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 -

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.

artifact   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced

a thing that has been manufactured or intentionally modified for some use.  Prehistoric stone tools and pots are examples of artifacts.
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biological anthropology
the study of the non-cultural, or biological, aspects of humans and near humans.  Biological 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.  Biological anthropology is also referred to as physical anthropology.
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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.
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Enlightenment  ( or the Age of Enlightenment)
the period of intellectual flowering in European culture in the 18th and early 19th centuries.  Key to Enlightenment thinking was the idea that reason and open, unbiased enquiry should be the basis for exploring and explaining history, philosophy, medicine, and the natural world.  This largely replaced the medieval reliance on religious authority and tradition for explanations.  The Enlightenment led to the acceptance of the scientific method of enquiry by naturalists and other scientists.  Advocates of the Enlightenment were central figures in the late 18th century revolutions to replace divine right royal rule with democratic republics, especially in the United States and France.

 epidemiology  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced

the field of medical research that studies the causes of diseases and how to cure or control them.  Epidemiologists also track the frequency and geographic distribution of diseases over time.  In addition, they study the causal relationships between diseases. 
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.

ethnocide   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced

the act or attempt to systematically destroy a people's ethnicity or culture.  Usually the term ethnocide is applied to intentional acts resulting in culture death.  The legalized "kidnapping" of Native American children so that they could be educated as Europeanized Canadians and Americans during the late 19th and early 20th centuries is an example of ethnocide.  See genocide.
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.
evolution  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
genetic change in a population of organisms that occurs over time.  The term is also frequently used to refer to the appearance of a new species.
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forensic anthropology  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a specialty of biological anthropology.  Forensic anthropologists are employed around the world principally by the police, the courts, the military, and some international organizations to identify murder and disaster victims mostly from their skeletal remains.
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gender   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
sexual identity as male or female.

genocide   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced

the act or attempt to systematically kill all members of an ethnic group or culture.  The Nazi extermination of Jews and gypsies by the millions before and during World War II is an example of genocide.  See ethnocide.
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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human universalism
the view that all people are fully and equally human.  An implication is that people from all societies of the world are equally intelligent, complex, and interesting to study.
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integration  (as used by anthropologists)
the view that all aspects of a culture are interrelated and that an understanding of any cultural trait or institution requires knowing how it impacts and is in turn impacted by other institutions.  Likewise, human biological traits do not evolve and function in isolation.  In order to understand them, it is necessary to grasp how they are interrelated with other genetically inherited characteristics and how environmental factors might select for or against them. 

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kinesics   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the part of non-verbal communication consisting of gestures, expressions, and postures.  This is also known as body language.

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linguistic anthropology   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.

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- M -

medical anthropology

a field of anthropology focused on learning about cultural differences in explaining what causes illness and what is acceptable as treatments.  Medical anthropologists can help doctors and nurses understand how to better communicate with and treat patients who are from other cultures and subcultures.  Medical anthropologists are interested in the epidemiology of illnesses as well.

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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.

nonverbal communication

auxiliary communication devices that generally assure clarity by transmitting the same message in different ways at the same time.  These include variations in tone and character of voice along with such non-verbal forms of communication as kinesics, proxemics, clothing, and makeup.  Non-verbal communication is also known as paralanguage.

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paleoanthropology  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced

the study of early forms of humans and their primate ancestors.  It is similar to paleontology except its focus is documenting and understanding human biological and cultural evolution.  Paleoanthropologists do not look for dinosaurs and other early creatures.  However, like paleontology, the data for paleoanthropology is found mainly in the fossil record.
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

see biological anthropology.

primates  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced

the biological order of animals that includes humans, apes, monkeys, and prosimians.  The study of primates is primatology.

proxemics  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced

the study of personal interaction distances and other culturally defined uses of space that affect communication.   Most people are unaware of the importance of space in communication until they are confronted with someone who uses it differently.  Proxemics is a form of non-verbal communication .

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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.
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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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 Thursday, January 27, 2011.
Copyright 2010-2011 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.