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Understanding Culture, Society and Politics

On Culture
summary from Eriksen, Thomas Hyland, 2001. “Introduction: Comparison and Context,”
Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural
Anthropology.2nd Edition. London: Sterling Press. pp. 1–7

A broad swath of people around the world relate with each other in different ways but a closer
examination of these differences also reveal how people are alike in terms of their biological features and
what they do as they interact with each other. The difference and similarities by which people live, act, and
interact show the numerous aspects of human existence. In the discipline of anthropology, these diverse
but familiar manifestations of humanity are referred to as culture. For anthropologists, culture is the
reference point by which people organize themselves and make sense of themselves as members of their
own society. For that matter, anthropology regards culture as the “acquired cognitive and symbolic aspects
of human existence, whereas society refers to the social organization of human life, patterns of interaction
and power relationships” (Eriksen 2001: 4).

Analyzing how people culturally differ and what they share in common deepens our knowledge of humans
as biological and social beings. Being human and becoming human is to be a social person shaped by
culture but tempered or enabled by their own bodily anatomy. The anthropological discipline offers a
detailed study of human engagements that include family life, child raising, beliefs and religion, politics,
material productions and innovations, laws, economic life and the relationship between men and women in
different social settings and time periods.

In a sense, anthropology ask big questions about the human condition but draws answers from the study of
the particular experiences of people living under different circumstances, be these in a small village deep in
the jungles, a farming settlement, a bustling metropolitan city or a string of communities across different
countries. By looking at the general and particular aspects of human social life, anthropology provides
explanation of the interrelationship of the various facets of human life that explains sociocultural and
political practices of societies around the world across time and spaces. Understanding these relationship
means making sense of the unique situation and linkages that people establish within and between

What is Anthropology?

The etymology or origin of the term anthropology can be traced back to two Greek words, ‘anthropos’ and
‘logos’. When translated into English, ‘anthropos’ means ‘human’ while ‘logos’ refers to ‘knowledge’
(Eriksen 2001: 2). In this sense, anthropology can be understood as the ‘knowledge about humans’ (Ibid.).

 The subject of anthropological study is humanity but unlike other disciplines in the human sciences,
anthropology studies the diversity and similarity of the way a person live and make connections as
social and cultural beings. Anthropology as a discipline compares cultural and social life primarily
through participant observation, a research method that entails lengthy fieldwork or immersion in
a specific social setting. Through participant observation, anthropologists study in depth the
various aspect of society and then compare how that society differ and reflect other societies.
 For example, an anthropologist who studies the sea faring communities of Sama Dilaut in the Sulu
Archipelago would find ways of comparing and contrasting them to the broader Bajao seafaring
cultures across Southeast Asia or elsewhere in the world. By doing these comparative studies,
anthropology as an academic discipline provides a more grounded, insightful, and deeper
understanding of our common humanity.

Sociology is the systematic study of human society (Macionis 2012: 2), focusing particularly on the dynamic
interplay between individual and society. At the heart of sociology is the sociological perspective, a special
point of view of sociology that sees general patterns of society in the lives of particular people (Ibid.).

One of the works that elaborate this special point of view is C. W. Mills’s Sociological Imagination, a quality
of mind that enables the possessor to link personal with the social. The sociological imagination helps us
understand everyday events.

Accordin to Mills, “society—not people’s personal failings—is the main cause of poverty and other social
problems. By turning personal problems into public issues, the sociological imagination also is the key to
bringing people together to create needed change” (Macionis 2012: 7). The sociological imagination also
requires a global perspective, a study of the larger world and our society’s place in it (Macionis 2012: 6).

On Society
Summary from Material: Mills, C. Wright. (1959). “The Promise,” The Sociological Imagination.
New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 3–24


C. Wright Mills argues that a great number of our social experiences can overwhelm us into inaction. He
then offers a solution: a way of seeing society that can help us understand everyday events and make
better choices as individuals and as a group. He calls this the “sociological imagination,” which is a way of
looking at people in terms of the intersection of their own lives with the larger social and historical context.
In Mills’s view, society—not people’s personal failings—is the main cause of social problems (Macionis
2012: 7). To illustrate how one can develop a sociological imagination, Mills distinguishes between two
kinds of situations that people find themselves in: “private troubles” (personal problems) and “public
issues” (social problems). He points out that there are indeed private troubles, but some of them also
affect many other people since they have large-scale causes.

 Examples of private troubles that are also public issues are poverty; unemployment; lack of access
to education; poor quality of education; air, water, and noise pollution; bullying; single
parenthood; and so on.

 According to Mills, addressing or solving a private trouble is different from addressing a public
issue. Since personal trouble is a private matter, its resolution lies within the individual and within
the scope of his or her immediate personal experience. In contrast, people viewing personal
problems as public issues will look for solutions to social problems not at the level of the individual.
Instead, they will look into bringing people together to create needed change by organizing
themselves and through their social institutions.

On politics
Summary from Yu-Jose, Lydia (2010). “Politics, You and Democracy,” Philippine Politics:
Democratic Ideals and Realities. Quezon City: Ateneo University Press.


Yu-Jose’s article localizes the Western concepts of politics. It discusses politics and its place in the
Philippines and its democratic institutions and processes. The article begins with a discussion on the various
definitions of politics and its scope or focus. Particular interest on how the study of politics revolves around
the state, its institutions, its decisions and its relationship with other states and individuals. Pinpointing the
scope of politics, however, remains a complicated task because of the relational nature of politics.
Therefore, an alternative way is to decide what is political and what is not is to look at individuals’ attitudes
toward the state—active participation, rejection, or indifference. It ends with a discussion on the
importance of participation in the promotion and maintenance of democracy.

Anthropological and sociological perspectives on culture and society explains…

▪ Anthropology and sociology are two sides of the same coin. Sociology would talk about the social
relations of society and it's players while anthropology would probably wind the clock back to
ancient and historic social and cultural practices.

▪ As regards society, I would probably discuss how these two (sociology and anthropology), have
been used to explain the transition of society as well as culture.

▪ Anthropologically, society moved from simple to complex forms. One would say, as regards
production, society moved from hunting and gathering to horticultural society to commercial and
then, to industrial era.

▪ Therefore, anthropology and sociology would describe this in so many ways that would swing from
how man adjusted to the society, how man used the resources around to benefit himself and his
family. It would also discuss the effect of the economic institution on other relative institutions.

Aspects of Culture

The notion of culture presents a complex portrait of humanity. Anthropology regards culture as learned,
symbolic, integrated, shared, and all encompassing (Tylor 1871).

It is learned because culture is acquired by being born into a particular society in the process of
enculturation, as anthropologists would say, or socialization, as sociologists would explain. Through
language, the cultural traits of society are passed on to younger members in the process of growing up and
through teaching.
Culture is symbolic in the sense that it renders meanings to what people do. Beliefs, religion, rituals,
myths, dances, performances, music, artworks, sense of taste, education, innovations, identity, ethnicity,
and so on, are meaningful human expressions of what people do and how they act.

The systems of meanings and many other facets of culture such as kindred, religion, economic activities,
inheritance, and political process, do not function in isolation but as an integrated whole that makes
society work.

Furthermore, these varying systems of meanings, relations, and processes are shared within a group of
people rendering culture bounded to those who seek a sense of belonging to the same society.

Since culture is shared within exclusive domains of social relations, societies operate differently from
each other leading to cultural variations. Even as culture is bounded, it does not mean that there are no
variations in how people act and relate with each other within a given system of their respective societies.
On the contrary, the same society can be broadly diverse wherein people, for example, profess connections
to each other yet practice different religion, values, or gender relations. Furthermore, societies do not
always exist independently from each other.

Around the world, people as members of their own societies establish connections with each other and
form relationship guided by their respective cultural practices and values. These complex relations
underscore the all encompassing nature of culture as it covers every feature of humanity.

Edward Tylor, one of the founders of modern anthropology, characterize culture as a “complex whole
which encompasses beliefs, practices, traits, values, attitudes, laws, norms, artifacts, symbols, knowledge,
and everything that a person learns and shares as a member of society” (Tylor 1871).

To further understand culture, it is important not to forget the biological dimensions of being human. The
capacity of a person to organize his or her own society and form cultural systems is made possible by the
ability of humans to imagine and execute what they can do. Through the power of their brains, humans
possess a considerable degree of awareness and knowledge of what they can achieve. At the same time,
the natural world casts limitation as well as opportunities for humans in terms of realizing how else they
can organize their societies and form their cultures. For instance, some societies harness resources on
flatlands or high up in the mountains while others organize their lives around the seas. These undertakings
indicate that the specific environment in which people live also shape human culture in the same way that
culture shapes how people reshape nature.
Sociological Approaches to the Study of Society
Sociologists use three theoretical approaches: the structural-functional approach, the social-conflict
approach, and the symbolic-interaction approach. A theoretical approach is a basic image of society that
guides thinking and research (Macionis 2012: 12)
Structural-Functional Approach
Structural-functionalists view society as a “complex system whose parts work together to promote
solidarity and stability” (Macionis 2012: 12). It involves an analysis of social structure, “any relatively
stable pattern of social behavior. Social structure gives our lives shape—in families, the workplace, the
classroom, the community.” The approach seeks to identify a structure’s social functions, or “the
consequences of any social pattern for the operation of society as a whole” (Ibid). It is an approach that is
influenced by the ideas of Auguste Comte (1798–1857) who coined the term sociology in 1838, and Emile
Durkheim (1858-1917).
Robert K. Merton (1910–2003) also made significant contributions by distinguishing between “manifest
functions, the recognized and intended consequences of any social pattern, and latent functions, the
unrecognized and unintended consequences of any social pattern”.
He also recognized social dysfunction, any social pattern that may disrupt the operation of society”
(Macionis 2012:13).

Social-Conflict Approach
The social-conflict approach sees society as an “arena of inequality that generates conflict and change”
(Macionis 2012: 13). It therefore highlights inequality and change.
In contrast to the structural-functionalist approach, it does not see the social structure as promoting the
smooth operation of society. Instead, it focuses on how social patterns benefit the dominant groups in
society. Typically, “people on top try to protect their privileges while the disadvantaged try to gain more for
themselves” (Ibid).
Symbolic-Interaction Approach
The symbolic-interaction approach views sees society as the “product of the everyday interactions of
individuals”(Macionis 2012: 16). Human beings live in a world of symbols. In the process of social
interaction, they attach meaning to everything.
Macro and micro levels of analysis
It should be noted that the Structural-Functional and Social-Conflict Approaches have a macro-level
orientation, or a broad focus on social structures that shape society as a whole. In contrast, the Symbolic-
Interaction Approach uses a micro-level orientation, a close-up focus on social interaction in specific
situations (Macionis 2012: 16).
When people find cultural practices and values not their own as disturbing and threatening, that can be
regarded as ethnocentrism. A literal meaning of ethnocentrism is the regard that one’s own culture and
society is the center of everything and therefore far more superior than others (Kottak 2012: 39; Eriksen
2001:7). It is understandable that people laud and hold importance to the cultural values that were taught
them by their parents, elders, and other institutions of their society. The problem is when a person or
groups of people regard their own society’s set of cultural values as the only agreeable, acceptable, and
highly respectable set of convictions. Such a perspective can harden into chauvinism, a position that
everything about the other culture is wrong, unreasonable, detestable, and even wicked. From this
perspective, the practices and institutions of people from other societies are regarded as inferior, less
intelligent, and even vicious. An ethnocentric attitude can be an obstacle to understanding each other
culture and foster tensions within or between societies.

The concept of cultural relativism underscores the idea that the culture in every society should be
understood and regarded on its own terms. Societies are qualitatively different from one another, such
that each one has its own “unique inner logic” (Eriksen 2001: 14). Cultural traits can only be known and
valued in the context of the society by which they emerge and are practiced. Cultural relativism promotes
the idea that a society has to be viewed from the inside so that inner logic can be better explained. A
society’s idea of a good life will not likely be shared by another society that interprets the notion of “good”
from a sharply different social perspective. In other words, each society has a different yardstick in
appreciating the value of its own cultural trait. Cultural relativism, however, cannot be regarded as the flip
side of ethnocentrism. The concept of cultural relativism is more analytical and methodological rather than
being a moral principle. Anthropologists apply the concept of cultural relativity in investigating and
comparing societies without declaring one being better or more preferable to the other.
Moreover, appreciating and accepting the uniqueness of one society’s cultural trait does not mean that
universal human moral traits of right or wrong no longer apply. For instance, cultural traits that promote
subjugation of women by hurting or killing them do not necessarily mean that they are right by virtue of
one society’s inner logic. There are underlying patterns of human cultural traits that are common and
universally acceptable to humanity. The violent subjugation and elimination of human life or traits are
broadly unacceptable to the rest of humanity. Through a relativist approach consciously balanced by a
universalist understanding of what is humanely acceptable, the dangers of ethnocentrism can be

Discerning Politics
Material: Andrew Heywood (2007). Politics. 3rd edition. NY: Palgrave Macmillan
Heywood introduces the notions of politics and how it can be best understood. He then presents four
varying views of politics, particularly as: (1) the art of government or what concerns the affairs of the state;
(2) the conduct and management of public affairs; (3) managing conflict through compromise and
consensus; and (4) power as basis for understanding how resources are produced, distributed and used.
The study of politics, therefore, has several approaches: (1) normative, stemming from the philosophical
tradition, which seeks to prescribe values and standards of conduct; (2) empirical, which offers to make a
dispassionate account and analysis of the political reality; and (3) scientific, drawn heavily from
behavioralism, which presents political realities in a scientifically reliable manner. Due to the complex
nature of political realities, there are also several concepts, models and theories that can be used as tools
for political analysis. While it is impossible to study politics objectively, these approaches and tools help
frame our investigations of reality.


 To study and understand the processes of becoming human, it is important that we look back to the past.
Anthropology offers two methods of doing this study. One is through the close examination of the material
remains that early humans had left behind. The other is through the study of the genetic codes that were
passed on across several generations. Through these approaches, the story of human evolution can be told. It
will be seen that humans evolved as they made use of their peculiar biological features in harnessing the
natural environment and in propagating themselves widely across the planet as social beings.

 To harness the environment, humans produced tools and organized themselves socially into diverse and
hierarchical groups in many cases. These acts are by themselves cultural process that mark the characteristics
of being human. Human tendencies to relate socially can be tracked to human anatomical features right
down from childbirth. Human anatomy, in particular the female pelvis evolved in consideration of the ability
of humans to walk upright, the comparatively big brain size of human babies, and the difficulty that these
babies go through in negotiating a complicated birth canal during birth (Kottak 2013: 73). These anatomical
features and birthing process are not widely shared with other primates, the genetic order to which humans
belong. Due to complicated anatomy and birthing processes, humans evolved by requiring assistance from
fellow humans. Such requisite for human existence establishes the biological basis of the establishment of
social relations guided by cultural processes. In other words, humans are social and cultural as a matter of
biological necessity.

 Through the lessons on Human Evolution and Socio cultural and Political Transformations, this chapter
reconstructs the relations between biology and culture. Central to this lesson is the understanding of human
evolution and its implication on the transformation of cultures across time periods. To present human
evolution, the lesson entails the discussion of the rise of the hominids under the taxonomic super family of
Hominidae, of which all primates including extinct and modern species of apes and human beings belong. The
lesson covers the appearance of the early hominins, or the taxonomic line that refers to early forms of
humans that split up from apes in the course of primate evolution as well as the emergence of the archaic
forms of the genus homo of which the modern humans are classified. Furthermore, the lesson explains how
modern humans, scientifically referred as the Homo sapiens sapiens species, populated the world. The lesson
goes on to explain how the first human settlements in the advent of early agriculture were established and
ends with an account of the rise of the first cities and states that were generally regarded as the early forms
of civilization. The long process of human evolution, the uniqueness of human anatomical features resulting
from evolution, and the human material remains such as fossils and artifacts that have been gathered and
kept in museums and universities for further studies illustrates the complex relationships of human biology
and culture.

 The interaction of human biological and cultural processes played significant roles in being and becoming
human. Moreover, how humans evolved to become what they are implicates our understanding of race and
racial issues, class and discrimination, fairness and oppression, and so on. When humans are understood
from biological evolutionary and transformative cultural point of view, the question of race, class distinction
and discrimination, and oppression, are not by themselves natural features of human life.

The Concept and Study of Evolution

Material: Kottak, Conrad Phillip. “Evolution and Genetics,” Anthropology: Appreciating Human Diversity.
New York: McGraw Hill. pp. 94–110
 The reading presents a comprehensive account of the biological as well as the reconstruction of human
evolution based on a wide sweep of studies generated by the anthropological subfields of paleo-
anthropology, archeology, and genetics. The reading underscores the scientific research methods that
anthropologists working the fields of paleo-anthropological and genetic studies used in reconstructing the
account of human evolution.

 This particular chapter briefly discusses the progression of human evolutionary theory across centuries of
research. It tracks the old debates as well as the range of ways that evolutionary events are explained in the
concepts of creationism, catastrophism, and uniformism. These discussions present learners the
fundamental comprehension of how evolution was systematically studied and debated by generations of
scientists. Furthermore, the reading explains the breakthrough in understanding the origin of species,
biological diversity, and similarities of various life forms through adaptation, variation, and change in the idea
of natural selection thought up by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in the 19th century. With natural
selection as a frame of understanding biological evolutionary processes, the reading explains how the study
of classical and modern studies of molecular genetics enriched the science of biological variation, and with it
the knowledge of how humans evolved.

The First Humans

Material: Kottak, Conrad Phillip. “Early Hominins,” Anthropology: Appreciating Human Diversity. New York: McGraw Hill. pp. 162–180
Kottak, Conrad Phillip. “Archaic Homo,” Anthropology: Appreciating HumanDiversity. New York: McGraw Hill. pp. 186–201
This chapter of the reading studies how the unwritten history of the human past was unearthed through paleo-
anthropological field excavation of human fossil remains and the things that early humankind had produced. It goes
on to explain how these remains were further analyzed through the study of changing environment in the ancient
world, early human tools, diet, and other forms of material culture in what could be ancient camping remains of the
first humans.
The reading also explains how the various techniques used in dating human remains and early human tools.
Furthermore, the reading presents the processes of biological and social evolution beginning with the appearance of
archaic forms of humans known as the hominins, the taxonomic classification that marked the great split of the
primate order into apes and humans about 5.8 million years ago. Furthermore, the reading tracks the further
evolution of humans into older forms of the genus homo about 2 million years ago and the appearance of Homo
sapiens sapiens or anatomically modern humans (AMH) between 300,000 and 150,000 years ago in Africa. A
critical aspect that links biological and cultural dimensions of human evolution are the material cultures that were
produced alongside these interlinked processes.

Cultural and Sociopolitical Evolution

Materials: Kottak, Conrad Phillip. “The Origin and Spread of Modern Human,” Anthropology: Appreciating Human Diversity. New York: McGraw
Hill. pp. 208–226
Kottak, Conrad Phillip. “The First Farmers,” Anthropology: Appreciating Human Diversity. New York: McGraw Hill. pp. 232–251
Citing evidence from the paleo-anthropological study of fossil remains as well as sophisticated analysis of human genes
in the laboratory, the reading discusses the remarkable journey of modern humans out of Africa some 135,000 years
ago and their eventual spread around planet. Genetic and fossil evidence suggest how a small band of humans who
possibly descended from a single ancestral female parent successfully made their way out of Africa, and then went on
to reproduce several more descendants who peopled the world. Furthermore, findings from archeological sites and
investigations of ancient climate patterns helped reconstruct the phenomenal story of how the descendants of this band
of people populated and settled across several continents notwithstanding formidable natural barriers. Populating the
world means overcoming deserts, oceans, and mountains as well as being enabled or constrained by shifting weather
events such as glaciation (ice ages) and de-glaciation (global warming), and sea-level rise and fall.
Key to understanding this human journey is cultural evolution as manifested by the growing sophistication of
technology that humans produced and complexity of the groups that they organized. A flowering of creativity brought
forth new kinds of tools, artworks, and later on farming and animal domestication in the steppes of Central Asia some
10,000 years ago. These events set in motion the series of change in the patterns of human settlement, including
population increase and the emergence of towns. To support rapid population growth, particularly in the alluvial plains
of southern Mesopotamia around 6,000 years ago, early forms of irrigation and intensive agricultural productions are
evident along river valleys