John Monaghan & Peter Just

Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction


A Very Short Introduction [1]

Peter Just’s research was with the Dou Donggo (“the mountain people”) in the early 80’s.   They numbered about 20,000 on the west side of a big bay on the east of Sumbawa, which is the second major island east of Bali.  The surrounding people are predominantly Muslim, but the Dou Donggo retain their indigenous practices.


John Monaghan’s research was with the Mixtec of Santiago Nuyoo in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, from 1983-6.  He lived in Santiago Nuyoo, a village with a population of about 3,000, in a very rocky but abundant valley.


Chapter 1: A Dispute In Donggo: Fieldwork and Ethnography [13]

Anthropologists, above all, do ethnography:

Often called – not altogether accurately – ‘participant observation’, ethnography is based on the apparently simple idea that in order to understand what people are up to, it is best to observe them by interacting with them intimately and over an extended period.

The dispute:

The accused: La Ninde

The accuser: Ina Mone, who claimed that la Ninde assaulted her

The evidence: medication on Ina Mone’s face and a ripped shirt

The result: La Ninde was made to kneel in front of ina Mone begging forgiveness, and she gave him a symbolic slap on the head.

What really happened: Ima Mone saw la Ninde hanging around a woman whose betrothed was away and reported him to his mother, who told him off.  La Ninde was then angry and came round and shouted at Ima Mone for ratting him out, but did not assault her.  Everybody more-or-less knew this.


How would this event be recorded or analyzed by

·         A historian

·         A sociologist/criminologist

·         An ethnographer



Fieldwork: Strategies and Practices [21]

Anthropologists are always anthropologists of something and somewhere


Critiques of Ethnographic Fieldwork [25]

Problems with participant observation:

1.     Temptation to present the community in a kind of temporal and spatial isolation (the “ethnographic present”).

2.     Tendency to write in an omniscient third-person voice.

3.     Can the complexities and subtleties of a community that participant observation captures be representative of a larger social or cultural whole?

4.     Can participant observation be objective?  (How do you calibrate the ethnographer’s ‘instrument’ – that is, themselves?

Can these problems be overcome?

·         By training?

·         By psychoanalysis?

·         By re-studies?

·         By using teams?

·         By abandoning pretense of objectivity, and including oneself as a “character”, or by simply recording “voices” with no overall authorial voice.


The Ethics of Ethnography [31]

Should the ethnographer speak out against practices she finds abhorrent (for example, the infanticide of twins, because they’re viewed as inhuman) or follow the ‘prime directive’ and never intervene?

To whom does the ethnographer owe ultimate loyalty?  Friends in the culture, the culture itself, the government of the nation, the educational institution to which she is affiliated, to her funders?

(Should John help some of the villagers sneak into the US illegally?)


Chapter 2: Bee Larvae and Onion Soup: Culture [34]


What is ‘Culture’? [35]

Culture is what is unique to human beings because of our “capacity to conceptualize the world and to communicate those conceptions symbolically.” [34]


Eight definitions:

1.     Edward Tylor (1871): Culture as accumulated human accomplishment

Culture or civilization is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.

At the same time, a prominent Victorian attitude was that culture or civilization was something that one could possess to differing degrees – a wine taster is more “cultured” than a Bud aficionado. 


2.     Franz Boas (1930): Kulturbrille – ‘cultural glasses’

Culture embraces all the manifestations of social behavior of a community, the reactions of the individual as affected by the habits of the group in which he lives, and the product of human activities as determined by these habits.

The Bee Larva/Onion Soup incidents [38-9]: Mixtecs think of bee larvae as a delicacy and Onions as, at best, a condiment, and one that makes you stupid if you eat it to excess.  Monaghan experienced disgust eating larvae, the Mixtec in eating onion soup.  This demonstrates the Kulturbrille phenomenon, that is, that “experience is not simply given to us” – not even experiences like nausea that we normally take to be completely natural.  Instead these are controlled by culturally determined categories.


The incident also shows both differences (different things are disgusting) and similarities (there always is a category “disgusting” (or “not-food”): there appears to be a universal propensity for humans to create systems of categorization.


3.     Bronislaw Malinowski (1944)


4.     Claude Lévi-Strauss (1983): Structuralism

Culture is neither natural nor artificial.  It stems from neither genetics nor rational thought, for it is made up of rules of conduct, which were not invented and whose function is generally not understood by the people who obey them.  Some of these rules are residues of traditions…  Other rules have been consciously accepted or modified for the sake of specific goals.  Yet there is no doubt that, between the instincts inherited from our genotype and the rules inspired by reason, the mass of unconscious rules remains more important and more effective; because reason itself… is a product rather than a cause of cultural evolution.

The human mind is ordered because it is part of nature, which is also ordered.

Interest in native systems of classification led to ethnoscience, which appeared to demonstrate both the plasticity of cultural categories and that they are also constrained by our physiology.

Foucault argued that the categories of culture are bases of inequality and oppression: if you can control the categories, you have power (think of categories like “patriotic” or “terrorist” or even “liberal” or “politically correct”)

Thus the contestation of categories becomes a mode of resistance to authority, and perhaps the ultimate subversion (Kate Bornstein’s critique of gender, for example).


Not all classifications are political – the food/not-food example above isn’t (although it could be: think of the scorn towards Brie recently) but it is illustrative of etiquette, and:

·         Conceptual categories (food v. non-food)

·         Moral values (favoring one’s guest)

·         Culturally determined emotions (delight, disgust)


Limits to variety of culture:

The distinctive speech sounds that are meaningful in all the languages of the world are but a fraction of the sounds it is possible for humans to make.

Also: both Monaghan and his Mixtec friends experienced disgust, even if it was about different things.


5.     Renato Rosaldo (1989)

6.     Ward H. Goodenough (1963): Culture as a code or program

Culture…consists of standards for deciding what is, standards for deciding what can be, standards of deciding how one feels about it, standards for deciding what to do about it, and standards for deciding how to go about it.

7.     Margaret Mead (1937)

8.     Adam Kuper (1994)


Where is Culture? [43]

Three points of debate:

1.     Is culture an integrated whole?
The modernist insight was that there was a deeper fundamental reality underlying apparently discrete bits of belief and behavior.  For Marx, it was mode of production, for Freud, the unconscious, for Boaz and followers, it’s culture.  But what kind of whole is culture?

a.     Ruth Benedict – a gestalt – this allowed her to categorize entire cultures, for example the Dobu as “paranoid schizophrenic”

b.     Geertz – a “fabric of meaning and belief” – cockfighting in Bali as a metaphor for an entire cultural “text”

c.      Goodenough – as a grammar, code or program.  Example of a football game – you can’t play it without knowing the rules.

d.     Robert Murphy – a formal system

Denying integration: Robert Lowie called culture a “thing of shreds and patches”.  In response, Levi-Strauss applied the term bricolage – a collage made of those scraps.


2.     Is “culture” an autonomous superorganic entity?
Alfred Kroeber – culture as a coral reef – created by tiny creatures, but exists before the currently living ones and will outlast them.  That suggests both that culture is a product of humans but also that humans have no real control over it.
BUT isn’t it true that ‘each mind is a different world’?  Which suggests that culture is not a seamless whole – if it is composed of the contents of individuals’ minds, it is very “patchy”.  Anthony Wallace argued that because of this divergence, culture does not really impose a uniformity, but rather provides a set of shared communicative symbols that organize the diversity.

3.     How do we draw boundaries around cultures?
Boaz drew inspiration from the idea of Kultur or Geist which was invoked in the 18th and 19th centuries to try to unite the very disparate kingdoms of Germany.  In this sense, the idea that a whole people are united by a common culture was built-in to the concept.  But in what sense are those oppressed in a society part of the culture?  Do those who are deemed less worthy by its standards really part of it, and therefore compelled to accept the cultural “fact” that they are inferior?


Cultural Relativism [49]

The argument for cultural relativism:

  1. Our beliefs, morals, behaviors and even perceptions of the world are products of our particular culture.
  2. This culture is an arbitrary product of arbitrary circumstances.
  3. Therefore, our beliefs, morals, et. al. are arbitrary.
  4. Therefore, we have no objective basis for asserting the superiority of our morals and beliefs over others.
  5. Therefore, the only standards a culture (or part thereof) can be judged by are its own.

Many anthropologists regard cultural relativism as empirically demonstrated.  For example, the anthropological linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf used linguistic data to show that categories like time, space and number are given in different ways by different cultures, leading to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that “in learning a language, we learn a world.”  (This is the logical extension of the Boazian idea of Kulturbrille.)


This has moral implications: according to this view, we cannot criticize the practice of female circumcision as accepted by, among others, the Hofriyati of Northern Sudan.



Chapter 3: A Brief Encounter: Society [53]

People are not purely unique and autonomous individuals, no matter how much we would like to think of ourselves that way.  We derive many facets of our identity from the various groups to which we belong.

We may have a culture, but we belong to a society. [54]

Culture helps us understand how individuals themselves understand and interpret the world and others.  Society tells the rules and regularities that govern human social behavior.


Structure and Function [54]

Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942): Founded functionalism

Malinowski showed that institutions such as law and complex economics, which many Westerners assumed to be exclusive province of ‘civilized’ societies, were possessed by ‘primitive’ societies in full measure, if in a somewhat different form.  In Malinowski’s view primitive man was no ‘slave of custom’ but a rational actor whose every practice and institution served a function [hence functionalism] that contributed to the satisfaction of individual and collective needs. [56]

A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955): started structural functionalism

He was primarily interested in social structure – the formal rules governing the relationships within society.  His most brilliant work involved the analysis of structural ‘problems’ [e.g., joking/avoidance relations, see below]…
[Unlike Malinowski, who took an individualistic approach] For Radcliffe-Brown society was a thing unto itself and his desire was to approach it as a natural scientist approaches any object of study

Radcliffe-Brown argued that there were often “structural problems” in society, where relationships would likely be strained, such as between a man and his wife’s sister or mother.  Two contrasting solutions to these problems are the joking relation, where “one party is permitted and sometimes required to tease or make fun of the other who in turn is required to take no offense” [example from Robert Lowie’s study of the Crow Indians], and the avoidance relation “characterized by extreme mutual respect and a limitation of direct personal contact” [such as the ‘mother-in-law bells’ of the Navaho]


Functions can be manifest (the educative function of a university) or latent (it’s function to facilitate mating).


Functionalists tend to view societies as mutual equilibriums where all elements work together (like a thermostat) to maintain a balance.  This makes them ill-suited to explain change.


Institutions [62] (Tradition and Modernity [67])

“When patterns of behavior and ideology become relatively discrete, enduring, and autonomous, we call these patterns institutions”.


Total institutions: where your complete environment is controlled – prisons, military, boarding schools, communes, cults, psychiatric hospitals, et. al.


Common distinction between institutions of ‘primitive’ and ‘modern’ societies:




Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)

Major concern: what holds society together?

Mechanical solidarity: each member is self-sufficient but similar – each sees self in others

Organic solidarity: there is specialization, which means nobody is self-sufficient, and society is held together by interdependence

Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936)

Gemeinschaft (community): trad rules create a sense of universal solidarity

Gesellschaft (society): social contract: society held together by rational self-interest of members

Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881)

Common Kinship

Common Territory

Sir Henry Maine (1822-88)



Max Weber (1864-1920)

Enchantment Tradition: legitimacy from divine sources, social status determines position

Rationality, Modernity: people see themselves as separate from the natural world; legitimacy through merit, institutions supposedly driven by efficiency

Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1857-1939)

Pre-logical thinking

Logical Thinking


Modernity v. Post-modernity (p.69)


A Touch of Class: Social Reproduction [70]

Bourdieu: cultural capital is as important as financial capital, and helps to settle/maintain class divisions.  (Is this just a re-appearance of the classic sense of ‘culture’ as ‘being refined’?)


Society and the Individual [71]

How la Ninde was admonished during his trial:

You think you belong to yourself, but you don’t!  You are owned by your parents, you are owned by your kinsfolk, you are owned by your village, you are owned by God.  You can’t just do as you please!

This was presenting him with his social identity: his position within several roles.  But does society really control us, or affect our behavior (as if it were autonomous) or is it instead just an amalgam of individual behavior?

Durkheim, Suicide (1897) – argued that degrees of suicide depended on degrees to which one was integrated in one’s community and the extent to which their communities provided them with a sense of worth.  (Conversely, if you’re completely invested in your community, then you might commit suicide for your community – “altruistic” suicide – e.g., the Japanese businessman on p. 106.)



Chapter 4: Fernando Seeks a Wife: Sex and Blood [75]


Marriage, Family, and Household [76]

Fernando (Mixtec) seeks a wife almost immediately after being widowed, and his method is to take a case of beer round to a prospective bride (usually a widow)’s family and see if they’ll agree.  He is undeterred when they don’t, he has more beer.  Eventually he marries someone who’s never even spoken to him before.

In Nuyooteco culture marriage isn’t about romantic love, but care of children and household.  It is reckoned that neither man nor woman alone can run a household (in Mixtec the same word is used for widow, widower, orphan and indigent!).


Example of dispute over who has custody over the children in a remarriage after a death in Donggo – it can be the family of the deceased husband.  Marriage isn’t just about two people, it’s a joining of two groups of people.


Levirate marriage – a man marries his brother’s childless widow (e.g., Onan [80])

Sororate marriage – a woman marries her sister’s widower – fulfilling a contractual obligation on the part of a dead woman’s kin to provide her husband with a wife.


In both cases, the marriage is to fulfill a contract between two groups, in particular, to continue the deceased’s line (why Onan objected).


Same-sex marriage in the Azande and in Dahomey [80]: here the sex of the parties is less important than the contract.


Polygyny – one man, many wives – contributes to population growth and rapid dissipation of land resources among heirs

Polyandry – one woman, many husbands (e.g., Tibet) – slows population growth.


Given the diversity of marriage institutions (from just a woman and her children to the Indian system where parents live with their unmarried children, their married sons, and the wives and children of those sons) does it even make sense to talk about marriage as a real, cross-cultural entity.


What are its functions?

  • Regulating sex
  • Child-rearing
  • Political


My Milk, My Blood: Kinship and Descent [85]

Partible maternity: in Nuyooteco thinking, children and parents are linked by sharing blood, and because milk is thought to contain blood, if a child is breastfed by a different woman than her biological mother, that woman is viewed as a second mother.

Partible paternity: Most Nuyootecos believe that to become pregnant a woman must attain a critical mass of semen, which requires having sex up to ten times.  If, in so doing, she has sex with more than one man, then more than one man is the resulting child’s father.


A lineage is a group of people formed by common descent from a known common ancestor.  There are different conceptions of “descent”:

  1. Patrilineal groups: here two people are part of the same lineage if they can both trace their descent along the male line (in Western culture, they would have the same last name).
  2. Matrilineal groups: Descent is reckoned in the female line.  Matrilineages are not necessarily matriarchal (women hold the power) – it is just that the most important male in a boy’s life is not his father, but rather his mother’s brother (Malinowski even argued that the Freudian Oedipus complex was transferred to that uncle).
  3. Double unilineal descent: Both combined, so that you are simultaneously members of two different lineages.
  4. Non-unilineal descent: Both descent lines are recognized in a single group – like the Kennedy clan, which now includes Schwartzeneggers!


A Kindred: Based not necessarily on descent, but on having a common relative.  For example, cousins are not necessarily related if they are by marriage, but they are still kin.


Chapter 5: La Bose Becomes Bakar: Caste, Class, Tribe, Nation [89]


Identity and ‘Shared Blood’ [93]

Durkheim argued that homogeneity was what held traditional societies together, but totemic clans are ways in which otherwise similar people insist on their differences (c.f., Trojans v. Bruins).  This is collective effervescenceDurkheim called it the root of religion as well as the heart of solidarity.


On the other hand, in diverse modern societies, there is great effort to construct a homogeneity – national languages, common history, patriotic figures and symbols, flags, anthems, et. al. (Pledge of allegiance.)


Ethnicity: tends to emphasize matters of culture, language and religion – to be ‘Malay’ you must be Muslim.  (But these are permeable, as in the case when la Bose becomes Bakar when he goes off to a Muslim region.)

Race: tends to focus on certain easily identifiable physical characteristics and a folk theory of biological origins that categorizes humans (as in the story of Ham).  (Not necessarily descent-based, as in Catherine Howard’s example of Brazilian families containing siblings of different races [98].)  Also permeable – see account of Native Americans, p. 97.


Nation: not the same as state – e.g., the Kurds.  Can be ‘invented’ – see national story above – the ‘pioneer spirit’.


‘Consciousness of Kind’ [101]

The community – not based on kin, but on proximity or ‘homeliness’ (sense of place) – like Italians, who identify more with cities or regions than Italy.

Religious congregations

Rotating credit associations (popular in Southeast Asia)

Social Class


Transnationalism and Globalization [103]

Not new: the Catholic Church was a multinational corporation, and the lifestyle of the Plains Indians depended on the introduction of the horse by the Spanish in the 16th century.


Chapter 6: A Feast in Nuyoo: People and Their Things [107]

At fiestas in Nuyoo, a man and woman team (the mayordomos) have to organize the festivities, up to nine different meals.  No one couple could possibly afford to do this, but there is a system of reciprocal exchange called saa sa’a that finances the fiesta – everybody contributes to others’ fiestas, so that when it’s their turn to organize, the others will return the favor.


At the fiesta, because everybody has contributed, people arriving are seen as members of separate households, but through the sharing of food are transformed into one household.  (That’s why an act of perceived witchcraft – hair in a tortilla – was seen as an attack on everyone at the fiesta, and not just the person who found it.)


The principle of reciprocity both obligates the recipient of the gift and may be used as a political resource.  (This may be why a Bima dignitary visiting Donggo refused to eat – he didn’t want to incur a favor.


The Politics of Exchange [111]

On the one hand, reciprocating a gift exactly might be seen as hostile, because it effectively terminates the relationship began by the first gift.  On the other, a much-more-lavish return gift can be discomforting (except where the giver is much more wealthy or powerful, in which case it might be appropriate – the social relationship between giver and receiver determines the meaning of the gift).


The Potlatch wars [111]: Indians native to the NW competed in gift giving to escalating degrees to the extent that it was “warring with property” (aided by the influx of wealth and goods from the fur trade).


Clientage: where a richer person can exact service from a poorer, because the latter only has labor or loyalty to give in return for material gifts.  This can range from non-exploitative to exploitative.


Through relationships like this, and non-market transactions like marriage payments, gift exchanges, tribute and sacrifice, the economic becomes inextricably bound up with the political and the social.


Production [113]

Marx classified societies by their productive capacity.  Influenced by him, neo-evolutionary anthropology classifies four basic types of human societies:

  1. Foraging societies
  2. Tribal societies
  3. Chiefdom
  4. The State


Consumption [114]

Is consumption just about basic human needs?  If so, that wouldn’t explain the Xmas shopping boom.  Consumption is determined by culture, as illustrated by the inverse valuing of John and his Mixtec friend – what Alfred Gell calls “exotic consumerism.”


Money and Markets [115]

Money as a disembedding mechanism that de-personalizes transactions and erases the “local particularities of production and exchange.”  But that said, “modern” currencies are also symbolic – just look at the dollar bill.  Furthermore, money still can’t buy everything (at least, not legitimately).  Modern currencies do tend to encourage specialization and dependence on outsiders (as witnessed in Donggo, where they’ve shifted to cash crops rather than subsistence crops, and are now subject to the vagaries of the market).


Chapter 7: A Drought in Bima: People and Their Gods [120]

Different religious responses in Bima and Donggo about the drought.  The Donggo believe in mischievous spirits, that emerged from discarded placentas (“the part of us that did not become human”) that have to be placated.  The Bimanese traditionally had a semi-feudal system – a sultanate – that fits very well with the authoritarian relationship with Allah in Islam, while Dou Donggo society has always been egalitarian, which fits with their religion, which lacks an authority figure.


Religions are ways to help us cope with transitions between social categories (rites of passage) – birth, adulthood, couplehood, death.  In this sense societies and religions are very closely bound up.


Belief Systems [124]

Religions help us deal with problems in life “by providing a set of ideas about how and why the world is put together that allows people to accommodate anxieties and deal with misfortune” – for example, witchcraft in the Azande, that help to explain why several people were killed by a collapsing doorway.  (The Azande aren’t ignorant of termites – they think the witches’ role was in ensuring that the doorway collapsed just then.)


Religious Movements [125]

Millenary movements are revolutionary religious movements, occurring in a time of great social upheaval that the old religions have failed to accommodate.  For example the Long House Religion of the Seneca of NY State, led by Handsome Lake, who urged his people to take up Western agricultural practices, but stop selling land to whites and drinking liquor.


Charisma and Routinization [126]

Prophets come and go, but the key to a religion’s staying power is building a movement and institutionalizing it.  This often happens in a second wave, and often marginalizes the prophet.  For example, although Joseph Smith founded the Mormons, it is because of Brigham Young that Mormonism is so successful.  (Analogy: Paul is Young to Jesus’s Smith.)


Religious Belief and Economic Behavior [127]

Weber’s famous link between Protestantism and capitalism (the Protestant Ethic).  

Geertz: the combination of the steamship (allowing pilgrimage to Mecca) with Islam in Java led to a change to agricultural capitalism, both as a way to finance pilgrimages, and as a result of the acquisition of religious capital by those who had made the trip.


Syncretistic religions: an old term for the way certain peoples adapt more wide-spread religions to their own local beliefs – for example, the Mixtec associating Jesus with the Sun, and putting Bethlehem in the East and Jerusalem in the West (the birth and death, respectively, of the Sun).  Now it is argued that all religions are this way – witness the rituals of Easter and Christmas in the West, actually old Pagan festivals.


Chapter 8: Ñañuu María Gets Hit by Lightning: People and Their Selves [131]

Ñañuu María was sick, she said because of terrible burns from being hit by lightning.  It turns out it wasn’t her who was hit, it was her kiti nuvi – her ‘coessential animal’ (in her case, a coati, because of a shared love of bananas).  [Analogy: the ‘familiars’ of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.]


Vinik in Mayan: there are twenty  basic types of human being, and each individual essentially participates in a unit of twenty.


Rice, to the Dou Donggo, is sentient.


The Self in Sickness and in Health [136]

Medical anthropologists distinguish between disease – sickness caused by a physiological agent, and illness – sickness brought about by a patient’s perception of his or her bodily state.  Most sicknesses are a combination (hence the effectiveness of placebos and the need for double-blind drug testing).



A dozen culture-bound syndromes [139]

1.     Amok:

2.     Bilis:

3.     Brain fag:

4.     Evil eye:

5.     Ghost sickness:

6.     Hwa-byung:

7.     Koro:

8.     Pibloktoq:

9.     Shen-k’uei:

10. Spell:

11. Tajin kyofusho:

12. Zar:


Gender [137]

The Sambia of Highland New Guinea practice oral sex between males as they become adults so that they can absorb the jurungdu which makes them warriors, and which is concentrated in semen.  Thereafter, they are exclusively heterosexual.


The Dou Donggo recognize that there are some men who are sara siwe (“missed at becoming female” – that is, were intended to become female but were born in the wrong body) and some women who are sara mone (“missed at becoming male”).  These can do some of the things that people of the sex they “missed at” are allowed – but the line gets drawn at a sara mone swimming naked with men.



Afterword: Some Thing’s We’ve Learned [144]