Anthropology at the Critical Juncture of Past and Present

by Hugh M. Lewis


Our human condition is the state of being forever unfinished


The Anthropology of Knowledge, elucidating the anthropological construction of reality mediating the boundary between the psychological and sociological, between self and other, subjective and objective, must come to terms with the related concepts of Culture and cultural character as these have played a critical part in the scientific and humanistic integration of knowledge about human reality. Anthropology is confronting its ultimate crises of its own boundary definition in the rapid and mostly irreversible loss of cultural variability and viability on earth. As different cultural orientations continue to converge and become submerged within a globally stratified continuum of developmental modernization, the opportunities for anthropologists to study their traditional subjects in the time-honored manner of extended participant-observation, become correspondingly fewer and further between. As a consequence, Anthropology is left to either redefine its objects and methods of inquiry in a world which is increasingly changing and becoming increasingly complicated in its social patterning, borrowing upon other research traditions better equipped to treat and investigate modern social settings, or else to risk its continual erosion of identity as a crucial, critically relevant discipline of inquiry. It is suggested that the solution to this anthropological crisis of identity will not be found in bio-cultural reconstructions of a mythical past, in developmental or applied anthropology projects, or in the retro-flexive critically styled self-alienation of the anthropologist but it may be found in the confrontation and role of mediation of the challenges and contradictions of a changing world.

The relative presence of Culture has been of critical importance in both human evolutionary development as well as in individual human development. The many parts played by culture in human development can be referred to as cultural process and this process can be seen as having had a continuous and continuously changing influence upon the anthropological construction of reality, the ongoing definition and redefinition of human beingness, or humanness and of the human condition in the wider world. Culture itself, lacking any well-agreed upon definition, can in part be defined by the shaping role it has played in this developmental process. Risking a tautology, we can describe culture as roughly those external, material, symbolic and social components that are necessary to the normal, natural development of the human being. Personal adornment and dress, language, aesthetic sensibilities and affective expression, familial relationships, social values and attitudes toward social relations, strategies and economies of food-getting and material acquisition, technology, religious beliefs, collective representations, ritualistic ceremonies, values of work and play, all must be seen as important cultural components which have some differential bearing upon the development of the human being and the human group from the earliest moments. Of course, child culture can be seen as rudimentary or lacking in many of these respects, but child-culture is in fact a sub-cultural extension of a broader adult world, and the child normally has little if any choice but to share naively in the full cultural life of its care-takers and compeers.

Human beings have come to depend upon culture as if this were a vital need or condition for their survival and successful development. Culture serves to continually support us and mediate for us basic conflicts and existential challenges which we may be ill-equipped to deal with if left to our own, organically defined resources. Indeed, we might well reverse the conventional formula in this regard and say that it has not been genes that have determined our cultural possibilities, but culture that has constrained our genetic possibilities.

Humankind cannot be conceived of without culture. Culture has long been a critical component of human reality--and yet for the most part the role of cultural process in this most fundamental aspect remains largely unexplained and unexamined. We search for culture in many strange places in the world, and yet consistently fail to define the place of culture in anthropogenesis and human development.

Culture undergoes a process of organic internalization as it embeds itself upon the primary levels of human character. Simultaneously, the sense of human beingness, the expression of organic drives, becomes externalized upon a cultural constructed world, and comes to depend for its expression upon such externalization. Culture, from a social-psychological and psychosocial point of view, comes to mediate the boundary between the culturally defined internal world of the individual and the organically defined external world of living culture. Culture becomes vital in the sense that it is an active, living linkage in human beingness. Cultural elements mediate this boundary while simultaneously constituting the boundary. Culture lies somewhere between the self and the other, the product of relation between these two worlds.

From the standpoint of internalization, the emphasis upon the subjective side of cultural process, in particular as a distinctive contribution by anthropology to the understanding of human reality, is as equally important as the focus upon its external "objective" manifestations. Subjective evaluation and reevaluation of culturally derived characteristics have an historical consequence in human development and change.

If we define culture as that externalized and internalized portion of human acquisition and adaptation, those means of cooperative social behavior which have helped to free humankind from the natural preoccupation with survival to pursue other interests, including the development of the intellect, we must see the very important and original evolutionary place of culture in human development, and we must recognize the importance of culture as an externalized facet of human organismic adaptation, one which entails concomitant internalization of arbitrary or constructed or conventional elements, the tight connection of culture with primary acquisition. If the original cultural connections are not made in the early years of life, all subsequent development will be retarded.

This aspect also accounts for the tight linkages to culture and personality, and to the intransigence of culture in the formation of individual character. It constitutes the basis for claims of a deep-seated cultural relativity.

In this regard, language, systems of symbolization, as well as technology and systems of social organization, must be seen to play a central cybernetic role since the earliest transformations of humankind.

Neurological evidence and case histories of severe childhood deprivation support the hypothesis of critical stages of brain development during which new capacities of mind become inaugurated. If missed, permanent retardation of brain development will be the long-term consequence.

The delayed development of the brain among higher mammals, and especially marked for humankind, can be seen as a critical period of cultural nurturance during which the relative presence or absence, deprivation and enrichment of an effective cultural life-world, will have a critical influence on the subsequent characteriological development of the individual.

We must speculate whether the ontogeny of characteriological development, such as the timing of learning to walk, the acquisition of speech, or learning the principles of classification and conservation, may in certain fundamental aspects reflect the general order of the phylogenic sequence of human cultural acquisition--the rate and timing of the process being pushed further and further forward in both the life-cycle of the individual human being as well as in the sequence of evolutionary emergence of new capacities and characteristics.

It is crucial in this regard to view culture as integrally, historically holistic and organic. It is a living process that has its own unique sense of history and of rooting within a particular home-environment. It is important to realize that it is not enough to analytically dissect the socio-cultural world in order to discover its functional order. It must be observed naturalistically in its cultural environment.

Cultures as social and historical realities are not without contradictions or loose ends, but for the most part they present themselves to the newborn as full-blown, fully coherent systems. They are effectively complete and total, and subjectively inevitable in their influence upon human development and environmental adjustment. It is by virtue of their completeness that they must be studied as if complex and holistically integrated systems.

They constitute the basis for the channeling, externalization and displacement of internalized controls and needs or drives which become posited in external forms. By virtue of this innate cultural dependency, humankind in its development has been always incomplete in a sense that most animals can be considered genetically finished. This unfinished state of the human condition entail that without culture, humankind would not be merely animals, but as monsters without even the kinds of coordinated instinctual patternings which animals possess. We therefore cannot conceive of humankind without culture.

Emphasis early in life upon some styles and genres of cultural components, including expressive and affective modes, aesthetic sensibilities, casual normative and social evaluations, symbolizations and ordering of behavior must be seen to confer upon cultural processes a sense of historical conservatism and resistance to change, and a lasting intransigence to superficial, subsequent modifications.

We must refer to basic cultural factors which underlie and give rise to subsequent complex, anti-chaotic cultural patterns constrained and reinforced by the sanction of custom, the force of habit and acquired traits, and the easy preference for the conventional.




It remains the principle purpose of the anthropologist to elucidate this cultural process and the part it plays in human adaptation and integration.

Culture has been the special provenience of the field of anthropology. With the rapid disappearance of cultural differences on earth, a disappearance that parallels in some respects the loss of species and genetic variability, the varieties of cultural forms have been rapidly diminishing. Anthropology has not only been losing the principle object of its investigation, but with it, the loss of its own identity and raison d'etre as a science.

With the disappearance of culture from earth, we are facing an anthropological disaster in the rapid reduction of the variability of cultural patternings-the historical evolution of which probably required at least a few million years.

It is upon the anthropologists shoulders to carve out a new science of culture, one which has no other reference than its own object of study, and yet one which is by definition cross-disciplinary in its resources. The science of human culture has not yet been written. It must borrow from biology, genetics, neuroscience, as well as from systems science, artificial intelligence, and from history, philosophy, economics, psychology, etc.

And yet it must remain to the anthropologist to define for the world the critical place which culture plays in the human scheme of things.

Anthropology must seriously take up once again the question of cultural acquisition, and the role which cultural process has played in human development. If culture plays a crucial role in human acquisition, then we must discern which of those aspects and elements are more basic, which are derivative, and which are primary and which secondary in importance.

This brings back into view the problematics of cultural focus of elaboration, and the continuum or arc of cultural variability.

Such a study comprises a renewed foundation for comparative research--the broad-based search for similar cultural correlates that together comprise basic cultural categories, categories which are empirically, statistically derived. Cultures vary widely in the kinds of cultural institutions and in the way in which these institutions are constituted and reconstituted within the cultural configuration.

It is up to the anthropologist to recover ground that has been lost in the wake of the advances of other human sciences and studies.

Anthropology cannot continue to contribute critically to the discourse of the human condition if it remains too attached to archaic intellectual attitudes and canalized by a narrow academic tradition of scholarship. On the other hand, Anthropology could make crucial contributions to this dialogue in terms of its holistic and cultural orientation, as well as in terms of being able to cross the traditional academic boundaries and to assimilate into a coherent order different, often contradictory traditions of knowledge. If anthropology cannot carve out for itself a niche in a modern state of knowledge, a niche that is regarded as vital and necessary, then anthropology must face the consequences of becoming increasingly narrowly defined as specialists in the esoteric nature of things.




Anthropological process refers to the psycho-cultural dynamics that underlie change and development in human historical patterning. It describes humankind making itself in the anthropological construction of human reality. But anthropological process also refers to the primary acquisition of the young child in its human world. It refers to the process of becoming human in the world, and to the process of humankind making itself in the world--the process of the human construction of reality.

It should go without saying that anthropological process is never complete, that it remains unfinished business well into an elder's senescence. Being an unfinished part of human reality, it also has the virtue of being always open and subject to change and modification in a way that is not available to species more instinctively "set" in their ways.

When we seek a finished definition of what is human reality, or human "nature", we fail to realize that such a definition can never be unequivocally determined, but must itself remain open and subject to modification.

There is a virtue in the openness of anthropological process, for it affords humankind the possibility for becoming something other, something different, and perhaps even, something better than what it was before. At the same time that such openness threatens the human condition with the vertigo of moral relativity, it offers the paradox of a ground for the justification of the enlightenment and emancipation of humankind from the violence and bondage that has been its predicament in the past. The ideal of progress and moral improvement finds its meta-ethical justification in the fact of this possibility for becoming afforded by the openness of anthropological process.

At the same time, there is also the dilemma that the possibility for greater evil is also realized at the same time as the possibility for improvement. Becoming then is always a double-edged sword, fraught with as many problems as solutions, threatening as much bondage as it promises emancipation.

The paradox of anthropological process is that humankind has a choice to become what it can make itself, and yet has no choice but to become what it makes itself. Choose or not it is the predicament of the human condition to become something other than what it is.

Anthropological process lies at the root of the human condition and explicating anthropological process shall shed light upon the foundations of the human condition.


Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.

Last Updated: 03/07/05