SUBDISCIPLINES: Humanistic Anthropology

Humanistic Anthropology

Alex Anton-Luca * Posted May 1998



In the words of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology (SHA), humanistic science is anthropocentric and addresses the question: what it is to be human ? This basic statement has however been unceasingly reinterpreted along three dominant lines of division. Renaissance humanism questioned authority and saw scholarly effort rather than divine revelation as conducive to knowledge. Naturalistic humanism saw science and reason as the answer to human problems and opposed the blindness of religious faith. Literary humanism revived the ties between text and life, according them explanatory power with regard to the complexities of social life (Richardson 1994). Early humanists like Ruth Benedict and Robert Redfield looked at the humanities to complement a comprehensive view of people and behavior. Humanistic anthropology stands against institutionalized dogma (secular and religious). It does not gauge experiential claims on an empirical scale but seeks an insider’s point of view.

Humanistic anthropology, Ivan Brady suggests, must be creative, eager to search everywhere and to account for the greatest array of happenings, and willing to reach out to alternate narrative forms. It should seek to encompass the whole of human experience (holism), maintaining that ambiguities and uniqueness are no less important than regularities. Humanism recognizes that we live in a world of symbols with varying contexts and interpretations, that the physical body is an important source of knowledge, and that the liberation of the individual takes place through knowledge. The SHA has done much to create a forum that centralized, if not the direction of humanistic anthropology, than at least the discussion of its scope and its relation with other disciplines. The Society publishes a journal, Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly, was established in 1974, and has about 260 members (1997-8).


Early influences and contemporary developments.

The classic essays on anthropological conceptions of the humanities were written from the turn of the century through the 1950s. Up to this time, humanistic anthropology was strongly influenced by the Enlightenment concern with human perfectibility: the study of human culture and society as a means to meet human needs and solve human social problems. Traditional humanities became relevant to the discipline of anthropology as a "documentation and comparative examination of human creative expressions within a distinct program of study to develop valued program sensibilities" (Johnson 1989: 82). The moral injunctions of traditional humanities provided exemplary expressions of creative imagination and a basis for speculation about how humans should conduct their lives. This has been critiqued as being elitist. Humanistic anthropology was considered to have the potential to democratize traditional humanities, giving equal value to both "Great" and "Little" traditions. At the same time, material culture was embraced as the crystallization of human thought, sentiment, and belief. Cultures became texts subject to interpretative readings both by ‘natives’ and by ethnographers. Phenomenological approaches modeled on post-structuralist literary conceptions of text/culture began to appear, and these were regarded as open-ended narratives completed by the participation of the reader. Modern developments in humanistic anthropology concentrate on the descriptive, the particular, and the unique through analysis of individual persons and situations. The humanistic perspective also expresses a developmental aspect interpreted by anthropologists as the cultivation of critical awareness and judgment, empathy, and "considered appreciation". Ethnography is the entry-way to multiple definitions of the self, and is a privilege that encourages psychological and spiritual development through introspection (Johnson 1989: 86).

Important themes.

Humanistic anthropology is moving away from anthropology as a naturalistic science which understands cultures and societies through causation, structure, and function. It opposes a concept of anthropological research as physical, empirical and modeled on a positivistic version of science, and rethinks the relationship between the social and the natural sciences (Hofmann 1979). Neo-Kantians gather around the idea of meaning as something created by individuals and groups. Meaning is theoretical and imposed on the world, and it is interpretation which gives meaning to events. Hence, meaning is theoretical and not descriptive, sociocultural meanings are not reducible to a descriptive collection of physical facts, and a social science of meanings cannot be naturalistic and purely empirical. This influence is prevalent in Geertz, who looks for meaning beyond culture, seeking, in Stan Wilk’s words, "to cultivate a partiality that manifests in a concrete, objective way the intangible truth of our own existence" (Wilk 1976: 70).

Humanist anthropologists see 20th-century modernity as characterized by a focus on the self and the weakening of collective symbols. Accordingly, there is a push towards writing ethnographies of the self that show how identity is negotiated and reinvented. The view that anthropologists and ‘natives’ perceive the self as fragmented and decentering (Marcus 1991) has led to seeing ‘others’ as collaborators, and has forced a reevaluation of textual authorship. Despite its revolutionary use of recorded texts, humanistic anthropology is still informed by the Western emphasis on shaping and producing knowledge. In general, the goal has not been to create hypotheses or establish a new methodology but to probe deeper the problems of cross-cultural hermeneutics.

Recently, some anthropologists (e.g. Rae Anderson, Miles Richardson) have concentrated on the use of fiction and storytelling to describe their fieldwork experiences. Their use of narrative takes seriously the use of language in persuading the reader and communicating the experience of fieldwork. In their formulation, evocation does not carry the political and critical connotations that Stephen Tyler sees in post-modern ethnography. The aim is to embody the relation between realism and poetic language while acknowledging that the storehouse of humanity is inexhaustible. This movement is criticized by some of its own practitioners as disempowering, undercutting the authority of its voice by reducing the richness of reality to fiction. One possible compromise is to specify the role of the anthropologist inside the narrative while creating familiarity through the tradition of cultural description (Brady and Turner).

History and personalities.

The history of humanistic anthropology is directly related to humanism as a mode of inquiry. Its influence is found in the work of the ‘early humanists,’ Tylor, Frazer, Bachofen, and Morgan. However, the humanist strain in their work is only a topical link without methodological repercussions.

Humanism comes to the fore of anthropology through the works of the ‘traditional humanists,’ a group who shared an idea of culture as a product of human creative experience and expression. An important node is perhaps Ruth Benedict, who studied under Abraham Maslow, a pioneer of choice, freedom, and human development, and an influence on John Joseph Honigmann. Benedict concerned herself with the nomothetic intent and method of social science versus the ideographic one of the humanities, and one can detect a non-relativist strain in her work. Patterns of Culture (1934) embodies her interpretation of sociocultural traditions and patterns as creative expression, using comparative myth as a configurational approach to the study of culture. Benedict’s work expresses an interest in the excellence of great works and ideas and presents the idea of synergy, arguing that humans choose culture from an arc of possibilities. This interest in values was echoed by Kroeber, who thought that they define the essence of human experience. He portrayed the humanities as sensory, aesthetic, and subjective. Evans-Pritchard believed similarly that societies are moral, not natural systems. He argued, however, that anthropology is history and cannot claim Benedicts’s nomothetic privilege. Kroeber was inspired by George Herbert Mead work at the University of Chicago in the early 1900s, which argued that human action and reaction is expressed through symbols (Richardson 1980). Mead’s work was continued by Herbert Blumer, who in turn influenced the ethnomethodology of Harold Garfinkel, the phenomenology of Peter Berger, and the work of Erving Goffman and the dramaturgicalists.

The theme of ‘great works and ideas’ in Benedict’s works was continued in part by Redfield, who undertook a metaphysical search for great truths and saw excellence in the best products of human expression. Redfield saw sociocultural anthropology as the study of human character and the human condition. For Robert Spencer the humanities are concerned with ‘great ideas,’ values, and criticism, but have problems generalizing above specific cases. In a similar vein, Wolf proposed that we study the ‘best’ that is thought and known in the world.

Although Malinowski transmitted the Comtian subject/object distinction in his separation between data collection and fieldwork, the publication of his field diary, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term (1989) anticipated the reflexive tendency of the 80s and later. His call for a "New Humanism" and a "Society for Royal Humanists" was a response to the colonial atmosphere in which he did his fieldwork (and which often frustrated his own efforts). Although it never came to be, his was a call for work inspired by "living man, living language, and living full-blooded facts," instead of the "dead-petrified thinking of the classics." The New Humanism would be based on a "really scientific, empirical knowledge of human nature," seeking a "comprehensive treatment of all aspects of tribal life and their correlation" (quoted in Stocking 256-7).

Malinowski’s work struck a cord with a group formed by Sidney Hook, Raymond Firth, and Frederick Barth, all of whom held that culture is a choice made by individuals. This choice was further seen as the link between experience and tradition. Clyde Kluckhohn’s emphasis on creativity and freedom shares in these assumptions, and his ideas reflect some of Benedict’s commitments. Edward Sapir, Dorothy Lee, and David Bidney formulated a similar position, believing that culture is the means to claim freedom through choice. Bidney’s work shows how humans use natural materials to make products not given by nature. He was influenced by Ernst Becker, for whom anthropology is the lost science of man. Bidney is also connected to Leon Goldstein, who suggests that scientific anthropology is nomothetic (the study of regularities of persistence and change in sociocultural phenomena) while humanistic anthropology is ideographic.

Bidney influenced Victor Turner, an important figure whose work took from Dilthey the idea that understanding implies shared human nature. More specifically, understanding for Turner involves translating meaning and subjective character. He is famous for his use of a theatrical metaphor which argued that ritual performance completes personal experience. Turner argues that people learn from experience by enacting the culturally transmitted experiences of others. In other words, one learns through performing and then performs the understanding.

The revolution of humanistic anthropology in the latter half of this century owes a lot to the interpretive anthropology of Clifford Geertz. In his work, Geertz reacts and responds to Malinowski, Benedict, Evans-Pritchard, and Levi-Strauss. He tries to strike a balance between science and biography by focusing on text. Geertz revels in a sense of I-witnessing and the now-popularized ‘being-there’ style, but shrinks back from the excesses of Rabinow, Crapanzano, Dwyer, and the like. Geertz works with Gilbert Ryle’s concept of thick description, maintains the society/culture division via Talcott Parsons, and shares with Malcolm Crick the idea that language and symbolic systems regulate social actions and express cultural ideas. He acknowledges the continuum between discourse, text, and interpretation in the style of Ricoeur. He also favors Gadamer’s project in that objectivism is an illusion, and an interpreter mediates between text and the resulting implications.

Paul Rabinow and Robert Bellah share with Geertz a belief that cultures and personalities are texts to be interpreted, but they hold that there is no privileged position of evaluation. They share Adorno and Horkheimer’s concerns that both culture and context should be objects of interpretation, and their work builds on Weber’s concept of the ‘achievement of Enlightenment as an iron cage.’ Bellah treats anthropological writing and expression experientially and. His ideas resonate with Miles Richardson’s contention that anthropologists should write fiction. Stanley Diamond, founder of humanistic and dialectical anthropology, was the first anthropologist to seek expression in such a way by publishing a volume of poetry. The tradition persists strongly in the issues of Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly, which publishes poetry and prose and awards excellence in these forms. Adorno and Horkheimer, along with Walter Benjamin, were strong influences on Michael Taussig, whose non-linear work suggests alternatives to the subject/object dichotomy.

Closely connected to this tradition are George Marcus and James Clifford, who address the translation of ethnographic experience into written forms. Marcus describes constraints of the comparative frame of cultural variation in concepts of self, crediting Johannes Fabian with addressing objectivity with regards to invention and the making of ‘informant’ as object. Clifford’s textualist meta-anthropology takes on the textual construction of anthropological authority. This stance is evidenced in the volume, Writing Culture (1986), which also contains works by Renato Rosaldo, Stephen A. Tylor, and Vincent Crapanzano. Crapanzano’s work has strong ties to linguistics and holds that selfhood is wholly processual and tied to indexical and pragmatic controls of language use. The challenge posed by Writing Culture was taken up by Richard Fox and others in Recapturing Anthropology (1991), which claimed that anthropological work continues to be mystified and insists that the historical context of scholarly production cannot be easily controlled.

The humanistic concern with experience is present in the work of Sontag, who sees anthropologists as adventurers, searching for psychic development and wholeness through contact with an ‘Other’. Her ideas carry influences from Levi-Strauss, particularly from his Tristes Tropiques (1974), and she takes up Cassirer’s notion of human nature as a mirror of self. Stan Wilk, although much influenced by Geertz, criticizes him for distancing the personal aspect of anthropology and encourages the work of Carlos Castaneda.

Pierre Bourdieu has been at the center of this paradigmatic shift in anthropology. His work reflects Marxist, Weberian, Levi-Straussian, and Durkheimian influences, and resonates with that of Anthony Giddens. Bourdieu proposes to a generative anthropology of symbolic power. He is concerned with the interplay between external constraints and internal structure as expressed through two concepts: the historically situated and objective habitus and the field. Bourdieu figures in Sally Falk Moore’s proposition that a list of rules does not explain a legal system. Politics and self-interest always present and legitimize legal structures through the appearance of fairness, equality, and justice. Bourdieu has had a strong influence on Sherry Ortner’s version of practice theory and he continues to exert tremendous influence throughout the subfields of anthropology.

Humanistic anthropology at the cross-roads with other fields.

Consistent with its eagerness to include and appropriate, humanist anthropology overlaps with and responds to numerous intellectual movements and (sub)disciplines. It betrays an undeniable Enlightenment influence, yet stands in contrast to logical positivism in that anthropology is not nomothetic but historical. Humanist anthropology has also stimulated the development of the comparative perspective through the use of diachronic methods, an approach which is making a comeback. It links with sociocultural anthropology in that one has to account for and understand the humanistic perspective in fieldwork. It shares with psychological anthropology several approaches: a variant discourse on personhood, a cross-cultural perspective on the senses, and the understanding of experience through shared ideas.

Humanistic anthropology integrated much of the discourse on meaning derived from Kantian and neo-Kantian philosophy formed around 1880-1910, informing the work of interpretive anthropologists such as Geertz. This influence resounds in social psychology and the philosophy of psychology in their treatment of meaning as the key to studying human action. It has strong ties with symbolic anthropology, seen as a place halfway between the sciences and the humanities. This perspective can partly be understood through symbolic interactionism and its concern with a basis for constructing human nature: human life is symbolic, and human beings communicate with symbols. Ties with semantics reflect the use of meaning to understand sociocultural behavior, hermeneutics, thick description, and the emic/etic distinction. This extends into ethnoscience and sociolinguitics.

Strong echoes from feminist theory and poststructuralism concern the contemporary nature of subjectivity in social life, gender relations, and literary production. The Frankfurt critical philosophy school has showed how an understanding of society does not have to be detached from those living in it. The overlap with legal anthropology presents how legally relevant and sometimes socially relevant law classifies behavior into verbal categories.


Benedict, Ruth. 1934. Anthropology and the Humanities. American Anthropologist. 50: 585-593.

Brady, Ivan and Edith Turner. 1984. Introduction. Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly 19: 3-11.

Dewey, John, Edward P. Cheyney, and F.C.S. Schiller. 1932. Humanism. In Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Vol. VII, edited by Edwin R. A. Seligman, 537-544. New York: Macmillan

Foster, Stephen William. 1981. Interpretations of interpretations. Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly 6:2-8

Hofmann, Jerry D. 1979. The concept of meaning in recent anthropological theoryAnthropology and Humanism Quarterly 4:20-23.

Honigmann, Irma Grabel. John Joseph Honigmann. Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly 7:10-13.

Ingold, Tim. 1994. Humanity and Animality. In Companion Encyclopedia of Anthropology, edited by Tim Ingold, 14-32. London: Routledge.

Johnson, Norris Brock. 1989. Anthropology and the Humanities: A Reconsideration. Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly 14:82-89.

Marcus, George E. 1991. Notes and queries on the broader implications of the current interest in the study of "The Self" for the conduct of cross-cultural research. Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly 16:10-11.

Pyle, Ransford C. 1981. Humanistic parallels between law and anthropology. Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly 6:19-21.

Richardson, Miles. 1980. Mead, symbol and freedom. Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly 5: 21.

1996. Humanistic Anthropology. In Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology, Vol. II, edited by David Levinson and Melvin Ember, 613-618. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Stocking, George W. Jr. 1992. The Ethnographer’s Magic and other Essays in the History of Anthropology. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Wilk, Stan. 1976. Holistic Approach. In Encyclopedia of Anthropology, edited by David E. Hunter and Phillip Whitten, 203-204. New York: Harper and Row.

1991. Humanistic Anthropology. Knoxville: Tennessee Press.


The Society for Humanistic Anthropology -

Journal of The Society for Cultural Anthropology -

Edith Turner -

Worldwide Email Directory of Anthropologists (WEDA) -

Recommended Works

Asad, Talal, ed. 1973. Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. New York: Humanities Press.

Basso, Keith H. 1990. Western Apache Language and Culture: Essays in Linguistic Anthropology. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Bateson, Gregory. 1936. Naven. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Benedict, Ruth. 1934. Patterns of Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Clifford, James and George E. Marcus, eds. 1986. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1940. The Nuer. Clarendon: Oxford University Press.

Fabian, Johannes. 1983. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object. New York: Columbia University Press.

Feld, Steven. 1982. Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Fox, Richard G, ed. 1991. Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present. Santa Fe, New Mexico: School of American Research Press.

Freeman, Derek. 1983. Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Hymes, Dell, ed. 1969. Reinventing Anthropology. New York: Pantheon Books.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1974 [1955]. Tristes Tropiques. New York: Atheneum.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1989. A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Marcus, George E., and Michael M. J. Fischer, eds. 1986. Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Movement in the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rabinow, Paul. 1978. Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Said, Edward. 1979. Orientalism. New York: Random House.

Taussig, Michael. 1978. Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Turner, Victor W. and Edward M. Bruner, eds. 1986. The Anthropology of Experience. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

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