4 Postmodern Thought

Chapter 4 audio can be accessed on Soundcloud. Instructor resources are available on Canvas Commons.


Woman sitting on the ground near a vertical contemporary statue
Untitled by Daniel Mingook Kim. Available for use through Unsplash license.


Chapter 4 Learning Objectives

At the end of this chapter, you’ll be able to:

  • Explain and critique the philosophical frameworks of modernity and postmodernism.
  • Recognize and analyze the social constructs that govern our behavior, beliefs, and traditions.
  • Apply thick description.

4.1 Philosophy and Colonialism

As discussed in Chapter 1, early anthropologists played at least some role in European and American efforts to dominate the globe economically and politically during the era of European expansion and colonialism.

The tools that early anthropologists used in order to advance these goals included constructing ideas about distinct human “races” and placing these races on a hierarchical scale (Baker 1998). Notably, this specific idea of race developed due to specific political goals and out of specifical historic conditions that were part of the colonial era. Yet the hierarchical concept of race still impacts our lives today. Ideas surrounding “The West” versus “The Orient” developed at around the same time, as scholars aimed to support white domination across the globe (Said 1978; Lipsitz 1998).

Because the first forms of anthropological research and writing were conducted within this context, students of anthropology need a brief introduction to the European philosophical trends that shaped early anthropology. And, we must address the modern philosophical frameworks that modern anthropologists have used in order to challenge the early narratives of white supremacy in our field. Understanding how our discipline’s ideas have changed over time will provide a necessary framework for us to engage with the anthropological examination of religion in the past and present.

4.2 The Scientific Method

Diagram of the scientific method
The Scientific Method by Thebiologyprimer

Let’s begin with  the “renaissance” which literally means “rebirth.” The Renaissance was a period of cultural rebirth including scientific and artistic advancement across much of Europe from the 15th-16th centuries. Before The Renaissance, the European mindset largely explained life’s mysteries by focusing on religion (specifically, they primarily sought answers in Christianity and The Bible) (Yu 1).

During The Renaissance, The Scientific Method was developed and rigorously applied as scientists strove to understand much of the natural world. The Scientific Method works in the following steps:

  1. Observe: Scientists observe a phenomenon in the natural world (such as: the spread of disease, the changing of a species, the function of gravity, etc.)
  2. Develop a hypothesis: Scientists develop a “guess” about what might be causing the event to occur.  The scientists’ goal is not always to prove that their hypothesis is correct because seeking to exclusively prove the hypothesis as correct would lead to biased results. Rather, a false hypothesis is also very powerful because a false hypothesis can reveal a great deal about the natural world.
  3. Test the hypothesis: Scientists will test their hypothesis through experiments.
    • Scientists seek multiple lines of evidence. We always test the hypothesis in varied ways in order to assure that the findings are true and consistent. For example, we know that evolution happens because we can see some species evolving in our lifetime, we can look at fossil evidence, and we can look at genetic evidence. All of these different lines of evidence point to the same conclusion.
    • Good science requires a huge and diverse body of data that allows the experiments to be replicated and substantiated.
    • Scientists strengthen their findings through peer review: conclusions must be analyzed and critiqued by a body of other scientists who identify any potential failings or shortcomings (this strengthens the research).
  4. Draw a conclusion: After observing a huge, diverse body of data using multiple lines of
    evidence, scientists will develop a scientific theory. Please note, we do not use the word
    “theory” in the same way that we use it in our everyday lives. Scientific theories are based in fact and huge bodies of evidence, but we use the word “theory” because new information can always be discovered to help advance the knowledge even further.

Can a scientific theory be refuted? It’s possible! Scientific theories change as we continue to advance our scientific knowledge. We can change our understanding of the natural world if we discover stronger evidence to support a new understanding (of course, we cannot refute a scientific theory simply based on one sample, or through unproven personal opinion. We can only refute scientific theories with stronger scientific evidence).

The scientific method works so well that the sciences and social sciences embraced the practice fully and expected science to provide the answers to all of life’s burning questions (Mascia-Lees 95; Stein 10-13). We call this the period of modernity and this understanding of the world viewed science as the means to discover answers for truth, reality, and humanity. Positivism is the view that empirical (verifiable, provable) facts can be discovered through the scientific method.

4.3 August Comte and Positivism 

One of the founders of the positivist movement, a French philosopher named Auguste Comte (1798-1857), spelled out these ideas in works like The Course in Positive Philosophy (published in volumes between 1830-1842). His early writing reflected the general ideas of what came to be known as ‘the positivist movement’ with respect to the natural world: physics, chemistry, biology, and other scientific fields of study. These, Comte said, are systems that can be observed and understood in terms of the interactions between clear rules that dictate how they work. However, in the later volumes of The Course in Positive Philosophy, Comte proposed that positivism could be important also in how we understand a phenomenon even more complicated than physics, chemistry, or biology: human behavior. 


Bust of Auguste Comte in Paris
Auguste Comte Monument in Paris by MLWatts

Comte is also often credited as a founder of the discipline of Sociology, which studies the ways that humans organize themselves in groups (“societies”), and it is important to understand exactly why his application of positivist ideas to the study of human societies was a departure from earlier scholarly discussions on this topic. While Renaissance social theorists had written much about human nature and politics, they tended to develop abstract philosophical conclusions by reflecting on idealized versions of human groups. In contrast, the positivist approach instead involved creating theories of human behavior that could be tested scientifically by observing the outcomes of actual human actions in experimental and natural settings. In this sense, positivists believed in the importance of collecting and analyzing actual data or evidence and did not simply want to muse about unanswerable philosophical questions.

4.4 Comte, Positivism, and Religion

Interestingly, Comte was not only interested in understanding human societies. In fact, he believed that by understanding human societies, scholars could eventually help to elevate humankind to a new level of self-awareness and progress. Positivism was not just a way to learn about the world, it was also a way to make the world a better place for all of humanity.

Comte saw this goal as particularly important since he believed that religion was disappearing in “modern” society (like many others also incorrectly did, as we will see throughout this course). Comte feared that without religion as the traditional “glue” that brought societies together and helped to give people common goals and a common identity, some new way to understand our place in the universe and to establish a sense of purpose and morality was badly needed.

Other early social scientists, such as Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) shared Comte’s belief that religion was disappearing and being replaced by science. Both were clearly interested in making a better future for humanity, which they saw as seriously threatened by the spread of “science” at the expense of “religion.” However, both took an uncritical approach to what constitutes “religion,” and both may have overlooked examples from their own societies where religion was thriving.

4.5 Science and Religion 

As a human being yourself, you likely already know that not all elements of human life can be proven or disproven through scientific research and evidence. Religion is the perfect example. Religion, by its very nature, is defined by the faith that human beings have in its truth. Faith requires a lack of evidence to be faith. If you were able to prove that your religion was empirically true based on the scientific method, then your religion would cease to be religion and would become a scientific theory. Religion is thus its own method of making sense of the world through observation and experience (Stein 2010, 137-138). 

However, just because the claims a religion makes cannot be examined through the scientific method, does not mean that religion isn’t real. Religions change people’s behaviors, help communities survive through collective responsibility and caretaking, and can transform the way that adherents literally perceive the world. All of these are very real, tangible, and often measurable effects that religion has upon life and upon reality itself.

4.6 Postmodernism 

Today, social scientists who study religion understand that not all areas of the human experience can be examined through the scientific method; in this sense, modern cultural anthropologists are not positivists (Kuper 1996, 187).  We call this new trend and way of thinking “postmodernism.” Although postmodernism is important in many fields, it was largely brought into the field of anthropology specifically by American cultural anthropologists who found themselves living and working in a society that was more diverse than the world had ever seen before (Kuper 1996, 186). Within this new context, American cultural anthropologists started to understand that many of our identities are socially constructed and that different identities often lead to different lived experiences. 

Postmodern anthropologists focus less than their 19th and early 20th predecessors did on identifying an objective reality, and instead strive to examine the myriad of subjective realities that human beings and cultures experience. The term “objective” refers to “anything that can be confirmed outside of the senses” and subjective refers to “anything that is perceived differently by different individuals” (White, 317). 

Let’s consider the example of color: as you already know, color does not exist independently of your eye’s perception of color. Things do not actually have color but, rather, your eyes create the color so that you can identify the different makeup of the objects around you. Not all humans see the exact same colors (there are different kinds of colorblindness) so color is subjective.  

To clarify, postmodern thought: 

  • Was a late 20th century concept
  • Impacted the sciences, the arts, and architecture
  • Argues that all knowledge is a human construction and so, in order to understand how knowledge is created, we must deconstruct, or critically analyze, the processes that produce knowledge 
  • Argues that everything is determined by our perception
  • Does not embrace the idea of empirical truth
  • Emphasizes the limitations of science (does not deny science’s validity)

We can look at two, recent examples in popular culture to illuminate the subjective nature of reality: 

  1. Perhaps you recall the controversy surrounding what we lovingly called, “the dress” in 2015. “The dress” was a photo of a dress hanging in a store; some people saw the dress as black and blue while others saw the dress as gold and white. For most of us, the colors of the dress changed before our very eyes. 
  2. In 2018, the “laurel/yanny” controversy emerged. During this time a recording was circulating where a person was trying to record themselves saying the word “laurel” repeatedly but many people heard them saying “yanny” instead. Again, many were arguing over what they heard while many more could actually hear the sounds change if they listened to the recording long enough. 

With these two examples, we learned that our very eyes and ears can literally perceive the world differently than others’ eyes and ears. No one is lying about what they are hearing or seeing when they describe “the dress” or the “laurel/yanny” recording, but we are still having completely different experiences. This is very much how modern anthropologists approach the examination of culture: multiple, seemingly contradictory experiences can exist and all still be “true.” 

Exercise 4A

Medical Anthropology is a branch of anthropology that examines the connection between health and culture; this type of research engages with scientific evidence while also considering the subjective realities that shape our cultural experiences. Listen to this NPR story titled, “Medical Anthropologist Explores ‘Vaccine Hesitancy” to
better understand this type of research.

Then, see if you can answer the following questions:

  1. What kind of research is this anthropologist doing? What conclusions has she drawn about the way that the media can shape our concept of reality?
  2. How does this anthropologist apply her research in a practical way? What problem is she seeking to solve?

4.7 Social Constructs 

A social construct is anything that human beings believe to be true that isn’t based in natural law. Gendered hair length is an excellent example; we may expect women to have long hair on their heads and expect men to have short hair on their heads, but this expectation is not natural, genetic, or biological. Instead, hair length is a cultural expectation. Men’s genetics do not cause their hair to stop growing at a certain length, rather, men with short hair have to exert a great deal of effort to maintain their short hair by cutting it frequently. Of course, women can – and do – have short hair while men also can – and do – have long hair, but that’s usually considered to be outside the norm in certain cultural contexts.

Social constructs like the example above (and an infinite number of others) have enormous power over our understanding of the world around us. They are so common and so deeply rooted in our worldviews that people often assume that our socially constructed expectations about the world are actually natural laws. For example, an author of this textbook once had a student mention in class that, “I once saw a woman with armpit hair and it was so disgusting I almost threw up.” While his comment was obviously problematic and hurtful to many, it was also quite funny because – of course – most women grow armpit hair! The majority of women’s bodies grow armpit hair, but we’ve so widely applied the expectation that women should remove armpit hair that some people have forgotten what women’s bodies naturally look like. 

This is how social constructs function: when everyone strictly conforms to a social construct, it starts to look like a natural law and causes the constructed element of the norm to become invisible to us.

4.8 Summing Up: Postmodernism

Anthropology exists within the space of postmodern thought today. As a result, a successful anthropologist must:

  • Be critical of their own role in the results of their research.
  • Be aware of their impact on the culture that they are studying (both their in-person influence and on the large-scale power to transform others’ perceptions of the cultures they are studying).
  • Make a particular effort to amplify the voices of those you’re interviewing rather than speak “for” them.
  • Make a particular effort to holistically study a culture, this often pushes anthropologists to amplify the voices of marginalized groups (Kuper 1996, 188).

4.9 Postmodern Anthropology in Action: Geertz and Thick Description

Having explored the idea that our beliefs systems and cultures are socially constructed, you likely find yourself wondering how, exactly, a cultural anthropologist might study something that is so impossible to nail down as “truth.” The postmodern approach toward the human experience was addressed directly by Clifford Geertz, who argued that the most impactful form of cultural anthropology is the study of how human beings create meaning in their lives. He wrote, 

“Sacred symbols function to synthesize a people’s ethos –the tone, character, and quality of their life, its moral and aesthetic style and mood –and their world view –the picture they have of the way things in actuality are, their most comprehensive ideas of order” (Geertz 1973, 89). 

Symbolic cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz advanced postmodern thought in anthropology in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and the movement finally took a hold over anthropology across the globe in the 1980’s. Geertz argued that anthropology is akin to semiotics (or, the study of meaning-making) and that we need to closely examine how human beings understand their world. 

Geertz also argued that the anthropologists themselves are steeped in a culturally-specific worldview which will impact their work. We cannot claim to be objective observers but are instead participants in the “discourse” (dialogue) surrounding the definition and negotiation of culture (Wilder 4).

For Geertz, culture was, “a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which [people] communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life” (Geertz, 1973, 89). On this basis, he argued that anthropologists must strive to produce more than a basic description of what is literally happening in a cultural setting they observe. Rather, we must describe what meaning is behind the cultural events and social interactions we observe. Geertz called this practice “thick description” and argued that it was the opposite of “thin description” which is the literal description of events. 

As an example, imagine the last time you were sitting in a classroom as a student. Let’s analyze that event using both of the descriptive methods Geertz outlined.

Thin Description: A group is sitting quietly in seats while one person stands in front of them and yells at them for 1 hour and 20 minutes. When the designated time is up, the people get up and walk out of the room. 

(Although true, this is obviously not a fair representation of what happens in a classroom.)

Thick Description: A group of people who identify as “students” are attending an event intended to offer knowledge, which in turn is believed to be helpful for achieving future successes in their culture. While some participants were brought here involuntarily, others attend the event willingly, seeking a better life, more money, or a higher social status by achieving a “degree.” To many in this culture, college attendance symbolizes a certain level of success – one that not all are able to access. 

This second description emphasizes culturally specific meanings behind practices we might observe and thus better reflects what’s happening in the community. Notice that this description is in some ways more of a narrative than an observation, and that it contains layers of interpretation, including the writer’s particular perspective.  

Contemporary anthropological research and writing typically incorporates narrative elements and vivid language, while also foregrounding the researcher’s own presence as a cultural participant/ethnographer. In this way, anthropologists strive to maintain an awareness of the fact that they are human beings studying other human beings. By acknowledging their own position in collecting information, they also acknowledge the potential for their own subjective perceptions and biases to exist and even to color their work.  At the same time, good ethnography also means carefully examining these perceptions and biases in a manner that enables the anthropologist to arrive at meaningful and insightful conclusions.

Like Geertz, the American anthropologists who embraced and advanced postmodernism moved away from the idea that the human experience could be studied or measured empirically and that, in reality, much of what humans know and believe in are social constructs.

4.10 Elaborating on Geertz’ Thick Description

Clifford Geertz argued four main points about thick description: 

  1. Anthropology is semiotics. In other words, anthropology is the study of meaning-making; we study how humans create meaning in their lives (Geertz, 1973, 311).
  2. The study of culture is always microscopic. We can never study all humans nor can we even study every single member of a cultural group (consider, for example, how impossible it would be to study “all Christians.”) Rather, we study a very small sampling of a very specific group and we need to recognize that specificity in our work (or else we will overgeneralize). (Geertz, 1973, 318)
  3. We can study culture by decoding it. Cultures have sets of symbols within them that participants engage with in a variety of contexts. By learning the symbols, we can better understand exactly how the people engage meaningfully with their cultures.  (Geertz, 1973, 312)
  4. Anthropologists will only ever be able to examine extroverted behaviors. In other words, we can only ever observe what people do in public (even an interview is witnessed by you). We can never see what people actually do in private and can therefore never have a complete picture of their culture, beliefs, or behaviors (Geertz 1973, 318). 

In Geertz’s view, all social events are defined by a variety of influences which he called the “layers of meaning.” These include: 

  1. The actor’s intentions: Whenever we communicate, we intend to convey something to someone else But, because no two people perceive of things in the same way and because we don’t always use words in the same way, we can’t always get across exactly what we mean and our intention is only one piece of the interaction.
  2. The recipient’s interpretation: The recipient might be one person or they might be a large group of people. The way the recipient of the information interprets the interaction is equally important to the actor’s intentions.
  3. The observer’s analysis: When we do fieldwork, we bring our own perspectives, biases, and interests to the interactions. When we comment on the events that we observe, we add a layer of meaning the events. Sally Slocum tells us that “we are human beings studying human beings and we cannot leave ourselves out of the equation.” 

Geertz jokingly wrote that the difference between thin and thick description is easy to understand if you’ve ever embarrassed yourself by thinking that someone was winking at you when they were actually just blinking one eye. Blinking an eye is a biological process that we do to moisten our eyeballs whereas winking is a highly symbolic gesture that can convey a variety of meanings. If you’ve ever been embarrassed because you mistakenly thought that someone was winking at you when they were actually just moistening their eyeballs, then you already understand the significant difference between the literal description of something and the symbolic meaning behind it (Geertz 1973, 6).

4.11 Ancient Civilizations Challenge Our Preconceived Notions of Gender

Elisa Mandell’s, “A New Analysis of the Gender Attribution of the ‘Great Goddess’ of Teotihuacan” argues that historians, anthropologists, and other social scientists should avoid gender labels when we try to understand the culture and art of ancient societies that perceived gender in a different way. As our ideas surrounding the gender binary are culturally-specific and generationally-specific, we cannot always interpret the cultural expressions of people from a different time and place using our own, culturally and generationally specific lens. Mandell’s work argues that, as our cultural beliefs evolve over time our understanding of past societies similarly change transforms.

Elisa Mandell is an anthropologist and art historian whose work specifically analyzes symbols surrounding The Great Goddess of pre-Columbian Teotihuacan (now modern-day Mexico), also known as the “Teotihuacan Spider Woman”. The Goddess has been a popular topic of research and discussion since her rediscovery in 1972 by archaeologist Alfonso Caso. With an affiliation to the study of the Olmecs and his own Mexican heritage, Caso played an integral role in uncovering this mystery. The Goddess appears on multiple surfaces, such as homes and important buildings, proudly displaying her elegant headdress covered in multicolored zigzag patterns. With her arms stretched wide and water dripping from her fingertips, she seems to represent birth and nurturing (Mandell). However, she is also surrounded by spiders, with a noticeable nose pendant and a variety of other features that continue to baffle scientists, as those attributes are always found on male deities. While some believe that this entity is actually an expression of multiple deities, Columbia University professor Esther Pasztory was the first to argue that the “goddess” may not be female at all—or male, for that matter  (Pasztory 1997). In Pasztory’s view, we must move beyond the binary construction of gender in order to understand this deity.


Great Goddess, Tepantitla Mural of Mesoamerica
Great Goddess, Tepantitla Mural, Teotihuacan by Thomas Aleto, Flickr, 2007

Over the past fifty years, anthropologists have hotly debated the gender of this religious figure. Bouncing back and forth between male and female, history has settled on “goddess” solely due to the modern ideas of the outward appearance of this deity (Pasztory 1997). The reasons why it’s challenging to settle on a particular gender for this deity can be attributed to our own understanding of the generationally-specific and culturally-specific construction of gender. As each anthropologist and archeologist comes, themselves, from a particular culture with a particular worldview about gender, we can see the anthropologists’ own perspective in their analysis of the evidence. And, of course, archeologists and linguists still only know a small sampling of this ancient language which limits our ability to understand the complete picture.

Mayan societies typically clarify whether a hero or figure is meant to be masculine or feminine by sculpting the genitalia or including something telling that would help the viewer determine the sex. On some occasions, when no distinction is made between male or female, the Mayans typically left some type of documentation that explained why the deity or figure’s gender was left ambiguous. However, in Teotihuacan’s case, no such distinction was made. So, how do anthropologists decide which gender the deity of Teotihuacan is?

First, the anthropologist must ask: which genders exist? In his article for Journal for Anthropological Research, author Jay Miller writes a piece titled “Changing Ones: Third And Fourth Genders In Native North America.” Miller explains that while it is widely accepted in Western societies that there are only two genders, male and female, there are a plethora of societies that see gender as nonlinear and fluid. Consider some of the following examples:

  • Miller’s research addresses Native American Lakota culture’s concept of two-spirit or a person who embodies both gender identities
  • Indian culture recognized a third gender called “Hijra” which can be expressed with a mix of gendered characteristics
  • Traditional, rural Albanian cultures recognized a gender called “Burneshas” whereby people who were born female can completely transition to the male identity and can subsequently benefit from male privilege
  • Traditional Hawaiian culture historically acknowledged a blended gender identity called “mahu: wherein which, individuals can float between male and female and do not feel the need to conform to one or the other
  • The Muxe in Mexico are a group of gay men who date heterosexual men whose masculinity is not threatened by dating a Muxe
  • The Bakla in the Philippines who are assigned the male gender at birth, but feel more comfortable living more on the “female” end of the spectrum where they are not considered homosexual

Anthropologists also consider the traditional division of labor when grappling with the gender of Teotihuacan (and, as the division of labor changes from culture to culture, so does Teotihuacan’s gender). Men and women had some separate roles in Teotihuacan society, and some of these roles loosely reflect our modern gender roles. But, the division of labor was culturally cemented in the 19th and early 20th century European and American societies and, during this time, the discrimination of feminine men and masculine women became the norm (Hill 2006). These ideas, whether subtle or not, certainly affected the way that researchers looked at a Mayan society. And, of course, this biased decision-making can lead to incorrect information.

Finally, one of the main reasons why it is so difficult for anthropologists to distinguish the gender of this deity and what they represent is due to the overwhelming amount of evidence that this particular figure is both masculine and feminine. According to Columbia State University professor Esther Pasztory, symbols like the owl, the zigzag patterns in the headband, and the people underneath that all represent darkness are contradicted by the water, the spiders, and the trees that all represented a feminine energy (Pasztory 1997). These symbols also make it increasingly harder to determine what the deity represents exactly as they have been seen depicted with some of the items some of the time but never all of them, all the time.

Columbia State University professor Esther Paszorty has researched this deity at length. While this deity remains a mysterious figure, modern anthropologists still strive to place the religious figure into a female or male category. What is clear, however, is that the divine being of Teotihuacan represented many things to the people. This deity did not need to be just the goddess of water or Earth for them, but more fittingly, represented creation and destruction, light and dark. In other words, Teotihuacan seems to be a little bit of everything, for everyone.

As modern anthropologists are able to engage with this social expansion of gender fluidity and more genders become more and more prevalent, the influence appears in the work done at these archeological sites. By embracing diverse cultural attitudes toward the construction of gender, we can better engage with the meaning behind archaeological finds. Consider, for example, the Ancient Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. As pharaohs of this era were believed to be divine beings, Akhenaten’s artistic representations became increasingly non-gender-conforming throughout this lifetime. By presenting himself as encompassing all identities upon the gender spectrum, Akhenaten was able to approach more divine characteristics. In our modern world, Hijras in Indian culture are considered to be closer to the divine precisely because they embody both the male and female spirit (in a belief system that the divine is both male and female).

Compared to the societies mentioned thus far in this chapter, the Euro-American gender binary is uniquely strict. What can the Euro-American religious tradition tell us about these gendered ideas? According to Biblical scholar, Meg Warner, the Abrahamic idea of gender stems from the first story told —Adam and Eve. This Abrahamic story of creation purports that the first human, Adam, was created in God’s image and that a second gender was created after. Interestingly enough, Warner argues that the Hebrew word used (a-d-m) was roughly translated to “Adam” in English, but stems from the word adamah which means “earth”; leaving Adam, essentially, genderless (Warner 2019). As the majority of anthropological research was, at first, steeped in the European colonial traditions that placed people, religions, and cultural practices on a hierarchical scale, it’s understandable that this strict gendered binary was applied in archeological research and interpretation. But, by engaging with a more complete spectrum of gender identity allows modern archaeologists and anthropologists the opportunity to interpret cultural beliefs more accurately.


Exercise 4B: Journal Reflection

Now that you have a complex understanding of the Scientific Method, can you identify some pseudoscientific beliefs that are popular within your own community? Identify and examine a cultural belief that is presented to you as “natural” or “normal” without being based in any provable science. For this assignment, please remember to practice cultural relativism and to strive to understand why this belief persists before analyzing it.


Exercise 4C: Study Guide

Before moving on, ensure that you can define the following terms in your own words

  • The Renaissance:
  • The Scientific Method:
  • Scientific Theory:
  • Modernism:
  • Positivism:
  • Empirical Evidence:
  • Objective:
  • Subjective:
  • Discourse
  • Social Construct:
  • Semiotics:
  • Thick Description:
  • Thin Description:
  • Microscopic:
  • Decoding:
  • Extroverted Behaviors:
  • Layers of Meaning:
  • The Actor’s Intentions:
  • The Recipient’s Interpretations:
  • The Observer’s Analysis:

What are the four key elements of thick description?

What are three layers of meaning to consider in any cultural observation?

Briefly summarize the arguments of the social scientist: 

  • Clifford Geertz
  • Auguste Comte

Chapter 4 Works Cited

  • Durham, Mary E. High Albania. Arno Pr. U.a., 1971.
  • Baker, Lee D. From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954. University of California Press, 2007.
  • Mandell, Elisa C. 2015.“A New Analysis of the Gender Attribution of the “Great Goddess” of Teotihuacan”. Ancient Mesoamerica 26 (1): 29-49. doi:10.1017/s0956536115000024.
  • Pasztory, Esther 1973 “The Gods of Teotihuacan: A Synthetic Approach in Teotihuacan Iconography”. Atti de XL Congresso Internazionale degli Americanistis 1:147–159. Casa Editrice Tillgher-Genova S.A.S., Genova, Italy.
  • “Changing Ones: Third And Fourth Genders In Native North America”. Will Roscoe”. Journal Of Anthropological Research 55 (1): 160-162. doi:10.1086/jar.55.1.3630989.
  • Hill, Darryl. 2006. “‘Feminine’ Heterosexual Men: Subverting Heteropatriarchal Sexual Scripts?”. The Journal Of Men’s Studies 14 (2): 145-159. doi:10.3149/jms.1402.145.
  • Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The interpretation of cultures: selected essays.
  • Kirby, Jen. 2018. “Why you hear “Laurel” or “Yanny” in that viral audio clip, explained.” Vox, May 16, 2018.
  • Kuper, Adam. Anthropology and Anthropologists – The Modern British School. Routledge, 1996.
  • Lipsitz, George. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. Temple University Press, 1998.
  • Mascia-Lees, Frances E. Gender & Difference in a Globalizing World: Twenty-First Century Anthropology. Waveland Press, 2010.
  • Pasztory, Esther. 1997. Teotihuacan: An Experiment in Living. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.
  • Said, Edward W. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.
  • Sloat, Sarah. 2017. “The Final Scientific Explanation of the ‘Dress Illusion’.” Inverse, April 10, 2017.
  • Stein, Philip, Rebecca Frank, and Brian Pierson. “Anthropometry of the Human Body.” Lab Manual to Accompany Anthropology 111: Laboratory in Human Biological Evolution. 4th ed., 2015, pp. 77–84.
  • Stein, Rebecca. Anthropology of Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft. 3rd Ed.
  • Whitaker, Robin & Warner, Meg. 2019. “God made the rainbow: why the Bible welcomes a gender spectrum”. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/god-made-the-rainbow-why-the-bible-welcomes-a-gender-spectrum-126201.
  • Young, Antonia. “Women Who Become Men.” 2000, https://doi.org/10.2752/9781847888990.
  • Yu, Jenny. “The Influence of Renaissance and Religious Reform on the Development of Music and Art Style.” Proceedings of the 2016 International Conference on Humanities and Social Science, 2016, doi:10.2991/hss-26.2016.76.

Chapter 4 Suggestions for further reading

  • Clifford, James, et al. Writing Culture: the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography ; a School of American Research Advanced Seminar. University of California Press, 2011.
  • Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Antiracist. Random House Large Print, 2020.
  • Lancy, David F. The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings. Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  • Stocking, George W. Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1997.
  • Welsch, Robert Louis, and Luis A. Vivanco. Cultural Anthropology Asking Questions about Humanity. Oxford University Press, 2015.


Written by Amanda Zunner-Keating and Ben Shepard. Edited by Oscar Hernandez and Jennifer Sime. Special thanks to Jennifer Campbell for curating photos; and to Melody Yeager-Struthers for organizing our resources. Student research/editing by Alexa Zysman and Ahmet Dikyurt. Layout by Amanda Zunner-Keating and Madlen Avetyan. Audio recording by Amanda Zunner-Keating.

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Postmodern Thought Copyright © by Amanda Zunner-Keating; Madlen Avetyan; and Ben Shepard is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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