The word anthropology comes from the Greek language. "Anthro" means human,
so cultural anthropology is the study of human cultures.
All human beings belong to cultures. There are many cultures around the
world. A person raised in animal-skin yurts in Tibet is from a very different
culture than someone brought up among third-generation Irish-Americans in
Boston. But how deep are those differences? What similarities might there
be beneath the surface?
A cultural anthropologist actually goes and lives with people in a different
culture, learns all about that culture from the inside, and then tries to
convey the interesting differences and similarities between them.
Michael Dean Murphy is a professor of cultural anthropology at the University
of Alabama. He says there are traditionally three other subdivisions within
Biological anthropologists study ancient fossil remains of human
ancestors, looking at the biological roots of humans.
Archeologists are interested mainly in the pre-written, pre-history
period of human beings -- from a million years ago to 5,000 or 6,000 years
Linguistic anthropologists study and document languages.
By far, the largest group is made up of cultural anthropologists. Fifty
percent or more of all anthropologists in the United States are of the cultural
Because there are so many different cultures on the planet, there's a huge
diversity of fields from which a cultural anthropologist may choose. Murphy,
for example, has made several studies of people in southern Spain.
"I've been there since the mid-'70s," he says. "Recently I've been studying
the people who round up the wild horses."
Allen Maxwell is an associate professor at the University of Alabama. His
fieldwork has led him to Borneo, Brunei and Malaysia. In addition to teaching,
he does a lot of writing.
"It's very common [for undergraduate students interested in becoming cultural
anthropologists] to use the four-field approach. You have to do some of all
of the different areas," he says.
Millie Creighton is a specialist on Japan, having spent over 17 years studying
aspects of Japanese culture. "I lived there for four years, and did a dissertation
on department stores. It all had to do with mass communication, consumerism
and tourism in Japan and Asia."
Creighton has also studied the Ainu, the aboriginal people of Japan. "It's
very enjoyable to have an area and to do research on it," she says.
"Initially, there was a big interest for me in the culture. But the longer
you live somewhere, the more tensions and strains you see. It's not like going
on a vacation trip. There's an ongoing obligation and relationships. There
is a lot of reading and writing."
There is no typical work environment for cultural anthropologists. A scientist
might live with an Inuit community in the frozen Arctic or share a meal of
roast monkey in the jungles of South America. The hours and conditions vary
immensely. Even when working at a university, the amount of time one spends
teaching and writing can vary from one individual to the next.
"Increasingly, folks are going out of the academic setting and working
in what we call applied anthropology in professional settings outside academia,"
comments Susan Skomal of the American Anthropological Association.
"Where cultural anthropologists are becoming employed more and more is
in places like corporations and consulting firms. We have a large number of
people doing consulting work for corporations and human resources."
Cultural anthropologist Geoff Bradshaw believes there are roughly equal
numbers of men and women working in cultural anthropology today, although
in the past there were definitely more men.
A person with a disability shouldn't be hampered in becoming a cultural
"The type of research one does as a cultural anthropologist depends greatly
on where you study. Someone who does research in rural Kenya, for example,
may find the physical demands of the environment very difficult -- high temperatures
and few modern conveniences. Others may choose to study other areas that don't
have such difficulties," says Bradshaw.