Glossary of Terms

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

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- A -

actual behavior
what people really do in their lives rather than what they think they are doing or what they believe they should be doing.  In most societies there is a discrepancy between these three kinds of behavior.  It is important for anthropologists to distinguish between actual, believed, and ideal behavior when they learn about another society and its culture.
adaptive mechanism
a behavior, strategy, or technique for obtaining food and surviving in a particular environment.  Successful adaptive mechanisms provide a selective advantage in the competition for survival with other life forms.  For humans, the most important adaptive mechanism is culture.
anthropology  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced

the broad scientific study of human culture and biology.  Anthropologists are interested in what it is to be human in all of our many different societies around the world today and in the past.  In North American universities, the study of anthropology is usually divided into four main sub-disciplines: cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics.

archaeology  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced

the systematic study of the material remains of human behavior in the past.  Archaeologists reconstruct the prehistory and early history of societies and their cultures through an examination and interpretation of such things as house foundations, broken tools, and food refuse.

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- B -

believed behavior
what people honestly believe that they are doing in their lives rather than what they think they should be doing or what they actually are doing.  In most societies there is a discrepancy between these three kinds of behavior.  It is important for anthropologists to distinguish between actual, believed, and ideal behavior when they learn about another society and its culture.
biological anthropology
see physical anthropology.
body language

gestures, facial expressions, and body postures that people use to communicate along with or instead of speech.  Body language is also referred to as kinesics click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  Waving good-bye with a hand and arm or winking one eye to indicate a shared secret are examples of body language in North America.  Body language is learned as part of a culture.

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culture  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the full range of learned behavior patterns that are acquired by people as members of a society.  A culture is a complex, largely interconnected whole that consists of the knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, customs, skills, and habits learned from parents and others in a society.  Culture is the primary adaptive mechanism for humans.
cultural anthropology

the study of contemporary and recent historical cultures all over the world.  The focus is on social organization, culture change, economic and political systems, and religion.  Cultural anthropology is also referred to as social or sociocultural anthropology.

cultural relativity
suspending one's ethnocentric judgments in order to understand and appreciate another culture.  Anthropologists try to learn about and interpret the various aspects of the culture they are studying in reference to that culture rather than to their own.  This provides a better understanding of how such practices as polygamy and cannibalism can function and even support other cultural traditions.
cultural universals
cultural traits that are shared by all of humanity collectively.  Examples of such general traits are communicating with a verbal language, using age and gender to classify people, and raising children in some sort of family setting.  No matter where people live in the world, they share these universal cultural traits.  However, different cultures have developed their own specific ways of carrying out or expressing these general traits.
culture shock
a feeling of confusion, distress, and sometimes depression that can result from the psychological stress that commonly occurs during the first weeks or months of a total cultural emersion in an alien society.  Until the new culture becomes familiar and comfortable, it is common to have difficulty in communicating and to make frustrating mistakes.  This is usually compounded by feelings of homesickness.  These feelings can be emotionally debilitating.  However, culture shock eventually passes for most people.  See future shock.
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diffusion  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the movement of cultural traits and ideas from one society or ethnic group to another.  While the form of a trait may be transmitted to another society, the original meaning may not.  For instance, McDonald's hamburgers are thought of as a cheap, quick meal in North America, but  they are generally considered to be a special occasion food in Beijing, China.
dominance hierarchy  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a group of individuals arranged in rank order in terms of relative dominance and subservience.  In some non-human primate species, each community has a distinct male and female dominance hierarchy.  Every individual is ranked relative to all other community members of the same gender.  Those who are higher in the dominance hierarchy usually have greater access to food, sex, and other desirable things.
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- E -

ethnocentrism  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the deep felt belief that your culture is superior to all others.  Being fond of your own way of life and condescending or even hostile toward other cultures is normal for all people.  Alien culture traits are often viewed as being not just different but less sensible and even "unnatural."  Ethnocentrism is normal for all people in the world.  See cultural relativity
ethnography  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
anthropological research in which one learns about the culture of another society through fieldwork and first hand observation in that society.  Ethnography is also the term used to refer to books or monographs describing what was learned about the culture of a society.
ethnology  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
an anthropological study that systematically compares similar culturesAn example of an ethnological study would be a comparison of what cultures are like in societies that have economies based on hunting and gathering rather than agriculture.  The data for this sort of ethnology would come from the existing ethnographies about these peoples.  In other words, an ethnology is essentially a synthesis of the work of many ethnographers.
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- F - 

future shock
the kind of culture shock that can be experienced by members of a society who are undergoing too rapid of culture change, usually as a result of diffusion of traits from other societies and frequent inventions that alter significant portions of daily life.  Elderly people in the rapidly changing cultures of the world sometimes experience this today.  The concept of future shock was developed by Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book entitled Future Shock.
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- G -

gender  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
sexual identity as male or female.
globalism  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the view that the people and nations of the world should become more economically and politically integrated and unified.  Those who advocate globalism generally believe that ethnocentrism, nationalism, and tribalism are obstacles that must be overcome.
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- I -

ideal behavior
what people believe that they should do in their lives rather than what they think they are doing or what they actually are doing.  In most societies there is a discrepancy between these three kinds of behavior.  It is important for anthropologists to distinguish between them when they learn about another society and its culture.
informant  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
someone who is not only knowledgeable about his or her own culture but who is able and willing to communicate this knowledge in an understandable way to an anthropologist or some other outsider.  Ethnographers usually try to develop a warm and trusting relationship with their informants.  This makes it more likely that they will learn what the informant's culture is really like.

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- J -

judgment sample  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a probability sample that includes only a limited number of key people selected by an anthropologist to be his or her informants based on the likelihood that they possess knowledge concerning the research questions and will be most able to communicate it.  For example, religious leaders would be the most likely informants if research concerns religious beliefs and practices.  The judgment sample approach works best if the focus of research concerns cultural information that only some members of the host society possess.

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- L -

linguistics  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the comparative study of the function, structure, and history of languages and the communication process in general.  Linguistics is also referred to as linguistic anthropology.

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- M -

monogamy  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
marriage of one woman to one man at a time. This is the most common marriage pattern around the world today.  If remarriage is allowed following divorce or death of a spouse, the marriage pattern could be defined as being "serial monogamy."

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- N - 

nationalism  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
extreme loyalty and devotion to a nation and its interests, usually at the expense of other nations or societies.

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- P -

participant observation  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
physically and emotionally participating in the social interaction of another society on a daily basis in order to learn about its culture.  In practice this usually requires living within the community as a member, learning their language, establishing close friendship ties, eating what they eat, and taking part in normal family activities.  By becoming an active participant rather than simply an observer, ethnographers reduce the cultural distance between themselves and the host society.  
physical anthropology

the study of the non-cultural, or biological, aspects of humans and near humans.  Physical anthropologists are usually involved in one of three different kinds of research: 1) non-human primate studies (usually in the wild), 2) recovering the fossil record of human evolution, and 3) studying human biological diversity, inheritance patterns, and non-cultural means of adapting to environmental stresses.  Physical anthropology is also referred to as biological anthropology.

polyandry  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced

the marriage of one woman to several men at the same time.  This is a rare type of polygamy.  It usually takes the form of "fraternal polyandry", which is brothers sharing the same wife.

polygamy  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced

the generic term for marriage to more than one spouse at the same time.  It occurs as polygyny or, more rarely, polyandry.

polygyny  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced

the marriage of one man to several women at the same time.  This is the most common form of polygamy.  It often takes the form of "sororal polygyny", which is two or more sisters married to the same man.

probability sample  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a sample of people that is carefully chosen so that it will be representative of the entire community or population.  Choosing who will be in the sample can be difficult, especially at the beginning of an ethnographic research project when the first contacts are made and the composition of the society and its culture are still poorly understood.  Depending on the nature of the society and the research questions, one of three different kinds of probability samples may be employed.  They are random sample, stratified sample, and judgment sample.  

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- R -

random sample  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a probability sample in which people are selected on a totally random, unbiased basis.  This can be accomplished by assigning a number to everyone in a community and then letting a computer or hand calculator generate a series of random numbers.  If a 10% sample is needed, then the first 10% of the random numbers will indicate who will be the focus of the research.  This sampling approach is reasonable for ethnographic research only when there does not seem to be much difference between the people in the population.  Since this is rarely the case, random sampling is not often used for ethnographic research.

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- S -

social anthropology
see cultural anthropology.
society  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a group of interacting organisms.  In the case of humans, societies are groups of people who directly or indirectly interact with each other.  People in human societies also generally perceive that their society is distinct from other societies in terms of shared traditions and expectations.
stratified sample  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a probability sample in which people are selected because they come from distinct sub-groups within the society.  This approach may be used by ethnographers if the information that is being sought is not specialized knowledge such as the esoteric activities of a secret organization with restricted membership.
subculture  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a regional, social, or ethnic group that is distinguishable from other groups in a society.  Members of a subculture often share a common identity, food tradition, dialect or language, and other cultural traits that come from their common ancestral background and experience.  Subcultures are most likely to exist in complex, diverse societies, such as the U.S. and Canada, in which people have come from many different parts of the world.

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- T -

tribalism  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a profound loyalty to one's tribe or ethnic group and a rejection of others.  Those who promote tribalism generally believe that globalism is a threat that must be overcome.  A pattern of establishing ethnically "pure" nations through aggressive "ethnic cleansing" occurred in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990's.  Similar attempts to carve out tribal based nations have occurred in the former republics of the Soviet Union and in a number of African nations.

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This page was last updated on Monday, September 07, 2009.
Copyright 2002-2009 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.