Series Anthropology -A Brief Introduction To Anthropology

The Emergence of Social-Cultural Anthropology

Anthropology as a separate discipline emerged in the mid 19th century Europe. However, the questions with which anthropologists were concerned dates back to 15th century. In this sense it can be said that anthropology as a discourse on human condition is older than anthropology as an academic discipline. It has been argued that the first every ethnography was written by Christopher Columbus where he described the people and climate of the new world. In the context of India however, this ethnographic interest is even older than its emergence in Europe. Late Kumar Suresh Singh (former director of the Anthropological Survey of India) noted that ‘Mahabharat’ can be regarded as the earliest ethnography of India. However, Anthropology as an academic discipline was first established in Europe.

Since antiquity, physical and social diversities had been a subject of inquiry and public and intellectual discourse. The basic questions that can also be regarded as the central questions with which anthropology emerged as a separate discipline are related to human origin and variation. Why there are so many different kinds of people who not only look differently but also have different societies and culture was the earliest question that dominated the intellectual scenario in Europe. With the advancement of sailing technology in the 15th century European travelled to far off places and noted the social, cultural and physical differences among people. The debate ensued that what is the hallmark of being human. Who can be called as humans, why people differ so much? Such questions set the tone for the emergence of a discipline called anthropology.

It was not that the earlier European scholars and theologists never tried to answer these questions. Scholars and theologists made their attempts at answering questions related to human origin and variation but all those answers did not led to the emergence of anthropology. For example the earliest attempt at answering the question on variation was done by the Christian Church through bible. The earliest theory that explained human variation was the theory of degeneration. According to this theory, it was god who created different people after the destruction of the tower of Babel.

From the Renaissance until the eighteenth century, the concept of degenerationism provided Europeans with a biblically based explanation of cultural diversity. In this view, prior to the destruction of the Tower of Babel, all people belonged to a single civilization. When God destroyed the Tower, creating differences in language and dispersing the people, however, some degenerated, losing their civilization and eventually becoming savages. Much of the European experience seemed to confirm degenerationism. For example, the recovery of texts and artefacts from ancient Greek and Roman civilizations seemed to show that these were far more advanced than those of later date (McGee and Warm, 2008: 5).” The alternative view to degenerationaism was progressivism. According to this view humans have progressed from earlier savage stages.

Such discussions and ideas occupied the intellectual scenario in Europe till the early 19th century. Anthropology as a discipline could not emerge till then as such ideas were stray ideas and were not scientifically or systematically organized. There was data that supported the diversity and then there were rationalists who reasoned that man must have progressed from the earlier stages. It was only when data and theory merged together that a separate discipline called anthropology emerged. This happened with the publication of Charles Darwin’s book- “On the Origin of Species” in 1859. This book for the first time showed scientifically that evolution has happened. New species emerge and old species become extinct. This idea when applied to human society came to be known as ‘Social Darwinism’. It was assumed that like animal species, human society has evolved from simple to complex.

Thus the first idea that emerged in anthropology was the idea of evolutionism. Anthropologists like Tylor and Morgan believed that like animal species human societies have passed through several stages from simple to complex. The social variation therefore came to be explained through the theory of evolutionism. It was said that there are different societies because they are at different stages of development or progress. Simple or tribal societies came to be regarded as the earliest forms of societies and Europeans thought these societies to be an early condition of human beings in general. A corollary to this kind of a view was that the European society was regarded as the most evolved and at the epitome of human civilization. Such thought dominated the 19th century Europe and was instrumental in rationalizing the colonial interests of the British in India and Africa as it became the white man’s burden to civilize the uncivilized.



Dr. Prashant Khattri ( Department of Anthropology/ University of Allahabad )