Ken Barger
Indiana University Indianapolis

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A wedding celebration in a Zopotec village in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. My goddaughter and her family in Mexico City went to the wedding of her distance cousin, as did other members of the extended family, including several people have migrated to the United States. Since as a godfather I was now included in the "family", it was assumed that the wedding celebration also involved me, which both surprised and pleased me. European Americans have a pattern of nuclear family, and, though we may go to the wedding of a cousin with whom we are close, we are typically not close to relatives more distantly related, particularly in a mobile society. In better understanding the importance of the extended family in other societies, I had to ask: What are the adaptive functions of "family" in their culture, as well as the functions of the nuclear family in my own experience?

There are several key concepts involved in Science, the Social Sciences, and Anthropology which can help us better understand the human experience, as we compare our own cultural experience with others.

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 go through our lives. Following the basic principles of science can help us develop more valid, reliable, balanced, and predictive understandings of life around us, which 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. For example, do those who smoke more have higher rates of lung cancer?

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. Biases always exist, as we are exposed to and develop certain ways of thinking... but not others. For example, Latin languages have gender built into nouns, so speakers have formed their language neurons to build in "masculine" and "feminine", while we English speakers find it somewhat strange to think of a house or floor in terms of "she" and "he". The trouble is that these ways of thinking are so "natural" that we are not even aware that we are being biased.

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 judgments we make throughout the learning process.

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

Grounded scientific understandings are based on being conscious about 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 between factors and influences ("connecting the dots").
  • In making interpretations based on factual information and supported evidence.

    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 and predictive.

    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 totally separate from Nature and able to control our destiny? Or are we a part of Nature, and subject to the natural laws of the Universe around us? For example, pesticides affect the biology of "weeds" to kill them, so how likely are these products to affect other life forms... including 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 understanding 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:

    When we look at a culture as as a fluid system trying to maintain an optimal balance with the conditions of the group's environmental conditions, then we can develop more complete and relevant understandings of why that group has particular patterns of behavior.

    This includes our own culture.

    Principles for Understanding Interethnic Misunderstandings

    One of the most important concepts in Anthropology is ethnocentrism. The long history of humans misunderstanding other humans is obvious. Ethnocentrism is a severe bias that often leads to extreme conflicts and discrimination against other groups... and even genocide. While contemporary events can 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:

    SO WHAT CAN WE DO? The scientific principle that grounded understanding is not based on the absence of biases but rather on the recognition and control of biases applies to ethnocentrism. Since it is impossible not to be ethnocentric, the best way we can control for ethnocentrism is:

    1. To recognize our ethnocentrism when it happens, by being aware of reactions (both ours, which tells us about ourselves, and theirs, which also tells us about our own assumptions). We react because something doesn't fit our own "reality", and therefore see their ways either as negative (because it is "worse" than what we think is normal) or as positive (because it is "better" than what we think is normal).
    2. To ask valid questions that will lead to more valid and balanced understandings, in particular:
      • "What are the meanings of the behaviors to them?" That is, how do they think and feel about the matter?
      • Even more important, "What are the adaptive functions of their behaviors as they try to adapt to life conditions?"... remembering that the functions may be in a very different part of culture than the meanings (where, for example, the meaning may concern religion, but the function may be psychological).
        • This is the question which usually gives us the deepest insights into cultural behavior.
    We do not have to agree with others' ways, of course, and have the right to our own ways. But having valid understandings of the meanings and functions of others' behavior can help in maintaining constructive understandings, whether on an interpersonal, societal, or international scale. And in cases of conflict, asking these questions can help negotiate mutually satisfying solutions that serve both our and their needs... as has often been done throughout history (in contrast to forcing others to do things our way, also evident throughout history).

    Interethnic encounters and even conflicts, then, can be an opportunity for better understanding the broad potentials humans have for being human... as well as better understanding ourselves. This awareness keeps us open to new ways in which we ourselves can better meet life challenges, since all human potentials around the world are also available for us in adaptation.

    For a more comprehensive discussion of this concept, see Ethnocentrism.

    These ideas emerge again and again in trying to gain a more accurate and balanced understanding of others' ethnic behavior, as well as our own ways. These concepts can also help us better understand why variations in the human experience are so evident in both our own and other societies around the world. In the larger and exciting perspective, we can also realize the vast human potentials for meeting life challenges.

    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 in life experience are comparatively small when we consider what we all share as human beings.

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  • © Ken Barger, 2019.
    These materials may be used in your own personal research and learning, though I'd appreciate your giving me credit where appropriate.