RELATIVISM/HISTORICAL PARTICULARISM: Founded late 19th century by Franz Boas in opposition to Social Evolutionary Theory. He believed each society has had a unique course of development, and can only be understood on its own terms. When analyzing a culture and it’s people, the anthropologist must consider the historical conditions under which it developed without comparing it against the standards of another.
CULTURAL DETERMINISM: Views culture (e.g. upbringing, socialization), not biology, as ultimate source of human behavior, traditions, etc. (the “nuture” side of the Nature-Nurture debate). Boas was an avid cultural determinist, as was his student Margaret Mead who believed we learn our gender roles, and traditional male-female behavioral patterns are not biologically determined. Her early research has been criticized by some because the basic structure of gender roles is fairly universal (e.g. gender roles observed in our society are consistent with sex differences displayed by the majority of societies). Nonetheless this view is accepted by the majority of today’s social scientists over a strict biological determinist approach.
(STRUCTURAL) FUNCTIONALISM: Formulated mid 20th century by Malinowski and several others. Viewed components of culture as functioning as part of a larger system – like parts of a biological organism that operate interdependently to allow the organism to function. Not entirely accepted today as it fails to explain why different traditions exist, why cultures change and ignores motivations of individuals that shape traditions (e.g. manipulation, competition).
CULTURAL MATERIALISM: Founded 20th century by Marvin Harris. Material needs (not ideas) drive the society. Rejects the idea that human behavior is largely shaped by concepts. Rather, culture is viewed as strategy for making material resources available for human use. Focuses on environmental, technological and economic factors as key determinants of culture. CM believes the scientific method must be used to study human behavior and culture.
SYMBOLIC ANTHROPOLOGY: Explains human behavior by looking at symbols, beliefs, values and concepts (i.e. non-material aspects). Rather than viewing ideas and worldviews as a reflection only of environmental or technological conditions, this paradigm argues that cultural symbols are completely independent from material factors. Human behavior cannot be explained by using the scientific method.
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