The Major Differences of Anthropology to Other Hard Sciences

The field of anthropology differs from so called “hard sciences” in several major ways. Unlike chemistry or physics, very few anthropological ideas and concepts are regarded as being absolutely correct. In fact it might be fair to say that most anthropologists agree to disagree. The subject matter and goals of this academic discipline are quite complex, and leave much room open for speculation and varying interpretations. In addition to the wide range of topics being investigated, there is also great diversity in the way anthropologists approach their work. One specific approach is known as French structuralism.

The name refers to the professional perspective shared by both Marcel Mauss and Claude Levi-Stauss. These men developed and refined French structuralism after having been influenced by a nineteenth-century French sociologist named Emile Durkheim. Durkheim’s study of the correlation between diversity, integration, and culture convinced him that there were two types of social integration: mechanical solidarity and organic solidarity. Mechanical solidarity describes how antiquated cultures with homogeneous populations are held together by their common traits.

Organic solidarity describes the way modern, heterogeneous cultures are made up of diverse individuals who function independently in the same direction. Durkheim chose to focus on various aspects of group and social unity while placing a large emphasis on the collective consciousness rather than individual perspectives. Collective consciousness can be defined as specific ideas, values and feelings that are shared by all or most members of the group being studied. He created terms such as “elementary forms”, which refers to the source and origin of beliefs or ideological traditions within the group mind.

A final example of Durkheim’s interests would be his examination of the interaction that takes place between social rituals and individual people. He describes social rituals and institutions as being powerful enough to influence lone individuals. Such social interactions came to be known as “social facts”, which are representative of the collective consciousness. In later years, Marcel Mauss modified his uncle Durkheim’s anthropological theories. Both men wanted to simplify social facts into elementary structures, so that they could then be analyzed in a more scientific manner. Mauss approached this problem from a different angle than his uncle had, mainly by switching his focus from the group to the individual. This change was precipitated by the idea that there is an ingrained mental structure within everyone, and that structure forms the building blocks of the group mind.

Reciprocity is a type of ingrained mental structure. Mauss and Levi-Strauss regarded reciprocity as a universally inherent part of human nature. As Levi-Strauss studied the social implications resulting from various kinds of reciprocity, he realized that people have an innate, behavioral predisposition towards gift giving. This observation can be explained through the concept of binary oppositions, in which social meaning is derived from the contrasts of two opposites. While studying the marital exchanges of women between kinship groups, Levi-Strauss made an observation about how the mind functions during such exchanges. He claims that ‘the mind balances positives and negatives, so in a given exchange system, two of the relationships must be positive, and two must be negative.’ His structural style is also apparent in his book “The Raw and the Cooked”.

Levi-Strauss makes comparisons between myth, which he is attempting to understand, and a topic he knows more about: language. In this way he tries to draw parallels between ideas in an effort to simplify the overall issue. He then tried to break down mythology into its elementary structures by describing how myths operate in the subconscious region of the mind. Levi-Strauss’ analysis of mythology included many comparisons, qualitative observations of society and its interactions, and lastly an analysis of the inner workings of the mind. His final goal is very specific, and it has to be. Another anthropologist studying the same topic might conduct his/her research and analysis in a completely different way, perhaps even without the same goal in mind. Levi-Strauss’ methods and goals make him a structuralist.

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