Anthropology is a discourse on human nature. (Encyclopaedia Britannica 1771: I, 327) In North America it includes the four fields: biological anthropology, archaeology, anthropological linguistics, and cultural anthropology -- we deal here with the latter. Simplified, 'culture' can be seen as knowledge (ideas, skills, norms, values) shared by the members of a group of people. (Barnard 2000: xi, 2-3) This knowledge can be differentiated into explicit and tacit cultural knowledge. The members of a group are actively conscious of the former (that means, you can directly ask for it), but not of the latter. Tacit cultural knowledge only becomes 'visible' in the manifestations of culture: objects, actions, and social structure. In the United Kingdom a focus of research on social structure was developed; accordingly the discipline there is named 'social anthropology'. There are quite some more differentiations of, and names for the discipline, stemming from its outbranching history. Nevertheless, on the European continent the all-encompassing word "Ethnology" ("Ethnologie" in German -- "ethnologie" in French) always was retained. (Barnard 2000: 1-2) The contemporary international development seems to seek to re-unify the different branches; the word "sociocultural anthropology" was coined and is widely in use now. "Sociocultural" well separates the discipline from other sciences dealing with humans, like forensics, archaeology and the like. Above all this, more often than not by "anthropology", "sociocultural anthropology" is meant.
Sociocultural anthropology is a descriptive, comparative, reflective, and practical science of the culturally alien or
other. Its aim is the understanding of dynamic cultural processes. Grounded in the history of the discipline, sociocultural
anthropology's main focus formerly was on those non-european societies, which were envisioned as lacking scripture and modern
state-structure. During the development of the discipline this traditional 'field' was dramatically expanded. Nowadays
virtually every design of leading, managing and coping with life created by human beings in the past and present is or can be
subject of sociocultural anthropological research. In other words, meanwhile the discipline's perspective is neither
temporally nor spatially limited. This decidedly encompasses aspects of the "western-industrialized" life-world, including
academia itself (see e.g. Knorr-Cetina 1980). A strong
discourse of self-reflection in respect to paradigms, concepts and methods has enabled sociocultural anthropology to become
an institution of critical analysis and interpretation of the cultures and societies into which it is embedded itself.
Mainly because of two unique features sociocultural anthropology is different from other disciplines dealing with culture and
society like e.g. sociology, communication science, and the science of history:
1) The method of long-lasting participant observation
(Spradley 1980), or its radicalised form called thick
participation (Spittler 2001), which make an existential
change of ones vantage point possible.
2) All concepts and theories of sociocultural anthropology were gained and shaped in a process of trying to understand
cultures, which are completely different from the so called Western or European ones. This makes the concepts and theories
less prone to be overly infected by Western cultural bias.
The history of the discipline's paradigms and methods is one of unresolvable entanglement with kin sciences of culture and
society. But mutual influence is also virulent concerning disciplines which appear not so kin on first glance, like e.g. law,
economics and medical science. More than ever social/cultural anthropology today possesses tremendous potential for networking
and interdisciplinary cooperation - both in teaching and research.
The discipline's relevance for contemporary humanity in the wake of globalization manifests itself in acceleratedly increasing
numbers of students and in an ongoing accretion of job opportunities for sociocultural anthropologists outside academia -
unneglectably in the IT-branch, too.
In the end Sociocultural Anthropology is about making sense of the ways to think, and in consequence to act, of "the Others".
There are different cultures and there's the stream of historical events. Therein lie the causes of why the world today is as
it is. Me as a private person do by far not agree with many of the outcomes of this cultural, historical, and psychological
processes. But as long as I am on a scientific venture I've got to take uttermost care to keep the process of
sociocultural-anthropological and historical knowledge-gaining clean of my private assumptions, convictions, and firm beliefs
(which are in turn outcomes of my own cultural and historical embeddedness). I won't succeed to keep it entirely clean --
ca c'est la condition humaine --, but I've got to try as hard as I can, or I'm not a scientist anymore.
Once the scientific process is finished -- which it never really is, but I'm speaking of the termination of e.g. a project
and the subsequent publication of a book or article -- the gained knowledge can be used for decision-making. For
example in the political process or economic circumstances.
Sociocultural Anthropology is not so much about stuffing historical and ethnographical data into one's memory, and not so much
about learning the methods of the social and cultural sciences -- those are indispensable basic necessities. But the essence
of Sociocultural Anthropology is to gain another view of the world. You've achieved this goal when you realize that you
accept "the Other's" lifestyles as real alternatives. Not necessarily as alternatives for you personally, but as alternatives
for humankind (and parts of it) in general. This in turn of course means, that your own lifestyle and firm convictions are
just an alternative, too. And as such they're as much open to doubt and scientific interpretation as those of "the Other's" are.
-- WORK IN PROGRESS, to be continued --