How should culture be studied?

This post is by Jessica Reynolds. She is a graduate anthropologist, but now works as a freelance writer with special interests in science, anthropology and archeology. She writes for

As globalization becomes increasingly prominent in our everyday lives, cultural research becomes the cornerstone of social advancement. Many problems between countries and even individuals stem from a misunderstanding of culture and cultural differences. Cultural research aims to create an understanding of the mechanics and implications of various cultures across the globe to help remedy misunderstandings and intolerance.

The biggest obstacle cultural research faces is the question of how it should be observed, recorded, and interpreted.  How do we study culture? First, we must define what culture is. Culture has many definitions, but they all synonymously denote culture as the accumulation of systems of knowledge shared by a group of people. Although the definition of culture is easy enough to understand, how to study culture has created debates among the social sciences.

Emic and Etic views

Culture must not only be observed but be understood to be studied. There are two approaches to understand culture: 1. An inside view from the point of the ethnographer in which they attempt to explain a culture in its own terms and 2. An outside view from the point of the ethnographer in which they attempt to explain a culture in terms of general standards. These views are often referred to as emic and etic. Emic views are employed to understand a culture from a native’s point of view while etic views are employed to identify universal truths.

Cultural Relativism

Relativism is the study of a culture from the culture itself which arguably relies on solely emic viewpoints. Cultural Relativism can be broken down into many different categories but there are three major categories that are consistently used in the social sciences: descriptive relativism, normative relativism, and epistemological relativism.

Descriptive relativism is based on the theory of cultural determinism (the theory that human social and psychological characteristic are determined by culture). It thereby assumes that different cultures have different thoughts and ways of understanding the world than other cultures do.

Normative relativism is the idea that there is no way to judge a culture on a scale of merit or worth in terms of good vs. bad because all standards are culturally constituted.

Epistemological relativism is similar to descriptive relativism except for the idea that culture not only dictates what we think about our lives but how we feel about our lives, providing a limitless view of cultural diversity (Spiro 1986).

The three categories of cultural relativism have not been supported by all social scientists, with some supporting one and others supporting the other or a combination of the three. It was with American anthropologists Franz Boas and the rise of the American Historical School that they all began to be used in conjunction with one another. Boas and his followers rejected the idea of cultural progress and cultural evolution because that suggests that one culture is superior over another and is a result of ethnocentric views.

A long term debate has been going on in the field of anthropology over cultural relativism and psychic unity. Are cultures incommensurable and is it impossible to make generalizations about cultures because every person perceives the world differently depending on the culture they are a part of? If this is so, then how can ethnographers even begin to describe a different culture’s kinship systems, rituals, and other cultural aspects?

Cultural Materialism

The cultural materialist perspective was a response to cultural relativism and is really thought to have originated with Karl Marx. Karl Marx explains that societies and culture are systemic and his major interest was how those systems both maintain and destroy themselves. To Marx, this sort of change does not happen because of the ideology and social organization of a culture. It instead happens due to a chance in the surrounding environment (Marx 1970). In this way, ideology and social organization are considered to be adaptations to environmental change making cultures not only predictable but comparable to one another.

Cultural Research as a science

Viewpoints other than relativism and materialism are used when conducting research but they all beg the question of whether or not cultural research can be done scientifically. Science is arguably quantifiable so if cultural research cannot be quantified, it is likely that it cannot be considered a science.  What is quantifiable can be replicated and the very scientific method is focused on replication. Franz Boas and his followers reject the idea of culture being quantifiable because quantification suggests cultural progress and the idea of progress between cultures is a result of ethnocentrism. Thus there are those who have determined that cultural research can in no way, shape, or form be considered a science nor should it be.

Many cultural relativists argue that cultural studies cannot be a science because generalizations cannot be made cross culturally. Therefore researchers should focus their studies on Western Cultures and try to compare them to non-Western cultures. Studying non-Western cultures would not produce results that Westerners would be able to accurately perceive nor discuss.

The idea that relativism doesn’t seem to have a place in the field of anthropology or any other cultural studies is perpetuated by the fact that ethnographers have been able to achieve such understandings of other cultures.  In order for cultural research to be quantifiable, comparisons must be able to be made cross-culturally as a materialist perspective would inevitably allow. This does not mean that all qualitative work or relativist perspectives in the social sciences are meaningless, but that when used in conjunction with a quantifiable materialist perspective, they would be able to produce invaluable information concerning our own culture as well as cross cultural studies. Cultural relativism needs to be seen as a methodological position that explains the practices and ideas of other cultures within the terms of their own cosmologies as opposed to the only way to study and observe culture. When conducted from both a relativist and materialist perspective, cultural research provides the framework by which to understand variation among and across cultures.

Marx, K., Engels, F., In Arthur, C. J., Marx, K., & Marx, K. (1970). The German ideology. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Spiro, M. (1986) ‘Cultural Relativism and the Future of Anthropology’ American Anthropological Association No. 3 pp. 259-286

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3 Comments on “How should culture be studied?”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    Many thanks Jessica for this interesting insight into the anthropological approach to the study of culture. Although the text reads more like an extract from a PhD thesis than a blog post, it presents quite a few valuable ideas, while simultaneously revealing the limits of (cultural) anthropology as the main disciplinary lens through which the study of culture should be conducted. The fact is that when it comes to something as ‘messy’ as culture no academic discipline can claim a monopoly on its understanding, hence the most profitable approach is the one practiced by the interdisciplinary academic *field* of ‘cultural studies’, which the very decent Wikipedia entry describes as such: “Cultural studies combines feminist theory, social theory, political theory, history, philosophy, literary theory, media theory, film/video studies, communication studies, political economy, translation studies, museum studies and art history/criticism to study cultural phenomena in various societies.” I am not going to write an alternative post on How should culture be studied from a cultural studies perspective, so I refer readers to the above mentioned entry (
    I just wish to dwell though on some of the most problematic statements in your post. The first is that: “Culture has many definitions, but they all synonymously denote culture as the accumulation of systems of knowledge shared by a group of people. Although the definition of culture is easy enough to understand…”
    I find it rather illogical that ‘many definitions’ might ‘synonymously’ end up being amalgamated into “the accumulation of systems of knowledge shared by a group of people”, definition denotes difference and difference is exactly the *prominent* feature of any characterization of culture. The definition(s) of what culture(s) is/are, is far from being easy, quite the opposite, it is complicated, messy, as I mentioned above, centuries of intellectual wars over definitions of culture have not reached a convenient appeasement, the debates that, as you mention, exist among social sciences on how to study culture are due precisely to the problematic nature of the object of study. From Matthew Arnold’s definition of culture as “the best that has been thought and said” in Culture and Anarchy (1869) to Raymond Williams’ definition as “a whole way of life” in the aptly entitled essay “Culture is ordinary” (1958) (I would strongly recommend to read Williams’ cogent text in full at it has been quite an intellectual roller coaster with the addition, in recent times, of the ever significant impact that digital technologies exert on our “way of life”, so much so that we frequently speak of digital culture…
    The second problematic statement in the text is the following: “Culture must not only be observed but be understood to be studied. There are two approaches to understand culture…” This point reflects clearly the American (cultural) anthropology approach, which is certainly of value, however to believe that there are *only* two approaches to understand culture exposes a certain degree of methodologically presumptuousness, besides it is difficult to sharply distinguish between observation and understanding as the first part of the sentence seems to propose…
    In conclusion, I would suggest that it might be a good idea not only to ask ourselves “how” we should study culture (inter-disciplinarity is the key) but also *why* should we engage in such an endeavour, we might be surprised of what something so ‘ordinary’ as Williams put it, could reveal about our extra-ordinary Selves.

    • V.H Says:

      I’ve believed attempting to define culture is like trying to capture fog in a net. And to push that one a bit further, like fog the further away the more solid it seems.

  2. cormac Says:

    As regards culture research as a science, I think the question isn’t so much whether cultural propositions are quantifiable but whether they are falsifiable. Karl Popper’s famous argument was that Marxism and psychoanalysis (for example) were not scientific propositions becuse they could not proven wrong in principle; he defined a scientific proposition as one that is falsifiable in principle.
    This may be seen as a bit oversimplified today, but it contains an important truth; it is hard to make progress with theories that cannot be refuted

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