Anthropologists are capable of looking beyond the daily appearances to decipher meanings of objects, beliefs, and behaviors, which are in most cases hidden from the normal view. In addition, anthropologists should set aside their preconceptions of what is normal or abnormal to have an unbiased perception of anthropological issues. For the proper anthropological interpretations, anthropologists should learn one culture and relate this knowledge to members of another culture (Nanda and Warms 73). This practice enables anthropologists to translate the views of members of one culture in comparison to the views of members of another culture, therefore, seeing the world through the eyes of others.
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As social scientists, anthropologists use various methods that social scientists use to conduct research. These methods include historical accounts, written documents, and surveys. However, anthropologists also use the ethnographic method, which is unique only to anthropology. Ethnography involves immersion of the researcher into the lives of people they are investigating, enabling them to experience and understand the meanings that these people ascribe to their existence. The importance of ethnography is that anthropologists who are undertaking the investigation may take themselves as the subject of investigation since they co-exist with the people they are investigating. Therefore, the success in seeing the world in other people’s perception, even for a brief moment, enables the anthropologists to describe and understand that world much easier (Ferraro and Andreatta 114). In ethnography, anthropologists should put aside their opinions of things to see the world in a new way that co-relates with the view of the people the anthropologist is studying. Therefore, fieldwork of the anthropologist is just the beginning of ethnography.
Fieldwork in a certain society is just a small area that cultural anthropologists strive to explore. However, it serves as an example of how from an anthropological perspective people should not take anything for granted, even our own beliefs and behaviors, let alone the beliefs and behaviors of people who have different backgrounds and histories (Robbins 4). By engaging in the fieldwork, anthropologists attempt to immerse themselves in the world of others making them marginal men and women. However, anthropologists cannot become completely native and have perceptions that are similar to the people they are investigating due to the anthropologists’ own cultural perceptions. However, anthropologists are never the same after having a glimpse of the alternative world visions (Robbins 20). Nonetheless, anthropologists cannot eliminate all the perceptions of their own culture, since culture will inform the findings of the investigations. The purpose of ethnography is to enable researchers to gain insights into other cultures, which anthropologists may use to analyze their own culture (Marcus and Fischer 111). Without an origin that the anthropologist will return to after the end of the research, the anthropologist is no one’s interpreter, and the work of the anthropologist is merely for personal amusement. Therefore, ethnography enables an anthropologist to exist in two different cultures simultaneously. It is evident that there is a common ground between cultures, even the most contradictory and that humans share various common elements of humanity with each other. Therefore, when individuals study another culture they are in essence studying themselves to a varying degree.
From an anthropological perspective, people who live in a certain society have a similar worldview. This is because they share the same culture. However, people who have different cultures view the world from different perspectives. Attitudes towards death are a clear example of societal differences in worldview. People from different societies have different attitudes towards death. There are considerable differences between various societies on attitudes towards death (Haviland, Prins and McBride 187). Usually human beings are compelled to look for the meaning of their experiences. This is because without these meanings, people would not be able to comprehend their experiences, and impose an order in the world. Therefore, the world would seem like a chaotic place made up of pointless acts and emotions (Geertz 46).
From an anthropological perspective, it is wrong to reject or condemn other people’s beliefs. By condemning or rejecting the behavior of other people one may be committing ethnocentric fallacy, which is the idea that an individual’s beliefs are true and right, whereas the belief of other people is wrong and misguided (Robbins 8). On the other hand, the alternative of ethnocentric fallacy, that is relativism, is equally problematic. Relativism implies that it is wrong to judge any behavior as wrong or misguided simply because it differs from our own behavior (White 36). Therefore, people must try to comprehend the culture of other people in terms of understanding the function, meaning, and purpose that people in the society attach to certain behaviors or beliefs, in the context of their existence. Ethnocentric fallacy and relativism create a dilemma to an anthropologist. Ethnocentric fallacy is intellectually unsatisfactory whereas relativism is morally unsatisfactory.
Cannibalism among the Wari, a Brazilian indigenous community, is a clear example of the untenable positions of ethnocentric fallacy and relativism. The Wari practiced mortuary cannibalism, which involved consuming the body of the dead during funeral practices. The Wari mainly practiced endocannibalism, which refers to eating members within an individual’s social group (Hicks 185). The Wari had a sentimental attachment to mortuary cannibalism and did not find it offensive. However, the Wari did not practice cannibalism simply because they needed meat or liked human flesh. They ate the dead as a sign of respect for the individual. In fact, the Wari interpreted refusal to eat the dead as an insult to the family of the deceased (Cocklin xvii). Cannibalism involved dismemberment of the dead, which made the dead disappear. It helped in the full reincarnation of the spirit of the dead and made the bereaved overcome their grief (Cocklin 132). The Wari had institutionalized cannibalism, making it a socially acceptable practice. It goes contrary to the popular belief that in places where there was cannibalism, it was a regrettable act, but not a custom of the people in the society. The practice of cannibalism among the Wari raises the question as to whether cannibalism is wrong if it helps people overcome their grief due to the loss of their loved ones.
The conflict between ethnocentrism and relativism which anthropologists face is merely a theoretical one. The choice of research of anthropologists also makes them face the dilemma of maintaining a moral distance from the objects under investigation and the remaining objective. Anthropologists also face the dilemma of whether to be actively involved in criticizing the practice under investigation (Robbins 13). A clear example is the practice of female genital mutilation, which is a source of widespread condemnation from various parties.
It is vital to look at the culture of these people as a text with significant symbols which include gestures, words, natural objects, drawings and anything that carries meaning in order to understand other people’s culture. To understand a certain culture clearly is vital to strive to decipher the meaning of various symbols that make up the cultural text. Usually people read and maintain the text that makes up their own culture. Therefore, proper understanding of other people’s culture necessitates people to use the abilities that enable them to dwell in their own culture to interpret the foreign culture. Anthropologists view the collection of cultural texts together to understand a foreign culture properly. A good example is the Balinese cockfight and American football. To a normal individual, both seem entirely different. However, from an anthropological perspective both games are very similar. These games seem extremely aggressive and are spectator sports, in which spectators sort themselves depending on the side they support. In American football, men attack players of the opposing team. In the Balinese cockfight the cocks attack each other. In addition, players in American football dress to emphasize their maleness: big heads, large shoulders, narrow hips, and pronounced genitals. Winners of both American football and the Balinese cockfight usually engage in frenzied celebrations, while the losers are often despondent due to the defeat (Robbins 26). Therefore, both the Balinese cockfight and American football are games that portray dominance and status. The games help young people build character as well as they help young people develop the virtue of cooperation (Schechner 309). However, the games can also teach verbal aggression, violence, cheating, and other negative behaviors.
In conclusion, human beings have different beliefs and behaviors because unlike animals, human beings create their own worlds and assign meanings to various objects, persons, emotions and events, all of which constitute a culture. Culture helps in creating order in human beings’ life. Without culture, life would be distorted and meaningless. In attempting to understand foreign cultures anthropologists usually face the dilemma of relativistic and ethnocentric fallacies. Anthropologists should not believe that people in a certain society are wrong nor should they suggest that their actions are justifiable. The understanding that anthropologists may get of another culture is usually limited. Objectification of an individual’s beliefs in the same way that the individual does of other people’s beliefs makes the culture of the individual equally strange and exotic.