Chapter 4: Postmodern Thought

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.

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).

  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.

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.

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 be 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 own method of making sense of the world through observation and experience (Stein 137–138).

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 not 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.

  • 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 limitations of science (does not deny science’s validity
  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.

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.

  • 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,

  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 every single member 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)
  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.”

4.8 Ancient Civilizations Challenge Our Preconceived Notions of Gender

Written by Angelica Alvarado

  • 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

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.


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.



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
Amanda Zunner-Keating

Amanda Zunner-Keating

Cultural Anthropologist in Los Angeles