At their core, most fields of study try to understand humans. However, few fields of study focus on the cultures of people and how people interact with other cultures. Cultural anthropology is not the type of course I would have enrolled in had it not been a minor requirement for my business major. I am quite glad that I took this class although I struggled a little with the schedule and the numerous requirements. As a first-generation immigrant, I live the reality of the multitude cultures that exist and interact in the US alone. My identity as Asian-American has a deep impact on the person I am today. However, I am also aware that not many people are familiar with my culture, as I am unfamiliar with numerous other cultures. I fully appreciate the importance of familiarizing oneself with other cultures not just in daily life but more importantly in business. In this essay, I will define cultural anthropology and discuss its breadth and significance to college students today. Finally, I will elaborate on some class presentations that I found most interesting and explain how they helped enrich my understanding of other cultures and appreciate the value of embracing multiculturalism in the classroom and in the workplace.
Anthropology and Cultural Anthropology
Anthropology, in general, is the scientific study of human beings. It studies human behavior, and its cultural, social, biological, and environmental aspects from both the present and the past (“What Is Cultural Anthropology?”). The main goal of Anthropology, it seems to me, is to objectively understand the similarities and differences of humans, of their behaviors and ideas. The concept of culture is central in the study of Anthropology. Culture, is a system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviors, and material objects that members of a society use to cope with their world (“What Is Cultural Anthropology?”). The definition of culture is a complex concept that encompasses all aspects of life, and they provide insight into the psyche of humans.
Cultural anthropology is one of Anthropology’s many subfields. Cultural anthropology focuses on “the study of culture, peoples’ beliefs, practices, and the cognitive and social organization of human groups” (“What Is Cultural Anthropology?”). Cultural anthropologists gather data through field study, then analyze the data through cross-cultural comparative studies. Classical anthropological fieldwork requires prolonged residence with the group. Classical anthropologists often live for years with a group to gain a deep understanding of their culture. Although cultural anthropology involves quantitative methods during the research process, its studies are primarily qualitative-descriptive. Until World War II, cultural anthropology focused on non-Western cultures and Native American Indians. Cultural anthropology had a Western-centric perspective that saw cultures other than Anglo-Saxon as exotic and unique. However, recently, the perspective has slightly shifted, and cultural anthropology is now also applied to Western cultures.
Cultural anthropology is extremely relevant to students today more than ever as the world continues to be more globalized. With technology and the ease of traveling, country borders are blurring, and the US is no exception. The United States has long been described as a melting pot of cultures, but studies say that whites will soon become a minority in the US around 2045 as multiracial populations are projected to rise (Frey n.p.). The generation of college students at the moment will surely live to see this multicultural reality come to life. The only way to live in this type of society is to gain an appreciation, curiosity, and respect for other cultures.
What I Learned
The group Powerpoint presentations were very informative and interesting. The wide variety of subcultures discussed proves just how diverse and complex culture is. The presentation about Italian immigrants is quite interesting for me. The Mafia is often depicted in Hollywood movies as antagonists. What is not depicted, however, is that the Mafia actually helped Italian immigrants. I remember the video with one of the group members’ father. He had a stereotypical New York accent, and he spoke very highly of the original beliefs of the Mafia. According to him “mafia” stands for “family” and that the group originated in Italy as a way of helping people and poor neighborhoods. It is interesting to learn about the original concept of “mafia.” The group also did a great job of presenting this history of the Italian Mafia without condoning their illegal actions. Although we acknowledge that the Mafia is a crime syndicate, understanding its origins explains the complexity of human and society.
Another presentation that stuck with me is the presentation on the LA riots, which in my opinion, demonstrates the importance of being aware of other people’s cultures and struggles. The history of police brutality toward people of color is known far and wide, but the story of the LA riots is not well known. The presentation shed light on the causes of the LA riots as well as on the tension that rose between Korean Americans and African Americans. The LA riots erupted as a response to the blatant injustice of the Rodney King verdict. In 1991, Rodney King, who was on parole for robbery, was party to a high-speed chase through LA (Bates and Sastry n.p.). When he was caught, four police officers severely beat him up. The beating was recorded on video by a bystander and showed a dozen other police officers watching King get beaten by their colleagues. The video was shown as proof yet the four officers were acquitted. In a separate the same month, a Korean store owner shot 15-year-old Latasha Harlins for suspected theft (Bates and Sastry n.p.). However, it was discovered that the girl had been holding money to pay for the item she was holding. Despite the victim’s innocence, the store owner received probation and a $500 fine. The back-to-back injustice, on top of a long history of bias and injustice, poverty and unemployment, and high crime and gang activity, the black community took to the streets. They burned down and destroyed retail stores, groceries, fast food restaurants, cars, and so on.
My curiosity was piqued by the incident with Latasha Harlins. I thought about how uninformed many Asian Americans were—still are—about the struggles of the Black community. The Korean store owner who shot Harlins must have been prejudiced against Black people because he believed the propaganda against Black people and, furthermore, he likely did not bother to understand what Black people were going through. Perhaps, had the store owner known the prejudice faced by the Black community, he would not have been too suspicious and perhaps he would have been more compassionate.
From my experience listening to my classmates’ presentations, it is evident that humans have a natural curiosity toward other cultures. Judgement and prejudice have become second-nature for us due to years of socialization and education that made us believe one culture can be better than another. Modern manifestations of racism are often subtle which is why people can be racially biased without their knowledge. Studying cultural anthropology shifted made me aware of this and taught me to see other peoples’ cultures in a non-judgmental manner that gives me leverage to better understand and appreciate the cultures outside of my own.
The Importance of Cultural Anthropology
Cultural anthropology is indeed an important course for American college students. This course allows students not just to appreciate other cultures but also to recognize that their own cultures are equal to all these other cultures. Cultural anthropology can change one’s perspective and help each of us understand that the world and other cultures in it do not revolve around us and our culture.
Cultural anthropology has the potential to reduce, if not eliminate, racial biases that are still prevalent today. Gaining an understanding and appreciation for the culture of other peoples, not just one’s own, could potentially change the way we see others. People we see merely as their skin color will be seen as people with complex personalities, rich cultures, and history.
Furthermore, cultural anthropology has an important place in the education of people studying business. Entrepreneurs and their organizations would benefit greatly when they broaden their perspective. Terms like “diversity” and “inclusivity” would not simply be buzzwords used to attract positive attention only to be pushed to the side. It would not even be a challenge to fulfill these requirements but something that comes easy. I think diversity and inclusivity in organizations would come naturally if more people in the business world were aware of the value of multiculturalism and what people from cultures outside one’s own can offer.
Cultural anthropology deals with an aspect of life that everyone and everything is immersed in—culture. It may be a niche field but it is a field that college students, especially those in the STEM and business majors, ought to be immersed in at least once. Cultural anthropology offers a perspective that could supplement our knowledge and inform our future work in our respective fields.
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Bates, Karen Grigsby and Anjuli Sastry. “When LA Erupted In Anger: A Look Back At The Rodney King Riots.” NPR.org, April 26, 2017. https://www.npr.org/2017/04/26/524744989/when-la-erupted-in-anger-a-look-back-at-the-rodney-king-riots
Frey, William H. “The US Will Become ‘Minority White’ In 2045, Census Projects: Youthful Minorities Are Th Engine Of Future Growth.” Brookings, March 14, 2018. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2018/03/14/the-us-will-become-minority-white-in-2045-census-projects/
“What Is Cultural Anthropology?” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/orgs/1209/what-is-cultural-anthropology.htm