Ethnographic Insights Across Cultures

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Overview
Exercise ID: 1.35
Class size: Any
Level(s): III IV
Source: Produced by HRAF


Learning Objectives

Does the exercise compare 2 or more cultures? Yes
Subject selection: Multiple subjects specified by teacher
Subjects/OCMS, if applicable: culture, emotion, fear, love, reciprocity, gift, kindness, place, space, house, home, calendar, time, gender, sexuality, agency, power, identity, self, body, beauty, ritual, rites of passage, liminality, communitas, theory, witchcraft, sorcery, magic, luck, misfortune, animals, pets, food, eating
Region selection: open (student choice)
Region, if applicable: Various
Culture selection: Student chooses from entire collection
Cultures/OWCs, if applicable:
Samples:

Classroom Guide

Instructions for navigating eHRAF included? Yes
Assignments for students to complete in groups? Yes
Assignments for students to complete on their own? Yes
Instructions for Microfiche version? No
 

Francine Barone, Human Relations Area Files, Yale University

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Interactive Slideshow
Group Project Instructions | Essay Instructions

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Note to Instructors | Text Syllabus | Syllabus Slideshow
Group Project Instructions | Essay Instructions

Dr. Francine Barone | francine.barone@yale.edu
Human Relations Area Files at Yale University
 

Note to Instructors

This introductory course covers a variety of anthropological themes and aspects of culture. Students are encouraged to debate whether or not cultural universals exist by comparing and contrasting ethnographic examples from around the world. Assignments include a group project and essay.

The materials for each week have been curated with quality, scope, diversity and ease of access in mind (see below). The weekly discussion topics (“key readings”) focus on engaging articles from the HRAF homepage. These articles offer cross-cultural insight on fundamental anthropological themes supported by ethnographic examples sourced from the eHRAF databases. In addition, each week is supported by one or more videos or mini-lecture for in-class or at-home viewing. Textbook chapters and optional advanced ethnographic or theoretical readings are also provided, allowing for some flexibility across different class levels at the discretion of the instructor.

Where possible, links to relevant documents within eHRAF World Cultures are indicated. Note that eHRAF database membership is required for full paragraph-level access to documents. The writing assignment similarly requires that students conduct research within eHRAF World Cultures. One week of this syllabus is therefore dedicated to an eHRAF Workshop for teaching students how to search the databases for ethnographic sources to support their essays. Instructors unfamiliar with eHRAF may be interested in learning more about teaching research skills with the eHRAF Databases in a webinar and/or free trial.

Built for online learning

For faculty currently seeking online learning resources for transitioning from traditional classroom teaching to digital environments, this syllabus and its exercises have been formatted for easy adoption via remote platforms. It has been adapted in light of campus shutdowns in March 2020 to prioritize digital resources over physical books. The required videos and articles for each week are all freely available online. A small number of the optional “advanced readings” may have a paywall where noted.

An extended “companion” reading list with texts is offered below should instructors or students have access to the texts now or in the future. These traditional textbooks, monographs, and journal articles are listed as supplementary reading. Again, links to digital versions of texts available in eHRAF are provided where applicable. Instructors can choose to assign these should students have access to them.

For more about adapting coursework for online learning conditions, see:

Remote futures: tips for online teaching and learning in anthropology

Ethnographic Insights Across Cultures 

Course Description

Through the comparative study of different cultures, anthropology explores the most fundamental questions about what it means to be human. Drawing upon eHRAF World Cultures and eHRAF Archaeology, this introductory course encourages students to explore cultural similarities and differences to better understand how culture shapes who we are: our societies, our shared meanings, and our everyday lives. Beginning with unpacking the concept of culture in anthropology, each week covers a different anthropological theme, including love, ritual performance, gender, language, food, and kinship. Evaluating cultural universals will allow students to contemplate the rich diversity of the human experience. With remote learning in mind, wholly online sources on timely topics are interwoven with classic ethnographic accounts to inspire lively class discussions. The cross-cultural and database research skills developed throughout the course provide a solid framework for understanding and analyzing anthropological concerns both within and beyond the social sciences.

Learning Objectives

  • Develop an understanding of the concept of culture within anthropology
  • Distinguish between ethnography and anthropology
  • Read and interpret ethnographic data
  • Compare and contrast diverse cultural insights and belief systems
  • View one’s personal habits and beliefs within global social and historical context
  • Draw meaningful cross-cultural conclusions about human universals
  • Conduct independent database research

Timetable & Class Level

This teaching exercise is aimed at Introductory-level courses in socio-cultural anthropology at community colleges or universities. It is structured for approximately 2-3 course hours per week divided between a “lecture” portion as well as weekly “seminar discussions”. However, the syllabus is designed to be adaptable to suit other timetables, class sizes, and levels. It can be supplemented with more advanced ethnographic or theoretical material and additional reading to scale up for larger and/or more advanced level courses.

Suggested Grading Breakdown

Activity                                               Percentage

Attendance & Participation                 20%

Research Paper                                  50%

Group Project                                      30%

Required Texts

This syllabus prioritizes digital resources. The vast majority of the weekly materials (with the exception of the eHRAF Databases) are entirely open access. The recommended free and open-access textbooks for the course are the following:

Recommended companion texts & supplementary advanced reading

This supplementary reading list contains additional recommended texts. Links to online versions are provided if available.

  • Barnard, A. & J. Spencer (eds) 1996. Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Routledge.
  • Barnard, A. 2000. History and theory in anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (Edward Evan). 1937. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among The Azande. Oxford: Clarendon Press. https://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu/document?id=fo07-071.
  • Hendry, J. 2016. An Introduction to Social Anthropology: Sharing Our Worlds. Red Globe Press.
  • Hobsbawm, E. and T. Ranger. 1938. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Hutchinson, Sharon Elaine. 1996. Nuer Dilemmas: Coping with Money, War, and The State. Berkeley: University of California Press. https://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu/document?id=fj22-018.
  • Ingold, T. 1996. Key Debates in Anthropology. London: Routledge.
  • Mead, Margaret. 1928. Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation. New York: W. Morrow & Company. https://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu/document?id=ou08-003.
  • Murdock, George P. 1949. Social Structure. Toronto: Macmillan. (PDF, archive.org)
  • Pountney, L. and Maric Tomislav. 2015. Introducing Anthropology: What Makes Us Human? Cambridge: Polity Press.

Group Project: Interview & Presentation

The purpose of this interview project is to learn about different cultural perspectives or experiences that your fellow classmates may have in comparison with yourself. Each student should share some aspect of their own “culture” and/or ethnic background or ancestry (e.g. ideas or practices learned from their parents or grandparents), or, alternatively, another country that they have lived in or traveled to. “American” cultural examples are acceptable, but groups should have at least 3 different regional examples from personal experience to compare and contrast.

Assignment: Teams of 3-4 students must interview each other on some aspect of the topic for the week that their group is assigned to. On the class day for that topic, the entire team must come prepared to present their findings in the form of a PowerPoint presentation with annotated slides. Total presentation time should be around 20-25 minutes. The subject of the presentation should roughly be what commonalities and differences your group found between the beliefs and practices of its team members’ cultures or ethnic backgrounds. Conclude the presentation by assessing whether or not the team members believe that the chosen aspect(s) of the weekly topic covered constitute a “cultural universal”. Why or why not?

Guidelines:

  • Students will be assigned into groups of 3-4 students.
  • The interview and presentation should be based on the general theme of the assigned week, but groups can choose a narrower focus within this thematic area (e.g. if the theme is “love”, marriage, dating, divorce or romance are acceptable topics).
  • Each team will meet – via Zoom, WebEx, Skype, or equivalent – at some point prior to the lecture for the week of their topic.
  • Student teams should prepare 3-5 unique questions to ask each other in the style of an interview. Interviewers within the group can each pose different questions if desired.
  • You do not have to include the exact answers to every question in your presentation.
  • The interviews should help you get to know your fellow classmates, while presentations should summarize the similarities and differences that you discovered.
  • Each team member should take an equal part in preparing and presenting to the class.
  • An open class discussion led by the team will follow the presentation.

Essay: Do cultural universals exist?

Choose any aspect of human life or anthropological theme and evaluate whether or not you believe it to be a cultural universal based on ethnographic evidence. Refer to the eHRAF articles that we have read and discussed for each week as a model. However, endeavor to choose an original subject to focus on. If you choose to explore one of the subjects from the weekly syllabus or aspects of it, you must use predominantly new examples and a new angle, supplemented with original theoretical and ethnographic research. Any of the listed textbooks are valid sources for theoretical background, but you are welcome to go beyond these texts by visiting anthropological journals.

While you are free to write about something that you have experienced in your own culture, use the eHRAF World Cultures database to decide on your topic or trait, and to conduct research across several cultures, to ensure that you will be able to gather enough ethnographic data for comparison. You may refer to the Outline of Cultural Materials (OCM) to decide on a topic. Paper topics and proposed titles must be emailed to the professor for approval at least 3 weeks before the deadline.

Research guidelines: Aim for 3-5 ethnographic examples from various parts of the world. You may choose any cultures that interest you as long as they are not all in the same world region (refer to Browse Cultures and/or the Search Results in eHRAF for a regional breakdown). As long as you meet the minimum content requirements, you may include additional ethnographic materials from outside of eHRAF. Remember to conclude your essay with reflections on cross-cultural differences and similarities.

References: All sources must be correctly referenced with in-text citations and listed in a bibliography. Refer to university guidelines on citations, plagiarism, and academic content.

Multimedia: You may supplement your essay with multimedia content including creating your own videos, presentations, photos, or digital artwork.

Word limit: Essays have a word limit of 2000 words. If including an original video or photo narrative, word limit is flexible at around 1,500 words in addition to the media. High resolution files must be hosted somewhere accessible by the essay due date.

Course Outline

Week 1: Uniqueness and Universals: An introduction to anthropology and culture.

According to Horace Miner (1956:503), “The anthropologist has become so familiar with the diversity of ways in which different people behave in similar situations that he is not apt to be surprised by even the most exotic customs”. Anthropology and anthropologists have thus acquired the reputation for making the strange familiar and the familiar strange. Taking this as a starting point for the exploration of culture, this week we will ask, what (if anything) makes humans unique? What accounts for cultural variation and difference within and between societies? Why might anthropologists want to draw generalizing conclusions across many cultures?

Video:

Key reading:

Textbook reading:

Advanced reading:

Week 2. eHRAF database research workshop

This workshop will prepare students to conduct research within the eHRAF World Cultures and eHRAF Archaeology databases. It will begin with a brief overview of ethnography, anthropology and cross-cultural research, including the methods employed by cross-cultural researchers. The remainder of the workshop will be a practical guide to browsing, searching, and saving search results in eHRAF. Students will be shown how paragraphs in eHRAF are indexed by subject, as well as encouraged to conduct sample searches and recognize relevant results in preparation for their essay assignments.

Recommended reading from Introducing Cross-Cultural Research:

About HRAF:

Class Activity:

Database Guides:

Week 3. Emotions in motion: Feelings and their expression

How do different cultures around the world process and express their emotions? Are some peoples more warm and welcoming, while others are cold and stern, or are these merely stereotypes? This week looks at two specific emotions in cross-cultural perspective – fear and anger – to see how they are manifested and controlled in different societies. Do we all have the same fears? How can some cultures be better at controlling tempers than others? A class activity based on the Atlas of Emotions allows students to explore their emotions, possible triggers, and varied responses.

Videos:

Key reading:

Class activity:

Advanced reading:


Week 4. Does romantic love look (and feel) the same everywhere?

You can’t eat. You can’t sleep. You can hardly concentrate on this sentence. Your heart skips a beat when the object of your affection walks into the room. In lieu of food and rest, you survive on daydreams of kisses and warm embraces. Do all cultures recognize this bizarre affliction as a tell-tale sign of being in love? This week we will discuss whether romantic love and kissing are cultural universals. The video for this topic explores the impact that technology may have on love and relationships. Has technology changed what it means to love? How many different types of love are there?

Video:

Key reading:

Textbook reading:

Advanced reading:

Week 5. Gestures of kindness and reciprocity, or when no good deed goes unpunished

Gift-giving as a means of displaying kindness and gratitude is one way that we show people that we care about them. In practice, finding the right gift can be stressful and full of potential landmines. What if the recipient hates the gift, or worse, feels insulted by it? This scenario gives us a hint that saying “thanks” can sometimes be a thankless experience in our own lives and relationships, let alone throughout cultures all across the globe. This week, we explore the anthropological perspective on gifts and other types of exchange, including reciprocity (generalized, balanced, and negative) and redistribution of wealth. We will also look at the language of exchange and the various forms a thank-you can take.

Videos:

Key reading:

Textbook reading:

Advanced reading:

Week 6. Place, space and the dynamics house and home

Winston Churchill notably proclaimed, “We shape our dwellings, and afterwards our dwellings shape us.” How do the spaces we inhabit become places we embody? The concept of “home” goes well beyond the bricks and mortar (or wood or clay) of the dwellings in which we reside. How many memories of your home are of the structure itself, and how many of are the relationships that were nurtured inside of it? This week explores the concepts of house and home as both material and cultural constructions, and introduces the idea of place-making in urban anthropology.

Videos:

Key reading:

Textbook reading:

  • Samanani, F. and J. Lenhard. 2019. “House and Home”, Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology.
  • Ember, C. 2014. “Dwellings” in C. R. Ember, ed. Explaining Human Culture (HRAF).

Advanced reading:


Week 7. Cultures and calendars: making and keeping time

Do all peoples conceive of time in the same ways? What does the past, present, or future mean for different cultures? How do we mark major milestones throughout the year, or events within our lifetimes? The videos for this week consider different ways of thinking and speaking about time and space, including deciphering the ancient Aztec calendar stone. The key readings focus on how two annual events – the spring and winter solstices – are celebrated around the world, and how these festivities mark time, space, and our place within the world.

Videos:

Key reading:

Textbook reading:

  • Antrosio, J. 2020. “Time”, Living Anthropologically (Cultural Ecology 2020).

Advanced reading:

Week 8. Defining selfhood: gender, sexuality, identity and power

Is gender a product of culture, or of biology? How does society shape our understanding of gender, including gender roles and identities? This week will explore the connections between gender and power by focusing on the manifestation of female agency across societies. Even from within restricted or oppressed conditions, ethnographic data shows that women can assert authority and control over themselves and others in creative ways; for instance, by leveraging access to areas of society where men have little to no interest or jurisdiction. We will follow this up with ideas about fatherhood and masculinity around the world. Lastly, this week will examine the question of fixity or fluidity of gender categories by exploring pronouns. What insights can gender nonconforming children give us about the origins and/or mutability of gender as a cultural construct?

Videos:

Key reading:

Textbook reading:

Advanced reading:

Week 9. “You’re, like, really pretty”: on bodies and beauty standards

Do you feel beautiful today? Is physical beauty perceived in the same ways everywhere in the world? This week we will explore how culture shapes the body and our perceptions of it. Western beauty standards promoted by the fashion industry, popular media – and perpetuated by each of us when we scroll through social media and like all the “pretty” people and things – have become ubiquitous, arguably encroaching upon every corner of the globe. But what about the majority of bodies in the world that are not tall, skinny, or white? What other perspectives on beauty exist?

Videos:

Key reading:

Textbook reading:

Advanced reading:

  • Gomółka, A. 2017. “Ugliness: A Cultural History” [book review] 3202/caa.reviews.2017.76.
  • Nagar, I. & Virk, R. 2017. “The Struggle Between the Real and Ideal: Impact of Acute Media Exposure on Body Image of Young Indian Women”, SAGE Open. 1177/2158244017691327.

 

Week 10. Let the good times roll: rituals, rites of passage and liminality

Anthropologist Victor Turner defined ritual as “prescribed formal behavior for occasions not given over to technological routine, having reference to beliefs in mystical beings and powers”. The subject of much anthropological analysis, rituals can in fact be secular or religious. They may mark major milestones for a society or community, constitute a rite of passage for individuals, or be enacted through more subtle behaviors in everyday life. Do all cultures have the same types of rituals? This week’s videos introduce Van Gennep’s three stages of rites of passage and Turner’s concepts of liminality and communitas in order to explore rituals as acts of social performance as well as personal transition. A case study of Cajun Mardi Gras ritual traditions from eHRAF World Cultures highlights the inversion of cultural norms symbolized by its carnival-like indulgences.

Videos:

Key reading:

Textbook reading:

  • Henninger-Rener, S. “Religion” in Perspectives
  • Griffith, L. “Performance“, in Perspectives. Read section “Ritual as Performance”.

Advanced reading:

Week 11. Witchcraft and sorcery: dealing with misfortune, magic, and a zero-sum universe

Why do some guys have all the luck? Why do bad things happen to good people? These are questions we often find ourselves asking when life seems distinctly unfair. In a zero-sum universe, one person’s good fortune is believed to come at the expense of another’s misfortune. Anthropologist Evans-Pritchard’s fieldwork and research on witchcraft and sorcery in Africa – detailed in his classic account, Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande – is a rich starting point for exploring how other cultures view misfortune and malice in the absence of a belief in “chance” or “coincidence”. Rural Irish folktales about fairies and their magic in eHRAF provide a fun case study for cultural comparison.

Video:

Key readings:

Textbook readings:

  • Benussi, M. 2019. “Magic”, Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology
  • Espírito Santo, D. 2019. “Divination“, Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology

Advanced readings:

Week 12. Puppy love: animals and their humans

You may have noticed by now that the internet is full of cat photos and cute puppy memes. It is clear that the human love of pets is a powerful and global phenomenon. For many pet owners, their furry (or scaly) domestic companions transcend any simple categorization of non-human animal. Indeed, research shows that it is a growing global trend for pet owners to consider their animals to be full members of their families, to dote upon them as they would children or romantic partners, and to thereby develop strong mutual bonds of dependency, love, and support. What can anthropology tell us about the relationship between humans and their fur babies?

Videos:

Key reading:

Textbook reading:

  • White, T. and M. Candea. 2018. “Animals“, Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology

Advanced Reading:

Week 13. Good Eats: The Anthropology of Food

Food is powerful and omnipresent within human society. We need to eat to survive, yet the enjoyment of food is about much more than nutrition alone. The symbolic ability of food to connect people to time, place, and relationships makes it a diverse field of study for anthropologists. We all have strong feelings about foods that we love or hate. Is pineapple an acceptable topping for pizza? How do you feel about black licorice? And let us not get the British or Australians started on Marmite. Some aspects of food and eating are universal, such as commensality – the act of eating together with others. This practice, found the world over, reinforces strong bonds of family and friendship within a community. Food can also be a marker of social distance, as you will rarely share a meal with people you dislike (Thanksgiving dinner notwithstanding!). This week will take an ethnographic look at culinary adventures, including the social life of cheese, as well as the delights of chocolate and its origins in Mesoamerica.

Videos:

Key readings:

Textbook reading:

Advanced Reading:

  • Mintz, S., and C. M. Du Bois. 2002. “The Anthropology of Food and Eating”, Annual Review of Anthropology, 31: 99-119. Read online: jstor.org/stable/4132873
  • Douglas, M. 1972. “Deciphering a Meal”, Daedalus, 101(1): 61-81. Read online: jstor.org/stable/20024058