Partnership for Whole School Change


Why Cultural Anthropology

There is a critical need in education for language constructs that enable school members and needed experts, to communicate  and understand each other. Cultural Anthropology provides these constructs that help us speak to each other about the students, staff, and the school using accurate, non-hurtful words. We need to describe to others and ourselves what is happening within the school community’s learning environment. Cultural Anthropology has words like culture, habits, values, attitudes, personality, and other language constructs that are familiar enough for the entire school community to understand them.  

Schools may be the most complex institutions on earth, because they work intimately with humans, the most complex beings on earth. The language we use has to be sophisticated enough to integrate the many sciences required to understand and successfully work with students and teachers in this complex arena. The language needs to help them apply their many different strengths and overcome their weaknesses. It has to help them see and understand their school as a whole entity. It has to help them understand all the school's members, the school's approach to teaching and learning, and the community that surrounds the school. The language must also encourage school members to communicate not hide oppression. It also needs to express oppression as those who are oppressed experience it. 

During our search, we explored language constructs based on psychology, educational philosophies, and education theories. Though they had their strengths, none could embrace the many classes, races, cultures, and the academic and social needs our multicultural society has to address to have high quality teaching and learning. Too many were influenced by ideologies[1] that covertly or overtly assumed the superiority of Western European culture.[2]

Cultural anthropology’s vision of humanity ended our search. Its perception of humanity was not founded on the study or experience of a single race, tribe, class, culture, or nation.[3] Cultural anthropology is based on the study of humans everywhere and much of the science is practiced where people live their lives.

Unlike other social sciences, cultural anthropology's language is comparative. It offers a conceptual scheme for the whole context of human experience without covertly or overtly asserting a hierarchy based on a particular culture, class, or race.[4] Its language constructs are expressly designed to help its practitioners struggle against being blinded by assumptions that elevate a people or a culture above others.

Its language utilizes semantic rules, definitions, strict criteria and procedural checks to help its practitioners avoid viewing others through the lens of their culture and class.[5] They help the viewer observe a culture through the eyes of the people who practice the culture. Language constructs such as institution, role, status, ideology, cultural pattern, values and attitudes help educators understand and classify the many cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and sociocultural dynamics taking place within the learning environment. Using these language constructs for educational purposes, school communities are better able to establish the authentic, caring relationships needed to understand and work on the deep psychic struggles taking place within the school community.

The PWSC embraces Ralph Linton's three psychic needs that all humans need to satisfy. The first is a person’s universal need for emotional responses from others.

“The term emotional response is used advisedly, since the eliciting of mere behavioral responses may leave this need quite unsatisfied. Thus in a modern city it is quite possible for the individual to interact in formal, culturally established ways with a great number of other individuals and obtain necessary services from them without eliciting any emotional responses. Under such circumstances his psychic need for response remains unsatisfied and he suffers from feelings of loneliness and isolation which are almost as acute as though no one else were present. In fact the experience tends to be more frustrating than genuine solitude. We all know what it means to be alone in a crowd. It is this need for response, and especially for favorable response, which provides the individual with his main stimulus for socially acceptable behavior.”[6]  

Every school community member wants to receive favorable emotional responses from other school members. It is valuable to know that people the world over want and even need to receive this response. 

A second and equally universal psychic need is that for security that is long-term. Thanks to the human ability to perceive time as a continuum extending beyond past and present and into the future, present satisfactions are not enough as long as future ones remain uncertain.[7]  

Students and teachers being bullied, in a school that covertly or overtly diminishes or assaults them or their culture, creates fear that closes these school member’s down. A major cause of this academic shutdown is the bullying and victimized student or faculty member's fear of what the future, in this pain ridden environment, will bring them. When will the bullying, the hurtful teasing, or the micro-aggressions strike again becomes the victim's overarching question. Will it happen at the next faculty meeting or one hour away at recess in the school yard? Ralph Linton's universal psychic need for security that is long-term shows the importance of creating a safe, nurturing, socially inclusive learning environment for every school member.

The third and last psychic need is that for novel experiences. It finds its expression in the creation of all sorts of experimental behavior to relieve boredom — a familiar human phenomenon.[8]    

Our schools have to be more engaging, surprising, interesting, and fun. Students bullying others, carrying weapons or drugs into school, and doing cruel pranks may be a sign of a boring school environment. It is amazing how these destructive behaviors dissipate when students are fully engaged in academic pursuits they are passionate about.

The core terms of our communication system are comprehensive and promote the understanding and integration of the many sciences and educational philosophies needed to implement a high quality learning environment.  Below is the definition of some of these core terms and how they facilitate the implementation of a school's transformation process: 

By adapting these concepts for educational purposes, school community members can help their school community prepare all their students to humanely succeed in the global marketplace.

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[1] Marvin Harris, Culture. Man, and Nature (New York, 1972), p. 146.

[2] Marvin Harris, p. 633. Ethnocentrism is a commonly held view among humans. It is the belief that my sociocultural practices and values are invariably superior and more natural than those of other sociocultural systems.

[3] Marvin Harris, p. 5.

[4] Marvin Harris, p. 5.

[5] Harris, pp. 148, 149, 632, 633. Some cultural anthropologists divide their observational research into two domains or operations — emics and etics. Emics are domains or operations whose validity rest on distinctions that are real and have meaning (but not always conscious) to the person or group being observed. Etics are consciously or unconsciously domains or operations whose validity does not depend on what the person or group being observed believes is significant or real.

Linguist, Kenneth Pike, was the first person to make this distinction, so the researcher could focus both on the person being studied and what they felt and thought about their cultural and its meaning (emics) and researchers own judgements about what they are observing.

[6] Ralph Linton, The cultural Background of Personality (New York, 1945), pp. 7, 8 (Italics were added.).

[7] Linton, p. 9 (Italics were added.).

[8] Linton, pp. 9, 10 (Italics were added.).

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