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Anthropology Glossary


Anthropology Glossary

Definitions of Anthropological Terms.related to the field of anthropology.


academic anthropology - careers that involve the teaching of anthropology at colleges and universities. Academic anthropologists do research, but the objective is more for the contribution to general knowledge.

acculturation - culture change resulting from contact between cultures. A process of external culture change.

adaptation - patterns of behavior which enable a culture to cope with its surroundings.

adjudication - mediation with the ultimate decision being made by an unbiased third party.

affinal - members of one's kindred who are related through a marital linkage.

age grade - a social category or status based on an age range.

age set - a social group defined by those who share the same age status and are a recognizable group.

aggression - acts or threats designed to cause injury.

ambilineal - a corporate kin group that traces relationships through either the female or male lines. Also called cognatic descent.

American Anthropological Association (AAA) - the major professional association for anthropologists in the United States.

animatism - belief in an impersonal and divisible supernatural force or forces, which reside in living or unliving things.

animism - a belief that natural phenomena such as rocks, trees, thunder, or celestial bodies have life or divinity.

anthropological linguistics - the branch of anthropology that studies human language. Linguistic anthropology is mainly concerned with the technical analysis of language.

anthropology - the study of humanity; divisions are physical anthropology, archaeology, ethnology, and anthropological linguistics.

archaeology - study of material culture.

art - human endeavor thought to be aesthetic and have meaning beyond simple description. Includes music, dance, sculpture, painting, drawing, stitchery, weaving, poetry, writing, woodworking, etc. A medium of expression where the individual and culture come together.

assimilation - when one ethnic group absorbs another, so that the cultural traits of the assimilated group become indistinguishable.

autoethnography - an ethnographic description written by a member of the culture.

balanced reciprocity - a mode of equal value exchange in which the worth of a good or service and time for its delivery is known.

band - a small group of related people, who are primarily organized through family bonds. Foraging typifies the subsistence technology. A respected and older person may be looked to for leadership, but the person has no formalized authority.

big-man - a form of leadership in tribes where the leader achieves power and influence based on ability.

bilineal - descent in which the individual figures kinship through both the father's and mother's descent group.

brideprice - an economic exchange by the groom's family to compensate the bride's family upon marriage.

bureaucracy - government based on a specialized set of offices usually hierarchically organized.

cannibalism - consuming human flesh. This is reported to occur in the context of warfare, as part of a funeral rite or, rarely, in cases of extreme stress.

cargo - from the Spanish verb cargar which means to carry and to be in charge of.

cargo cult - do not confuse "cargo system" with "cargo cult" which is a revitalization movement characterized by the belief that ancestral spirits will bring wanted goods (cargo) and throw off oppressive customs and colonizers.

cargo system - a set of community offices and obligations a person goes through to achieve recognition and status.

caste system - the ranking of members in a society by occupational status and degree of purity or pollution as determined by their birth.

charismatic - the ability to lead and influence large numbers of people.

chiefdom - political organization is typically inherited through kinship lines. A ranked society in which a few leaders make decisions for the group.

clan - a noncorporate descent group in which genealogical links to a common ancestor are assumed but are not actually known.

class stratification - where members of a society are ranked from higher to lower based on wealth, prestige, position, or education.

colonialism - forced change in which one culture, society, or nation dominates another.

common interest groups - associations that are formally recognized with a name and social organization, but are not based on age, kinship, marriage, or territory.

compasino - an agricultural worker.

concept - relates facts to propositions and theories. concepts often become variables, but concept is more encompassing. Status and role are concepts. Ranking statuses according to social classes, e.g. lower, middle, and upper, is a variable.

consanguineal - members of one's kindred who are related by blood line.

conspicuous consumption - the display of material items for the purpose of impressing others.

core-periphery - the structural relation between centralized core, often an urban area, and communities on the periphery, usually tribal or rural, resource-based communities.

core values - attitudes and beliefs thought to uniquely pattern a culture.

cosmology - ideas about the universe as an ordered system and the place of humans in the universe.

Creole - a person of mixed Spanish and Black African or French and Black African ancestry.

crimes - violations against the state.

cross-cousin - children of the opposite-sexed siblings of one's parents, e.g., mother's brother's and father's sister's children.

cultural anthropology - study of cultural variation and similarities. Includes ethnology and anthropological linguistics. May also include archaeology.

cultural relativism - understanding the ways of other cultures and not judging these practices according to one's own cultural ways.

cultural transmission - how culture is passed on through learning from one generation to another. Also referred to as enculturation or socialization.

culture as an integrated whole - Cultures are systems in which all the parts are related to one another. If one part of the culture changes, this necessitates change in all other related parts.

culture - The learned patterns of behavior and thought that help a group adapt to it's surroundings.

culture of discontent - a level of aspirations that far exceeds the bounds of an individual's local opportunities. Also discussed as the gap between expectations and the ability to meet these expectations.

curer - a specialist who heals with herbal preparations and magic learned through apprenticeships. Curers are usually part-time specialists who are paid for their services and are also called shamans.

descent group - a kin group whose members are recruited by one of the principles of descent; e.g., matrilineal, patrilineal, etc.

diffusion - the spread of a cultural pattern from one culture to another, and where no directed change agent is apparent.

distributive justice - the rules in a culture that specifiy how the economic productivity of that culture is distributed among the members. It is a statement of values about what should be done. e.g.

libertarian: Society works best when each person is responsible for their own future no matter what happens.

socialist: Society works best when it has a system of social insurance to help people who are disadvantages when unexpected change occurs.

property: Society works best when it protects rights and compensates people, who because of public decisions, lose private opportunities.

communist: Society works best when each person contributes according to ability and each person receives according to need.

egalitarian: Society works best when everyone has a say in decisions and no person feels they will be injured by choices made by the group.

utilitarian: Society works best when the majority chooses what will produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

pattern Equality: Society works best when it constantly checks differences in people's well-being and seeks to prevent extreme inequalities.

divination - obtaining factual knowledge by magical means which have no apparent empirical connection to the information sought.

division of labor - the division of tasks in a society between women and men, old and young, ability, knowledge, experience.

domestication - when humans intervene in the breeding patterns of plants or animals.

dowry - the woman's share of her inheritance from the group of her birth, which is taken with her upon marriage.

egalitarian - a society without formalized differences in the access to power, influence, and wealth.

emic - an insider's view of a culture.

enculturation - the process of learning one's own culture, also called socialization.

endogamy - rules requiring selecting of a marriage partner from within a particular group.

ethics - the principles of conduct governing an individual or group; concerns for what is right or wrong, good or bad.

etic - an outsider's view of a culture.

ethnocentrism - judging other cultures by the standards of your own, which you believe to be superior.

ethnographic novel - an ethnographic description written as a story that may be about an ethnographer's experience or about some event or problem.

ethnographic present - a description of a culture as it was prior to contact.

ethnography - description of a culture, usually based on the method of participant observation.

ethnology - comparative analysis of cultural patterns to explain differences and similarities among societies.

evolution - change in the form of a culture. Usually a process of internal cultural change.

exogamy - rules requiring selection of a marriage partner from outside a particular group.

extended family - a composite family composed of other relatives besides the nuclear families. Extended families can be constructed across generations by including parent's or children's families or extended laterally by including multiple wives or sibling's families.

extinction - when a culture dies out. Often the people die out too. Some may become peasants or pass into contemporary society.

fact - a description of a bit or piece of some domain of inquiry.

fieldwork - living among a group of people for the purpose of learning about their culture.

fissioning - a Yanomamo settlement splits due to internal conflict with one group moving away to form a new village.

folk art - art produced by people not professionally identified as artists.

foragers - getting food by collecting or hunting what is naturally available. The term used to refer to the subsistence patterns of cultures different from our own continually changes as our values change. Initially, these groups were called "primitives." This term came to be viewed as too ethnocentric since it emphasized they were less developed than "modern" cultures. The term "hunters and gatherers" has been replaced by foragers because of the gender associations with male hunters and female gatherers. Since !Kung women produce 85% of the food by volume, is it appropriate to call them a hunting and gathering society?

funk - an earthy, unsophisticated style and feeling, or the style and feelings of blues.

fusion - blending traits from two different cultures to form a new trait. The cargo is a fusion of Mayan and Catholic religious elements. Also called syncretism.

genealogy - a family tree or web of kinship relationships traced through parents and children. Also called a kindred.

generalized reciprocity - a mode of exchange in which the time and value of repayment is not specified.

grammar and syntax - the formal structure of a language and the rules for making sentences and phrases.

Green Revolution - the development of high-yielding varieties of seed for crops such as wheat and rice in Third World countries and requiring extensive technology for planting, irrigation, fertilizing, spraying, and harvesting.

guru - a Sanskrit and pan-Indian word denoting a spiritual master or teacher. It implies an initiatory relation between master and disciple. The guru passes on oral tradition and ascetic regimen to the student.

hallmarks of humanity - good and evil, imagination, laughter, love.

horticulture - an agricultural technology distinguished by the use of hand tools to grow domesticated plants. Does not use draft animals, irrigation, or specially prepared fertilizers.

humanism - concern for human welfare, dignity and values.

ideal - what people think the situation should be.

illness - a malady that is culturally defined.

imperialism - economic control gained through the corporate organization of nation states.

industrial society - a society integrated by a complex network of occupational specialties supporting the manufacture of material goods.

informal economy - the economy common to shanytowns, , slums where goods and services sold or bartered are unregulated by formal institutions.

information society - a society integrated by complex communication networks that rapidly develop and exchange information.

information age - a form of culture where electronics joins members of diverse cultural backgrounds together. Greater quantities of information than ever before are available to individuals, yet certainty about the way systems operate is less and more subject to question.

intensive agriculture - use of irrigation, draft animals, terracing, natural fertilizers, selective breeding, mechanization, etc., to grow more food.

isolative integration - where a culture tries to prevent another culture from changing its ways and selectively takes from the dominant culture.


key informants - a few individuals selected on the basis of criteria such as knowledge, compatibility, age, experience, or reputation who provide information about their culture.

kindred - people related to one another by blood, marriage, and adoption.

kinesics - body, facial, hand, and arm movements that are used to communicate.

kinship chart - the diagram of kinship relations using symbols to indicate males, females, marriages, divorces, siblings, descent, and deceased relatives.

Koran - book of teachings for the religion of Islam. Also spelled Quran.

Kula - a set of trade relations among Trobriand men involving the giving away of shell artifacts with the objective of displaying prestige and reinforcing alliances.

law - the means by which members of a group regulate their conduct and deal with breaches of rules and incompatible interests.

leveling device - a cultural mechanism which reduces wealth differentials between individuals often by inducing the wealthy to sponsor feasts or to destroy or give away surplus in return for increased prestige.

life cycle - the set of states a person goes through from birth to death.

lineage - a corporate descent group whose members can trace their genealogical links to a known common ancestor.

linguistic anthropology - study of how language is used in various social contexts. Anthropological linguistics focuses more on the interplay of language and culture.

magic - practices designed to gain control over the supernatural. Magic and religion are separated in several ways in anthropology. For some anthropologists magic tries to gain control over the supernatural. Others see magic as being individual, while religion is a group phenomena that creates lasting social bonds. Malinowski saw magic as a means to an end, while religion was the end in itself. Other anthropologists find separating magic and religion very difficult.

mandala - artistic representation of the cosmos, a focus for meditation.

manioc, also called "cassava" - plants grown in the tropics for their starchy, edible rootstock, commonly found as a dietary staple among gardening peoples.

markets - systems that exchange goods and services using all-purpose money as a standard measure of relative value. Early market systems are characterized by market places or bazaars which are often cyclical, moving among a fixed set of localities, each having its specific market days.

matriarchy - where a mother figure and women have authority.

matrilineal - descent traced exclusively through the female line.

matrilocal - residence after marriage in association with the wife's mother's relatives.

mediation - dispute settlement through negotiation assisted by an unbiased third party.

megalopolis - a very large city or a thickly populated region encompassing one or more large cities.

Melanesia - one of the three principle divisions of Oceania; it includes the islands of the Pacific, Northeast of Australia including New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Fiji. The Melanesian land divers were from the village of Bunlap on Pentecost Island of Vanuatu which under colonial control was called the New Hebrides.

mestizos - persons of mixed Spanish and Indian cultural background.

metaphor - application of a word or phrase to an object or concept in order to suggest a comparison.

Micronesia - the small islands of western Oceania.

modal personality - the personality characteristic held by the most people in the group.

modernization - the process by which cultures are forced to accept traits from outside.

moiety - division of a society into two halves based on descent.

monogamy - marriage in which an individual has one spouse.

morpheme - the smallest unit of sound that carries a distinct meaning.

morphology - the study of meaningful units of sound in a language.

mulitculturalism - stressing the importance of different cultures, races, and ethnicities.

mucrology - the art of etching or painting with a pointed tip of a feathery leaf, etc.

national character - studies based on the assumption that collectively members of a society have a distinctive set of psychological qualities. Has been replaced by the concept of core values.

nature-nurture - contrasting the biological verses cultural or environmental basis for behavior.

negative reciprocity - a mode of exchange in which one party has the goal of getting more than is given up.

negotiation - the use of direct argument and compromise by the parties to a dispute to arrive at a mutually satisfactory agreement.

neolocal - residence in which the married couple's household has no connection with either the husband's or wife's family.

New World - pertaining to the areas of the world most recently discovered by Europeans; e.g., North and South America.

nuclear family - a woman and/or husband and dependent children.

noblesse oblige - the obligation of honorable, generous, and responsible behavior associated with high social rank or birth.

nodes - the individuals in a person's social network.

Old World - pertaining to areas of the world having the longest period of documented human habitation: e.g., Europe, Asia, and Africa.

oligarchy - the ruling class. Usually a small group of wealthy individuals.

one-world culture - a popular belief that the future will bring development of a single homogeneous world culture through links created by modern communication, transportation, and trade.

pacification - extending the authority of national government over formerly autonomous people whether by force or persuasion.

paralanguage - the use of accent, cadence, pitch, and tone to convey meaning.

parallel-cousin - children of the same-sexed siblings of one's parents, e.g., mother's sister's and father's brother's children.

paramount chief - the highest ranking social office in a chiefdom.

participant observation - living in a culture that is not your own while also keeping a detailed record of your observations and interviews.

pastoralist - subsistence gained by tending and breeding animals.

patriarchy - where a father figure and males have authority.

patrilineal - tracing kinship, inheritance, power through the male line.

patrilocal - residence after marriage in association with the husband's father's relatives.

peasants - people who produce for their own subsistence in pre-industrial and industrializing state societies--usually rural, lower class, primary producers such as farmers, artisans, or fishermen. They are involved in market relations with urban centers, to which they are also bound politically and administratively.

peer group - a subgroup of a society in which membership is determined by similar age, sharing the same social status, etc.

perceived - what people think the situation actually is.

personality - personal beliefs, expectations, desires, values, and behaviors that derive from the interaction between culture and the individual. Personality is the behaviors and techniques for solving problems that are used by an individual. Personality is to the individual as culture is to the group.

phoneme - the smallest unit of sound that does not alter the meaning of words in which it occurs.

phonetics - study of the production, transmission, and reception of sounds in speech.

phonology - the study of sound patterns in language.

physical anthropology - study of biological origins and physical variations among human populations.

pilgrims - those who travel to a shrine or holy place as devotees.

plurality - when a person wins an election by having the most votes, as opposed to a majority where a person gets more than half of the votes.

polyandry - a woman has more than one husband.

polygamy - an individual who has more than one spouse.

polygyny - a man has more than one wife.

Polynesia - islands in Oceania within the triangle whose corners are the Hawaiian Islands, Easter Island, and New Zealand.

postmodern - a view that social and cultural reality, as well as social science itself, is a human construction.

proposition - makes a claim about some domain of inquiry. Also called hypotheses. The higher one's class status, the greater one's power is a proposition.

protestant work ethic - a value system that stresses the moral value of work, self-discipline, and individual responsibility as the means to improving one's economic well-being.


rap - a type of rhythmic, rhyming expression spontaneously composed.

real - what is known to actually be so.

redistribution - a mechanism whereby a politically or economically powerful individual (or group) collects goods and services from the members of society and reallocates them among the society's members.

relations - the relationships between individuals in a social network.

religion - a set of attitudes, beliefs, and practices pertaining to supernatural power.

revitalization movement - religiously based social movement with the purpose of reforming society.

ritual - the visible control of abstract thoughts. Tries to control unpredictable events and the supernatural. Tries to know the unknowable and change the unchangeable.

role - the relation one has with another node in a social network. A loving and affective relationship is the role of being a spouse. See status.

sacred - things and actions set apart as religious or spiritual which are entitled to reverence.

science - systematically acquired knowledge that is verifiable.

seasonal round - the annual pattern followed in the production of food.

secular - things not regarded as religious or spiritual.

serial monogamy - a pattern of divorce and monogamous remarriage.

sex role division of labor - the division of subsistence tasks between women and men.

shaman - a religious specialist who uses supernatural power in curing. Also called curer or cuerandero.

shantytown - neighborhoods where poor migrants to cities live. Also called slum, farela, township.

sister exchange - a shorthand label for a marriage system in which men of different descent groups exchange women who are sometimes their own sisters or daughters and sometimes parallel cousins or the daughters of parallel cousins.

slash and burn - cultivation with recurrent clearing and burning of vegetation and planting in the burnt fields. Fallow periods for each plot last longer than periods of cultivation. It is sometimes referred to as swidden (or shifting) cultivation.

social class - people having the same rank in a system that differentiates people from high to low.

social control - the rules, habits, and customs by which a society tries to maintain order.

social network - the relationships an individual has with family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and people in groups to which the person belongs, e.g. church, recreation, political, social, and other groups. See also family, kinship, caste, class.

social stratification - arranging the members of a society into a pattern of superior and inferior ranks.

socialization - the process by which culture is learned; also called enculturation. During socialization individuals internalize a culture's social controls, along with values and norms about right and wrong.

sociobiology - study of human behavior based on the assumption that human behavior is biologically based.

sociolinguistics - study of the relationship between language and social factors such as class, ethnicity, age and sex.

space industrialization - the development of important new manufacturing activities in the environment of outer space.

specialization - where individuals become experts in producing certain goods or services that are then exchanged.

spirit cult - a group of adherents to a set of religious beliefs and ritual in which ghosts are believed to interfere in the affairs of the living.

state - a culture that has a formal political organization with a central bureaucracy with the authority to employ legalized force.

status - the position one has in a social network. The name of a position given to a node. Husband and wife are statuses. See role.

subsistence farmers - when there is very little surplus and nearly all that is produced goes to supporting the farm household.

subsistence - the way by which a culture obtains its food.

supernatural - characteristics of the reality beyond the senses.

survival of the fittest - a nineteenth century concept that the strongest survive. Often called "Social Darwinism." "Survival of the fittest" misrepresents the process of natural selection. The mechanism of natural selection is reproductive fitness, those who produce offspring. Social Darwinism refers to being the most powerful, which is not the mechanism for natural selection.

sustainable - being able to continue into the future.

symbols - physical objects, colors, sounds, movements, scents which convey information through an arbitrary or culturally assigned meaning.

syncretism - blending traits from two different cultures to form a new trait. Also called fusion.

tapioca - a cassava plant, the scraping of which is interpreted as a sexual metaphor by Trobrianders.

terminology systems - the terminology used to refer to cousins. Two-thirds of all world cultures can be classified according to six kinship systems--Hawaiian, Eskimo, Crow, Omaha, Iroquois, Sudanese. The text defines these systems.

theocracy - a form of state political organization in which the government is based on religious offices.

theory - several related propositions that explain some domain of inquiry. Also called a school or paradigm.

Third World - countries with economies largely based on agriculture and characterized by low standards of living, high rates of population growth, and general economic and technological dependence upon wealthier industrial nations. A very ethnocentric way of referring to other cultures because it ranks cultures below those of the "First World" like Europe, Japan, Canada, and the United States.

topophilia - all emotional connections with a place, having a strong sense of place.

torts - violations against an individual.

tribe - a group that centers around kinship units and common-interest groups that cross-cut kindred boundaries. Horticulture typifies the subsistence technology. People who attain prestige according to cultural standards may be seen as leaders. The big-man institution is quite common in tribes.

trope - metaphor, often ironic, using words other than dialogue in their literal sense


urbanization - the process by which more and more people come to live in cities.

utility - the satisfaction people get from something. Typically, this satisfaction is translated into a monetary willingness to pay for the good or service. The monetary units then enable comparing the relative satisfaction or value of goods or services.


values - what people think is right and wrong, good and bad, desirable and undesirable.

warfare - organized, armed conflict between groups, each of which is motivated by a common purpose.

wealth - the net gain in material well-being from economic activity. Wealth is measured according to the items of value in a given culture.

wealth concentration measure - measures inequality. Percentages, Gini coefficient, ranges are all measures of wealth concentration.

wealth distribution - a plot of the wealth held by all the members of a community. Wealth distribution is concerned with the whole population of people.

world view - the beliefs about the limits and workings of the world shared by the members of a society and represented in their myths, lore, ceremonies, social conduct, and general values.
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