Famous Cultural Anthropologists

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Cultural Anthropology is the study of contemporary cultures in order to better-understand past human development. Advocates study the beliefs, practices and societies and attempt to relate them to what we know from the archaeology of lesser technologically-developed times of the human past. Though it has its detractors and has become more of an interpretative science in recent years, it has been an invaluable contribution to the study of past societies.

1. Franz Boas

The ‘grandfather of cultural anthropology’ was born in Germany in 1858 and moved to the USA in his late 20s. There, he established himself very quickly and became pivotal to the establishment of an anthropology department at Columbia University. He taught some of the other distinguished names in this list. His change in focus from research to field study, spending time with indigenous tribes such as Eskimos and bringing in other disciplines such as linguistics and direct observation of cultural practices.

2. Ruth Benedict

If Boas was the grandfather, then Benedict was the mother of Cultural Anthropology. Boas mentored her for most of her career and she soon set off into her own area of research into the native tribes of southwest USA. She released a hugely popular book called ‘Patterns of Culture’ which emphasised that studying technologically primitive tribes could help those who live in more technologically advanced areas to understand their own distant past. Her primary area of interest was the influence of culture on individuals.

3. Margaret Mead

Many considered her a maverick. Mentored by both Boas and Benedict, her no nonsense approach and controversial research into sex, sexuality and gender roles of the tribes she researched brought her public notoriety. She studied people in Somoa after which she hypothesised that culture and not just biology influenced the development of children. Her main focus was childhood and parenthood and she became famous outside her field ‘ something that so few seek or achieve; this was because her subjects were so relatable and easy to read.

English Conversation About Culture

4. Claude Levi-Strauss

Originally hailing from France, he moved to Brazil for the opportunity of a lifetime in cultural anthropology. Once there he was able to study the Bororo Indians in the field and the tribes around them. With a particular talent for linguistics, he went on to begin a new movement called structuralism which was to be a framework for comparing societies. He hypothesised that there are universal laws and structures that are common to all societies regardless of technological advancement, distance or development. His four volume work Mythologiques studied Native American tribes and their beliefs.

5. Eric Wolf

Wolf is truly one of the multi-disciplinarians of the subject. Influenced by cultural Marxism and as a Jew, he fled his native Austria as Hitler was coming to power in Germany. He moved to England where he studied for a few years, learnt to speak English and took an interest in science. Then the moved to the USA where he took up his interest in the subject and was sent to Puerto Rico, Mexico and back to Europe where he observed the peasant communities that would be the feature of the bulk of his research and theories.

6. Lewis Henry Morgan

Though not a cultural anthropologist as we understand it today, it was his research into the study of ancient tribes that ‘ following the technological development ages of Stone, Bronze and Iron Age – he hypothesised three stages of development of societies: savagery, barbarism and civilisation. Though today his theories have been superseded by ideas of hunter-gatherer to semi-settled to urban-surplus society, we cannot deny that his curiosity about social development of societies from lesser to greater development has impacted modern thinking on cultural anthropology.

7. Sidney Mintz

Mintz studied with Eric Wolf (and the two were friends) and both men were mentored by Ruth Benedict so their work was hugely influential in Mintz. He worked at Yale, MIT, Ã’°cole Pratique des Hautes Ã’°tudes, the Collège de France and a number of others. Mintz looked at American tribes from a cultural perspective, analysing the changes wrought since the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century and the development of capitalist over the following centuries ‘ not just on the indigenous peoples, but also on the Europeans themselves and how both societies responded to those changes.

8. Clifford Geertz

The next stage in the development of cultural anthropology is interpretative anthropology. The new movement sought to study not just the people, but the objects that they used, the symbolism of those objects and any potential meaning behind the art of the society. Studying objects and religions of technologically-primitive peoples led him to believe that objects can and do possess importance within a culture. He was internationally renowned and won many awards and accolades for his research.

9. James Clifford

Using an interdisciplinary approach, he combines history, linguistics and anthropology in his research into ethnography. His works form the basis of a lot of modern research in anthropology and to the self-critical and scientific approach to changes in the movement since the 1980s. Working in a time of increasing independence for traditional colonies, his work has also looked at the effect of new-found sovereignty is having on those societies. His PhD thesis was on the history of cultural anthropology, particularly on the works of Claude Levi-Strauss and Marcel Mauss.

10. James Frazer

Working in a time before cultural and social anthropology were distinct, Frazer studied comparative religions and hypothesised that all societies would go through three stages (rather like stone, bronze, iron and savagery, barbarism, civilisation above) of religious development: magic, religion and science. Those very simplified and ultimately erroneous, his work in which the ideas featured ‘ The Golden Bough ‘ were fundamental to the beginnings of the discipline and those who would later come to study technologically primitive societies.


Human civilisation has a long and complex history. The disciplines of social anthropology and cultural anthropology are attempting to piece together the development, not of our physical bodies and the utility issues of society (farming, homebuilding etc), but of our social structures, beliefs, politics and social attitudes. Today, modern cultural anthropologists take information from a wide variety of disciplines.

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