Cultural anthropology is one of the four major fields of anthropology (the others being biological anthropology, linguistic anthropology and archaeology). It emerged as an area of study after the era of European exploration when it became apparent around the world how diverse human experiences can be. What distinguishes cultural anthropology most clearly from other related disciplines is its holistic emphasis.
Anthropologists view culture in terms of a set of systems, which interact with each other and together make it possible for cultural practices to be perpetuated through generations. These systems include kinship systems, which encompass mate choice, marriage customs, family relationships and obligations, and household composition. There are also social systems, encompassing stable non-kin relationships, and religions or belief systems. In addition, economic systems and political systems encompass relationships outside the family and household.
Cultural anthropologists' primary concern is the impact of every system at the local level, in the day-to-day activities in a community, although it is possible for some of these systems and relationships to encompass global dimensions. Ethnography comprises the process of observing the culture of a society first hand, while ethnology focuses on the comparison of findings, which are a result of different cultural anthropological research projects, and their analysis aimed at noting the similarities and differences between various cultures.
Cultural anthropology is a field-based science. It observes directly and participates in a culture, using this as its main source of knowledge about the given culture. It emphasizes collecting detailed, repetitive observations, under diverse conditions and with diverse community members. The collection of these observations is done using various field observation methods, which are collectively called ethnographic methods. These methods include qualitative as well as quantitative data collection and analysis techniques. A process called triangulation, which is often done at the same time as the field research process, is used for the comparison of results from the different data collection strategies.
A range of subfields overlap within cultural anthropology. Ethnography, which is the broadest, deals with the systematic study of cultures. The specific focus of medical anthropology is the study of diseases and health in view of cultural systems, while in applied anthropology anthropological knowledge is systematically used to address contemporary problems. Urban, national and global anthropology are closely related and center on interrelationships at these levels, their impact and how they are affected by daily social and cultural lives of people in particular places. Psychological anthropology focuses on cultural, psychological and social interrelations at all levels, while linguistic anthropology centers on the study of language in its cultural and social context.
The range of theoretical perspectives cultural anthropologists work with includes strongly scientific and objective as well as strongly literary and subjective perspectives. When choosing a theoretical perspective, anthropologists consider the overall goal of the research, sometimes integrating theories from different perspectives to deal with some problems. According to Robert A. Hahn, anthropology theory encompasses three major areas -- ecological and evolutionary theory, cultural theory, and political and economic theory.
Most cultural anthropologists focus their research on contemporary societies. Through the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, cultural anthropology was primarily interested in peoples living in small-scale, isolated societies, whose cultures had little in common with those of Europeans and European Americans. Research during that period often centered on African, American Indian and Pacific Island societies. Research was also focused on societies in danger of disappearing or those that have undergone dramatic changes as a result of political control and culture spreading from the dominant societies.
At the beginning of the 21st century anthropologists also began the study of subcultures of large-scale societies, including Southeast Asians among families living in Minnesota, Mexican neighborhoods in Southern California and conservative Amish communities in rural Pennsylvania.
Methods of research used by cultural anthropologists include participant observation, cross-cultural comparison, survey research, interviews, archival research, media analysis and historical analysis. These methods represent ways of studying people from the perspective of anthropology. Anthropologists' interests are not strictly limited or determined by political eras, but the way interests are shaped is significantly influenced by them.
Among the key theorists in cultural anthropology are Bronislaw Malinowski, Franz Boas and Claude Levi-Strauss.