Glossary of Key Terms in Cultural Anthropology

Updated March 2, 2021
hands holding up planet
    hands holding up planet
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Cultural anthropology is the study of how humans form and maintain a culture. It examines how people’s beliefs and ways of life determine how they organize a society. Before you can truly delve into the field, read through these cultural anthropology terms to better acquaint yourself with this branch of anthropology.

Glossary of Cultural Anthropology

Cultural anthropology is one of the four branches of anthropology. Also known as social anthropology, this branch explores human existence through cultural traditions and social structures. Some of the various topics of cultural anthropology include: culture, society and social organization, family and kinship, ethnography and ethnology, political systems, economic systems, religions and ideologies, and anthropological methodology.


Culture Terms

Every person is born into a native culture. But unless they only interact with other members of that culture, they are likely to encounter characteristics of multiple cultures throughout their lifetime. Check out these terms that describe one’s relationship with their own culture and other cultures:

  • acculturation – process that occurs when one culture adopts traits and traditions from another culture
  • assimilation – process by which a smaller, minority culture adopts the cultural attributes of a larger, majority culture, effectively blending in
  • colonialism – system in which a dominant culture creates colonies in a foreign land, resulting in their domination of the native culture
  • cultural universals – cultural traits shared by all humans (e.g. communication, reproduction, classification)
  • culture – a group’s shared behavior and beliefs that are learned, patterned, adaptive, and symbolic
  • cultural construct – a society’s tendency to attribute characteristics to social categories (e.g. gender, age, education level)
  • culture death or extinction – disappearance of a culture due to acculturation, assimilation, or genocide
  • culture shock – distress caused by one’s inability to quickly adapt to a new culture, or by a large discrepancy between one’s cultural values and their surrounding environment
  • enculturation – becoming acclimated to one’s native culture through exposure and teaching
  • endemic – problems or diseases that are always present in a culture or community
  • fusion – combining traits from two different cultures to create a new experience
  • genocide or ethnocide – one society’s attempt to kill all members of a particular culture to cause culture death
  • internalization of the moral code – one’s ability to regulate their own behavior based on their acceptance of society’s expectations, rather than requiring outside parties to control their behavior
  • multiculturalism – society that includes many different cultures that are only partially assimilated to a dominant culture (as opposed to a melting pot)
  • mythology – traditional story that explains a culture’s origin, core values, or everyday phenomena
  • rites of passage – formative events that occur at transition points in one’s life.
  • rituals – reoccurring traditions in a society that reinforce social norms
  • subculture – a smaller group within a larger culture that shares their own cultural attributes
  • transculturation – the process of an individual adopting a new culture

Society and Social Organization Terms

Much of cultural anthropology revolves around how societies work. Anthropologists learn a lot from studying a society’s power structure and norms. Explore some key concepts that relate to society and social organization.

  • acephalous society – Greek for “without a head;” society in which there is no institutionalized leadership
  • achieved status – societal status that one acquires with positive or negative behaviors
  • age grades or age sets – groups of people in a culture who are the same age (e.g. teenagers, senior citizens)
  • ascribed status – societal status that one receives at birth (e.g. socioeconomic status, sex, birth order, etc.)
  • band – culture primarily defined by kinship and family, not social hierarchy
  • caste system – a rigid societal hierarchy in which one’s ascribed status indicates what rights and privileges they can enjoy and whom they can socialize with
  • chiefdom – society with one leader (chief or paramount chief) who has complete authority
  • class stratification – societal hierarchy based on socioeconomic status
  • developed society – relatively wealthy society with high levels of industrialization in which most citizens have regular access to resources
  • developing society or underdeveloped society – relatively poor society in which most citizens do not have regular access to resources
  • division of labor – the way a society divides jobs among people based on the society’s needs, abilities, and values
  • egalitarian society – society in which everyone has equal rights, including political and economic rights
  • heterogeneous society – society made up of different cultural groups with varied ethnicities and cultures
  • homogeneous society – society primarily made up of one shared ethnicity and culture
  • large-scale society – a complex and interconnected society that includes industrialized cities and an international economy
  • latent functions – unintended or unforeseen functions that arise from social actions
  • manifest functions – intended and foreseen functions that arise from social actions
  • matriarchy – society that is controlled by women and mother figures
  • nomadism – social group that migrates across geographic boundaries by following the seasons
  • oligarchy – society run by a select group of wealthy individuals
  • patriarchy – society that is controlled by men and father figures
  • power – one’s ability to influence others to act
  • role – one’s responsibility in a society as it relates to other people
  • small-scale society – a small, usually agrarian society that doesn’t contain an international economy or interconnected government
  • social network – relationships between an individual and others in society, including family members, friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and other groups
  • socialization – the process by which one learns the rules, norms, and expectations of their society by interacting with peers
  • society – a group of humans who interact with each other and share certain norms and expectations
  • status – one’s position within a societal structure
  • tribe – large bands led by a headsman and joined by common interest and need
  • warfare – organized feuding that involves violent combat and occurs between national armies

Behavior and Communication Terms

The way humans behave in a society is set by social norms. This behavior can include the way people interact with each other, communicate, and perceive their own actions. Browse some examples of behavioral and communication terms from cultural anthropology.

  • actual behavior – what people are actually doing in their daily lives, which might be different than what they should be doing or what they believe they are doing
  • adaptive mechanism – behavior that allows a person to adjust and survive in a new environment
  • believed behavior – behavior that people think they are doing, rather than what they are actually doing or should be doing
  • body language or kinetics – nonverbal communication that includes one’s gestures and expressions
  • deviance – straying from (or violating) social norms
  • dialect – a regional language variant shared by members of a local society
  • ethics – a society’s definitions of what behaviors and beliefs are right and wrong
  • ideal behavior – behavior that a culture expects
  • feuding – long-standing aggression within or between social groups, often marked by fighting and/or retribution
  • ideal behavior – behavior that people believe they should be doing, rather than what they’re actually doing or believe that they’re doing
  • language – a culture’s patterns and rules for communicating via speech
  • modal behavior – behavior that is most common in a society
  • modal personality – personality type that is most common in a society
  • worldview – one’s perspective and opinions based on internalized social norms, beliefs, and expectations

Family and Kinship Terms

When examined on a smaller scale, almost every culture is made up of families. Kinship describes the relationship between individuals within a family system. Keep these terms in mind when studying family and kinship in cultural anthropology.

  • affinity or affinal link – a link created by marriage that establishes kinship
  • arranged marriage – process in which families’ selection of a marriage partner does not typically involve the future bride or groom’s choice or approval
  • clan – group of people with the same distant ancestor (known as a totum)
  • consanguinity or consanguineal link – biological link that dictates a family’s kinship
  • descent – social and biological links between ancestors and their descendants
  • ego – the main individual in a kinship diagram
  • endogamy – marriage selection process in which the new spouse must be from a particular social group
  • exogamy – marriage selection process in which the new spouse cannot be from a particular social group
  • extended family – families that are connected by links of descent and that share some ancestors
  • fictive kinship – family-like bonds based on friendship rather than biological kinship
  • genealogy – a record of a family’s ancestors, descendants, and bonds of kinship
  • household – group of people who share the same house and are usually members of the same family
  • incest taboo – societal rule that disallows sexual intercourse with one’s family members
  • in-law – member of a spouse’s family
  • kindred – every member of one’s family, including all consanguineal and affinal links
  • kinship – relationships between people who are culturally, biologically, and socially connected
  • lineage – path of descent links between descendents and a common ancestor
  • marriage – union of two or more spouses that is recognized by society
  • monogamy – marriage that is limited to two spouses at a time
  • nodes – people in one’s social network
  • nuclear family or family of orientation – family structure that includes two parents and their children
  • polygamy – marriage of one spouse to many different spouses
  • siblings – children from the same parents; brothers and sisters
Mexican cultural event with piñata
    Mexican cultural event with piñata
    aldomurillo / E+ / Getty Images
    Used under Getty Images license

Ethnography and Ethnology

A culture’s treatment of race and ethnicity can be very informative to its anthropology. If you’ve ever gotten ethnography and ethnology mixed up, you might want to take a look at these important terms.

  • apartheid – segregation of non-white individuals from economic, political, and social opportunities
  • discrimination – act of showing preference or rejection to a group of people based on a specific attribute
  • ethnic group – group of people with shared physical and cultural attributes, defined by their ethnicity
  • ethnocentrism – belief that one’s culture is superior to others
  • ethnography – researched study on a particular culture
  • ethnology – researched study that compares similar cultures
  • indigenous – a group of people who are native to an area
  • ingroup-outgroup – dynamics within and between cultures that prohibit communication and acculturation
  • majority group – ethnic group with the largest population and greatest political power in a society
  • melting pot – heterogeneous society in which new members assimilate to the dominant culture
  • minority group – ethnic group that has a smaller population and less political power in a society
  • prejudice – the process of making a biased judgment about a person or event before knowing more information
  • race – ethnic group with distinguishing biological characteristics that differ from other races
  • racism – form of prejudice based on negative presumptions about a person based on their race
  • stereotype – a negative misconception of a group of people on which one may base prejudice or discrimination

Political and Legal System Terms

Cultures maintain their own norms and expectations with structured legislation. These political and legal systems not only keep the social system running, they reinforce these norms to the society as a whole. Discover important political and legal terms in cultural anthropology.

  • adjudication – legal decision based on a third party’s decision rather than a jury verdict
  • bureaucracy – system of administration in which specific individuals or groups carry out needed tasks
  • common law – unofficial law that is part of the cultural tradition and upheld as strictly as a written law
  • crime – behavior that deviates from a culture’s norms and accepted values
  • equity – societal agreement that its institutions are fair
  • globalism – a worldwide economic and political system in which societies look beyond their own needs and toward a global good
  • imperialism – political and economic control of a dominant culture after taking over other cultures
  • informal negative sanction – nonlegal consequence for deviating from a social norm, usually implemented by other members of society (e.g. loss of friendship, public shaming, disowning)
  • law – formal rules that mandate a society’s norms and regulate punishments for breaking those norms
  • nationalism – a nationwide economic and political system that primarily looks out for the nation’s interests, often to the exclusion or expense of other nations
  • negative sanction – a formal, legal punishment for deviating from a social norm
  • norms or social norms – behaviors that are deemed appropriate and typical by society
  • politics – structure that regulates power over resources and people
  • positive sanction – formal reward for behavior that conforms to the social norms
  • tort – crime committed against an individual, not a larger society
  • tribalism – loyalty to one’s culture or tribe rather than a nationalist or globalist approach
swearing in a witness in courtroom
    swearing in a witness in courtroom
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    Used under Getty Images license

Economy and Economic Terms

How does a culture distribute its good and services? Does it value reciprocity? See how much you can tell about a culture’s values by learning more about its economy with these economic terms.

  • balanced reciprocity – economic exchange with a fair return (e.g. bartering, purchasing with money)
  • bartering – exchanging goods and services without money
  • capital – asset that provides ongoing commerce beyond a one-time exchange
  • commerce – buying and selling of goods and services within and between market economies
  • commodity – an economic good
  • dumb barter – barter system that does not involve direct contact between the traders
  • generalized reciprocity – economic exchange without the need for a fair return (e.g. gifts, donations)
  • general purpose money – a society’s form of currency used for any economic exchange
  • market economy – system of exchange based on the use of money and capital for needed goods and services
  • money – currency that can be exchanged for goods and services
  • negative reciprocity – economic exchange in which one party attempts to receive something they value by trading a less valuable commodity
  • non-market economy – system of exchange based on maintaining a society’s food supply and sustenance rather than the use of money and capital
  • reciprocity – exchange of goods or services between people that is mutually beneficial
  • redistributive exchange – exchange that aims to redistribute wealth among the rest of society
  • special purpose money – a society’s form of currency used for particular economic exchanges
  • systems of distribution and exchange – the way a society distributes goods and services from and to its people
  • systems of production – the way a society produces food and other resources
  • utility – value received by goods, services, and exchanges

Religion and Ideological Terms

Laws and economic structures may demonstrate a culture’s ethics, but nothing explicitly states cultural values like its connection to the spiritual world. Here are some important terms to know when studying a culture’s religion and ideology.

  • animatism – belief in a non-specific supernatural power
  • animism – belief that spirits control and animate natural objects, such as rocks, trees, plants, etc
  • core values – fundamental shared beliefs that mandate a society’s laws, behavioral expectations, and desirable attributes
  • cult – religious group that follows a prophet and does not adhere to the values of their larger society
  • curer – magical healer
  • deity – supernatural being who is more powerful than a spirit and is worshiped by members of a religion; also known as gods or goddesses
  • guru – spiritual master or teacher
  • magic – result of ritualistic practices that compel or influence supernatural figures to act
  • monotheism – belief in only one deity
  • otiose deity – deity who created the universe according to a culture’s folklore, but is now generally uninvolved in human affairs
  • polytheism – belief in more than one deity
  • priest – leader of a religious organization
  • prophet – person who receives messages from a deity, often which conflict with the messages of established religions and priests
  • religion – structured belief system in which participants worship supernatural beings
  • secular – non-religious objects, people, beliefs, or events
  • shaman – religious mystic who exists outside of an organized religion and contacts spirits directly
  • sorcery – power provided by evil spirits
  • spirit – supernatural being who does not have as much power or influence as a deity
  • witchcraft – act of doing magic in order to harm another person

Anthropological Methodology Terms

Whether you’re a budding ethnographer or a beginning anthropology student, it’s important to know key anthropological terms that describe the field’s methodology. Here are some key concepts that you’ll need to know before embarking on your first ethnographic study.

  • academic anthropology – anthropology taught at colleges and universities
  • applied anthropology – using anthropological knowledge in practical applications with specific societies or cultures
  • archeology – study of past human behavior via cultural or biological remains
  • autoethnography – an ethnographic study completed by a member of the culture being studied
  • biological anthropology or physical anthropology – study of non-cultural attributes of humans (e.g. biological evolution, biological diversity, genetic inheritance, environmental adaptations)
  • comparative methods – comparing similarities and differences between cultures to form an analysis
  • cultural relativity – interpreting a culture’s values and behaviors without making judgments under the bias of one’s own culture
  • emic categories – creating categories based on the way a studied society categorizes their experiences
  • etic categories – applied one’s familiar categories of understanding to another culture
  • fieldwork – a researcher’s experience living among a group of people from the culture they are studying
  • holistic approach – belief that human existence is best understood as a whole rather than in individual experiences
  • informant – member of a studied culture who reports out to an ethnographer
  • judgment sample – selected group of people within an anthropological case study or ethnography who can inform the researcher based on their cultural knowledge and expertise
  • linguistics or linguistic anthropology – study of the function and structure of languages
  • participant observation – the act of an anthropologist or ethnographer actively participating in the society they are studying in order to learn more about it
  • probability sample – selected group of people within an anthropological case study or ethnography who represent an entire population or culture
  • random sample – selected group of people within an anthropological case study or ethnography chosen at random
  • stratified sample – selected group of people within an anthropological case study or ethnography from different social subgroups

The Importance of Cultural Traditions

Cultural anthropology is an important, informative, and interesting discipline that will take you on a journey to practices and traditions of the past. Students of cultural anthropologists study the significance of all aspects of a particular culture, including cultural traditions and folklore. Take a look at different types of folklore around the world with several examples.