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Brad Cox
Brad Cox

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Skimming Steps Using An Anthropology Textbook Sample
The steps on the left show the process for skimming this article on
STEP 1 – Look at the
title. With this title it is
easy to tell what the
reading will be about
Step 2- Read just the
first paragraph.
Remember to do this
QUICKLY. Any key
words stand out? You
may have noticed the
following: evolved,
human beings,
communication, social
culture, and people.
What Is Anthropology?
Anthropology is the study of humankind, especially of Homo sapiens, the biological
species to which we human beings belong. It is the study of how our species evolved
from more primitive organisms; it is also the study of how our species developed a
mode of communication known as language and a mode of social life known as
culture. It is the study of how culture evolved and diversified. And finally, it is the
study of how culture, people, and nature interact wherever human beings are found.
This book is an Introduction to general anthropology, which is an amalgam of four
fields of study traditionally found within departments of anthropology at major
universities. The four fields are cultural anthropology (sometimes called social
anthropology), archaeology, anthropological linguistics, and physical anthropology.
The collaborative effort of these four fields is needed in order to study our species in
evolutionary perspective and in relation to diverse habitats and cultures.
Anthropological Perspectives
Step 3 This section has
two subheadings. They
provide important
information about the
structure of the
Cultural anthropology deals with the description and analysis of the forms and styles
of social life of past and present ages. Its subdiscipline, ethnography, systematically
describes contemporary societies and cultures. Comparison of these descriptions
provides the basis for hypotheses and theories about the causes of human lifestyles.
Archaeology adds a crucial dimension to this endeavor. By digging up the remains of
cultures of past ages, archaeology studies sequences of social and cultural evolution
under diverse natural and cultural conditions. In the quest for understanding the
present-day characteristics of human existence, for validating or invalidating
proposed theories of historical causation, the great temporal depth of the
archaeological record is indispensable.
Anthropological linguistics provides another crucial perspective:
the study of the totality of languages spoken by human beings. Linguistics attempts to
reconstruct the historical changes that have led to the formation of individual
languages and families of languages. More fundamentally, anthropological linguistics
is concerned with the nature of language and its functions and the way language
influences and is influenced by other aspects of cultural life. Anthropological linguistics is concerned
with the origin of language and the relationship between the evolution of language and the evolution of
Homo sapiens. And finally, anthropological linguistics is concerned with the relationship between the
evolution of languages and the evolution and differentiation of human cultures.
Physical anthropology grounds the work of the other anthropological fields in our animal origins and our
genetically determined nature. Physical anthropology seeks to reconstruct the course of human evolution
by studying the fossil remains of ancient human and infrahuman species. Physical anthropology seeks to
describe the distribution of hereditary variations among contemporary populations and to sort out and
measure the relative contributions made by heredity, environment, and culture to human biology.
Step 4: You are now
ready to QUICKLY
read the first
sentence in each
STEP 5: Look for key
words and underline
or circle them. There
are a few of them
that are italicized
here in this reading.
Take note of them.
Because of its combination of biological, archaeological, and ethnographic perspectives,
general anthropology is uniquely suited to the study of many problems of vital
importance to the survival and well-being of our species. To be sure, disciplines other
than anthropology are concerned with the study of human beings. Our animal nature is
the subject of intense research by biologists, geneticists, and physiologists. In medicine
alone, hundreds of additional specialists investigate the human body, and psychiatrists
and psychologists, rank upon rank, seek the essence of the human mind and soul. Many
other disciplines examine our cultural, intellectual, and aesthetic behavior. These
disciplines include sociology, human geography, social psychology, political science,
economics, linguistics, theology, philosophy, musicology, art, literature, and architecture.
There are also many "area specialists," who study the languages and life-styles of
particular peoples, nations, or regions: "Latin Americanists," "Indianists," "Sinologists,"
and so on. In view of this profusion of disciplines that describe, explain, and interpret
aspects of human life, what justification can there be for a single discipline that claims to
be the general science of the human species?
The Importance of General Anthropology
Research and publications are accumulating in each of the four fields of anthropology at
an exponential rate. Few anthropologists nowadays master more than one field. And
anthropologists increasingly find themselves working not with fellow anthropologists of
another field but with members of entirely different scientific or humanistic specialties.
For example, cultural anthropologists interested in the relationship between cultural
practices and the natural environment may be obliged to pay closer attention to
agronomy or ecology than to linguistics. Physical anthropologists interested in the
relationship between human and protohuman fossils may, because of the importance of teeth in the fossil
record, become more familiar with dentistry journals than with journals devoted to ethnography or
linguistics. Cultural anthropologists interested in the relationship between culture and individual
personality are sometimes more at home professionally with psychiatrists and social psychologists than
with the archaeologists in their own university departments. Hence, many more than four fields are
represented in the ongoing research of modern anthropology.
The specialized nature of most anthropological research makes it imperative that the general significance
of anthropological facts and theories be preserved. This is the task of general anthropology.
General anthropology does not pretend to survey the entire subject matter of physical, cultural,
archaeological, and linguistic anthropology. Much less does it pretend to survey the work of the legions of
scholars in other disciplines who also study the biological, linguistic, and cultural aspects of human
existence. Rather, it strives to achieve a particular orientation toward all the human sciences, disciplines,
and fields. Perhaps the best word for this orientation is ecumenical. General anthropology does not teach
all that one must know in order to master the four fields or all that one must know in order to become an
anthropologist. Instead, general anthropology teaches how to evaluate facts and theories about human
nature and human culture by placing them in a total, universalist perspective. In the words of Frederica
De Laguna,
“Anthropology is the only discipline that offers a conceptual schema for the whole context of human
experience. It is like the carrying frame onto which may be fitted all the several subjects of a liberal
education, and by organizing the load, making it more wieldy and capable of being carried” (1968, p.
I believe that the importance of general anthropology is that it is panhuman, evolutionary, and
comparative. The previously mentioned disciplines are concerned with only a particular segment of
human experience or a particular time or phase of our cultural or biological development. But general
anthropology is systematically and uncompromisingly comparative. Its findings are never based upon the
study of a single population, race, "tribe," class, or nation. General anthropology insists first and foremost
that conclusions based upon the study of one particular human group or civilization be checked against
the evidence of other groups or civilizations under both similar and different conditions. In this way the
relevance of general anthropology transcends the interests of any particular "tribe," race, nation, or
culture. In anthropological perspective, all peoples and civilizations are fundamentally local and
evanescent. Thus general anthropology is implacably opposed to the insularity and mental constriction of
those who would have themselves and none other represent humanity, stand at the pinnacle of progress, or
be chosen by God or history to fashion the world in their own image.
Therefore, general anthropology is "relevant" even when it deals with fragments of fossils, extinct
civilizations, remote villages, or exotic customs. The proper study of humankind requires a knowledge of
distant as well as near lands and of remote as well as present times.
Only in this way can we humans hope to tear off the blinders of our local life-styles to look upon the
human condition without prejudice.
Because of its multidisciplinary, comparative, and diachronic perspective,
anthropology holds the key to many fundamental questions of recurrent and
contemporary relevance. It lies peculiarly within the competence of general
anthropology to explicate our species' animal heritage, to define what is distinctively
human about human nature, and to differentiate the natural and the cultural
conditions responsible for competition, conflict, and war. General anthropology is
also strategically equipped to probe the significance of racial factors in the evolution
of culture and in the conduct of contemporary human affairs. General anthropology
holds the key to an understanding of the origins of social inequality, of racism,
exploitation, poverty, and underdevelopment. Overarching all of general
anthropology's contributions is the search for the causes of social and cultural
differences and similarities. What is the nature of the determinism that operates in
human history, and what are the consequences of this determinism for individual freedom of thought and
action? To answer these questions is to begin to understand the extent to which we can increase
humanity's freedom and well-being by conscious intervention in the processes of cultural evolution.
STEP 6: QUICKLY read the
last paragraph. Look for
summarizing ideas that are
connected to what you
learned from the title and
the first paragraph (Steps 1
and 2).
Adapted from: Marvin Harris (1975). Culture, people, nature: An introduction to general
anthropology (2nd edition), pp. 1-5, Harper International Editions

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