The 'central problem of anthropology is the diversity of human life' Explain.

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The ‘central problem of anthropology is the diversity of human life’ (Carrithers 1992:2; see also, Erikson 2001:5)?The major problem of anthropology is the diversity if human life. The wide range of cultures and societies, all with different values, make it almost impossible to define exactly what humanity is. However, despite these differences, there are inherent similarities. Due to the diversity of human life many anthropologists have problems comprehending different cultures and steps have been made to amend this so anthropologists can study cultures as objectively as possible.

Anthropologists are set the task of trying to comprehend the thousands of different cultures and societies throughout the world, each of which is individual and has its own characteristics. This huge range of different beliefs, values, religions, customs, foods, dress etc. make is incredibly difficult to try and comprehend exactly what these cultures have in common. Erikson (2001:9) claims the basic meaning of anthropology is ‘knowledge about humans’, but this leaves the problem, how are anthropologists to gain knowledge about humans when humanity is so diverse, and there is so little in common between those societies and cultures? However there is also the argument that despite their differences, there are parts of humanity that remain uniformly the same, no matter what the cultural or social environment is.

Despite the differences in societies there are also some similarities. There are no societies with only one person. This leads to the idea that the major similarity between societies is humans overwhelming need to surround themselves with other people. Carrithers (1992:1) believes that being social is at the very core of humanity. He therefore claims that anthropologist should not regard humans as individuals, but rather as part of a larger society. Carrithers (1992:6) also presents the argument that another similarity is the biological and evolutionary similarity between humans, no matter what their culture. Humans are the only species, which has culture, which could be argued as another similarity of humanity. Despite these apparent similarities the differences between societies is immense which causes a major problem in understanding a society that is so different.

When studying societies, anthropologists discover the difficulties in objectively observing and reporting the lifestyle of the people in this society. Due to the diversity of humanity, some societies vary greatly from what anthropologists are used to. It has become necessary that, in order to fully comprehend the ways of these societies, you must fully immerse yourself in them. This is possible through fieldwork, with Erikson (2001:10) claiming, “its [anthropologies] most important method is fieldwork”. Through fieldwork anthropologists can fully begin to understand the complexities of the society they have decided to study. In order for an anthropologist to gain this insight they must immerse themselves in the society for a number of years and have the ability to speak the language of their chosen society fluently. Fieldwork is a very important part in understanding different societies and overcoming the diverse nature of humanity. However, even while doing fieldwork anthropologists may unintentionally inject their own prejudices into their findings.

Throughout history anthropologists have attempted to understand society and culture on a variety of terms, many of which have led to societies being judged negatively because of their differences. This is referred to as ethnocentrism, that is, “evaluating other people from one’s own vantage-point and describing them in one’s own terms” (Erikson 2001:11). With this view anthropologists cannot look at societies and cultures objectively and they therefore cannot fully understand them. This is often unintentional, even today. An anthropologist may be interested in a societies economy, however this society may not have what the anthropologist defines as an economy. A major factor that causes this mentality is the huge diversity of human life and people’s inability to comprehend something that is so completely different from their own perspectives. Modern anthropologists therefore attempt to “understand every society on its own terms” (Erikson 2001:2). They attempt to be cultural relativists. Cultural relativism is the understanding that humanity is diverse, and the belief that each society has their own values therefore you cannot compare them with other societies. However it is not always possible to uphold cultural relativism. For example as a person you may be morally against cannibalism, however as an anthropologist you attempt to maintain cultural relativism and understand the value of this ritual to its society.

Through their study of the various cultures and societies, anthropologist’s largest problem is the vast diversity in human life. Each society is so different to the point where it’s questioned if they have anything in common at all. Some authors, such as Carrither’s argue that despite these differences there are similarities while Erikson tries to explain how this problem can be overcome by objectively immersing oneself in the culture.

Sources CitedEriksen, T. H. 2001. Small Places, Large Issues An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology. UK: Pluto PressCarrithers, M. 1992. Why Humans Have Cultures. New York: Oxford University Press