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What is Cultural Anthropology?

There are three areas that cultural anthropologists see as critical in how we define our subfield and the role it plays within the larger discipline of anthropology: theory, method, and ethics.

Cultural anthropology defines its object of study as the broad domain of human social life where the material and symbolic, historical and experiential facets of life come into play. Acknowledging how these are in turn shaped by colonial, racialized, gendered, sexual, and political-economic relations of power, cultural anthropologists strive to understand how  meanings, practices, values, and relations of power change over time, vary across societies and within, and are always contested, within any social setting. Moreover, despite significant differences of emphasis within the sub-discipline, cultural anthropology instills in our practice a vital and necessary acknowledgement of our own positions within structures and relations of power, requiring critical reflection on how these positions shape our understandings, the production of knowledge, and the complex relationships we have with people we study, our own social and professional worlds, and the discipline as a whole. 

Cultural Anthropology is ideally positioned to respond to some of the most pressing issues of our time, in no small part due to the unique intellectual legacy informing our practice as scholars and researchers. While today there are many possible epistemological and methodological orientations shaping the work of cultural anthropologists, we converge on the core emphasis placed on ethnographic fieldwork, participant observation, through in-depth, sustained, immersive, and critically reflective study. Wherever in-depth fieldwork takes place –  in distant locales or in one’s home community – it entails “being there,” working directly with the people most involved and affected by the issues and problems under study, and often in collaborative relationships of solidarity and reciprocity. Acknowledging the structural and interpersonal power differentials that often obtain between researchers and researched, we strive to expand ongoing efforts to decolonize anthropological fieldwork and knowledge. This commitment requires direct engagement with people and groups, the courage to mobilize and advocate for the vulnerable and marginalized, and preparation to deploy one’s research findings in ways that expand human potential over and against structures of oppression and marginalization.

We abide by ethical principles established by the American Anthropological Association (AAA). The AAA Statement on Ethics identifies seven principles of professional responsibility: 1) Do No Harm; 2) Be Open and Honest Regarding Your Work; 3) Obtain Informed Consent and Necessary Permissions; 4) Weigh Competing Ethical Obligations Due Collaborators and Affected Parties; 5) Make Your Results Accessible; 6) Protect and Preserve Your Records; 7) Maintain Respectful and Ethical Professional Relationships. See the AAA’s Principles of Professional Responsibility

The AAA Statement on Ethics differentiates ethics from morals. AAA ethics emphasize deliberately weighing the consequences of actions and inactions. AAA also differentiates ethics from law. The legal frameworks of nation-states and other entities must be taken into consideration in what anthropologists do. However, the AAA statement guides us to see ourselves as indebted to ethical principles that benefit the people with whom we work, which might be located inside or outside of these frameworks. 

One of the most important ethical considerations in cultural anthropology has been cooperation with military organizations, personnel, and programs. Our subfield has critically evaluated its earlier role in military conquests and colonization. Guided by the AAA, cultural  anthropologists today maintain that our participation in military programs and cooperation with military personnel violates our professional norms as well as our codes of ethics. AAA has recently been clear on this ethical violation in its statement on the Human Terrain System (HTS), which “places anthropologists, as contractors with the U.S. military, in settings of war, for the purpose of collecting cultural and social data for use by the U.S. military,” arguing that (i) “the HTS program creates conditions which are likely to place anthropologists in positions in which their work will be in violation of the AAA Code of Ethics and (i) that its use of anthropologists poses a danger to both other anthropologists and persons other anthropologists study.” See American Anthropological Association’s Executive Board Statement on the Human Terrain System Project.

Our research is often with marginalized people, who we are obligated to protect. Recognizing that culture is a contested process, in order to “do no harm” and “weigh competing ethical obligations due collaborators and affected parties” we critically evaluate military, paramilitary, and other governmental and nongovernmental organizations that may be positioned to exploit, harm, make profit from, or violate the human rights of persons with whom we work. This may include decisions to not collaborate with these organizations or take funding from them.