Portland Community College Portland Community College | Portland, Oregon


Cultural Anthropology

students looking at each other

Speedculturing: Anthropology and ESOL students participate in cultural exchange conversations

This field is also called ethnology. Cultural anthropology focuses on the study of contemporary cultures.  Ethnologists collect data on the way people in different societies think, feel, perceive, and behave.  They note and compare how different kinds of social organization lead to variations in role, status or identity.  The study of spirituality, art and other cultural expressions falls under this category.  In addition to describing and explaining cultural differences, cultural anthropologists seek to compare how societies change and develop over time.

One kind of ethnologist is called an ethnographer.  This person usually spends an extended period of time (usually six months or a year) living with, talking to and observing members of a specific culture or group within a culture.  Doing fieldwork immerses ethnographers in the culture they are studying.  As a result they gain important insights into the way the society functions and how members of the culture view the world. In spite of these advantages many ethnographers find fieldwork to be upsetting or trying.  They often have to deal with challenging field conditions that test them mentally, emotionally and physically. After completing their fieldwork, ethnographers usually write up an account of the firsthand study of a human group in a specific place and situation..  This account is called an ethnography.  Ethnography is a uniquely anthropological practice. Some ethnographers strive to be very holistic and complete in their accounts.  There is new emphasis on the impacts of colonialism, globalization, and the reflexivity on the power structures inherent in who studies whom and why. Others focus on specific aspects of the culture, such as the effect of culture change, the construction of gender roles, or ritual aspects of healing and curing. The strength of ethnography and ethnographic criticism is their focus on detail, their enduring respect for context in the making of any generalization, and their full recognition of persistent ambiguity and multiple possibilities in any situation.

While many cultural anthropologists focus on cross-cultural research, others are also interested in applying anthropological concepts to solve practical problems.  They may work in settings outside of traditional academia, such as business, government agencies or public health organizations.  In addition to cultural anthropologists, biological anthropologists, archaeologists and linguists also engage in applied anthropology.  Forensic anthropology and cultural resource management are both examples of fields in applied anthropology. 

PCC Classes in Cultural Anthropology: