Characteristics of Culture and Their Application to the Anthropological Studies of Chagnon and Weiner

Cultures around the world share four common characteristics: culture is shared, it is learned, it is based on symbols, and it is integrated. (Haviland, 2002, pp. 34-42). The members of a culture share a set of “ideals, values, and standards of behavior,” and this set of shared ideals is what give meaning to their lives, and what bonds them together as a culture. (p. 34). Culture is not an innate sensibility, but a learned characteristic. Children begin learning about their culture at home with their immediate family and how they interact with each other, how they dress, and the rituals they perform. When the children are older and venture out into the community, their cultural education is advanced by watching social interactions, taking part in cultural activities and rituals in the community, and forming their own relationships and taking their place in the culture. (pp. 40-41). In order for the culture to be transmitted successfully from one person to the next, and from one generation to the next, a system of symbols needs to be created that translates the ideals of the culture to its members. This is accomplished through language, art, religion, and money. (p. 41). Finally, in order to keep the culture functioning all aspects of the culture must be integrated. (pp. 41-42). For example the language must be able to describe all the functions within the culture in order for ideas and ideals to be transmitted from one person to another. Without the integration of language into the fabric of the culture, confusion and dysfunction would reign and the culture would fail.

Cultures around the world share four common characteristics: culture is shared, it is learned, it is based on symbols, and it is integrated. (Haviland, 2002, pp. 34-42). The members of a culture share a set of “ideals, values, and standards of behavior,” and this set of shared ideals is what give meaning to their lives, and what bonds them together as a culture. (p. 34). Culture is not an innate sensibility, but a learned characteristic. Children begin learning about their culture at home with their immediate family and how they interact with each other, how they dress, and the rituals they perform. When the children are older and venture out into the community, their cultural education is advanced by watching social interactions, taking part in cultural activities and rituals in the community, and forming their own relationships and taking their place in the culture. (pp. 40-41). In order for the culture to be transmitted successfully from one person to the next, and from one generation to the next, a system of symbols needs to be created that translates the ideals of the culture to its members. This is accomplished through language, art, religion, and money. (p. 41). Finally, in order to keep the culture functioning all aspects of the culture must be integrated. (pp. 41-42). For example the language must be able to describe all the functions within the culture in order for ideas and ideals to be transmitted from one person to another. Without the integration of language into the fabric of the culture, confusion and dysfunction would reign and the culture would fail.

These four characteristics of culture are present in every culture, no matter where the culture is located in the world. The manipulation and sculpting of these characteristics is how a culture defines itself and sets it apart from other cultures. However, outside influences also have an impact on the sculpting of these characteristics and may cause the culture to change in ways that are harmful to the stability of the culture. An examination of two field studies done by Chagnon and Weiner show the impact outside influences have on cultures’ characteristics, and how previous studies affect current Anthropologist’s perception of a culture’s characteristics.

Chagnon and the Yanomamo

When Chagnon arrived to study the Yanomamo he was met by what he considered “a dozen burly, naked, filthy, hideous men.” The men, all of whom had their arrows drawn and ready to fire at him, surrounded him when he first arrived. Chagnon was terrified and thought that their “welcome” of him seemed unfitting behavior. His first impressions of these people were based on his own cultural values and characteristics. However, as he spent the next nineteen months living among them and learning their ways, he found that the Yanomamo had a way of life that was “coherent, internally consistent way of coping with the tropical forest environment and their experience of the world.” (Searles and Lee, 2002, pp. 36-37).

When Chagnon arrived to study the Yanomamo he was met by what he considered “a dozen burly, naked, filthy, hideous men.” The men, all of whom had their arrows drawn and ready to fire at him, surrounded him when he first arrived. Chagnon was terrified and thought that their “welcome” of him seemed unfitting behavior. His first impressions of these people were based on his own cultural values and characteristics. However, as he spent the next nineteen months living among them and learning their ways, he found that the Yanomamo had a way of life that was “coherent, internally consistent way of coping with the tropical forest environment and their experience of the world.” (Searles and Lee, 2002, pp. 36-37).

As Chagnon’s study progressed, he ran into ethical problems that not only affected the nature of his anthropological study, but also the Yanomamos. The problems that Chagnon faced were based on the impact outside influences, including his own presence among the Yanomamo tribe, were having on the cultural characteristics of the Yanomamo. The first obstacle he faced, after acclimatizing to the new cultural setting, was getting the Yanomamo to exchange information with him. The Yanomamo live in a world that is violent and hostile. They see outsiders as competition for resources and potential enemies, so they do not willingly divulge information freely. In order to work within the learned cultural constraints of conduct, Chagnon traded machetes and other items for information. (Searles and Lee, 2002, p. 41). However, the introduction of such items into a formerly isolated culture, had the potential to upset the traditional balance of power within the tribe, and damage the ecological balance in the tropical forest environment. In order to compensate for the potentially harmful fallout from this practice, Chagnon limited the amount, and type, of items he traded for information. (p. 41). Instead of trading for oral information, he adopted many behaviors of the Yanomamo and entered into the main flow of the village and participated as a member of the tribe. In this way he learned about the culture by doing, as opposed to outside observation or questioning members directly about the ways things are done and why.

Weiner and the Trobriand Women

Unlike Chagnon, when Weiner arrived to study the Trobriand tribe in New Guinea, she had pre-conceived ideas about how the culture functioned based on previous studies done on the tribe, especially the work conducted by Bronislaw Kasper Malinowski. (Haviland, 2002, p. 44). Starting her work, she first tried to verify the information she had gotten from Malinowski’s study, however she soon saw inconsistencies with the behaviors she was seeing and the behaviors she had read about. Inconsistencies in her preconceived ideas caused her research to stagger, and in order to overcome this obstacle she had to step back and try to observe the tribe with fresh eyes. She was able to accomplish this by focusing on the Trobriand women. (pp. 44-45).

Weiner had an advantage over Chagnon, as the women opening invited her to interact with them and learn the importance of her work. (Chagnon, on the other hand, had difficulty extracting information from the Yanomamo men.) The women of the tribe were not intended to be the focus of her research, but her interactions with them shed new light on the importance of their work, and their economic value to the tribe. As she observed and interacted with the Trobriands, she saw them in a new light.

Being a woman had a great deal to do with the new perspective she gained about the functioning and value of women in the tribe. Gender roles and gender-specific rituals are sometimes exclusive to the sex involved, i.e. males-only or females-only. Thus being a woman, Weiner had a sex-based privilege to observe and take part in female-based activities that may have been withheld from Malinowski when he studied the tribe. (p.45-46). This type of cultural tradition represents learned behaviors.

Even with the new insight into the value of women’s work within the Trobriand, major discrepancies arose between Malinowski’s study results and Wiener’s results. This troubling situation was resolved with the realization that a substantial period of time had elapsed between Malinowski’s study and her own, and that there had been many advances in the field of Anthropology that would have a great impact on the analysis of information gathered. Secondly, she tried to see how Malinowski came to conclusion, and used the information to formulate her own interpretation of the materials.

Conclusion

Chagnon and Weiner were both faced by difficult situations during their studies. In Chagnon’s study the problem was influencing changes in the cultural structure of the Yanomamo through trade of materials and weapons for information. This trade threatened the integration of the cultural characteristics by upsetting various elements within the culture. For example, by providing weapons to the Yanomamo, a younger member may have an added advantage to challenge traditionally held higher-ranking men, and thereby threatening the stability of the political structure of the tribe. In addition to the threat of political instability, the introduction of Western weapons and tools may also threaten the stability of their fragile environment. The Yanomamo only hunted what they needed to survive, however if many weapons were introduced to the tribe, then over-hunting may result and despeciation may occur that would devastate the local environment and leads to starvation or removal of the Yanomamo from their traditional region. This fallout threatens the learned portions of culture, in that foreign ways replace traditional ways. It also threatens the symbolic characteristics of the culture such as religion and political structure, by giving advantage to someone who would other wise not have the ability to challenge tribal elders or leaders. Also by entering the tribe and introducing his own cultural characteristics like language and codes of conduct, he inevitably influences the symbolic characteristics of the tribe as they pick up these foreign traditions as well, and integrate portions of this foreign behavior into their culture. Because culture is also shared, the introduced behaviors and upsets have long-lasting impacts on the entire tribe as well as future generations.

Chagnon and Weiner were both faced by difficult situations during their studies. In Chagnon’s study the problem was influencing changes in the cultural structure of the Yanomamo through trade of materials and weapons for information. This trade threatened the of the cultural characteristics by upsetting various elements within the culture. For example, by providing weapons to the Yanomamo, a younger member may have an added advantage to challenge traditionally held higher-ranking men, and thereby threatening the stability of the political structure of the tribe. In addition to the threat of political instability, the introduction of Western weapons and tools may also threaten the stability of their fragile environment. The Yanomamo only hunted what they needed to survive, however if many weapons were introduced to the tribe, then over-hunting may result and despeciation may occur that would devastate the local environment and leads to starvation or removal of the Yanomamo from their traditional region. This fallout threatens the portions of culture, in that foreign ways replace traditional ways. It also threatens the characteristics of the culture such as religion and political structure, by giving advantage to someone who would other wise not have the ability to challenge tribal elders or leaders. Also by entering the tribe and introducing his own cultural characteristics like language and codes of conduct, he inevitably influences the characteristics of the tribe as they pick up these foreign traditions as well, and integrate portions of this foreign behavior into their culture. Because culture is also , the introduced behaviors and upsets have long-lasting impacts on the entire tribe as well as future generations.

Weiner faced slightly different problems with her study. The Trobriand had already been studied and she was entering into a situation where both parties, her and the Trobriand, had some preconceived notions about the other. While her predecessor had seen the work done by the women of the Trobriand from afar, he had concluded that it had only superficial decorative value. Weiner, on the other hand, was able to take advantage of her position as a female researcher to gain more intimate knowledge and understanding of this type of work. As a woman, she was able to take part in learned cultural behavior of female-based roles in the tribe, and learned the importance of women’s work to the symbolic cultural characteristics of the Trobriand’s political and economical systems. Her preconceived notions about the cultural behaviors of the Trobriand were further advanced by observing the shared behaviors and practices of the tribe such as their rituals, social interactions, exchange of information and language, and the general operation of the tribe. She was able to more accurately interpret the cultural characteristics of the Trobriand, by examining them as an integrated system, each part having value and importance.

The integrated nature of cultural characteristics and elements is an important thing to remember when studying different cultures. A researcher should be aware of all impacts their actions may have on all aspects of the culture, and that by influencing one they are influencing all.

References

Haviland, William A. (2002). Cultural Anthropology. (10th ed.). Fort Worth: Harcourt College Publishers.

Lee, Valerie L., and Searles, Richard T. (2002). Study Guide for the Telecourse Faces of Culture. (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

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