How do social scientists approach the slippery subject of “reality?”

An image of a woman sitting in a building that appears to be post-modern architecture (an angular, dark building).
Photo by Daniel Mingook Kim on Unsplash.

4.1 Philosophy and Anthropology

Early anthropologists participated in colonial efforts to dominate the globe for Europe’s benefit and, in order to do this, colonial governments were the first to construct human races and to place these races on a hierarchical scale (Kendi 39–40)., Ideas surrounding “The West’’ versus “The Orient” were developed by scholars aiming to support white domination across the globe (Said; Lipsitz). This particular worldview influenced the perspective within which early anthropological research was conducted and published.

Because the first forms of anthropological research and writing were conducted within this context, students of anthropology need a brief introduction to the European philosophical trends that shaped early anthropology. And, we must address the modern philosophical frameworks that anthropologists have utilized to challenge the early narratives of white supremacy in our field. An understanding of how thought has changed over time will best prepare you to engage with the modern anthropological examination of religion.

4.2 The Scientific Method

Let’s begin with the “renaissance” which literally means “rebirth.” The Renaissance was a period of cultural rebirth including scientific and artistic advancement across much of Europe from the 15th-16th centuries. Before The Renaissance, the European mindset largely explained life’s mysteries by focusing on religion (specifically, they primarily sought answers in Christianity and The Bible) (Yu 1).

During The Renaissance, The Scientific Method was developed and rigorously applied as scientists strove to understand much of the natural world. The Scientific Method works in the following steps:

  1. Observe: Scientists observe a phenomenon in the natural world (such as: the spread of disease, the changing of a species, the function of gravity, etc.)
  2. Develop a hypothesis: Scientists develop a “guess” about what might be causing the event to occur. The scientists’ goal is not always to prove that their hypothesis is correct because seeking to exclusively prove the hypothesis as correct would lead to biased results. Rather, a false hypothesis is also very powerful because a false hypothesis can reveal a great deal about the natural world.
  3. Test the hypothesis: Scientists will test their hypothesis through experiments.
  • Scientists seek multiple lines of evidence. We always test the hypothesis in varied ways in order to assure that the findings are true and consistent. For example, we know that evolution happens because we can see some species evolving in our lifetime, we can look at fossil evidence, and we can look at genetic evidence. All of these different lines of evidence point to the same conclusion.
  • Good science requires a huge and diverse body of data that allows the experiments to be replicated and substantiated.
  • Scientists strengthen their findings through peer review: conclusions must be analyzed and critiqued by a body of other scientists who identify any potential failings or shortcomings (this strengthens the research).
  • Draw a conclusion: After observing a huge, diverse body of data using multiple lines of evidence, scientists will develop a scientific theory. Please note, we do not use the word “theory” in the same way that we use it in our everyday lives. Scientific theories are based in fact and a huge body of evidence, but we use the word “theory” because new information can always be discovered to help advance the knowledge even further.

Can a scientific theory be refuted? It’s possible! Scientific theories are always changing as we continue to advance our scientific knowledge. We can change our understanding of the natural world if we discover stronger evidence to support a new understanding (of course, we cannot refute a scientific theory simply based on one sample, or through unproven personal opinion. We can only refute scientific theories with stronger scientific evidence).

4.3 Modernism

The Scientific Method works so well, that the sciences and social sciences embraced the practice fully and expected science to provide the answers to all of life’s burning questions throughout the Renaissance and beyond (Mascia-Lees 95; Stein 10–13; Geertz 1931 1–2; Rivera 4–5). We call this the period of modernity and this understanding of the world viewed science as the means to discover answers for truth, reality, and humanity.

Positivism is the view that empirical (verifiable, provable) facts can be discovered through the scientific method. Anthropologists similarly embraced the positivist worldview of the modern period. Modernism sought to develop “grand theories” about humanity that could be applied to improve the human situation (Kuper 188) and this spirit of research deeply influenced our field. As mentioned above, early anthropologists believed that their cultures were superior to all others (this was the dominating hypothesis for early anthropology and early anthropologists sought to prove it using the scientific method) (Boas 7).

4.4 Science and Religion

If you are a human being (which you are) then you already know that not all elements of human life can be proven or disproven through scientific research and evidence. Religion is the perfect example. Religion, by its very nature, is defined by the faith that human beings have in its truth. Faith requires a lack of evidence to faith. If you were able to prove that your religion was empirically true based on the scientific method, then your religion would cease to be religion and would become a scientific theory. Religion is its method of making sense of the world through observation and experience (Stein 137–138).

However, just because religion cannot be examined through the scientific method, does not mean that it isn’t true. Religions change people’s behaviors, helps communities survive through collective responsibility and caretaking, and can transform the way that adherents literally perceive the world. All of these are very real, tangible, and often measurable outcomes. Religions have real impacts upon life and upon reality.

4.5 Postmodernism

Today, social scientists who study religion understand that not all areas of the human experience can be examined through the scientific method; modern cultural anthropologists are positivists (Kuper 187). We call this new trend and way of thinking “postmodernism” and it was largely defined by the American cultural anthropologists who found themselves living and working in a society that was more diverse than the world had ever seen before (Kuper 186). Within this new context, American cultural anthropologists started to understand that many of our identities are socially constructed and that different identities often lead to different lived experiences.

Postmodern anthropologists focus less on identifying an objective reality and, rather, strive to examine the myriad of subjective realities that human beings and cultures experience. The term “objective” refers to “anything that can be confirmed outside of the senses” and subjective refers to “anything that is perceived differently by different individuals.” (White, 317) Let’s consider the example of color: as you already know, color does not exist independently of your eye’s perception of color. Things do not actually have color but, rather, your eyes create the color so that you can identify the different makeup of the objects around you. Not all humans see the exact same colors (there are different kinds of colorblindness) so color is subjective.

Postmodern thought:

  • Was a late 20th century concept
  • Impacted the sciences, the arts, and architecture
  • Argues that all knowledge is a human construction that we must deconstruct the processes that produce knowledge
  • Argues that everything is determined by our perception
  • Does not embrace the idea of empirical truth
  • Emphasizes the of science (does not deny science’s validity

We can look at two, recent examples in popular culture to illuminate the subjective nature of reality:

  1. I hope you recall the controversy surrounding what we lovingly called, “the dress (Links to an external site.)” in 2015. “The dress” was a photo of a dress hanging in a store; some people saw the dress as black and blue while others saw the dress as gold and white. For most of us, the colors of the dress changed before our very eyes.
  2. In 2018, the “laurel/yanny (Links to an external site.)” controversy emerged. During this time a recording was circulating where a person was trying to record themselves saying the word “laurel” repeatedly but many people heard him saying “yanny” instead. Again, many were arguing over what they heard while many more could actually hear the sounds change if they listened to the recording long enough.

With these two examples, we learned that our very eyes and ears can literally perceive the world differently than others’ eyes and ears. No one is lying about what they are hearing or seeing when they describe “the dress” or the laurel/yanny recording, but we are still having completely different experiences. This is very much how modern anthropologists approach the examination of culture: multiple, seemingly contradictory experiences can exist and all still be “true.”

Let’s look at another example of how “truth” can be tied to perception. Imagine that a friend asks to borrow $5 from you. But, you check your wallet and see that you don’t have any cash. So, you tell your friend, “ I don’t have any cash on me.” Then, later that day, you realize that you had washed a $5 bill in the laundry at some earlier date and that you actually have $5 on you the whole time. Were you telling a “lie” when you refused to give your friend the money? No, it was not a lie but it also wasn’t the . The concepts of “truth” and “lie” are more complex than the binary construct within which we culturally consider them.

4.6 Social Constructs

Symbolic cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz, advanced postmodern thought in anthropology in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and the movement finally took a hold over anthropology across the globe in the 1980’s. Geertz argued that anthropology is akin to semiotics (or, the study of meaning-making) and that we need to closely examine how human beings understand their world. Geertz also argued that the anthropologists, themselves, are steeped in a culturally-specific worldview which will impact their work. We cannot claim to be objective observers but, rather, we are participants in the discourse (dialogue) surrounding the definition and negotiation of culture.

The American anthropologists who embraced and advanced postmodernism moved away from the idea that the human experience could be studied or measured empirically and that, in reality, much of what humans know and believe in are social constructs.

A social construct is anything that human beings believe to be true that isn’t based in natural law. Gendered hair length is an excellent example of this. We may expect women to have long hair on their heads and expect men to have short hair on their heads, but this is not natural, genetic, or biological. Hair length is a social expectation. Men’s genetics do not cause their hair to stop growing at a certain length, rather, men with short hair have to exert a great deal of effort to maintain their short hair by cutting it frequently. Of course, women can — and do — have short hair while men also can — and do — have long hair.

Social constructs have enormous power over our understanding of the world around us causing us to, often, assume that they are actually natural laws. Once, a student mentioned in class that, “I once saw a woman with armpit hair and it was so disgusting I almost threw up.” While his comment was obviously problematic and hurtful to many, it was also quite funny because — of course — most women grow armpit hair! The majority of women’s bodies grow armpit hair, but we’ve so widely applied the expectation that women should armpit hair that some people have forgotten what women’s bodies naturally look like. This is how social constructs function: when everyone strictly conforms to a social construct, it starts to look like a natural law and causes the constructed element of the norm to become invisible to us (Hsu 5).

Anthropology exists within the space of postmodern thought today. As a result, a successful anthropologist must:

  • Be critical of their own role in the results of their research
  • Be aware of their impact on the culture that they are studying (both their in-person influence and on the large-scale power to transform others’ perceptions of the cultures they are studying)
  • Make a particular effort to amplify the voices of those you’re interviewing rather than speak “for” them
  • Make a particular effort to holistically study a culture, this often pushes anthropologists to amplify the voices of marginalized groups (Kuper 188).

4.7 Thick Description

Now that you are introduced to the idea that our belief systems and cultures are constructed, you likely find yourself wondering how, exactly, a cultural anthropologist might study something that is so impossible to nail down as “truth.” This postmodern approach toward the human experience was addressed directly by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz who argued that the most impactful form of cultural anthropology is the study of how human beings create meaning in their lives. Clifford Geertz was a symbolic anthropologist who argued that humans express their value systems through symbolic work, expression, and action. He wrote,

“Sacred symbols function to synthesize a people’s ethos –the tone, character, and quality of their life, its moral and aesthetic style and mood –and their world view –the picture they have of the way things in actuality are, their most comprehensive ideas of order” (Geertz 1973, 89).

According to Clifford Geertz, culture is, “a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which [people] communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life.” (Geertz, 1973, p.89)

Clifford Geertz argued that the anthropologists’ job was to move beyond a basic description of what was literally happening and to, rather, describe what was behind the cultural events and social interactions. Geertz called this practice “thick description” and he argued that it was the opposite of “thin description” which is the literal description of events (Brekhus 862).

Here is an example:

Imagine the last time you were sitting in a classroom as a student. I will analyze that event using both methods.

Thin Description: A group is sitting quietly in seats while one person stands in front of them and yells at them for 1 hour and 20 minutes. When the designated time is up, the people get up and walk out of the room. (Although true, this is obviously not a fair representation of what happens in a classroom.)

Thick Description: A group of people who identify as students are attending this session that is intended to offer knowledge that will help them succeed in their culture. While some participants were brought here involuntarily, others attend the session willingly because they are seeking a better life, more money, or a higher social status by achieving a degree. College attendance is not required in this culture but, rather, symbolizes a certain level of success that not all are able to access. (This description emphasizes the meaning behind the practice and better reflects what’s happening in the community).

Look at the above example of “thick description.” This description becomes more of a narrative than an observation and contains layers of interpretation that include the writers’ particular perspective. Anthropological research and writing typically incorporates narrative elements and vivid language, while remaining aware of the researcher’s own bias and perspective. Remember that you are a human being studying human beings so your emotional experiences and unique worldview should be recognized in your work.

Clifford Geertz argued 4 main points about thick description:

  1. Anthropology is semiotics. In other words, anthropology is the study of meaning-making; we study how humans create meaning in their lives (Geertz, 1973, p.311).
  2. The study of culture is always microscopic. We can never study all humans nor can we even study of a cultural group (consider, for example, how impossible it would be to study “all Christians.”) Rather, we study a very small sampling of a very specific group and we need to recognize that specificity in our work (or else we will overgeneralize). (Geertz, 1973, p.318)
  3. We can study culture by decoding it. Cultures have sets of symbols within them that participants engage with in a variety of contexts. By learning the symbols, we can better understand exactly how the people engage meaningfully with their cultures. (Geertz, 1973, p.312)
  4. Anthropologists will only ever be able to examine extroverted behaviors. In other words, we can only ever observe what people do in public (even an interview is witnessed by you). We can never see what people actually do in private and can therefore never have a complete picture of their culture, beliefs, or behaviors. (Geertz, 1973, p.318)

Geertz argued that all social events are defined by a variety of influences which he calls the “layers of meaning.” When writing your own thick description, it’s essential to consider the multiple layers of meaning including the following:

  1. The actor’s intentions: Whenever we communicate, we intend to convey something to someone else But, because no two people perceive of things in the same way and because we don’t always use words in the same way, we can’t always get across exactly what we mean and our intention is only one piece of the interaction. (Ortner 5)
  2. The recipient’s interpretation: The recipient might be one person or they might be a large group of people. The way the recipient of the information interprets the interaction is equally important to the actor’s intentions.
  3. The observer’s analysis: When we do fieldwork, we bring our own perspectives, biases, and interests to the interactions. When we comment on the events that we observe, we add a layer of meaning on the events. Sally Slocum tells us that “we are human beings studying human beings and we cannot leave ourselves out of the equation.”

Geertz jokingly wrote that the difference between thin and thick description is easy to understand if you’ve ever embarrassed yourself by thinking that someone was winking at you when they were actually just blinking one eye. Blinking an eye is a biological process that we do to moisten our eyeballs whereas winking is a highly symbolic gesture that can convey a variety of meanings. If you’ve ever been embarrassed because you mistakenly thought that someone was winking at you when they were actually just moistening their eyeballs, then you already understand the significant difference between the literal description of something and the symbolic meaning behind it.

4.8 Ancient Civilizations Challenge Our Preconceived Notions of Gender

Elisa Mandell’s, “ ” argues that historians, anthropologists, and other social scientists should avoid gender labels when we try to understand the culture and art of ancient societies that perceived gender in a different way. As our ideas surrounding the gender binary are culturally-specific and generationally-specific, we cannot always interpret the cultural expressions of people from a different time and place using our own, culturally and generationally specific lens. Mandell’s work argues that, as our cultural beliefs evolve over time our understanding of past societies similarly transforms.

Elisa Mandell is an anthropologist and art historian whose work specifically analyzes symbols surrounding The Great Goddess of pre-Columbian Teotihuacan (now modern-day Mexico), also known as the “Teotihuacan Spider Woman”. The Goddess has been a popular topic of research and discussion since her rediscovery in 1972 by archaeologist Alfonso Caso. With an affiliation to the study of the Olmecs and his own Mexican heritage, Caso played an integral role in uncovering this mystery. The Goddess appears on multiple surfaces, such as homes and important buildings, proudly displaying her elegant headdress covered in multicolored zigzag patterns. With her arms stretched wide and water dripping from her fingertips, she seems to represent birth and nurturing (Mandell). However, she is also surrounded by spiders, with a noticeable nose pendant and a variety of other features that continue to baffle scientists, as those attributes are always found on deities. While some believe that this entity is actually an expression of multiple deities, Columbia University professor Esther Pasztory was the first to argue that the “goddess” may not be female at all — or male, for that matter (Pasztory). In Pasztory’s view, we must move beyond the binary construction of gender in order to understand this deity.

Over the past fifty years, anthropologists have hotly debated the gender of this religious figure. Bouncing back and forth between male and female, history has settled on “goddess” solely due to the modern ideas of the outward appearance of this deity (Pasztory). The reasons why it’s challenging to settle on a particular gender for this deity can be attributed to our own understanding of the generationally-specific and culturally-specific construction of gender. As each anthropologist and archeologist comes, themselves, from a particular culture with a particular worldview about gender, we can see the anthropologists’ own perspective in their analysis of the evidence. And, of course, archeologists and linguists still only know a small sampling of this ancient language which limits our ability to understand the complete picture.

Mayan societies typically clarify whether a hero or figure is meant to be masculine or feminine by sculpting the genitalia or including something telling that would help the viewer determine the sex. On some occasions, when no distinction is made between male or female, the Mayans typically left some type of documentation that explained why the deity or figure’s gender was left ambiguous. However, in Teotihuacan’s case, no such distinction was made. So, how do anthropologists decide which gender the deity of Teotihuacan is?

First, the anthropologist must ask: which genders exist? In his article for , author Jay Miller writes a piece titled “Changing Ones: Third And Fourth Genders In Native North America” Miller explains that while it is widely accepted in Western societies that there are only two genders, male and female, there are a plethora of societies that see gender as nonlinear and fluid. Consider some of the following examples:

  • Miller’s research addresses Native American Lakota culture’s concept of two-spirit or a person who embodies both gender identities
  • Indian culture recognized a third gender called “Hijra” which can be expressed with a mix of gendered characteristics
  • Traditional, rural Albanian cultures recognized a gender called “Burneshas” whereby people who were born female can completely transition to the male identity and can subsequently benefit from male privilege
  • Traditional Hawaiian culture historically acknowledged a blended gender identity called “mahu: wherein which, individuals can float between male and female and do not feel the need to conform to one or the other
  • The Muxe in Mexico are a group of gay men who date heterosexual men whose masculinity is not threatened by dating a Muxe
  • The Bakla in the Philippines who are assigned the male gender at birth, but feel more comfortable living more on the “female” end of the spectrum where they are not considered homosexual

Anthropologists also consider the traditional division of labor when grappling with the gender of Teotihuacan (and, as the division of labor changes from culture to culture, so does Teotihuacan’s gender). Men and women had some separate roles in Teotihuacan society, and some of these roles loosely reflect our modern gender roles. But, the division of labor was culturally cemented in the 19th and early 20th century European and American societies and, during this time, the discrimination of feminine men and masculine women became the norm (Hill 2006). These ideas, whether subtle or not, certainly affected the way that researchers looked at a Mayan society. And, of course, this biased decision-making can lead to incorrect information.

Finally, one of the main reasons why it is so difficult for anthropologists to distinguish the gender of this deity and what they represent is due to the overwhelming amount of evidence that this particular figure is both masculine and feminine. According to Columbia State University professor Esther Pasztory, symbols like the owl, the zigzag patterns in the headband, and the people underneath that all represent darkness are contradicted by the water, the spiders, and the trees that all represented a feminine energy (Pasztory). These symbols also make it increasingly harder to determine what the deity represents exactly as they have been seen depicted with some of the items of the time but never all of them, all the time.

Columbia State University professor Esther Paszorty has researched this deity at length. While this deity remains a mysterious figure, modern anthropologists still strive to place the religious figure into a female male category. What clear, however, is that the divine being of Teotihuacan represented many things to the people. This deity did not need to be just the goddess of water or Earth for them, but more fittingly, represented creation and destruction, light and dark. In other words, Teotihuacan seems to be a little bit of everything, for everyone.

As modern anthropologists are able to engage with this social expansion of gender fluidity and more genders become more and more prevalent, the influence appears in the work done at these archeological sites. By embracing diverse cultural attitudes toward the construction of gender, we can better engage with the meaning behind archaeological finds. Consider, for example, the Ancient Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. As pharaohs of this era were believed to be divine beings, Akhenaten’s artistic representations became increasingly non-gender-conforming throughout this lifetime. By presenting himself as encompassing all identities upon the gender spectrum, Akhenaten was able to approach more divine characteristics. In our modern world, Hijras in Indian culture are considered to be closer to the divine precisely because they embody both the male and female spirit (in a belief system that the divine is both male and female).

Compared to the societies mentioned thus far in this chapter, the Euro-American gender binary is uniquely strict. What can the Euro-American religious tradition tell us about these gendered ideas? According to Biblical scholar, Meg Warner, the Abrahamic idea of gender stems from the first story told — Adam and Eve. This Abrahamic story of creation purports that the first human, Adam, was created in God’s image and that a second gender was created after. Interestingly enough, Warner argues that the Hebrew word used (a-d-m) was roughly translated to “Adam” in English, but stems from the word which means “earth”; leaving Adam, essentially, genderless (Warner 2019). As the majority of anthropological research was, at first, steeped in the European colonial traditions that placed people, religions, and cultural practices on a hierarchical scale, it’s understandable that this strict gendered binary was applied in archeological research and interpretation. But, by engaging with a more complete spectrum of gender identity allows modern archaeologists and anthropologists the opportunity to interpret cultural beliefs more accurately.

4.9 Vaccine Hesitancy

Before continuing, please read and take notes on the following material:



Clifford, James, et al. Writing Culture: the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography; a School of American Research Advanced Seminar. University of California Press, 2011.

Geertz, Clifford. Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture, 2020, pp. 310–323., doi:10.4324/9781315022086–50.

Hill, Darryl. 2006. “‘ ”.14 (2): 145–159. doi:10.3149/jms.1402.145.

Kendi, Ibram X. . Random House Large Print, 2020.

Kuper, Adam. Anthropology and Anthropologists — The Modern British School. Routledge, 1996.

Lancy, David F. The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings. Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Lipsitz, George. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. Temple University Press, 1998.

Mascia-Lees, Frances E. Gender & Difference in a Globalizing World: Twenty-First Century Anthropology. Waveland Press, 2010.

Miller, Jay. 1999. “. Will Roscoe”. 55 (1): 160–162. doi:10.1086/jar.55.1.3630989.

Pasztory, Esther 1973 “ .1:147–159. Casa Editrice Tillgher-Genova S.A.S., Genova, Italy.

Stein, Philip, Rebecca Frank, and Brian Pierson. “Anthropometry of the Human Body.” Lab Manual to Accompany Anthropology 111: Laboratory in Human Biological Evolution. 4th ed., 2015, pp. 77–84.

Stein, Rebecca. Anthropology of Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft. 3rd Ed.

Stocking, George W. Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1997.

Welsch, Robert Louis, and Luis A. Vivanco. Cultural Anthropology Asking Questions about Humanity. Oxford University Press, 2015.

Whitaker, Robin & Warner, Meg. 2019. “God made the rainbow: why the Bible welcomes a gender spectrum”. .

Yu, Jenny. “The Influence of Renaissance and Religious Reform on the Development of Music and Art Style.” Proceedings of the 2016 International Conference on Humanities and Social Science, 2016, doi:10.2991/hss-26.2016.76.



This is part of “Beliefs: An Open Invitation to the Anthropology of Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion.” This chapter is written by Amanda Zunner-Keating with significant contributions from Angelica Alvarado; recorded by Amanda Zunner-Keating for Los Angeles Valley College. Edited by Oscar Hernández for Los Angeles Valley College. Photo by Daniel Mingook Kim on Unsplash. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Cultural Anthropologist in Los Angeles

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store