September 29 2018

Ken Barger
Professor Emeritus of Anthropology
Indiana University Indianapolis


A snowmobile race sponsored by the Inuit (Eskimo) community council in a village on the Hudson's Bay in the Canadian Arctic, Christmas 1969. Inuit friends urged me to join in a snowshoe race across the river ice, but, knowing I was inexperienced at this, I was reluctant to participate. They persisted, however, and, recognizing that they wanted me to be involved, I agreed. Of course, I was the last one to return, way behind everyone else in the race. I was very embarrassed, but to my surprise, people came up to me and congratulated me, saying, "You really tried!" A month later, when I was on a caribou hunting trip with three Inuit men in a remote area, we got trapped by a winter storm and had to go several days without food. This was when I learned that trying was much more important than winning. While the Inuit like to win, their greater value on trying has a distinct adaptive function. One way anthropologists learn about other cultures is "participant observation," being involved in their daily life, watching what they do, and doing what they do. We seek to learn the meanings and (more important) the functions of their ways. We Are also involved in "cross-cultural comparison," comparing their life experiences with other groups (mostly our own). In the case of the snowshoe race, I learned about Inuit values on trying, but I also learned about American values on competition and winning.

There are several key concepts involved in Science and Anthropology which we will use throughout the course to help us better understand the human experience. Students should print and bring this summary of Core Concepts to every class, and are expected to regularly review and be able to use these concepts in class discussions.

Principles for Understanding Natural Phenomena

Science often seems abstract and beyond the reach of most people in their daily lives, but we have all have to develop our understandings of Life and the Universe as we grow every day of every year. Following the basic principles of science can help us develop more valid, reliable, balanced, and predictive understandings of life around us. Some of the basic ideas about science that we can all use include:

The basic scientific method is controlled comparison. As we compare similarities and differences across phenomena, we can determine what relationships and influences exist in life events, and also which suspected or perceived ones are not valid. The basic ethnological method is cross-cultural comparison, as we compare different cultural patterns in order to determine what factors influence the human experience.

Valid and balanced understandings are based on recognition and control of biases (rather than the absence of biases) as we ask questions, gather relevant information, identify relationships and influences, and make and support predictive interpretations about life events and issues.

The types of biases that influence how valid, reliable, and balanced our understandings are include:

Biases enter into all of our understandings, from our perspectives on what we are seeking to learn and in the questions we ask, the information with which we have to work, the interpretations we make, and the judgements we make throughout the learning process.

The principles of science that all of us can use to develop more valid and balanced understandings of life events and issues include:

Grounded scientific understandings are based on knowing what we do not know
And keeping what we do know in the context of what we do not know

  • In gathering relevant, valid, and balanced information
  • In analyzing relationships and influences
  • In making interpretations and supporting conclusions

    With this awareness, we can maximize our chances for obtaining more valid and reliable information, for making grounded interpretations, and, perhaps most important, qualifying our interpretations to acknowledge where they are and are not relevant.

    Principles for Understanding Evolution of Life Forms

    Humans are only one of the millions of life forms on earth. Where do we stand in the natural order of things? Have we evolved beyond other life forms? Do other life forms and natural resources exist for our sole use? Are we separate from Nature and able to control our destiny? Or are we a part of Nature, and subject to the natural laws of the Universal systems around us?

    Some concepts in Evolution can help us to better understand our place in Nature, including:

    Principles for Understanding the Reorganization of Interacting Systems

    The concept of adaptation provides many insights into understanding the driving forces that initiate and direct morphological and behavioral changes on Earth, including changes among humans around the world today.

    Principles for understanding the process of adaptation include:


    Principles for Understanding Ethnic Behavior

    The concept of culture is a major perspective in Anthropology for understading human behavior, and provides many insights into understanding the wide range of ethnic behavior we can observe around the world.

    Principles for understanding the integrated natural of cultural behavior include:

    Principles for Understanding Our Misunderstanding

    One of the most important concepts in Anthropology is ethnocentrism. The long history of humans misunderstanding other humans is obvious, and this misunderstanding often leaves to severe forms of discrimination and genocide. While contemporary events make us all aware of such abuses, we can recognize the underlying problems in our own society where we experience many forms of prejudice every day.

    Principles for understanding the underlying causes of ethnocentrism, and, more important, how to recognize and control for this bias, include:

    For a more comprehensive discussion of this issue, see Ethnocentrism

    These ideas emerge again and again in trying to gain a more accurate and balanced understanding of others' ethnic behavior, and can help us better understand the variations of the human experience in both our own and other societies around the world.

    Expanding our understandings of our own and others' human behavior involves critical thinking. For more guidelines on this process, see:

    This discussion is also available in:

    Please take a minute and investigate the people who speak these different languages. It is fascinating when we consider that the differences are comparatively small when we consider what we all share as human beings, including 99.9% of our genes and cultural values about being good people in our relations with others.

    * No personal information is collected on this and other course-related pages.

    © Ken Barger, 2018