In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Biocultural Anthropology

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews
  • Recent Collections
  • Social Media
  • Methods
  • Applied Approaches

Anthropology Biocultural Anthropology
Daniel Lende
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0095


Biocultural anthropology exists at the intersection of cultural and biological approaches. Given how concepts, methods, and institutions have changed with regard to “biology” and “culture” since the early 1900s, the biocultural intersection has proven a dynamic space. It is also a contested space, where claims about human nature and culture and about science and ethnography have often come into stark contrast. Biocultural anthropology is linked to the four-field holistic tradition of anthropology within the United States. Individuals who don the biocultural mantle often claim holism as well and the accompanying ability to cross among archaeology, biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, and linguistic anthropology. Other individuals often object to this presumptive turf-grabbing and the accompanying assumption that the biocultural tradition is somehow better through being more integrative (or “holistic”) and better able at getting at more “fundamental” questions within anthropology. Here too controversy can arise. Yet, over the course of one hundred years, the biocultural tradition has helped tie together anthropology, first in the United States and, then, increasingly so in Europe. Certainly biocultural anthropology—broadly conceived as drawing on biological and cultural theory and using an inherent interdisciplinary approach—has gone through periods of obscurity, where small groups of researchers kept some of the main ideas and ideological commitments alive for another generation. But today, biocultural approaches are experiencing a renaissance across many arenas within anthropology. The perception exists, however, that the present biocultural approaches largely come from the biology and science side of anthropology and aim to increasingly encroach on questions seemingly reserved for social and cultural theorists. This bibliography emphasizes both biological and cultural research, with the hope that this broader selection can help anthropologists understand the conflicts that arise at the biology/culture interface as well as find important texts outside their areas of expertise that can facilitate further developments in biocultural anthropology. The bibliography has a three-part organization: an overview at the beginning, a historical review in the middle, and particular examples at the end. The overview provides a selection of introductory texts, overviews, recent collections, Internet resources, methods, and applied work. The historical coverage comes in the sections Foundations of Biocultural Anthropology and Disciplinary Divisions, Controversies, and Syntheses. The Foundations of Biocultural Anthropology section begins with the origins of holistic anthropology, considers mediating traditions from earlier to recent research, covers evolutionary and cultural theory amenable to interdisciplinary work, and highlights research that crosses the biocultural divide. Disciplinary Divisions, Controversies, and Syntheses delves into the recent history of anthropology, examining the disciplinary divisions that sprang up in the 1970s; then tracks important controversies that cut across the biocultural divide in the ensuing decades; and finally examines recent integrative attempts and reworkings of anthropology’s holistic tradition. The final section covers neuroanthropology and addiction as two examples of biocultural research.

Introductory Works

Engaging books help students and the broader public to understand the biocultural approach in anthropology. Biocultural approaches lend themselves to both academic and popular engagement, and also to controversy. Questions about human nature, the impact of culture, and human diversity and variation fascinate readers, and they serve to attract the interest of the wider public. The books in this section provide good introductions to the holistic approach of anthropology from a variety of perspectives. Fuentes 2012, Holmes 2009, and Pagel 2012 work well from a more biological anthropology perspective. Joralemon 2010 and Sobo 2012 come from medical anthropology. Goodman, et al. 2012; Pollan 2006; and Small 1999 tend to concentrate more on the cultural side of the biocultural approach, and these works cover race, eating, and parenting in order.

  • Fuentes, Agustín. 2012. Race, monogamy, and other lies they told you: Busting myths about human nature. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    An accessible takedown of essentialist views about race, aggression, and sex differences that draws broadly on biological and cultural anthropology.

  • Goodman, Alan H., Yolanda T. Moses, and Joseph L. Jones. 2012. Race: Are we so different? Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

    This publication from the American Anthropological Association builds on the popular museum exhibition, and it provides an illustration-rich overview of the broad anthropological approach to race.

  • Holmes, Hannah. 2009. The well-dressed ape: A natural history of myself. New York: Random House.

    Humor and engaging style make this writer’s examination of human biology and behavior a useful book for introductory classes.

  • Joralemon, Donald. 2010. Exploring medical anthropology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    A short and accessible textbook that is explicitly biocultural in how it approaches medical anthropology.

  • Pagel, Mark. 2012. Wired for culture: Origins of the human social mind. New York: Norton.

    Popular and well-received book on the impact of culture over the last eighty thousand years of human evolution, and what it means for life today.

  • Pollan, Michael. 2006. The omnivore’s dilemma: A natural history of four meals. New York: Penguin.

    Written by a journalist, this book presents an ecology of eating with an explicit anthropological slant, from hunting and gathering to industrial production, using both the lens of participant observation and the history of our species.

  • Small, Meredith. 1999. Our babies, ourselves: How biology and culture shape the way we parent. New York: Anchor.

    Excellent popular book that demonstrates how human development is intrinsically biocultural, focusing on the example of parenting.

  • Sobo, Elisa. 2012. Dynamics of human biocultural diversity: A unified approach. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast.

    A new textbook written to engage students beyond anthropology. It uses new theoretical approaches, such as epigenetics and dynamic systems theory, as a complement to classic anthropological approaches to human variation.

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