From the beginnings of anthropology in the mid 19th century, researchers have tried to classify the cultures of the world in a meaningful way.  They have sought to develop categories of cultures that would help explain a wide range of behavior patterns.  However, initial attempts at doing this were not very useful.

  19th century print of two Korean men 19th century print of two Australian Aboriginal women
19th century European stereotype of "primitives"
(left: Koreans; right: Australian Aborigines)

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the educated public in Europe and North America generally divided the world's people into two categories--primitive and civilized.  This fell far short of describing the full range of differences between cultures.  It was also prejudicial and very misleading.  It generally emphasized technological and social characteristics.  For instance, a society was considered primitive if its people did not wear much clothing, did not have elaborate machinery, and practiced polygamy.  In other words, if people were very different from Europeans, they were considered primitive.  This ignored the fact that some of the so-called primitive peoples had complex social systems and religions.

Late 19th century anthropologists, such as Edward B. Tylor in England and Lewis Henry Morgan in the United States, developed classification schemes that were only slight refinements over the primitive-civilized distinction made by non-anthropologists.  Their systems included three main categories of cultures--savages, barbarians, and civilized peoples.  While each of these categories was sub-divided into smaller ones in order to be more precise, this was still a naive, simplistic, and quite ethnocentric click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced approach due to the fact that it was largely based on a comparison with European cultures.

By the 1930's, enough first hand ethnographic click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced data about the cultures of the world had been gathered for anthropologists to understand that there is a better way of categorizing them.  They based their distinctions primarily on differences in subsistence patterns--i.e., sources and methods a society uses to obtain its food and other necessities.  This focus on economic differences proved to be useful because much of the rest of a culture is directly related to its economy.  If you know what the subsistence base is, it is possible to predict many of the other basic cultural patterns.  There is a surprisingly high positive correlation between the type of economy and such things as population sizes and densities, social and political systems, scale of warfare, and complexity of science, mathematics, and technology.  Using this approach, anthropologists divided the cultures of the world into four basic subsistence types:

1.   Foraging click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced (hunting and gathering wild plants and animals)
2.  Pastoralism click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced (herding large domesticated animals)
3. Horticulture pronounce word (small-scale, low intensity farming)
4. Intensive agriculture click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced (large-scale, intensive farming)

This classification system is still used in anthropology today due to its usefulness for understanding human cultural diversity.  However, the last category, intensive agriculture, is sometimes nuanced by expanding it to include 20th and 21st century industrial and post-industrial economic systems.


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This page was last updated on Wednesday, June 21, 2006.
Copyright 2001-2005 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
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