Banner image showing PRM Gallery

T.K. Penniman: A hundred years of Anthropology

Here are some extracts from this book, transcribed by Alison Petch, discussing anthropology and its sub-branches.

Anthropology is the science of Man, a master-science, embracing first, such biological studies as help to explain what Man is and was, and his place in the realm of animated nature. These shade into a second group, that of psychological studies, as is clearly shown by physiologists who have studied behaviour experimentally. And since beliefs underlie institutions, psychological studies shade into yet a third group, that which studies cultures, material and spiritual, past and present. All of these must be studied in connexion with the organic and inorganic environment, the medium in which man and his cultures develop.
Ethnology is the application of any or all of the methods of Anthropology to the comparative study of races or peoples, a race or people, a race like the Nordic or Alpine being distinguished by physical characters, and a people like the English or the Jews by cultural characters. Ethnographyis the study of a particular race, people, or area by any or all of the methods of anthropology. [p. 9]

Anthropology is the science of man. In one aspect it is a branch of natural history, and embraces the study of his origin and position in the realm of animated nature. In so far as it is a comparative study of the anatomical and physiological characters which determine man's zoological postion, it forms a part of the general study of zoology. ... The study of the physical characters which distinguish the principal races of mankind from each other, of the classification and geographical distribution of races and sub-races, and of the influence of environment upon physique, together form a branch of ethnology. This whole group of studies may be linked together under the name of PHYSICAL ANTHROPOLOGY. Each of the sciences from which it draws its material is an indepedent science, and even those sciences have independent disciplines which serve them, and each other, and also serve the study of physical anthropology, such as geography, botany, forestry, agriculture (soil sciences), genetics, biochemistry, pyschology, and statistics. Yet the study is no mere collection of subjects which could be dealt with entirely under other sciences, for none of these several sciences can attempt to deal with the whole study of man as an animal, alone, and in relation to his fellows, and to his environment.
In another aspect, anthropology is the science of history, in that it explains how 'man, in his collective capacity, must needs act in order to furnish the material of that regular sequence of events which may be recorded or not, but which when it is recorded, goes by the name of history'.
This side of the subject may be called CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY, and falls naturally into two parts, that dealing with material cultures, or the arts and industries of man, and that dealing with social phenomena, or man's mental and spiritual adjustment to the universe, and to his fellow men. Neither of these parts can be wholly independent of a study of the natural history of man, nor of each other, for man's physique and temperament and environment are all intimately bound up with his methods of gaining a living and adorning himself and his surroundings, and with his attitude to the problems of a life which must be lived among his fellow men, in a world which is ever furnishing experiences demanding a skill and power which seem to be above that which is required for the everyday work of life.
That branch of the study of material cultures which deals with the antiquity of man as ascertained by the earliest remains of his handiwork is called ARCHAEOLOGY. This subject embraces the characteristics of the prehistoric periods, the methods employed in determining their sequence and duration, and the persistence of early conditions of material culture in later times. In some periods, excavation furnishes our only evidence; in others, it supplements the evidence of written documents. It is a necessary part of the study of material cultures, for without it, there is no perspective of the development of modern arts and crafts. The comparative study of the origin, historical development, and geographical distribution of the principal arts and industries with their appliances, is called TECHNOLOGY. The study of the geographical distribution, affinities, and contacts, of the material cultures of ancient and modern peoples, and of man's response to and control of environment, including his fellow men, show TECHNOLOGY and ARCHAEOLOGY in their ethnological aspect.

That part of cultural anthropology which treats of social phenomena is called SOCIAL ANTHROPOLOGY. Under the title 'sociology' we may include the comparative study of social phenomena, their geographical distribution and historical development. Such phenomena embrace social organizations including marriage customs, economics, government and law, moral ideas and codes, folklore, and magical and religious beliefs and practices. The subject also includes a study of pyschology and linguistics, including the relation of language to thought. Like the other divisions of anthropology, this has an ethnological aspect in the comparative study and classification of peoples based on conditions of language, and religious and social institutions and ideas. The reciprocal influence of environment and of social and moral development is an important part of this subject.
Cultural Anthropology, like physical, embraces a number of disciplines, some of which are independent. But the anthropologist, even though his main interest and labour may lie in one of them, must be aware of al the forces at his command, for no one of them alone can explain man and his cultural activities. The science of man implies a synthesis of all the disciplines that throw light on him and his creations, and to this synthetic study we give the name anthropology. [emphasis added, no emphasis in text]
Some writers, particularly on the Continent, prefer to keep the word 'anthropology' for physical anthropology and to call cultural anthropology 'ethnology', but in this book we shall use the word 'anthropology' to mean the whole science of man, and consider it as having a threefold division which has been described—the division which has always been observed in the University of Oxford, and has been followed by the schools of Cambridge and London. ETHNOLOGY is that part of anthropology which deals with the comparative study of physical characters and material and social cultures of the races of mankind, baed on the methods, and under the headings, described for anthropology. In other words it is a study of the formation and distribution of ethnic types or peoples, with their varying physical and cultural conditions. ... ETHNOGRAPHY is the intensive study and description of a group of pepole or of an area by the methods and under the headings which have been described for anthropology. It furnishes the data required by anthropology, and employs the methods based on such data. [pp. 15-17]

'General Ethnology and Social Anthropology
So far, we have been describing the development of studies of cultures, past and present, and of their elements, and also of races and individuals now, and in the past, implying that ethnology and prehistory are a part of the same subject, the one dealing with peoples and their cultures now, and the other with the origins of peoples and of cultures, and their development in early times. It is possible, by using both the records of ethnology and of prehistory, to show many examples of the origin, development, diffusion, and geographical variation of the elements of culture, especially of material culture, and sometimes it is even possible with the help of objects to discover the broad facts of the social organization, religion, law, economics and the like. We are on safe ground in dealing with many of the artefacts of material culture. For example, we can proceed experimentally with subjects like metallurgy and music or stone implements, and discover exactly what we want to know as far as the evidence available with allow us. We can then make comparative and analytic studies in a scientific manner, and not worry ourselves about the social setting of these artefacts, when it is irrelevant. But when we come to other elements of culture, such as social, religious, legal, or economic customs, whether partly expressed in the use of objects or not, we are not on the same safe ground, whether we gather our evidence archaeologically or ethnologically, that is from an ancient or a modern people. EVen when we have historical records, ther is a difference in the two classes of elements. A musical instrument or a copper axe can be studied outside its social context, and what happens in one area can be compared with that of another. But the capital difficulty in dealing with social, religious, legal or economic customs is that they must be considered in their whole context, since often it appears that two customs or more which may seem identical when abstracted from their context appear to have quite different origins and purposes when studied as a part of their whole cultural setting. This business of studying social customs in a comparative or anlaytic way has always been a main difficulty in ethnology, as opposed to ethnography, which confines itself to the study of individual cultures and peoples.
It is, of course, social anthropology which devotes itself to a study of social organization, religion, law, economics, and the like, usually, though not always, among the simpler and smaller and more self-contained societies which can be directly observed as wholes, and which are so different from our own that it is comparatively easy to study them objectively. These studies are first made ethnographically of the whole society before the social anthropologist can deal with any feature of it intensively, such as the legal system. In this way, to my mind, the social anthropologist differs from the sociologist, who usually studies particular problems in civilized societies, often with a formidable array of statistics. ... Moreoever, the work of the sociologist is often undertaken with a view to social planning, while that of the social anthropologist is generally not concerned with such matters.
There are many different views about the best methods to use in investigating societies, all sincerely held by eminent social anthropologissts, and divergences have become especially marked. The most notable differences of approach are broadly those between the Old and the New World. ...
An interesting development of the last few years has been the study of European or American communities by the same methods as would be used in the investigations of the Trobriands or the Galla. ... Most, though not all of them, are self-contained, and it is not always possible to abstract material from one which can be compared with another so as to arrive at generalizations.
The idea of the culture area, so ably presented for the first time by the late Clark Wissler ... has proved especially useful in a country where the archaeological and ethnological run into each other in some areas, and is especially valuable for the classification of a vast amount of material which would otherwise be chaotic and incoherent. One has the feeling, however, that there is a difficulty in some of the culture-element distributions which are so often done in America. One can extract cooking pots and fishing tackle more easily than a religious or social custom, and be on safer ground in coming to general conclusions.
Betty Meggers ultimately decided that 'psychology has already claimed man, and sociology has cast its lot for society', and that 'if anthropology is to become an independent and self-consistent science, it must concede these fields and devote itself to the one as yet relatively untended—culture'. ...

As the social anthropologist who follows Durkheim, Malinowski, and Radcliffe-Brown studies social structures, and the social institutions which are part of them, it follows that such workers must study these structures as wholes in the field and in the language of the people being studied, and observe the place of the institutions within the structures. Failing this, they must depend on the work of others who have used their method. For it would appear that they are dealing with societies rather than with cultures, and the relations between members of a society and between social groups, rather than with the body of customs which represents the culture of a society. We have already noted the difficulty of the ethnologists in comparing customs whose similarity may well be deceptive ... since the same function in any two given societies may be represented by two quite different customs, or two tribes or peoples may have two quite different cultures, and have basically the same social structures.
It is evident then, that the social anthropologist of this school must go further than describing the culture of a society, and make abstractions from it in the light of the problems which he wishes to investigate ... [Radcliffe-Brown] contends that when the social anthropologist has lived among a people, speaking their language, thinking in their concepts, and feeling in their values, and translated all this into terms of his own culture, he has done what the historian does, the difference being that he has made a direct study of social life while the historian has made an indirect study through documents and other surviving evidence. Moreover, when the social anthropologist goes a step further, and tried by analysis 'to disclose the latent underlying form of a society or culture,' he is 'studying the same things in the same way ...' as ... Maitland. Finally, when the social anthropologist compares the social structures his analysis has revealed in a number of societies, he is still working as a philosophical historian. ...
... I have considerable sympathy with all the methods of social anthropology. The particular interest of the investigator may require a psychological approach, or he may wish to examine the impact of one culture on another, or examine the interaction of various social activities in a community, or discover the function of particular institutions in a community. All such interpretations result in valuable ethnological books or papers and, from whatever view they are written, they throw light on some aspect of the many that one must consider in the study of humanity, and are one more piece of evidence, that helps to show that people do not live in their own peculiar way in order to annoy us, but because they have very good reason to do so. All add to our sympathetic interest in and knowledge of each other.
The business of discovering general laws on a big scale need not worry us unduly. Already social anthropology has a considerable body of theory. Apart from overt similarities between primitive societies all over the world, these societies can to some considerable extent be classified by such structural analysis as we have mentioned into a limited number of types, so that it is possible to prepare a student to investigate societies in any part of the world.
We have already mentioned ethnological studies and ethnographical studies relating to human biology and to material culture, and it remains to mention some which deal mainly with social, religious, economic, political, and such-like subjects. ...
We noted earlier that ethnology was the comparative and analytic study of races or peoples by any or all of the methods of anthropology, and in another place that Betty Meggers' paper which was largely on the work of Social Anthropologists was called 'Recent Trends in American Ethnology'. It is clear enough by whatever method one works, whether in human biology, material culture, past and prsent, or in social subjects, one generally ends with a book which can be called ethnography, if purely descriptive, or ethnology if comparative and analytic. It has been possible for a long time to use the facts afforded by physical anthropology and material culture (what we have called prehistory and technology) in a comparative and analytic manner. The social anthropologists who classify societies on the basis of their social structures rather than of their cultures, and define their subject matter as social relations rather than culture, claim to have found a scientific manner of studying their part of the complex which is ethnology, and to have established a discipline independent of it, in the same way that physical anthropology, prehistory, and technology have independent disciplines and yet contribute to ethnology.

In the first edition of this book I prophesised a future, and we had a war instead. My general view of human biology being linked through psychology with cultural anthropology on the grand scale has not proved to be workable so far, and something else has happened; indeed, many other things havse happened. The most cheerful event has been the increase in interest in the whole complex of studies, largely due, I think, to the many young people who have served in many parts of the world and want to know more about what they saw. All universities havse more pupils than before the war, and more opportunities are available, or students make more opportunities, to undergo the long training for, and the hard discipline of, field work. At Oxford, to give one example, a year at least is spent in the diploma course, followed by one or two years of research into the available material for the area to which the student wishes to go. Then, if funds can be made available, he is expected to spend a period among the people he is to study, then return and work up his material under academic supervision, before going again for a further period to the people he is studying. The discipline has become harder then, and more intensive.
Readers who compare the part of this book which was written in 1935 [1] with that written in later editions will call me inconsistent, and I admit at once that the two parts of the book are written from quite different points of view. After a quarter-century of teaching and administration, I have found that in working with my colleagues, the general divisions which I have used in later editions are the categories into which our several abilities seem best to fall, and the ones which work best in passing on the subject to our students.
In the first edition, I spent the greater part of my space in describing the developments of the disciplines of anthropology, which I still believe is a science of methods, and devoted little time to ethnology, the comparative and analytic study of races and peoples by all or any of the methods of anthropology.
In this second part, I have taken the view that the aim of all of the anthropological disciplines is ethnology, now and in the past, and that the ultimate aim of all of them, physical anthropology, prehistory, technology, and social anthropology, is to add to our knowledge of ethnology, which helps us to understand peoples as they are and as they have been. [pp. 361-373]

[N.B. boldenings not part of original book text]

T.K. Penniman, 1965/ 1974. A Hundred Years of Anthropology London: Gerald Duckworth and Co. Ltd


[1] 'The postscript especially indicates my change of view about the method of integrating the branches of anthropology as things appear to me now, though of course I make no predictions how things will appear in the long run to me, or more likely, to my successors.' [p. 12]

virtual collections logo

Supported by the John Fell OUP Research Fund


(c) 2012 Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford