Since the discipline emerged in the nineteenth century, anthropology has developed in two quite distinct directions:
- Physical Anthropologists focus on patterns of biological and genetic diversity
amongst Homo sapiens, whilst
- Social and Cultural Anthropologists focus on man-made patterns of human diversity.
To be more precise, the principal concern of the latter teases out the logic of the conceptual premises that actors within any given arena deploy to order their behaviour and, above all, their social interactions with one another. A central concern of the discipline is to explore the way in which these premises routinely condition everyday patterns of behaviour in all social contexts.
Culture – the central concern of social anthropologists – is a phenomenon closely akin to language. The main purpose of both is to facilitate communication. Just as human beings cannot communicate verbally without using a linguistic code of some sort, so we cannot communicate behaviourally without using a cultural code of some sort. Such codes do not determine the significance of our speech or our behaviour, but they comprehensively condition it.
Cultural competence, like linguistic competence, is a learned skill: it is not genetically imprinted. Nor is it singular in character. Just as those who are exposed to a multiplicity of languages readily become bi- or multi-lingual, so those exposed to a multiplicity of cultural codes can readily develop – if they so wish – the capacity to order their behaviour according to a variety of cultural premises.
Cultural and social plurality
Few societies of any size are entirely culturally homogeneous. Most are culturally plural in some sense. The United Kingdom is by definition a culturally plural state, and in recent years that condition of plurality has been amplified sharply by long-distance immigration from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. This has led to the emergence of a multitude of what can best be described as ethnic colonies in the heart of most of Britain’s cities. Within these, settlers and their offspring have made substantial efforts to reproduce the cultural premises of their homelands, particularly, or by no means exclusively, within familial domestic and domestic contexts. As in most other contemporary societies, the British social order is now significantly ethnically plural.
Anthropology is gaining a new lease of life in such contexts. Once upon a time its practitioners were concerned primarily with exploring the lifestyles of the residents of distant tropical lands, leaving sociologists and psychologists to study what was happening ‘back home’. In the face of globalisation, that (analytically meaningless) dichotomy has collapsed. Anthropologists now have as much, if not more, to contribute to the understanding of ‘us’ as opposed to ‘them’.
In the legal context…
All this has great significance in legal contexts.
- How is ‘reasonable behaviour’ to be understood in the context of a plural society?
- Do concepts such as family, marriage, kinship, infidelity, divorce, honour and so forth have the same meaning in all cultural contexts?
- Should the courts take cognisance of these diversities? If so how?
Anthropologists cannot provide answers to these questions. However, they can prepare expert reports on the underlying issues on the basis of which the courts can begin to resolve these conundrums on a more informed and equitable basis.
First, find your anthropologist
At present, the great majority of anthropologists are employed as academics. By no means all take an interest in applied issues of this kind, but there is a growing level of interest in this field. There are two UK-based professional associations for anthropologists:
- the Royal Anthropological Institute () and
- the more specialist Association of Social Anthropologists ().