The Comparative Approach in Anthropology
In a blog titled Where Have All the Comparisons Gone?, originally published on the website for the Society For Cultural Anthropology, Robert Borofsky from the Center For A Public Anthropology at Hawaii Pacific University writes:
Comparison is basic to anthropology. It frames an understanding of ourselves and others…Comparison, I would suggest, draws the attention of others beyond the discipline. It encourages public appreciation of cultural anthropology’s intellectual power—how it broadens our collective understanding of the world around us, above and beyond the insights of individual cases (Borofsky 2019).
HRAF recognizes the intellectual importance of anthropology and its potential to make substantive contributions to fostering cross-cultural understanding in the age of globalization. Our mission is to promote understanding of cultural diversity and commonality in the past and present. Many of the key points made in “Where Have All the Comparisons Gone?” are echoed by our open access resource, Explaining Human Culture:
The vast anthropological record of human societies and cultures allows us to ask cross-cultural questions about human universals and differences. What cultural and societal features are universal? What features vary? And how can we explain these patterns? These are the fundamental questions asked by cross-cultural researchers (Ember 2016).
Peoples and Cultures of the World
Matthew Longcore, HRAF’s member services manager who also teaches anthropology and archaeology at the University of Connecticut, takes a comparative approach in his introductory courses and regularly incorporates the eHRAF databases into his teaching. In the Spring 2022 semester, Professor Longcore taught ANTH 1000W Peoples and Cultures of the World, an introductory writing-intensive course in cultural anthropology. The course is considered a first year, or freshman level, course with college-level English as a prerequisite. Cross-cultural comparisons help students understand the differences and similarities among extant societies, as well as providing a perspective for evaluating one’s own society and place within it. Here is the course description:
An introduction to the anthropological understanding of human society through ethnographic case studies of selected peoples and cultures, exploring the richness and variety of human life. Encourages students to learn about different cultures and to apply their knowledge to make sense of their own society (UConn Catalog 2022).
To meet the writing requirement for the course, students are expected to submit a research paper using eHRAF World Cultures. Here is the research paper assignment in Teaching eHRAF. The paper should address a specific cultural behavior or topic of their choice (e.g. romantic kissing) and a related research question (e.g. is romantic kissing a cultural universal?). Students use data from eHRAF World Cultures to answer the question and must select any three cultures to research their topic. The assignment provides students with sample topics, tips for selecting a research question, the step-by-step process for the development of the research paper, and guidelines for writing the paper. The completed assignment should comprise a minimum of 9 pages, double-spaced, including a title page, and references cited.
The assigned textbook for ANTH 1000W is Cultural Anthropology: An Applied Perspective by Ferraro and Andreatta. This textbook is ideal for preparing students to explore eHRAF as it has several references to the Human Relations Area Files, George Peter Murdock, and cultural universals. To help students get started with selecting a topic, Professor Longcore presented the concept of cultural universals and reviewed a list from Murdock with the class. Longcore explained to his students that cultural universals are those general human traits found in all societies of the world. By examining the cultures of the world in a comparative way, anthropologists can begin to discover similarities and differences between cultures and can identify common denominators.
Based on feedback received early in the course, students appreciated having the opportunity to select a topic for their research based on their own interests, or to develop a new theme on a facet of culture that they discovered independently while searching in eHRAF. Several research papers focused on topics related to marriage, including subtopics such as arranged marriages, polygyny and polyandry, exogamy and endogamy, patrilineal and matrilineal descent, and premarital sex. Students also developed research papers on some new topics including the concepts of machismo and marianismo in Latin American societies, the use of jewelry across cultures, recreational and non-therapeutic drugs, tattooing, and intimacy across cultures.
At the beginning of the semester, Professor Longcore presented a webinar on how to effectively use eHRAF World Cultures for the research paper assignment. During the webinar, students were able to ask questions about how to navigate the databases in order to find relevant information to complete their assignments. Of particular interest were recommendations for saving information and citing sources.
HRAF highly recommends that faculty who are teaching with eHRAF schedule a webinar for their classes. For those instructors assigning an eHRAF research paper, it is also particularly helpful to share posts from the HRAF homepage with your students as they are accessible examples of research featuring popular anthropological topics which appeal to students. Additionally, all of the ethnographic sources included in the posts have been properly cited with links to the databases.
At the conclusion of the course, Professor Longcore created a presentation which features the work of each of the students including their research topics and direct quotes from their papers. Students were glad to have the opportunity to share their research topics with their classmates and to discuss the process of developing their papers. The students thoroughly enjoyed the journey of cultural discovery that they had undergone in order to produce their papers, and were amazed that they were able to find such diversity of ethnographic information in one place.
Teaching with eHRAF
Reflecting on his experience teaching with the eHRAF databases, Professor Longcore shared the following:
I found that eHRAF World Cultures is ideally suited to teaching introductory courses in cultural anthropology. My main objective is to get students to think comparatively and cross-culturally. Students are encouraged to take an aerial view of the world – past and present – and to see the interconnectedness of cultures in terms of similarities and differences. With the click of a button, students are able to make startling discoveries through a repository of trusted ethnographic resources.
Students from both courses were excited to learn about anthropology and found the subject to be engaging well beyond their expectations. While many of the students enrolled in the courses simply for the purpose of satisfying distribution requirements, they emerged with a deep passion for anthropology, seeing its relevance to their own lives and career aspirations. Some students expressed interest in taking more advanced courses in anthropology and in joining UConn Stamford Anthropology Society, which is advised by Professor Longcore.
We are pleased that eHRAF World Cultures has played such a significant role in attracting a new generation of anthropologists with the help of dedicated instructors like Professor Longcore.
Contribute & Collaborate
Teaching eHRAF is made possible with the help and generosity of educators who use eHRAF in their classrooms. Instructors are invited to contact HRAF with innovative and practical teaching ideas. We encourage educators to collaborate with us and to share any eHRAF-themed teaching materials that they have produced. If you would like to contribute to Teaching eHRAF, please contact Dr. Francine Barone at firstname.lastname@example.org.