Outlining an anthropological
perspective and the theories that will
be discussed
Dr. Zubeeda Quraishy
Department of Informatics,
University of Oslo, Norway
What is Anthropology?
Are you as interested as I am in knowing how,
when, and where human life arose, what the first
human societies and languages were like, why
cultures have evolved along diverse but often
remarkably convergent pathways, why
distinctions of rank came into being, and how
small bands and villages gave way to chiefdoms
and chiefdoms to mighty states and empires?
--Marvin Harris, Our Kind,1990.
What is Social Anthropology?
Social Anthropology is the comparative study of
human conduct and thought in their social context.
Societies around the world vary enormously in their
social, cultural and political forms, and their
individual members display an initially overwhelming
diversity of ideas and behaviour.
The study of these variations lies at the heart of
Social Anthropology.
Definition of Anthropology
The word anthropology itself tells the basic story-from the Greek anthropos ("human") and logia
It is the study of humankind, from its beginnings
millions of years ago to the present day.
Nothing human is alien to anthropology.
Indeed, of the many disciplines that study our
species, Homo sapiens, only anthropology seeks
to understand the whole panorama--in geographic
space and evolutionary time--of human existence.
Various Sub-disciplines of
1. Social and Cultural Anthropology
2. Physical Anthropology
3. Ethnology and Ethnography
4. Archeological Anthropology
5. Psychological Anthropology
6. Political Anthropology
7. Economic Anthropology
8. Visual Anthropology
(Cont) Sub-disciplines of
9. Applied Anthropology
 10. Linguistic Anthropology
 11. Medical Anthropology
 12. Nutrition Anthropology
 13. Development Anthropology
 14. Molecular Anthropology
and the list continues……
While it is easy to define,
anthropology is difficult to
..as its subject matter is both exotic (e.g., star lore
of the Australian aborigines) and common place
(food habits and customs of eating).
Its focus is both sweeping (the evolution of
language) and microscopic (the use-wear of
ancestral tools).
Anthropologists may study ancient Mayan
hieroglyphics, the music of African Pygmies, and
the corporate culture of a U.S. car manufacturer.
Why anthropologists are interested
in studying cultures?
We all "do" anthropology because curiosity
is a universal human trait.
We are curious about ourselves and about
other people, the living as well as the dead,
here and around the globe
Anthropological questions asked by all
Do all societies have marriage customs?
Do all cultures have different ways of greetings
and food habits?
As a species, are human beings innately violent or
Did the earliest humans have light or dark skins?
When did people first begin speaking a language?
How related are humans, monkeys and
Is Homo sapiens' brain still evolving?
If such questions are part of folk
How does the science of anthropology
differ from ordinary opinion sharing
and "common sense"?
in school yards, office
buildings and neighborhood cafes..
Comparative Method
Anthropology begins with a simple yet
powerful idea: any detail of our behavior
can be understood better when it is seen
against the backdrop of the full range of
human behavior.
attempts to explain similarities and
differences among people holistically, in
the context of humanity as a whole.
Comparative method (cont…)
Anthropology seeks to uncover principles of
behavior that apply to all human communities.
To an anthropologist, diversity itself (seen in
body shapes and sizes, customs, clothing, speech,
religion, and worldview) provides a frame of
reference for understanding any single aspect of
life in any given community.
It is essential to study in the context and compare
against the different panorama
We [anthropologists] have been the first to
insist on a number of things: that the world
does not divide into the pious and the
superstitious; that political order is possible
without centralized power and principled
justice without codified rules; that the norms
of reason were not fixed in Greece, the
evolution of morality not consummated in
England. Most important, we were the first
to insist that we see the lives of others
through lenses of our own grinding and that
they look back on ours through ones of their
--Clifford Geertz
History of anthropological
conceptions on culture
“Culture is descriptive, inclusive, and
--John H. Bodley,1994
I use the term culture to refer
collectively to a society and its way of
life or in reference to human culture as
a whole.
Culture: a modern technical definition
“ socially patterned human thought and
behavior,” originally proposed by the nineteenthcentury British anthropologist Edward Tylor.
Created exhaustive universal lists of the content of
culture, usually as guides for further research. Others
have listed and mapped all the culture traits of
particular geographic areas.
{(Food habits, way of dressing, marriage customs,
ways of greeting, working pattern, life style, values
(family, work place, place of worship, at the house of
relatives, strangers, men to men, women – women,
men – women, elders towards children and vice versa
according to age and relationship), etc.}.
Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn,
published a list of 160 different
definitions of culture in 1952.
the list indicates the diversity of the
anthropological concept of culture. The
specific culture concept that particular
anthropologists work with is an important
matter because it may influence the
research problems they investigate, their
methods and interpretations, and the
positions they take on public policy issues.
Diverse Definitions of Culture
Topical: Culture consists of everything on a list of topics,
or categories, such as social organization, religion, or
Historical: Culture is social heritage, or tradition, that is
passed on to future generations
Behavioral: Culture is shared, learned human behavior,
a way of life
Normative: Culture comprises ideals, values, or rules for
Functional: Culture is the way humans solve
problems of adapting to the environment or
living together
Psychological: Culture is a complex of ideas,
or learned habits, that inhibit impulses and
distinguish people from animals
Structural: Culture consists of patterned and
interrelated ideas, symbols, or behaviors
Symbolic: Culture is based on arbitrarily
assigned meanings that are shared by a
Culture involves at least four
What people think
What they do
The material products they produce.
Beliefs, knowledge, and values are parts of
Important principles of culture…
Process of learning, teaching and reproducing are
essential characteristics of culture. Culture exists in
a constant state of change.
Culture consists of systems of meaning -- members
of a human society must agree to relationships
between a word and behavior (e.g., if I request that
you eat food, then I should not take away the food
rudely from you) or other symbol and its
corresponding significance or meaning.
Culture is described in a relativistic way as different
human societies will inevitably agree upon different
relationships and meanings.
Properties of culture:
Culture has several properties:
shared (it is a social phenomenon)
learned (culture is learned not biologically
inherited); how culture is taught & reproduced is
also crucial
symbolic (speech is a symbolic element of human
transmitted cross-generationally (Kroeber 1917
and Leslie White 1949 treat culture as a
‘superorganic entity’.
adaptive, and integrated.
Different interpretations of
From the different definitions it is
known that there is much
disagreement about the word and
concept of culture.
So, an ongoing negotiation and
conversation about what culture
should mean is continuing.
Clifford Geertz (1926- present)
Clifford Geertz, best known for his
ethnographic studies, emphasizes the
importance of the symbolic – of systems
of meaning – as it relates to culture,
cultural change and the study of culture.
The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973
best known for his ethnographic studies of
Javanese culture
What cultural anthropologists are
doing at Intel & Microsoft?
Understanding alien cultures and finding out
what’s important in those cultures, for
international marketing & software design. To
find out:
What people are doing in their daily lives?
What people are doing with technology?
How ‘digital home’ differs from culture to
What is society?
A society is any group of people living together in a
group and constituting a single related,
interdependent community. This word is frequently
taken to include entire national communities; for
instance, comment upon some aspect of U.S. or
Indian society.
Society can also be used to refer to smaller groups
of people, as when we refer to "rural societies" or
"academic society," etc.
Society is distinguished from culture in that society
generally refers to the community of people while
culture generally refers to the systems of meaning -what Geertz calls "webs of significance" which
govern the conduct and understanding of people's
lives. (*no clear diff between culture and society)
Four main branches comprise
anthropology as a whole
 Linguistic
 Archaeology
 Biological anthropology
Anthropological perspectives
Evolutionary Perspective:
Anthropology brings an explicit, evolutionary
approach to the study of human behavior. Each of
anthropology's four main subfields-socio cultural,
biological, archaeology, and linguistic
anthropology--acknowledges that Homo sapiens
has a long evolutionary history that must be
studied if one is to know what it means to be a
human being.
Cultural Anthropology
Applies comparative method and evolutionary
perspective to human culture.
Culture represents the entire database of
knowledge, values, and ways of viewing the
world, which have been transmitted from one
generation ahead to the next—nongenetically
through words, concepts, and symbols.
Cultural anthropologists study humans through a
descriptive lens called the ethnographic method,
based on participant observation, in tandem with
face-to-face interviews, normally conducted in
the native tongue.
Cultural Anthropology (cont…)
Ethnographers compare what they see and hear
themselves with the observations and findings of
studies conducted in other societies.
Originally, anthropologists pieced together a
complete way of life for a culture, viewed as a
whole that is, in a holistic perspective.
Cultural anthropology today
Recently, more focus is on a narrower aspect
of cultural life, such as economics, politics,
religion or art.
Cultural anthropologists seek to understand
the internal logic of another society. It helps
outsiders make sense of behaviors that, like
face painting or scarification, fire walking
among a section of Indian Muslims during a
particular ritual may seem bizarre or
Cultural anthropology
Anthropology helps us to see our
own culture more clearly by
understanding the differences
between cultures.
Linguistic Anthropology
"As you commanded me, I, Spider Woman, have
created these First People. They are fully and
firmly formed; they have movement. But they
cannot talk. That is the proper thing they lack.
So I want you to give them speech."
So, Sotuknang gave them speech, a different
language to each color, with respect for each
other's difference. He gave them also the
wisdom and the power to reproduce and
--Hopi Indian Emergence Myth
Hallmark of the human species holds a
special fascination for most anthropologists
Has enabled Homo sapiens to transcend the
limits of individual memory.
It is upon language that culture itself
depends--and within language that
humanity's knowledge resides.
Archaeological anthropology
Human record is written not only in alphabets and
books, but preserved in other kinds of material
remains -- cave paintings, pictographs, discarded
stone tools, earthenware vessels, religious figurines,
abandoned baskets– found in tattered shreds and
patches of ancient societies.
Fragmentary records are interpreted to reassemble
long-ago cultures and forgotten ways of life.
Studies have been extended in two directions -backward some 3 million years to the bones and
stone tools of our proto human ancestors, and
forward to the reconstruction of life ways and
communities of 19th-century America.
Biological Anthropology
Also known as Physical Anthropology
 Looks at Homo sapiens as a genus and species,
tracing their biological origins, evolutionary
development, and genetic diversity.
Studies the bio cultural prehistory of Homo to
understand human nature and, ultimately, the
evolution of the brain and nervous system itself.
Bringing together Anthropological
Studying perspectives in anthropology
brings together information about many
diverse attributes of human being in an
attempt to understand in its entirety.
Anthropological Perspectives on
Palliative Care (medical & cultural
Palliation is unique in different cultures. (For
ex, Sepik Society).
Complex “negotiations” between biomedicine
and culture frequently take place. (Navajo,
Ethiopian, Sepik, Hindus and Islamic
Cultural anthropology helps us see dying as
a social process.
It provides us with a number of important
tools with which to understand this universal
yet culture-specific process.
Palliative care (cont….)
Anthropology asks us to look at the way in
which the process of dying is organized in
time and space as well as at the web of
social relations in which the process takes
-- Gregory Pappas, Concepts to Reality,
Anthropological Perspectives on Palliative
Comparative method &
Comparative method helps an
anthropologist to avoid "ethnocentrism," the
tendency to interpret strange customs on the
basis of preconceptions derived from one's
own cultural background.
Cultural anthropologists not only study rain
forest tribes in Brazil but growing numbers
now study U.S. groups instead, applying
anthropological perspectives to their own
culture and society.
Anthropological perspectives on
Health Care: Global issues in
A distressing cross-cultural trend is showing up in
the growing body of anthropological literature
about midwifery and birth in the developing
world. Many instances can be quoted from
different countries and cultures about how
midwives and pregnant women are treated.
-- Robbie Davis-Floyd, Ph.D.,(Research Fellow in the
Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas)
Austin, Midwifery Today E-News, Vol 2(18), May 5,
Female Reproductive Health:
A Medical Anthropological
Reproduction follows many patterns in different societies
with varying consequences for health.
Anthropological research on optimal reproductive
strategies from the cross cultural and evolutionary
By exploring the anthropology of variables such as
trauma, abuse and infanticide
By comparative understandings of modern day return to
"alternative" reproductive health practices such as
midwifery, physical therapies, and traditional nutrition
Anthropological perspectives on
migration and migration history
‘Migration is a key social phenomenon’
Migration has considerably contributed to changing
perceptions of immigrants and as well the host cultures.
Mass character of immigrants and their complexity has
affected the adaptation processes and social interaction .
Important to conduct the historical and
anthropological/ethnographical case studies on migrant
movements, migrant incorporation/exclusion and migrant
representation etc. in both sending and receiving
Ethnicity and Nationalism
Anthropological Perspectives
Anthropology has the advantage of generating first-hand
knowledge of social life at the level of everyday
To a great extent, this is the locus where ethnicity is
created and re-created.
Ethnicity emerges and is made relevant through ongoing
social situations and encounters, and through people's
ways of coping with the demands and challenges of life.
From its vantage-point right at the centre of local life,
social anthropology is in a unique position to investigate
these processes.
Ethnicity and nationalism (Cont…)
Anthropological approaches also enable us to
explore the ways in which ethnic relations are being
defined and perceived by people; how they talk and
think about their own group as well as other groups,
and how particular world-views are being maintained
or contested.
The significance of ethnic membership to people can
best be investigated through that detailed on-theground research which is the hallmark of
Social anthropology, being a comparative discipline,
studies both differences and similarities between
ethnic phenomena & provides a nuanced and
complex vision of ethnicity in the contemporary
Anthropological Perspectives on
Examines the cultural constructions of
femininities and masculinities from a crosscultural perspective.
For discussion: how individuals and
societies imagine, negotiate, perform and
contest dominant gender ideologies, roles,
relations and identities. (share our own
experiences & personal backgrounds)
Information Systems from
Anthropology & Social Sciences
“While technological determinism can be applicable and
useful in situations that are characterized by high degree
of control and short time frames, it has limited value in
dynamic and complex situations that unfold over longer
periods of time. ..
Technological determinism cannot adequately account for
the interactions between ICT, the people who design,
implement and use them, and the social and
organisational contexts in which the technologies and
people are embedded.“
-- Kling et al. 2000, Relation-ship between technical and
social factors in working processes (pp. 49-50)
IS & Anthropology… (cont…)
Bansler (1987) describes Høyer’s theory in these
“It is insufficient to look at an enterprise as a
technical system, as humans play a key role in the
enterprise’s function, and because humans have
certain needs and behaviour, that must be taken
into account… The system engineer has to
consider these needs when he designs and
implements a computer system.”
-- Bansler 1987 (p. 90, translated from
Norwegian by Ole and Johan)
IS & Anthropology: Walsham
explains the concept of Web Models
‘’.. draw broad boundaries around the focal
computer system and examine how its use
depends upon a social context of complex social
actions. The models define this social context by
taking into account the social relations between
the information system, the infrastructure
available for its support, and the previous history
within the organisation of commitments made in
developing and operating related computer-based
-- Walsham 1993 (p.55)
IS & Anthropology: Walsham
“ ”With respect to the social relations as
considered in web models, it is important to note
that participants include users, system
developers, the senior management of the
company, and any other individuals or groups
who are affected by the computer-based
information system.”
-- Walsham 1993 (p.55).
Information Systems &
The social systems perspective helps to
understand the importance of the context and
particularly IS in developing countries must be
context sensitive, for example, participation,
may not be regarded the same in a developing
country context as in a developed country.
In India, participation needs to be approached
more critically and more strategically.
Case studies that will be
discussed in the course
Case studies of HISP in India and
Mozambique: Process, Challenges,
Implications -- Zubeeda
Theorizing Information Infrastructure & Case
Study – Managing the Gradual Transition
from Paper to Electronic Patient Record
(Nina Boulous MSC. Thesis) --Zubeeda
An Extended Ethnographic study of
Electronic Health Record Prototyping:
Methods, Theory & Interpretation -- Judith
What does it mean to be human?
While the question may never be
fully answered, the study of
anthropology titled as "immense
journey" by Loren Eiseley has
attracted some of the world's
greatest thinkers, whose
discoveries forever changed our
understanding of ourselves.

Health Information Systems Project in Andhra Pradesh