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October 1976 · Vol. 5 No. 4 · pp. 29–30 

Book Review

Cultural Anthropology

Paul G. Hiebert. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1976. 476 pages.

Reviewed by James N. Pankratz

There are many introductory cultural anthropology texts available, and the variety of styles, methods, and emphases which they represent make it possible for an instructor to choose a text which seems especially relevant methodologically and topically. If a new text is to find acceptance and even wide use, it will almost certainly be because it uses a method which is helpful and has a focus which is timely.

Paul Hiebert’s Cultural Anthropology is an attractive, useful, and stimulating book which should be widely used. Most of the book deals with the themes which are inevitably the standard content of an introductory cultural anthropology course. There are discussions of the material context of social life, forms of subsistence, roles and relationships, social groups, organizations and institutions, systems of meaning, symbolism and communication, and socio-cultural change. These discussions are, necessarily, introductory and suggestive; what is especially noticeable about them, however, is the way in which they are used to generate questions about human life and about anthropology as a disciplined way of studying human life.

Hiebert’s doctoral dissertation at the University of Minnesota about a south-Indian village has been published under the title Konduru. He taught for seven years at Bethany College in Hyderabad, India; at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas; Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno; and Kansas State University; and is currently professor of anthropology at the University of Washington in Seattle. He was a Fulbright scholar in India in 1974-75.

Hiebert’s discussions of anthropology as a way of understanding human life are well-balanced. He stresses that the strength of anthropology is its willingness to examine all aspects of culture. He then warns that there are at least two major interpretive dangers which can result when analytical models are used to help conceptualize culture. On the one hand, models can be multiplied without being adequately related to each other (stratigraphic approach); on the other hand, all models may be interpreted by a single model (reductionism). Hiebert suggests that these two errors result from not taking the relatedness of culture seriously enough and from not taking the complexity of culture seriously enough.

The discussion of anthropological theories is introduced in a discussion of housing and clothing (material culture). Because the discussion is based upon aspects of culture which are so familiar, the theoretical discussion develops easily, almost unnoticed. Yet it is a sound and helpful survey of the strengths and weaknesses of functionalist and evolutionary models of society.

Throughout the book, the focus is on communication. In his discussion of communication and symbolism Hiebert describes the sender, the message, and the receiver, pointing out how complex the process of encoding and decoding is, both verbally and non-verbally. In the discussion of status and role Hiebert again focuses primarily on communication, illustrating the confusion which results when the communication of status and role is {30} inadequate. Hiebert shows considerable awareness of how change within cultures and contact between cultures affects communication.

Hiebert’s own communication skills are considerable. His presentation is greatly strengthened by his use of figures. Not only are these visual aids used frequently, they are also used very effectively to diagram a theme which the text has described. Some figures are illustrative; others, such as kinship groupings, are the common technical shorthand of anthropology. Most of the figures are so apt that they require little explanation.

There are numerous ethnographic references in the book, and they are chosen from our own culture, from other highly institutionalized cultures, and from preliterate cultures. That is appropriate for a book which tries, above all, to help its readers understand who they are, who others are, and what is involved in developing this understanding through the discipline of anthropology.

Dr. James N. Pankratz
Assistant Professor of Religion
Mennonite Brethren Bible College
Winnipeg, Manitoba

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