Critical Concepts for Introduction to Cultural Anthropology

Keyed to Readings, Films, and Lectures

Page Table of Contents

·      First Segment

·      Second Segment

·      Third Segment

·      Fourth Segment


Below is a list of important concepts presented to you in the lectures, web readings, films, and texts.  As such, they represent a guide to structure learning.  If you fully understand these concepts, know their implications, and can provide concrete examples of how they work then you will have mastered the material for the first segment of the course.

First Segment


  • Cultural and ethical relativism
  • Ethnocentrism
  • Participant observation
  • Key informant
  • Tribal populations
  • Holism
  • Strengths and weaknesses in an ethnographic approach
  • Chimp and human culture: what's the difference?  Learning styles and language for culture transmission
  • Emics and etics
  • Cultural universals (e.g., facial expressions of emotion)

Culture and Genes or Gene-Culture Interaction

  • Cultural mediation (cooking food leads to genetic change in gut, teeth, etc.)
  • Genetic mediation (basic color terms or how genes influence the content of culture, facial expessions of emotion)
  • Cultural traits biologically adaptive and not adaptive
  • Psychological mechanisms to transmit culture

Direct bias (assess the utility of the trait)

Frequency dependent bias (conform to what others are doing)

Indirect bias (do what role models or high status people do)

  • Evolution means descent with modification
  • Dual system of inheritance (biological and cultural heritages interact to make us uniquely human)
  • Spices and preservation (an example of a cultural trait than enhances fitness)

Cultural Evolution

  • Simple to complex and from generalized to specialized
  • Bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states
  • Religion: ethnic, theocratic, and universalistic
  • Exchange: reciprocity, redistribution & market exchange
  • Status: accomplishments to hereditary inequality
  • Self help to law
  • Trends in cultural evolution

Evolutionary Ecology

  • Lootka-Volterra Logistic
  • Limiting factors
  • Carrying capacity
  • Environmental resistance
  • Intensification
  • Innovation
  • Population regulation and infanticide
  • Myth of the ecologically noble savage

    Energetic Ecology
  • Energy flow
  • Plant and animal levels
  • Interconnectedness
  • Energetic efficiency

Energy Extraction

  • Foraging, gardening, pastoralism, agriculture, and industrial agriculture
  • Intensification
  • Landscape modification and biodiversity loss
  • Increased input

Eskimo Environmental Problems and Solutions (or adaptations)

  • Cold stress
  • Lack of plant resources
  • Complex technology
  • Seasonal variation in resource availability and movement to resources

Yanomamö Environmental Problems and Solutions (adaptations)

  • Yanomamö Environmental Problems and Solutions (adaptations)
  • Gardening in the context of poor soils
  • Difficulties in acquiring wild plants and animals

 Yanomamö Ethnography

  • Significance of warfare and its reflection in many cultural domains
  • Contrasting leadership styles: Kaobawa and Moawa.
  • Alliances
  • Moves (macro and micro)
  • Economy: gardening, hunting, gathering, and fishing
  • Division of labor
  • Genealogies and the problem of personal names and related ethical issues
  • How an ethnographer adapts to another culture and achieves rapport
  • Simple technology

 Netsilik Ethnography

  • Ethnography and historical reconstruction
  • Stone, bone, snow, and skin complexes
  • Clothing manufacture and food preservation as important kinds of technology
  • The arctic as a variable environment and mapping on to resources
  • Lack of vegetable construction materials
  • Technology in action

Zapotec Ethnography

  • Men, women, and culture: different views
  • Interdependence of the sexes
  • Homosexuality and first edition
  • Informal & formal and public & private roles
  • Zapotecs, a conquered people in a state
  • The myth of ancient matriarchy
  • Lack of "culture" as perceived by Mexican nationals
  • Land tenure: private and ejido (communal land)
  • Sexual patterns of inheritance
  • Methods of saving
  • Sexual division of labor: agricultural production, vending, and wage labor
  • The market and selling

Films and Reading

    Chimpanzee Culture

  • Tools, Greetings, and Medicine
  • Learning: social facilitation, emulation, and imitation
  • Females: diffusion of traits and greater tool use

Garden of Eden

  • Labor time in the past
  • The waning importance of warfare
  • Lack of resource conservation because of simple technology and low resource demand

A Man Called Bee

  • Working with a sovereign people
  • Trade goods
  • Political evolution and village size
  • Micro and Macro moves

Of Cannibals, Kings and Culture: The Problem of Ethnocentricity

  • Small boy giving orders and inequality
  • Brazilian aboriginals looking and us and making judgements 
  • Are there objective moral facts?

Critical Concepts for Segment 2

Lecture Topics

  • Marriage:

socially imposed monogamy

ecologically imposed monogamy



burden of marriage


conjugal fund

post marital residence

love and marriage

  • Marital choice for men and women

  • Economic dependence and independence

  • Romantic criteria and independence

 Family Forms and Dynamics:


extended (stem and joint)




decay of the nuclear family

function of the family

Goody's model of bride price and dowry systems

  • Marriage Transactions:


exchange of females

bride price

indirect dowry

bride service

gift exchange 

Kinship and Descent

sociocentric and egocentric status terms

kinship diagrams (circles, triangles, etc.)

kin terminological systems: bifurcate merging and lineal

unilineal descent

bilateral descent

characteristics of corporate descent groups

kindreds, lineages, and clans

prescribed patterns of kin behavior (avoidance, joking, respect)  

The incest taboo

proximate versus ultimate causes

Westermarck effect

inbreeding depression

sim pua and parallel cousin marriages

Biblical and Western incest prohibitions



  • Dadi's Family: family organization and dynamics and marriage in a male farming system
  • The Mende: family and marriage in a female farming system



Social Organization

dyadic relationships or partnerships

spouse exchange

bilateral descent and focus on the family

Netsilik divorce

patrilocal residence in relation to hunting

father-children and mother-children relationships

domestic cycle: development and break-up of extended families

extended family ilagiit and leader inhumataq


  • Social Organization

patrilineal descent

weak lineages

sister exchange

brother-in-law relationships

name taboos

nuclear family decay (roles of divorce and mortality)

patrilocal marriage in relation to warfare

yöbömou female puberty ceremony

child betrothal

Shamatari and Namoweiteri contrasts in to relatedness and social cohesiveness

following marriage rules

village size and warfare

village fissioning

rule breaking in marriage

kin relations and solidarity

sister exchange and double cross-cousin marriage


  • The Life Cycle: from birth to marriage

birthing practices and role of mid-wife and husband

the problem of weaning

permissive child rearing and tristeza

preferential treatment of boys


  • Courtship and Marriage

ü  chaperoning

ü  civil and church weddings and elopement

ü  mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationships

ü  importance of virginity

ü  a woman's status: from motherhood to mother-in-law

  • Death

ü  supernatural causes of death

ü  curanderas, pharmacists, and doctors

ü  mourning for the death: family and kin obligations

  • Avoiding Danger and Misfortune: consequences of land poverty and high levels of physical aggression:

ü  avoid arousing envy

ü  household fortification

ü  use of protective and preventative magic

  • Social Relations and an Insecure Environment

ü  Strong and relatively egalitarian husband-wife relationships

ü  The moral superiority of women and marianismo

ü  kindreds and sibling relationships may be mistrustful

ü  compadre relationships


Critical Concepts: 3rd Segment

  • Films
  • Sex
  • War
  • Dispute Settlement
  • Religion
  • Acculturation
  • Web Readings
  • Films
  • Protein and warfare
  • Bellicose and refugee strategies
  • Warfare, marriage, and abduction
  • Modes of Reciprocity (exchange):

ü  generalized

ü  balanced

ü  negative


  • Evolution

    ·         Descent with modification or a change in frequency of genes in a gene pool

    ·         Adaptation or solutions to environmental problems (physical and social)

    ·         Natural selection or differential reproduction

    ·         Mutation or a change in a gene

    ·         Not all traits are adaptive (consider the chin)

    ·         Individuals designed to be reproductively selfish

 Some Women of Marrakech

ü  Religious teaching about male dominance

ü  Separate lives of men and women

ü  Restrictions on women (purdah)

ü  Rural-urban contrasts

  • The Ax Fight

ü  The hidden role of women

ü  Maintenance of honor

ü  Control of violence


  • Kingdom in the Jungle

ü  Brazilian and Venezuelan economic contrasts

ü  Change will come but give them a choice

ü  The expanding frontier

  • Sex

ü  Male and Female Differences

ü  Warnings (mean & variation, fallacy, destiny)

ü  What does a mean difference mean (variance issues)

ü  Are universal difference biological differences

ü  Biology and destiny

ü  Naturalistic fallacy

  • Major Areas of Focus

ü  Anatomical

ü  Physiological

ü  Morphological and Physiological Differences: exploring dimorphism

ü  Muscle and fat proportions

ü  Aerobic differences

  • Psychological (cognitive)

ü  Vision

ü  Language production and understanding

ü  Hearing

  • Developmental males slower to attain developmental benchmarks
  • Behavioral

ü  Sexual behavior

ü  Division of labor

  • Institutional (status)

  • Male and female differences in terms of

ü  Standards of attractiveness

ü  Attitudes towards sex

ü  Bases of sexual jealousy

  • Important Similarities in Desirable Characteristics

ü  kindness

ü  understanding

ü  intelligence

  • Important Differences in Sexual Behavior and Standards

ü  Promiscuity (it takes two to tango and the problem in questionnaire research)

ü  Focus on youth or status

ü  The double standard

  • Homosexuality

ü  Causes of sexual orientation is the fundamental issue

ü  Biological and genetic causes

ü  Recent research on 2d:4d ratios and birth order (each additional brother increases probability by 33%)

ü  Heritability

ü  Environmental causes: prison living

ü  Politics and the science you believe

ü  Zapotecs and the third sex (muxe): a culturally validated status

  Dispute Settlement and Warfare

  • Tribal compared to modern warfare
  • Social Substituability
  • Ember's Findings on resource insecurity and fear and mistrust
  • Proximate causes of Yanomamö warfare
  • Yanomamö warfare and blood revenge
  • Netsilik aggression
  • A tale of two Zapotec villages: La Paz and San Andres
  • Conflict Resolution

Gossip, ridicule and song duels among the Netsilik

ü  The Kpelle house palaver and neighborhood justice ? a focus on reconciliation

ü  Yanomamö dueling


Critical Concepts: 4th Segment

Religion, Morality, and Cross Cultural Psychology

Elements of Religion

General conceptions of forces & entities

Animism and animatism

Magic is any form of interaction with the supernatural

  • Sympathetic
  • Contagious

Functions of religion:

  • Explanation
  • Sense of purpose
  • Moral code (probably the most important especially in complex societies)
  • Ecology (becoming better adapted to the environment)

Rites of passage to mark and celebrate changes of status

The spread and domination of Christianity and Islam

  • Proselytize
  • Independent of ethic boundaries

High and Moral Gods

  • Created the world
  • All seeing, knowing, present, and powerful
  • Concerned with morality
  • Associated with complex social organizations where anonymous people must interact
  • But in small scale societies your reputation keeps you honest

Yanomamö Religion

  • Four-layered conception of the world and heaven and hell
  • Creation myths
  • Jaguar myths and invention of social traditions and relations
  • Complex conception of the soul
  • Endocannibalism: dead relatives are buried in the bodies of the living
  • How to become a shaman and divining and curing

Zapotec Religion

  • Catholicism with some traditional beliefs
  • Family centered fiestas revolve around rites of passage
  • Community-Centered fiesta revolve around patron saints and status achievement
  • Participation as sponsor or paying guest important for social status

Netsilik Religion

Complex nature of the human soul and the importance of animals souls.

Powerful gods are largely dangerous or indifferent to humans but must be respected through prayer and offerings

World view (cosmology) and Creation Myths

  • Tunrit beliefs
  • Beliefs about their position in the world and the afterlife:
  • Life is a struggle for food and clothing and must deal with bad luck in hunting and terrible weather
  • Complexity of the taboo system, especially in relation to hunting
  • The Third World War: nations of the fourth world

Fourth World

  • Nations and States
  • States suppress nations
  • Nations lack representation within states

 Acculturation and The Process of Contact for Tribal Peoples

  • Disease
  • Depopulation
  • Dependency (e.g., tools)
  • Development
  1. Ethnocide
  2. Further loss of autonomy
  3. Degradation

Contact, Change, and Acculturation


  • Decrease in hunting cooperation as a consequence of modern weapons
  • Reliance on Canadian government for food and social services
  • Becoming more sedentary


  • Population concentration around mission stations leading to resource shortages and pollution
  • Improved medical care, but Chagnon's model of contact and disease is questionable
  • Missionaries: Catholics and evangelicals have different goals
  • Creation of new needs: steel goods
  • Brazilian gold rush and 1993 hashimo massacre
  • Awarness of outside world and NGO's and Davi Kopenawa appeal to world

 We are Mehinaku

Series of rituals establishing a "mythological charter" especially in relation to males and females in terms of

  • Status
  • Power
  • Conflict
  • Dependency