web analytics
https://xxxpicodrom.com https://xxxpicsee.com https://expat-friendly.com https://idahohighwaysafety.org


This is an excerpt from the first and last chapters of Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective, a breakthrough book by Jenell Paris Williams and Brian M. Howell, Baker, 2010. 

[1] The Discipline of Anthropology

Finding Cultural Anthropology–Jenell’s Journey:

After a summer of urban ministry in Philadelphia, I returned to my suburban Christian college in Minnesota and searched the academic catalog for classes related to race, poverty, and cities.  The Department of Anthropology and Sociology offered the most classes related to my areas of passion, so I signed up as a major.  Later, after I spent a month in Amsterdam, Holland in a college class doing anthropological research for Youth With a Mission on church-planting, I decided to become an anthropologist.

For me, anthropology has always been intertwined with urban life and ministry.  My doctoral fieldwork involved four years of life, ministry, and research in a neighborhood in the northwest quadrant of Washington, D.C.  From my bedroom window I could see the U.S. Capitol, as well as the profound poverty and racial segregation that exist just blocks from that global symbol of freedom and democracy.  My research question was about ghetto formation and resident activism – how urban spaces become racially homogeneous and economically disadvantaged, and how residents work for neighborhood betterment.  My research was motivated by faith, specifically, the question, “Who is my neighbor?”  I hoped the research itself would be an act of neighborliness, telling the story of a neighborhood from the perspective of the residents.  My participant-observation included being an involved citizen and church member, and living at Esther House, a Christian community house of women committed to neighborhood betterment.  I came to see that the methodology of anthropology – living among people and listening to their stories – could be a Christian practice.

Brian’s Story: 

I got my first taste of anthropology when I was developing an undergraduate thesis project at my New England college in a program that combined government, economics, history and social theory.  I decided to do research on missions in the Philippines, since both my best friend and my girlfriend (now wife) had Philippine ancestry. I had not taken a single course in anthropology, but knew I wanted to travel and could not see myself working in an archive; I wanted to talk with actual people. With my background in social science and a lot of enthusiasm, I spent a summer doing fieldwork in a small mountain village in the Northern Philippines, interviewing people and learning about the process of social change following the widespread conversion to Christianity some 30 years earlier.  My thesis was the first time in my secular education I had really connected the social, theological, and cultural aspects of Christianity.

I wanted to continue the research in graduate school, but did not know which discipline would work best. I considered history and political science, but neither discipline seemed a good fit. At the time, I lived near Fuller Seminary (Pasadena, CA) where I found anthropologists in the school of intercultural studies, and after a few trial classes, I realized cultural anthropology would allow me to consider all the aspects of life I found interesting.  My research was also motivated by my faith as I sought to bring to the wider academic world an understanding of Christianity that was scholarly and critical, but not hostile to Christians. During my fieldwork, I taught courses at the Philippine seminary where my family and I lived.  It was there I came to see anthropology as a vital mode of thought for the church as well as the world.


Eventually we met each other in the relatively small world of Christian cultural anthropologists.  After years of talking at conferences and even working on a colleague’s book project together, we became convinced that anthropology had many important insights for Christians.[1]  Drawing from nearly twenty combined years teaching Introduction to Anthropology in Christian college and seminary classrooms, and many other courses as well, we have put together our knowledge of the discipline with our understanding of the particular questions Christians often bring.  Thus, in addition to presenting the discipline of cultural anthropology generally, this text addresses distinctively Christian concerns, acknowledging points of tension and highlighting ways in which the discipline of anthropology can contribute to the work of Christians and the church.

What is Cultural Anthropology?

On the first day of class, we often ask our students, “When you tell people you’re taking a cultural anthropology class, what do they think you’re studying?”  The answers range from the study of dinosaurs, to images of Indiana Jones hunting down priceless (and magical) artifacts, to radical cultural relativists who think there is no truth.  The first of these guesses is understandable, but wrong; the second is flattering, but not a very realistic portrayal of a different branch of anthropology; the third gets to a bit of truth, this unfortunate characterization comes from particular anthropologists rather than the discipline itself. 

The truth is that cultural anthropology is the description, interpretation, and appreciation of similarities and differences in human cultures.  It is a diverse discipline encompassing a wide variety of topics related to human beings.  Cultural anthropologists often differentiate themselves by referring to areas of interest and expertise such as economic anthropology, urban anthropology, or anthropology of religion, to name just a few.  

As the personal stories at the beginning of this chapter demonstrated, anthropologists come to the discipline in a variety of ways and study an array of topics, but they share a commitment to a common perspective and method.  The anthropological perspective refers to the holistic approach to cultural understanding that seeks to understand the point of view from within the context being studied.  Ethnographic fieldwork is anthropology’s hallmark research method, based upon the anthropologist’s direct experience in a culture. 

What often draws Christians to the discipline is the realization that the anthropological perspective and method enable us to serve the world by better understanding it.  For Jenell, that has included urban ministry and community development, as well as college teaching.  For Brian, anthropology has shaped his ability to teach and write about global Christianity, short-term mission, and church organization. Many Christians find a career in anthropology studying topics that have little obvious relationship to their faith, even while the calling to do research and scholarship provides an opportunity for faithfully using the gifts God has given them.  Ultimately, most of those who engage anthropology will not become professional anthropologists, yet all Christians can find benefit in understanding the methods and concepts of the discipline, connecting anthropology to questions of evangelism, social action, theology, church life, and the role of culture in our own understanding of the Gospel.

This chapter presents an outline of the four branches, or subfields, of anthropology.  It then elaborates on the subdiscipline that is the focus of this text, cultural anthropology, giving an overview its distinctive methods and concepts, setting it apart from other social sciences. Finally, the chapter discusses the contributions an anthropological understanding can provide Christians in our efforts to live faithful lives as members of the local and global Body of Christ.

The Four Subfields of Anthropology

Simply breaking down the word “anthropology” into its parts reveals how all-encompassing the discipline is: “anthro” comes from the Greek “anthropos” meaning “human,” and “-ology” from logos or “study.”  The term is extraordinarily broad because the discipline as a whole encompasses several very distinct, but related, modes of research all related to the holistic study of humankind.  Anthropology has traditionally been divided into four subfields: archaeology, linguistics, physical or biological anthropology and cultural or social anthropology.*  The four subfields are very different from one another in method and theory, yet all share the anthropological perspective on human life and culture.  Today some add a fifth branch of anthropology – applied or practice anthropology – in which practitioners focus on ways to use anthropology in the service of society.  Others argue that applied anthropology is not a subfield because application is an integral part of each subfield, and applied anthropologists usually earned their degrees in one of the traditional four subfields. In this text, we discuss applied anthropology as it occurs in each of the traditional four subfields and do not categorize applied anthropology as a fifth subfield.


Archaeologists use material artifacts to understand the actions and ideas of people in the past.  This can be the people of the ancient past understood through the simple stone tools or fire pits they left behind, or it can be the relatively recent past of the last century or even contemporary communities.  Archaeologists have studied everything from the Underground Railroad by which enslaved people in the Southern United States escaped to the North, to Mayan empires in Central America, the historicity of biblical narratives, and consumption patterns of Americans based on their garbage. 

Archaeologists often rely on excavation, a rigorous method of extracting artifacts from underground, though they may study visible structures such as pyramids, footprints fossilized into rocks, or cave paintings.  By interpreting artifacts, archaeologists are able to draw conclusions about how the people connected to those artifacts lived.  For example, before Europeans arrived in what is now North America, a civilization known to us only as the Mound Builders constructed massive mounds in various places throughout the Great Plains and Southeastern United States.  Archaeologists, digging into these mounds and analyzing bits of pottery, metal and animal bones, microscopic pollen, and the composition of the soil, have been able to posit social hierarchies, trade relationships, patterns of settlement, daily diet, religious beliefs, and a great deal more.  All of this comes only from the material remains; the Mound Builders left no written accounts of their lives.

Archaeologists may combine the analysis of material life with information taken from contemporary populations, a form of study known as ethnoarchaeology.  Comparing the past (as seen in a material record) to the present (understood through the ethnographic methods described below) provides information about cultural change even when no written records of the past exist. Similarly, archaeologists have used artifacts to gain information about contemporary populations that is not easily accessible through ethnographic or other interactive methods.

 One famous project by William Rathje involved the study of garbage in the mid-size Arizona city of Tucson.  Rathje and his team gained permission to go through the city’s garbage, comparing what they found with what people said about their own patterns of consumption and disposal in surveys and interviews.  Due to the preservative qualities of landfills, they were even able to go back many decades, finding perfectly preserved papers from the 1950s and earlier.  What they learned was that surveys – like the people who answer them – were not always as reliable as the archaeological record.  When asked how much beer they drank per week, or how much food they threw away, it was easy to compare what respondents said to the material data, which often told a different story.  Archaeology is a nonreactive measure of human behavior, meaning it does not cause subjects to change behavior in response to the research.  Thus, archaeology provides another means of understanding culture that is an important part of the discipline.


A second subfield of anthropology, linguistics, involves the study of language.  In some universities, it remains a distinct field of study, particularly where language is studied primarily as a system of sounds and rules.  Where language is studied primarily in relation to its use within larger cultural and social systems, it is known as sociolinguistics and is integrated with the study of cultural anthropology.  William Leap is a sociolinguist who studied how language was used by both teachers and students in schools on the Ute Reservation in Utah.  Conflicts between standard English-speaking teachers and students who spoke both Ute and a Ute-specific dialect of English could be understood and sometimes resolved by highlighting the power dynamics present in both verbal and nonverbal language. 

In the Christian world, many people have heard of linguistics through the work of Wycliffe Bible Translators, and their academic sister organization, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL).  Wycliffe/SIL deploys dozens of linguists and anthropologists in their mission to translate the Bible into the thousands of languages around the world.  Some of the work is highly technical linguistic analysis, creating systems of writing and codifying the grammar of oral languages.  Others engage directly with sociolinguistics, working out the proper metaphors, concepts, images and poetics of the target language in order to faithfully translate Hebrew and Greek scriptures into a new linguistic context.

Today sociolinguistics is often considered a part of cultural anthropology, since both subfields focus on the study of meaning and culture.  Linguistics, and anthropological approaches to language in general, are significant for the study of culture and society.  We devote an entire chapter to it later in the text.

Physical/Biological Anthropology

Physical or biological anthropology involves the study of human anatomy, the study of nonhuman primates (primatology) and human origins. Physical anthropology as connected to archaeology, linguistics and cultural anthropology enables one to see how the study of physical qualities relates to the ways humans organize social life.  Physical anthropologists often employ their expertise in medical schools teaching courses in gross anatomy and embryology.  Physical anthropologists may apply their work to medical care, using comparisons of human growth patterns in a particular place to understand nutrition, physical variation within a community and otherwise aid medical practitioners in their work providing good care. [ii]  Forensic anthropology is a rapidly growing applied branch of physical anthropology in which anthropologists interpret human remains, usually for legal purposes.  Clea Koff is a forensic anthropologist who exhumed remains from sites of mass killings in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.[iii]  Her work contributed to legal processes and also to healing for survivors who were finally able to identify the deceased. 

Physical anthropology is, for many Christians, the most controversial subfield of anthropology. For Christians, Jews, Muslims and other religious people who believe God created the world, the question of human origins often raises difficult issues.  For many Christians, a reading of Genesis precludes the idea that humans are descended from other life forms.  Others point to Romans 12, where Paul speaks of sin entering the world through “one man,” meaning Adam must have been created separately from other animals.  Even the idea of God selecting pre-existing hominids in order to create in them His image strikes many Christians as incompatible with scriptural accounts. 

For other believers, Genesis teaches theological truth, but not scientific or historical accounts of creation.  These Christians, including biblical scholars and theologians, as well as scientists and other scholars, believe the questions addressed by evolutionary theory are distinct from those answered by Genesis. [iv] Today, many Christians work in the fields of physical anthropology, primatology and related fields of biology, employing and even accepting evolution-based understandings of biological relationships.  They feel they can accept the mechanism of evolution as God’s means of creating the world without compromising the inerrancy and authority of scripture.

Case in Point: Christianity, Science and Evolution: Francis Collins and the Human Genome Project

Francis S. Collins (b. April 14, 1950) was Professor of Internal Medicine and Human Genetics when he was appointed to lead the Human Genome Project in 1993.  This multibillion dollar project brought together the world’s top scientists to map the human genome.  With the potential to discover genetic causes and cures for hundreds of genetically-rooted diseases, it was an enormous honor and a testimony to the high stature Collins had among his peers.

Collins committed his life to Christ after earning a PhD in chemistry from Yale and an MD from the University of North Carolina.  Although his work as a geneticist was built on the theory of evolution and genetic relatedness, Collins never felt there was a conflict between his work as a scientist and his Christian faith.  In 2006 he published The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, in which he proposed the idea of BioLogos, arguing that all natural processes, including evolution, are an expression of God’s character and will. [v] 

Collins has become a very public witness for faith in the scientific community, though biblical scholars hold various opinions about his theology.  Bringing the Human Genome Project to completion ahead of schedule and under budget, Collins resigned his leadership in 2008.  In 2009, he was appointed as the head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) where he will oversee a multibillion dollar research budget, serving in one of the most strategic scientific organizations in the world. 


For every Christian, understanding the relationship of creation to human development involves many fields of study including theology, biblical exegesis, hermeneutics, geology, cosmology, genetics, and paleontology, as well as anthropology.  There are many excellent treatments of these issues from a variety of perspectives that can address specific questions in much more depth than we can undertake here. [vi]  For this book, with a focus on cultural anthropology, it is not necessary to settle these questions in order to understand how physical/biological anthropology fits within anthropology generally.  Nor should questions about evolutionary theory be an insurmountable barrier for Christians to embrace cultural anthropology and fully engage the discipline.

Cultural Anthropology

The fourth subfield, and the focus of this text, is cultural anthropology.  Many people in the United States have never heard of anthropology or have only a vague notion of what it is, unless they go to a college where it is taught.  However, most of the topics and methods of cultural anthropology are ones that people find immediately interesting and may have encountered in other ways.

Cultural anthropology began from the 18th and 19th century reports of missionaries and colonialists bringing back reports of unfamiliar people and customs they encountered in their travels.  Studying anthropology, even today, remains a form of scholarly travel, through which people encounter the lives of others told in detailed descriptions of daily life.  Anyone who enjoyed reading about people around the world in eighth grade social studies, or dreamed of traveling to “exotic” places in order to learn about how people live has taken a step towards cultural anthropology.

There are, of course, several disciplines that involve the detailed understanding of social organization and cultural difference including history, geography and sociology. While the differences between those disciplines and anthropology will become clearer throughout the text (see below for a contrast between cultural anthropology and sociology), what has become one of the most distinctive features of cultural anthropology is the primary method anthropologists use in their research, ethnographic fieldwork.

Ethnography and Fieldwork

Ethnography [ethno = people, graphy = writing] refers to both the activity and the product of cultural anthropology.  Cultural anthropologists engage in ethnography by studying multiple aspects of life in a particular place or among a particular people to create a picture of how those people understand and live in the world around them.  Anthropologists write up their research in accounts called ethnographies, rich descriptions and analyses of a culture that include the anthropologist’s experience of “being there.”  It is often said that being there is the ethnographic standard for legitimate anthropological knowledge. 

When anthropologist Eliot Liebow was preparing for fieldwork among urban African-Americans in the United States, his supervisor said, “Go out there and make like an anthropologist.”  Anthropologists have made a career out of hanging out.   In fact, ethnographic research consists in living in a way that allows the anthropologist to become as integrated into daily life as possible.  Even when fieldwork appears to be just hanging out, as Liebow did for months on Washington, D.C. street corners, the anthropologist is always purposeful, observing and participating with care, and taking notes (either on the spot or later) that will be used for analysis. [vii]  

Emerging in the early 20th century, the process of long-term fieldwork reflected the belief that understanding complex social and cultural life necessarily involved observing and interacting with people as they go about their daily lives, and that this goal takes a long time to reach.  Anthropologists often spend one to two years in the field, sometimes making repeated fieldtrips over the course of their careers to correct errors, observe changes over the long term, and pursue new areas of interest.  Unlike earlier studies which relied on second-hand information or direct interviews with individuals outside their own social context anthropologists became committed to the notion that research on culturally identifiable groups required that the anthropologist learn the languages and customs of people he or she wished to understand and spend significant time observing daily life as well as events of special social or ceremonial significance. 

Participant observation is the primary method associated with ethnographic research.  Picture a continuum with full participation at one end and detached observation at the other.  Participant observation involves moving around on the continuum throughout fieldwork, combining participation and observation in various ways to optimize one’s understanding of the culture being studied.  Standing back and taking a good look around is often the way an anthropologist begins, and detached observation yields good insight.  But simultaneously and self-consciously, the anthropologist moves toward participation. 

For Jenell, participant observation meant living, worshiping, socializing, and even holding her wedding in a low-income African-American neighborhood of Washington, D.C.  At times she stood back and observed, for instance, at a heated meeting of community activists when she didn’t yet understand the issues at hand.  At other times she fully participated, having her say at community meetings, hosting community gatherings at her home, and joining a local church.   Though people knew she was doing research, as she engaged in the daily activities of life, people came to trust and understand her even as she understood them.  In his research on congregations in the Philippines, Brian spent 18 months participating in three congregations. [viii] Having graduated from a seminary, and being in a place where relatively few people were able to earn such advanced degrees, he was frequently invited to preach and lead Bible studies in every congregation.  Participating in this way gave him a role and position that people could understand more easily than “anthropologist.” More importantly, sharing his faith and contributing to Christian life in these ways created rapport, a relationship of conversational ease with individuals and groups.  For both Brian and Jenell, good rapport allowed them to talk more honestly and intimately about their lives and perspectives on issues of culture, faith, community and context.

For some anthropologists, forms of participant observation may involve holding a job in the organization being studied, taking on an official leadership position, or even adopting a role that makes them appear to be a typical member of the community.  Taking on multiple roles can become difficult since anthropologists in the United States embrace the American Anthropological Association’s Code of Ethics that does not allow researchers to misrepresent themselves or trick people into participating in research. [ix] Yet, if the anthropologist becomes part of a community, people eventually get used to the presence of an outsider.  In some cases, particularly when anthropologists do not stand out in some obvious way, anthropologists can become insiders of a sort. They can begin to find a place in the daily routines of life in the community they have come to study. It is through these everyday interactions that anthropologists gain insights into culture and social life.

Within the general method of participant observation, anthropologists employ a variety of techniques for obtaining information and increasing their understanding.

Ethnographic interviews involve purposeful, documented conversation with research participants.  They may be formal, including tape-recording and a list of questions, or very informal, with questions generated on the spot and note-taking done later.    Anthropologists may conduct focus groups in which small groups of people are asked to discuss a particular topic while the anthropologist takes notes.  Other methods that compliment participant observation include drawing maps (the literal geography of a space, or how people view or use the space), recording life histories (an interview or series of interviews that document the trajectory of a single life), and conducting surveys (a standardized set of questions applied to numerous individuals or places). 

These methods, and even participant observation, are increasingly used in short-term research projects.  Long-term fieldwork requires great personal and financial commitment, and many researchers wish to glean as much benefit as possible from ethnography even when they don’t have time or funding for years in the field.  Rapid ethnographic assessment procedures (REAP) are a recent development in research methodology that makes the benefits of the anthropological approach more accessible to more people.  Rapid ethnographic assessment projects use focus groups, ethnographic interviews, mapping, and other methods within a framework of participant observation, but over a period of weeks, days, or even hours.  REAP researchers must always account for ways in which the short-term nature of the research limits the validity of findings, as well as ways in which ethnographic methods enhance their findings beyond what a simple questionnaire or detached observation could yield.

Participant observation and its related methods highlight the extent to which cultural anthropology focuses on small-scale cases – villages, clubs, neighborhoods, congregations, families.  The anthropologist draws together many aspects of life to create a holistic understanding of the situation.  A holistic understanding assumes that all parts of human life — from birthing practices to the economy to warfare to art – are interconnected.  From that very local and specific perspective, the anthropologist then suggests how the processes, features, and particularities of the case reveal something about human life more generally.

The Anthropological Perspective

Anthropologists share awareness that culture is a part of everything human beings do and think, often in ways hidden from those immersed in it.  The anthropological perspective is a holistic way of viewing the world that highlights both human commonalities and diversities.  The methodology of long-term fieldwork is designed to allow the anthropologist to understand this complexity by spending enough time in among a people to not only observe what they do, but come to understand why they do it.  The central concept of culture (defined in detail in the next chapter) connects every aspect of human life, from the way we raise children, to how we dress, to how we classify the colors we see.  Rather than isolating particular features of social life – political institutions, economic decision making – anthropologists seek to understand how these interrelated aspects of life function in shaping how people live; how those people think about those features; how they relate to the other aspects of human life found in community.  As Margaret Mead once said, “The world is my field — It’s all anthropology.”[x]

The anthropological perspective compels anthropologists (and students of anthropology) to make those connections, understanding the beliefs and practices of other cultures as well as their own.  It is in understanding those different from ourselves – the Cultural Other – that cultural anthropologists believe we can best understand ourselves.  When we realize that many things we take for granted other people construe quite differently – such as what makes a person beautiful, or how many colors there are – we can more easily examine our own context and culture.  Christians, in particular, should find this helpful as we seek to explore our lives and those cultural assumptions that may help or hinder a faithful walk with Christ.

Anthropology and Sociology

Because cultural anthropology draws together history, economics, politics, religion, family, and psychology to understand people’s social and cultural lives, it overlaps with several disciplines, but none more than sociology.  The simple answer to the question, “What’s the difference between sociology and anthropology?” is that historically, sociologists have focused mainly on Western societies and used quantitative methods, that is, measurement-based approaches that rely on mathematics, statistics, and hypotheses for producing and interpreting data.  Anthropologists more often turned to small communities outside the West using qualitative methods to develop holistic portraits of cultural life.  Qualitative methods include participant observation, interviews, and document analysis, used to interpret the nature and meaning of phenomena.  In the contemporary world, many sociologists and anthropologists use mixed-method approaches that strategically rely on both quantitative and qualitative methods to best explore a research question.

Sociology and anthropology have a number of other distinctive features as well. Anthropologists are more likely to study cross-culturally than sociologists.  Even when studying their own culture, anthropologists compare their findings cross-culturally and employ concepts built from the ongoing comparison of cultural difference.  Anthropologists are more committed to the use of culture as a central concept to any analysis they do, while sociologists are more likely to use society and institutions as the key organizing idea.  Christians can rely on anthropology more to understand mission and the relationship between Gospel and culture, at home and abroad. Sociology proves more useful for Christians seeking a big-picture view of religion and social life on a national or regional scale. 

In U.S. universities and colleges, sociology and anthropology are sometimes put into the same department, or sociologists may teach an introductory class in cultural anthropology.  Because both disciplines explore social life, cultural diversity, and group behavior, this compatibility makes good sense.  Historically, the two disciplines come from some of the same philosophers and social theorists who began thinking about the rapid changes in European life in the 18th Century and the increasingly apparent differences found among people around the world. 

Anthropology and the Christian Witness

In the first one hundred years of the discipline, anthropologists and Christians not only worked well together, they were often one-and-the-same.  Early anthropologists such as Maurice Leenhardt conducted their anthropological research in conjunction with missionary work.[xi]  After spending 24 years in New Caledonia as a Protestant missionary, Leenhardt took over the prestigious chair in social anthropology at the Ecole Practique des Hautes Etudes, a leading French university, where he taught what he had learned during his missionary travels. Later missionary anthropologists and linguists made significant contributions to the discipline from work that flowed directly from their Christian work in Bible translation and evangelism, even establishing scholarly journals such as Anthropos and Missiology (formerly known as Practical Anthropology) with the expressed mission of bringing anthropology and missiology together. 

The relationship between Christianity and anthropology has not always been smooth and harmonious.  Anthropologists working in various parts of the world have documented both the inadvertent and conscious cooperation of missionaries with colonial rulers, in which mission work became part of a ‘civilizing’ and subjugating process.  Christians, including Christian anthropologists, have pointed out secular assumptions often implicit in anthropological work, making religious belief of any kind incompatible with anthropological research. There may be some necessary tension between Christianity and anthropology, but we believe it can be a generative, creative tension for people of either group, and even more so for individuals like us who belong to both groups. Christians are often a bit uncomfortable with anthropology for a variety of reasons.  For some Christians, their discomfort has centered around the issue of human origins and evolution.  For others it comes from the particular kind of relativism espoused by some anthropologists, denying the truth of scripture.  But at the same time, Christians have successfully integrated the study of anthropology into their colleges, universities, seminaries, and missions training programs. Wheaton College was one of the first liberal arts colleges of any kind to have a cultural anthropology major.  Biola University has established a Master’s program in cultural anthropology.   Many other educational institutions use anthropology to teach cross-cultural understanding, mission, intercultural studies, or just anthropology in and of itself. 

Anthropology and Missions

Missionaries often engage in multiple tasks simultaneously.  In addition to serving in pastoral positions, they may have medical duties, educational work, economic development projects and more.  In order to be effective in any of these, they must understand how to communicate and live effectively in the culture.  Anthropology is often an important part of that understanding.  First, many missionaries spend time studying the anthropological research of a particular group or place before they go.  They learn not only about history, customs, traditions, beliefs, and values, but they are able to read about daily life, community dynamics and processes of change that will be critical in introducing the Gospel or working to strengthen the church.

Second, missionaries often study anthropological theory and method, so they will be equipped to study the context personally.  No matter how well-researched a particular place or people may be, cultural change and local specificity make it imperative that missionaries are equipped to do some of their own anthropological research. A number of the largest North American seminaries have one or more anthropologists teaching in their mission education programs. Missionaries can become expert ethnographers, using participant-observation, ethnographic interviews, surveys, and other research techniques to learn about another culture, applying their research to their mission work and sometimes publishing it in anthropology journals.  In this way, Christian anthropologists are actively involved in helping missionaries become more effective in their calling.

Anthropologists have long been involved in missionary organizations such as the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL/Wycliffe Bible Translators), International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Church, and many others. Some of the earliest missionaries took anthropological research to heart in thinking about how the new converts in the places they worked could become Christians while maintaining their own cultural identities.  This notion, which has come to be called “contextualization,” or “indigenization” grew out of the interaction of anthropology and missiology as Christians throughout the world became aware of how critical cultural understanding was to effective communication and practice of the Christian faith.

Missionaries often acutely experience the creative tension between anthropology and Christianity.    Many Christians going into anthropology find themselves having to defend or correct the views some anthropologists have about missionaries.  In some cases anthropologists have encountered missionaries who lack sensitivity to culture, working in ways that ignore or denigrate cultural differences.  Other anthropologists have formed opinions of missionaries based on stereotypes and rumors.  Missionaries, too, have had experiences with anthropologists they have met in the places they work who provide negative examples of the discipline.  Certainly, for anthropologists who have no Christian commitments, the idea of missionaries working to change the religious commitments of non-Christians is sometimes seen as “destroying culture.”  For missionaries, who are often working alongside local Christian leaders for better health care, political rights, and human dignity, the commitments of some anthropologists to “leave people alone” can be seen as a despicable lack of concern for the real needs of people.

Despite these difficult conflicts, however, anthropology has made profound contributions to mission work, and many missionaries find that the tensions produce a sharpened ability to explain the Christian faith, live peaceably with those of other faiths or no faith, and to acknowledge the failures and mistakes Christians have made.  As the church grows and develops outside European and North American contexts, the need for cross-cultural understanding among Christians will only continue to grow.

Christians and Basic Research in Anthropology

Many Christians come to anthropology with interests other than mission, and participate in the discipline as scholars, professors, and applied scientists.  Christian anthropologists have become world-renowned experts in areas of anthropological research that are far from explicitly Christian concerns.  Thomas Headland, an ecological anthropologist trained at the University of Hawaii and affiliated with SIL, International for many years, conducted research on people living in the forests of the Philippines that became central to understanding the forest ecosystem and human life for ecological anthropologists everywhere. [xii] 

Dean Arnold, who studied at the University of Illinois and taught at Pennsylvania State University prior to moving to Wheaton College, conducted research on potters and cultural change among Yucatec Mayan communities in Mexico.  He published his research in 1986 in a book with Cambridge University Press that became a key text for archaeologists and cultural anthropologists working with economic change and social life among indigenous people of Latin America..[xiii]  Our own research has been published with secular publishers and journals, speaking to larger anthropological discussions.

Christians in anthropology have published work on everything from craft production in the ancient Mesoamerican people of Tarasco to the lives of market women in contemporary India, but like all scientific research, the importance of this knowledge is not always obvious in its immediate application to social problems.[xiv] Similar to the work Christians do in chemistry, biology, history, or literature, this research becomes the foundation on which future scholars build.  Only God can foresee where the knowledge will lead; yet it provides another window into His Creation.

Anthropology and the Global Church

As Christians, we are practicing a faith born in an ancient Middle Eastern context, first preached in a language (Aramaic) we do not speak, recorded in a language (Koine Greek) not spoken by those being quoted (Jesus and his disciples), developed among a multicultural minority in an long-extinct Empire, passed through multiple European, African and Asian cultures over thousands of years, and finally interpreted among the technological complexity of the 21st century.  In other words, simply being a Christian is a cross-cultural experience. 

This truth is amplified by the cultural diversity of the global church today.  Christians who love the Bible, pray in the name of Jesus, affirm the Trinity, and otherwise fit within the historic faith of the Church today worship in thousands of different languages, using myriad instruments and musical forms, praying in ways that would surely seem strange to their Christian brothers and sisters in other places.  This diversity is a gift, and part of God’s plan for the Church, but it poses challenges for being unified as Jesus prayed (John 17:21).

The movement of God around the world is a reason for Christians everywhere to rejoice, but without the ability to relate to one another, we may become suspicious and isolated.  It is all too easy to misinterpret something which is unfamiliar to us in the practices of other Christians and assume it is unbiblical.  Christian house blessings in the Philippines, where the blood of a sacrificed pig is painted above the door, initially may appear to be syncretic remnants of a pre-Christian past. 

As a Christian anthropologist observing the ceremony, it is easy to think these practices would pass away as people become “mature” Christians, or even that such ceremonies reflected a lack of understanding of Christian theology.  In fact, among the iKalahan, these ceremonies were revivals of traditions that had not been practiced for decades.  They reflected the desires of some younger iKalahan, including many with theological training, to reconnect with their culture while strengthening their Christian identity.  While there certainly are things in the lives of Christians everywhere (including among U.S. Christians) that are not in line with scripture, without a clear understanding of why differences exist, what they mean, where they came from and how they fit into the other parts of the culture, we risk misunderstanding and unnecessary division.  Anthropology is one important means to develop the abilities to ask the right questions, observe more critically, and think more deeply about the differences and similarities we will all encounter as the Church continues to grow in the diversity God has created.


Anthropological perspective:  A holistic way of viewing the world that highlights both human commonalities and uniquenesses. 

Anthropology:  The holistic study of humankind.

Applied anthropology:  Branch of anthropology in which practicioners use anthropology in the service of society.

Archaeology: The study of material artifacts to understand the actions and ideas of people in the past. 

Cultural anthropology:  The description, interpretation, and appreciation of similarities and differences in human cultures.

Ethnoarchaeology: An approach to archaeology that combines the analysis of material life with information taken from contemporary populations.

Ethnography:  Arich description and analysis of a culture that includes the anthropologist’s experience of being there. 

Ethnographic fieldwork:  Anthropology’s hallmark research method, based upon the anthropologist’s direct experience in a culture. 

Ethnographic interviews:  Purposeful, documented conversation with research participants that may be formal or informal.

Excavation:  Digging up artifacts; the primary data collection method of archaeologists.

Focus groups:  An type of interview in which small groups of people are asked to discuss a particular topic while the anthropologist takes notes.

Holistic understanding:  The view that all the parts of human life are interconnected

Life history:  An interview or series of interviews that document the trajectory of a single life.

Linguistics:  The subfield of anthropology devoted to the study of language.

Mapping:  Diagramming geographical space, or human interpretation and use of space.

Mound Builders:  A Native American group known for their burial mounds.

Participant observation.  An approach to research that involves combines participation and observation in various ways to optimize one’s understanding of the culture being studied. 

Physical (or biological) anthropology: The study of human anatomy, nonhuman primates (primatology) and human origins. 

Primatology:  The study of nonhuman primates.

Qualitative research methods:  Interpretive approaches that use participant observation, interviews, and document analysis to understand the nature and meaning of phenomena. 

Quantitative research methods:  Measurement-based approaches that rely on

mathematics, statistics, and hypotheses for producing and interpreting data. 

Rapid ethnographic assessment:  A time-compressed use of focus groups, ethnographic

interviews, mapping, and other methods within a framework of participant observation. 

Rapport:  A relationship of conversational ease with individuals and groups.

Survey:  A standardized set of questions applied to numerous individuals or places.

 For discussion in class

Putting Anthropology to Work

With a small group of classmates, list and briefly define each of anthropology’s sub-fields.  Then choose a culture or place in the world that can serve as a case study for this exercise.  Each student (or pair, if your group is larger than four) should choose a sub-field as their area of expertise (linguistics, physical anthropology, cultural anthropology, or archaeology) as they answer the following questions.

1.  Generate a research topic that would fit with your area of expertise. What questions would you ask, and what kinds of methods or approaches might you use to explore the question?

2.  What would you do with the results of your research?  Would the Christian faith influence your application?  Consider the various approaches to anthropology discussed in this chapter: basic research, applied anthropology, mission..

Christianity and Anthropology: Making Tension Creative

With a small group, do a “free association” exercise.  One person will write the word “Anthropology” at the top of a piece of paper.  When s/he says “Anthropology” out loud, the rest of the group will say whatever comes to mind.  Spend 30 seconds doing this.  Don’t edit or critique or comment – just generate as long a list as possible.  Then, consider the results of your brainstorming as you answer the following questions:

1.  What are your impressions of how Christianity and anthropology fit (and may not fit) together?

2.  Choose one point of tension between Christianity and anthropology to focus on.   Generate two ways in which Christians could make this tension “creative”, that is, turn a potential problem into an asset.  Perhaps the issue could lead to greater self-awareness, or improved service, or new interpersonal relationships, or new insight and learning.

Devotion 1 for chapter 1

Jesus the participant-observer

 35Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”  Mt. 9:35-36

The first time Matthew describes Jesus as being moved with compassion is after Jesus spent time traveling, teaching, and healing.  Jesus’ compassion was stirred when he saw the crowds.  Jesus’ love was not abstract or distant; he lived among us, saw us, touched us, and loved us.

For Christian anthropologists, participant-observation can be a practice of love.  Anthropological research is never distant or detached.  Like Jesus’ ministry, anthropological research involves being close to people, coming to understand them deeply, and caring about their concerns.  In a sense, Jesus could even be described as God doing participant-observation. In Jesus, God came to live among us and experience our lives as we do.  Of course, just as the anthropologist retains elements of their own distinctive identity, so Jesus was still “other” (divine), even as he shared fully in our humanity.  Jesus’ life and ministry provides wonderful inspiration for anthropologists doing fieldwork.

Devotion 2 for chapter 1  Fulfilling the Great Commission

Matthew 28:16-20 (New International Version)

16Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[a] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Jesus gave his disciples a monumental task, to make disciples of all nations.  Those eleven men took up the challenge, spending the rest of their lives spreading the Gospel.  Jesus’ message is meant for all other believers, as well, and Christians today are as challenged by the Great Commission as the eleven men who heard it spoken by Jesus.

Sharing Jesus’ message with people of all nations requires travel, language skills, and cross-cultural understanding.  We must work hard to understand what it would mean for people in a different culture to become disciples of Jesus, and what Jesus’ teachings might mean in a different context.  Cultural anthropology helps us fulfill the Great Commission by preparing Christians to go to all nations and speak and live effectively.

* As explained later in the chapter, the terms “social” and “cultural” anthropology refer to British and American emphases. Today, the terms are virtually interchangeable, with some graduate programs using the term “sociocultural” to avoid the distinction. “Cultural” will be the term throughout the chapter to refer to this fourth branch of anthropology.



[i] Priest, Robert and Alvaro Nieves, eds. This Side of Heaven: Race, Ethnicity and Christian Faith (Oxford University Press, 2006)

[ii] For an example of this application of physical anthropology to medical and cultural concerns and nutrition, see Dettwyler, Katherine. Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa (Waveland Press, 1993).

[iii] Koff, Clea. The Bone Woman: A Forensic Anthropologist’s Search for Truth in the Mass Graves of Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo (Random House, 2005)

[iv] See Chappell, Dorothy and David E. Cook. Not Just Science: Questions where Christian Faith and Natural Science Intersect. (Zondervan, 2005) 

[v] Collins, Francis. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (The Free Press, 2007)

[vi] See, for instance, Chappell, Dorothy and David E. Cook, eds., Not Just Science: Questions Where Christian Faith and Natural Science Intersect (Zondervan, 2005)

[vii] Liebow, Elliot. Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men, Second Edition (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003)

[viii] See Howell, Brian. Christianity in the Local Context: Southern Baptists in the Philippines (Palgrave, 2008)

[ix] The American Anthropological Association code of ethics can be found at: http://www.aaanet.org/issues/policy-advocacy/Code-of-Ethics.cfm

[x] Sargeant, Winthrop. “It’s All Anthropology,” The New Yorker, Dec. 30, 1961, p.31 ff

[xi] see Clifford, James. Person and Myth: Maurice Leenhardt in the Melanesian World (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992)

[xii] Headland, Thomas and Early, John. Population Dynamics of a Philippine Rainforest People: The Ildefonso Agta (University of Florida Press, 1998)

[xiii] Arnold, Dean. Ceramic Theory and Cultural Process (Cambridge University Press, 1988)

[xiv] See Hirshman, Amy. 2008. Tarascan Ceramic Production and Implication for Distribution. Ancient Mesoamerica. 19(2): 299-310.  Also Meneses, Eloise Hiebert. Love and Revolutions: Market Women and Social Change in India (University Press of America, 2007)


Anthropology in Ministry

The church is more complex today than ever before.  The United States and other countries with traditions of immigration such as Brazil, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, have congregations speaking Spanish, Thai, Haitian Creole and many other languages; these congregations are often among the fastest growing churches. 

It is not enough for Christians to be well intentioned when working to build bridges between culturally diverse believers.          

Peter Cha is a professor of pastoral theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  He used anthropological perspectives and ethnographic fieldwork to understand a question of interest in pastoral theology.

Many first-generation Korean immigrants speak Korean, and want to preserve their culture, language, and ways of honoring family (obedience and submission).  Many second-generation immigrants, however, speak English, are pursuing cultural assimilation, and have redefined Korean Confucian-based family values.  Second-generation Korean immigrants are leaving immigrant churches to form their own churches or to join non-ethnic-specific American churches.

Cha did fieldwork in a Chicago-area Korean immigrant church to keep its second-generation members.  He found that, in this church, Koreans vigilantly engaged with their ethnic culture, but in a creative, adaptive way, not simply in order to preserve the culture as it existed at one time.  People of different generations learned to relate with one another not only spiritually, but culturally as well. 

Anthropology and the Global Church

Lamin Sanneh was born into a Muslim family of Nyanchos, an ancient royal line in the West African country of The Gambia.  As a teenager, reading about Jesus in the Koran intrigued Sanneh and he began a search to understand the man Muslims consider a prophet.  Eventually he gave his life to Christ and, after studying in London, later became Professor of World Christianity at Yale University.

The activation of this “indigenous potential” has spread the church throughout the world.  Although some contexts have remained resistant to the gospel message, throughout sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia, Christianity has grown to become the majority religion.  Today most Christians live outside the We

God blesses cultural diversity by sending His word out in the diverse languages of the world.  God shows us that diversity is not a curse, but a blessing to be encouraged, embraced and enjoyed.  His ultimate plan is to bring unity in diversity as every “nation, tribe, people and language, [will be] standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb [declaring] “Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!” (Rev. 7 : 9-12)           

Anthropology and Missions

Connections between missions and anthropology go back to the very foundations of the discipline[i].  Linguists such as Ken Pike and Eugene Nida were widely respected in anthropological linguistics for their Bible translation and other scholarship.  Later missionary anthropologists such as Paul Hiebert, R. Daniel Shaw, Charles Kraft, Miriam Adeney and Marvin Mayers (among others), served as influential members of the missionary community, writing articles and books that became widely influential in missionary training programs.

Anthropology in mission work focuses largely on cross-cultural communication and the translation of the gospel. Contextualization, along with companion terms such as “indigenization,” “inculturation,” and “accommodation,” refers to fitting the gospel with the language, idioms, customs and traditions of a culture.  While Scripture remains authoritative for Christians everywhere, Christianity—the expression of following Christ—always reflects a cultural context.  The anthropological emphasis on contextualization encourages missionaries and church leaders to allow local believers to listen to the Holy Spirit and express Christian faithfulness in their own culture and history.

Missionary anthropologist Darrell Whiteman tells of a Thai student who, after learning about anthropology and contextualization, “Now that I have been studying contextualization and have discovered how the Gospel relates to culture, I am realizing that I can be both Christian and Thai.”[i]  Many Christians throughout the world once thought that to be Christian was to wear Western clothes, sing European hymns and eat with a fork and spoon.  Paul Hiebert, who spent six years as a missionary in India before earning his Ph.D. in anthropology, wrote, “It is possible for missionaries, like others, to go to another culture as tourists, noticing its strangeness but never entering and identifying with its world.”[i]  Only when we enter anthropologically, he argued, can we “love humans in other cultures as people – to see them as human beings like ourselves.”[i

The Future of Christians in Anthropology

Though God exists outside culture, we do not.  Christians only experience God in specific times and places.  As the church becomes more diverse, different cultural manifestations of Christ’s body are becoming more evident to more Christians.  Globalization brings us into contact with cultural influences of all sorts, Christian and non-Christian.  As the church seeks relevance in the larger culture and hopes to gain from the opportunities of cultural diversity, anthropology should continue to play a role in preparing us for the future.  As Christians study anthropology, they can bring their insights to the wider church and help everyone in the coming changes.

Christians can also contribute to anthropology itself.  There is good reason to believe that the university environment is changing.  As perspectives of various sorts – racial, gender, ethnic, sexual – are acknowledged and even celebrated in the academy, Christians have been able to offer something to the conversation.  Along with other perspectives such as Buddhism and Islam, Christians can gain a seat at the table when they come as well-trained, creative, and skilled scholars while identifying their religious perspective as relevant to their work.

Jesus wasn’t an anthropologist, but his ministry shows why elements of the ethnographic method are so important.  Jesus lived among the people he was trying to reach, sharing their daily lives.  He taught them in locations familiar to them, and addressed the issues and ailments that were important to them.   In this case, Jesus was emotionally moved by the person he encountered, and he reached out to touch him.

NOTE: The Network of Christian Anthropologists is a group that connects Christian anthropologists in collegial relationships and spiritual support. 

[i]  See James Clifford, Person and Myth: Maurice Lienhart in Melanesia (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992).

[i] Darrell Whiteman, “Contextualization: The Theory, the Gap, the Challenge,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 21(1997):1:3

[i] Paul Hiebert, Cultural Anthropology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1982), xxii.  Hiebert uses the word “incarnational” to describe his favored approach to missions.  We substitute the word “anthropological,” which we believe conveys the same intent without the theological problems associated with the term “incarnational” when used to describe a missionary methodology.

[i] Hiebert, Cultural Anthropology, xxii

Jenell Williams Paris is Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at Messiah College, Grantham, PA.  Brian M. Howell is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Wheaton College in Illinois.

Leave a Reply