Peoples and Cultures of the World

Course No. 4617
Professor Edward Fischer, Ph.D.
Vanderbilt University
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Course No. 4617
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Course Overview

Why is anthropology such an inherently fascinating subject? Because it's all about us: human beings. As the "science of humanity," anthropology can help us understand virtually anything about ourselves—from our political and economic systems, to why we get married, to how we decide to buy a particular bottle of wine.

Here are just a few of the intriguing questions anthropologists study:

  • What does it mean if someone raises his eyebrows when he meets you?
  • Is there such a thing as progress? Are modern technological nations really happier and better off than "primitive" hunter-gatherer societies?
  • What is the cultural significance of gift giving? What are the subtle social and psychological rules we follow when we give a gift, and what obligates us when we receive one?
  • How common is cannibalism today? What are the types of cannibalism and the beliefs associated with them?
  • In American garbage dumps, what item of trash serves as a clear stratographic layer, distinguishing one-year's trash from the next?
  • What's the difference between a matriarchal and a matrilineal society? Which is more common among world cultures?
  • Why are Starbucks coffee shops, reality TV shows, and tourist destinations such as Las Vegas and Disneyland so popular with American consumers?

In Peoples and Cultures of the World, Professor Edward F. Fischer reveals the extraordinary power of anthropology—and his subspecialty, cultural anthropology—as a tool to understand the world's varied human societies, including our own. As a science that incorporates many disciplines, including psychology, biology and genetics, politics, economics, and religion, anthropology probes human behavior from nearly every possible perspective.

This course gives you an opportunity to survey the full scope of the field of cultural anthropology. Professor Fischer examines the contributions of the profession's most noted scholars, from founders and early popularizers Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski, and Margaret Mead to more contemporary researchers, including Napoleon Chagnon, Marvin Harris, Marshall Sahlins, and Nancy Scheper-Hughes.

These lectures will immerse you in the world of the Trobriand Islanders of Melanesia, the Yanomamö of the Brazilian Amazon; the Dobe Ju/'hoansi, or !Kung Bushmen, of Botswana and Namibia; and other indigenous peoples. In addition, they offer a glimpse into the lives of cultural anthropologists themselves—the theories and methodologies they use and the experiences of fieldwork—living for extended periods of time within the cultures they study.

By the end of this course, you will appreciate how valuable an understanding of cultural anthropology is in a world of ever-increasing globalization, in which members of even the most remote cultures come into more frequent and more influential contact through international travel, migration, business, and the Internet.

And you may be surprised at the many ways cultural anthropology affects your daily life. Here's one: Major corporations hire cultural anthropologists to create products—the PT Cruiser automobile, for example, was designed in consultation with French cultural anthropologist Clotaire Rapaille—that will have even greater appeal to customers and to find ways to advertise and sell them more effectively.

Please note: This course contains some frank and graphic sexual discussions where relevant.

What Is Normal? Marriage, Magic, and Cannibalism

Professor Fischer's goal is to expose you to the astonishing extent of human and cultural diversity in the world. You will question your assumptions about what is natural or what is human nature, and explore cultural phenomena that, to us, seem odd, quirky, exotic, and even repulsive. These include:

Marriage rituals. In the Sandbadham marriages of the Nayar of West India, a woman can have up to 20 visiting husbands. Separately, each husband can visit and stay with her at night, but he returns to live with his sister's family by day.

Kinship ties. Matrilineal societies, such as the Trobriand Islanders, trace family lineage through the mother's family, not the father's. A woman's brother functions more as a father to her children than does her husband. (In matrilineal societies, men are still the chiefs. Women would wield superior power in a matriarchy. However, no such societies currently exist.)

Gender issues. In Samoa, fa'fa'fines are men who wear women's clothes, do women's work, and are highly valued for their ability to function as men or women. In Western terms, fa'fa'fines consider themselves neither straight, gay, transvestite, male, or female, but as "something different," a third gender.

Violence. The Yanomamö of Brazil value ferocity. To be an unokais, a man who has killed another man, is to be revered. Unokais are held in such esteem, in their view and in the view of all Yanomamö, that they have 2.5 times more wives, and three times more children, than other Yanomamö males.

Magic, spirits, and witchcraft. The Fulbe of northern Cameroon practice a combination of magic and Islam. They believe that cannibal witches and river spirits can steal their souls. They protect their children from demons by placing amulets containing passages from the Koran around their necks.

Cannibalism. Although rare today, the most common form of cannibalism is endocannibalism: eating one's deceased relatives. It's considered a sign of respect, and a way to help their spirits live on. The Yanomamö practice it by crushing the bones into a powder, mixing it into gruel, and drinking the mixture.

Incest. All cultures prohibit incest to some degree, but the definition—whether one can marry a first or second cousin, say—varies. And is this taboo based in biology, religion, or psychology? What can studies of Israeli Kibbutzim and Taiwanese exiles tell us about our reluctance to marry those we consider "family"?

Rites of Passage. The Sambia of Papua, New Guinea, initiate boys into adulthood in a process that involves physical and mental hardships similar to those that cults use to brainwash converts, and includes one of the most unusual customs ever witnessed by anthropologists: ritual homosexuality between older and younger boys.

As you review these customs, Professor Fischer describes the issues cultural anthropologists face in dealing with them.

How should we judge what other cultures do—or should we judge them at all?

What are the ethical implications of anthropologists' interactions with indigenous peoples? Can they affect or even harm a culture by making a documentary film, or providing goods such as tools or food?

And what about cases, such as female circumcision or ritualized rape, when others' customs conflict with our own sense of morality and human rights? How do anthropologists draw the line between respect for cultural differences and the need to take action?

Surprising Lessons about Ourselves

A second aim of this class is to show you what cultural anthropology can teach you about your own culture. Anthropologist Alfred Kroeber maintained that studying other cultures acts as a "mirror on humanity": It teaches us as much about ourselves as it does others. Cultural anthropology encourages us to suspend our ethnocentrism, our belief that our way of living and understanding reality is the only or best way.

For example, many in the West think that mothers form an instant emotional bond with their newborn infants, and that this is a universal human trait. But in impoverished Alto de Cruzeiro in Brazil, mothers' expectations for the survival of their infants are so low—the mortality rate is 50 percent—that they are emotionally detached from their newborns. They do not even grieve for them when they die.

Are modern Western societies really the most affluent? This notion is doubtful, at best, based on modern hunter-gatherers. The Dobe Ju/'hoansi never go to bed hungry, have virtually no unsatisfied wants, and work only 20 hours a week.

In several lectures, Professor Fischer looks directly at our culture by considering aspects of the U.S. economy and consumer behavior. Is our economy really based on rational decision-making, as economists and policy makers assert? If so, why do we eat cattle and pigs, but not horses? Why are we willing to shop around to save $10 on a clock radio, but not on a big screen TV? It's the same savings: $10.

Or how does culture affect you as a consumer? Today, we Americans want products that say something about us: microbrewed beers or specialty wines that reflect our economic status or education, products that set us apart from other consumers. Why has the symbolic value of what we buy—the image they project—become just as important as their material value or utility?

A Teacher Who Lives His Work

What makes Professor Fischer such a compelling lecturer is the fact that he, like all cultural anthropologists, literally lives his work. His lectures deliver a tangible and often personal sense of life among native peoples, especially when he discusses his own research among contemporary Maya in Tecpán, Guatemala.

You will meet Anjelina, the Maya woman trained in both modern Western nursing and traditional Mayan midwife practices, who cared for Professor Fischer's pregnant wife.

You will appreciate the terror and extreme violence—nighttime abductions and mass murder—that Professor Fischer's friends in Tecpán endured as hapless victims of the struggle between the Guatemalan government and Marxist guerrillas in the late 1970s.

In addition, Professor Fischer makes sure you understand the customs of traditional societies by relating them to our way of doing things. For example, in chiefdom societies, the way chiefs redistribute goods to their subjects serves the same purpose as pork-barrel politics in the United States. Both enable leaders to solidify political power by showing how effective they are in providing for their people.

Is Globalization Good or Bad?

In the final lectures, Professor Fischer offers an anthropological perspective on a trend that is a prominent topic of discussion in politics, economics, and the news: globalization.

He highlights the "opaque" connections between First World economies and traditional cultures. Few Americans are aware that much of the broccoli they buy is grown by Mayan farmers in Guatemala. In fact, these farmers have been so successful that they have made broccoli one of the staple vegetables in the American diet: U.S. consumption of broccoli has increased 1,000 percent since the 1980s.

Globalization is changing indigenous cultures in surprising ways. In the 1980s, gold was discovered on land belonging to the Kayapo Indians, who live in the heart of the Amazon. With the resulting royalties, the Kayapo purchased shortwave radios and modern video technology, which they used to improve communication and political unity among far-flung Kayapo villages. They even have their own "air force": a fleet of planes that patrols their lands in search of illegal loggers and gold miners.

Is globalization good or bad? Should we in the First World lament the effects of our culture on indigenous peoples—that the Maya now have cell phones, go to Internet cafes, and enjoy watching Hollywood action movies?

Cultural anthropology considers such questions but does not see them as essential or even necessary. Globalization is simply a part of human culture, which is an unstoppable force, a process of constant change. It frustrates us when we try to judge or label it. But it rewards us when we simply try to understand it, to use it to appreciate the bonds we share with the rest of humanity, and to see ourselves, and our own culture, in new and creative ways.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Study of Humanity
    From the Greek "anthropos" and "Logos," anthropology is the study of humankind. Other fields give us valuable insights into particular areas (for example, economics, history, or biology), but anthropology's genius is in looking at the interconnections between these spheres. x
  • 2
    The Four Fields of Anthropology
    Anthropology comprises four subfields: biological anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and cultural anthropology. Today, biological anthropologists, archaeologists, and linguists are turning their talents to unconventional uses. Forensic anthropologists, for example, work with the FBI to reconstruct crime scenes and determine causes of death in badly decomposed remains. x
  • 3
    Culture and Relativity
    Nineteenth-century anthropologists viewed culture as synonymous with civilization. Often, such views were part of evolutionary schemes, the most memorable being Lewis Henry Morgan's "savages, barbarians, and civilization" typology of human societies. By the turn of the 20th century, Franz Boas, a German Jewish immigrant to the United States, was proposing a new, pluralistic notion of culture. x
  • 4
    Fieldwork and the Anthropological Method
    Anthropologists are drawn to exotic locales, and nowhere has held more fascination than the Pacific islands. In 1915, Bronislaw Malinowski traveled to the Trobriand Islands off northern New Guinea, where he documented the Trobrianders' matrilineal kinship system. Margaret Mead, a student of Franz Boas, journeyed to Samoa at the age of 23 to prove theories of cultural relativity. x
  • 5
    Nature, Nurture, and Human Behavior
    How much of who we are is determined by biology, and how much by culture? The relatively recent field of sociobiology (or evolutionary psychology) looks for evolutionary origins for social behavior. Biologists traditionally define evolutionary "fitness" in terms of individuals. Sociobiologists shift the focus from individuals to genes. x
  • 6
    Languages, Dialects, and Social Categories
    Language gives rise to culture and sets us apart from other animals. Linguists study how people communicate, and this involves not just syntax and grammar, but also body language and facial expressions. Language also tells us a lot about the speaker. Dialects, for example, are important markers of one's social origins. x
  • 7
    Language and Thought
    The linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf argues that linguistic structures determine the way we look at the world. Similarly, scholars have shown how American men and women speak with subtle differences (resulting in much miscommunication) and how common metaphors ("time is money") shape the way we think. x
  • 8
    Constructing Emotions and Identities
    In our daily lives we build mental models of the world around us (for example, "high price equals high quality"). These transcend language to affect us physically. This is best seen in culturally specific mental illnesses around the world from "Arctic hysteria" to the Latin American "evil eye." x
  • 9
    Magic, Religion, and Codes of Conduct
    Anthropologists often distinguish between magic and religion, but in practice the distinction often breaks down. The Fulbe of Northern Cameroon, a nominally Muslim culture, have a rich tradition of magic beliefs. We also see how women are treated in this patriarchal system, and the unexpected ways they assert power. x
  • 10
    Rites of Passage
    Most cultures mark rites of passage in life, the most important involving girls and boys becoming women and men. During "circumcision camp," Fulbe boys are made to eat food considered unclean by Muslim practice, and are physically pushed to near exhaustion. A similar ceremony is performed by the Sambia of New Guinea, where boys are required to engage in ritualized homosexual behaviors. x
  • 11
    Family, Marriage, and Incest
    Many cultures recognize different categories of kin. In the most common form, "cognatic" kinship, descent is traced through both male and female lines. More rare, but more interesting anthropologically, is matrilineal descent, which organizes kinship around the female line. All cultures also enforce a prohibition on incest. x
  • 12
    Multiple Spouses and Matrilineality
    All cultures practice some form of marriage, although customs vary greatly. Arrangement marriages are the norm, while romantic love is seen as a weak basis for marriage. In most cultures, men may have more than one wife. x
  • 13
    Gatherers and Hunters
    Anthropologists often categorize human societies by social complexity, from bands and tribes to chiefdoms and states. Today, about 250,000 people live in band-level societies, based on gathering wild plants and hunting. Bands of the Dobe Ju/'hoansi of Africa's southern Kalahari Desert are among the most studied groups in history. x
  • 14
    Headmen and Horticulturists
    The Yanomamö are a tribal-level society living in the Amazon rainforest in northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. As is characteristic of tribal societies, Yanomamö villages have headmen, although they lead by example and persuasion rather than exercising power. x
  • 15
    Cannibalism and Violence
    The Yanomamö have a reputation as one of the most violent societies known. The most common cause of death for adult males is murder, and warfare between villages is a fact of life. Some anthropologists argue that Yanomamö warfare is caused by shortages of protein. The Yanomamö themselves say they go to war to capture more wives. x
  • 16
    The Role of Reciprocity
    The Inuit say that "gifts make friends as surely as whips make dogs." This is one of those rare cultural observations that holds true around the world. Among many societies, reciprocity forms the basis of the economic system. In the Trobriand Islands, chiefs exchange symbolic valuables over long distances in a system known as the kula ring. x
  • 17
    Chiefdoms and Redistribution
    In chiefdom-level societies, redistributive exchange underpins political as well as economic relations. Redistribution entails obligation, which can be converted into political power. Trobriand Island chiefs engage in extensive networks of yam exchanges. The Kwakiutl Indians also practice a form of redistribution in their potlatch feasts. x
  • 18
    Cultural Contact and Colonialism
    Early contacts between Westerners and natives were often wrought with cultural misunderstandings. The arrival of Cortés in 1524 played into existing political instability in the Aztec Empire, and to popular beliefs about the return of the god Quetzalcoatl. Similarly, Captain Cook was taken for Lono by the Hawaiians, and ultimately murdered. x
  • 19
    Cultures of Capitalism
    Capitalism, which originated in 18th-century England, is the world's dominant mode of economic organization. In this lecture, we discuss the nature of state-level power. We also examine cultural strategies and the ways groups with little power use "weapons of the weak" to pursue their ends. x
  • 20
    Is Economics Rational?
    Economics is a science that rests on important assumptions about rationality. Recent findings from experimental and behavioral economics, especially the "prisoner's dilemma" and "ultimatum games," show how cultural notions of equitability often trump rational self-interests. x
  • 21
    Late Capitalism—From Ford to Disney
    Industrial capitalism is marked by Fordist forms of production—namely assembly-line mass-production. The post-industrial era of late capitalism has moved toward what is termed "post-Fordism." General Motors' experimental venture to produce Saturn cars illustrates this trend. x
  • 22
    The Maya, Ancient and Modern
    The Maya are best remembered for the grandeurs of their Classic era (A.D. 250-900)—impressive temples and cities, hieroglyphic writing, blood sacrifice. But there are over 8 million Maya living today in Guatemala, Belize, and southern Mexico. In this lecture, we look at ancient Maya calendrical systems, unique patterns of Maya dress and language, and the effects of Guatemala's brutal civil war. x
  • 23
    Maya Resurgence in Guatemala and Mexico
    In recent years the Maya, like other indigenous peoples, have begun to revitalize their cultural traditions and take pride in their ethnic identity. In this lecture, we examine their efforts and surprising successes. The Zapatistas, of Chiapas, Mexico, have taken a more revolutionary and confrontational approach, forging strategic links with international organizations. x
  • 24
    The Janus Face of Globalization
    Globalization has affected native peoples in positive and negative ways. Gold mining in Brazil has had devastating impacts on Yanomamö communities. But the Kayapo, who live farther south in the Brazilian Amazon, have capitalized on their native identity in ventures with The Body Shoppe, associations with Sting, and mobilizing resistance to large dam projects. x

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Your professor

Edward Fischer

About Your Professor

Edward Fischer, Ph.D.
Vanderbilt University
Dr. Edward Fischer is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Latin American and Iberian Studies at Vanderbilt University. He earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and his master's and doctoral degrees in anthropology from Tulane University. Professor Fischer has received grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Alexander von Humbolt Foundation,...
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Peoples and Cultures of the World is rated 3.9 out of 5 by 57.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I Really Enjoyed 3/4 of this Course The first 3 quarters of this course was fantastic, Professor Fischer was Engaging, Instructional and obviously passionate about the material he was discussing. Really based on the first 3/4ths of this course I'd give a 5 out of 5. Right up until he began discussing political economic theory, and even then for the first lecture or two even though Prof. Fischer obviously feels that there is a lot to say for Marx (and made a point of giving credit where credit was due to Capitalist systems) after about two lectures of that the subject started becoming somewhat tedious. Nonetheless on the whole for anyone curious about Anthropology, different cultural practices, beliefs, and lifestyles, I would highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2017-06-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Open your mind to the world I am an anthropologist and I learned a great deal from this course. I bought it to review some ideas, and I found it fascinating.
Date published: 2017-04-13
Rated 3 out of 5 by from A disappointment The name of this course is misleading. This course is primarily about people and cultures of the Americas. The material is presented as a series of anecdotes and stories. The professor does not effectively tie the information together by speaking to the principles that are illustrated by the examples that he discusses.. Themes in common and in contrast between cultures are not adequately addressed. On the positive side, the "story" telling is good, the professor is enthusiastic and the anecdotes are interesting. I was entertained while listening but I do not feel educated. Of the dozens of Great Courses that I have experienced, this is one of only two that I would consider asking for my money back.
Date published: 2016-07-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from All of Us This course is excellent. It was a matter of luck not skill when I selected it. When I do select a course, I usually do so with a specific goal in mind. Sometimes I am looking for something quite specific. At other times, I know so little about a topic that my goal is to understand the general structure of the subject. For this course, it was the latter. I had never taken an anthropology course and the only thing I understood was that anthropology is the study of humans. Professor Fischer's course is enlightening. My long familiarity with the Teaching Company has made me very confident that he would be engaging and knowledgeable. Professor Fischer does not disappoint. Within minutes of starting the first lecture I was comfortable with his style and was soon deep in the topics under discussion. The lessons are fun and rapidly relate the new content to your current knowledge. The breadth of this course is amazing in itself. Some topics I expected, such as the history of the field of cultural anthropology, and the differentiation between this and other anthropological studies such as archeology and biological anthropology. Others were expected, but some were frankly a welcome surprise. Language and Thought deserved a section of their own. To some extent it was a review of topics I had encountered in other courses, but even that was rewarding. For instance, I first encountered the Sapir Whorf hypothesis in other Teaching Company courses, but it is a topic that interests me and the brief treatment here was enjoyable. The lecture topics are historically based, but remarkably relevant to current events. Family life and relationships? Present here. Rites of passage are covered for a variety of societies. Traditional marriage? The scope of cultural practices are many and varied. Cultural leadership forms? Bands, tribes and chiefdoms give way to states and finally the nation-states with which we are familiar. He even dedicates some time to the globalization we are seeing today. It is a great piece of luck when you are able to relate two different courses you are studying at the same time. I happened to be taking Professor E. Barnharts course on Mesoamerica, “Maya to Aztec”, at the time I was viewing this course by Professor Fischer. Professor Fischer's chapters on the modern Maya, “The Resurgence of the Maya”, tied in beautifully with Professor Barnhart's course. I found a great feeling of satisfaction viewing the resilience of the Maya people. Incidentally, do not overlook the cultural sketches in an appendix to the guidebook. They are pure gold. Soon after I had taken this course, I met an anthropology student who has become deeply involved in the subject. Like me, she is retired and going back to fill holes in her education. We were discussing courses she has taken at the local state university and I happened to mention this course. She and her partner know Professor Fischer's course well and have watched the entire series twice. I'm sure she would add her recommendation to mine.
Date published: 2015-07-03
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Pretty good course, until the big left turn This course starts out as a pretty good introduction to the field of cultural anthropology. The lecturer talks about the history of the field, lays out the different branches of anthropology, and begins talking about cultural differences, using studies of a number of cultures at the band and tribal level. Instead of a broad survey of topics, like marriage practices and funerary practices, the lecturer focuses one or two lectures on a single culture. So far, all good. Then, about three quarters of the way through the course, the lecturer begins talking about Marxian economic theory. He never really gets back on track. The penultimate lecture is essentially a long hagiography of Sub-commandant Marcos, the leader of the Zapatista revolution in southern Mexico. In one lecture, he finishes a critique of late stage capitalism and Disney with the comment that he is join go stop critiquing American consumer preferences, since they are no different then cannibalism in other cultures. So I get the message. Capitalism and globalism bad, illiterate subsistence cultures good.
Date published: 2015-06-04
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not what I expected The course is good but not what I expected. I would have liked to have had a more indepth look at various cultures. Perhaps, you might consider courses on specific cultures: parts of Africa; parts of Asia, Russia, North and South America, Pacific islands.
Date published: 2015-01-01
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not what all entails I was looking more into the cultures of the world not just Africa and South America. The lecture stayed away from Europe and Asia and the middle east. I did learn something but not what I wanted to actually know the characters of the cultures. It seems the doctor emphasized on only two areas what he studied. I was disappointed what information it gave me.
Date published: 2014-12-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Cultural Anthropology This course is a wonderful primer into the comprehension of Cultural Anthropology. Professor Fisher utilizes a small handful of distinct peoples/cultures to educate on cultural relativity. The variety of subject matter covered was vast. Some lectures left me "mind blown" - especially lectures 10 and 15 (not for young ears to hear). During the lectures on language, the professor side tracked on discussing primates that can use sign language. Without spoiling it for you - please know that it's amazing! With the immense consolidation of language, religion, and commerce in this age of globalization- the role of identity politics in securing culture for disadvantaged or outnumbered peoples is more important than ever. The Professor's personal work with the Maya people, which he covers in later lectures, helps to inform on the subject of identity politics. If you are expecting a "National Geographic" style course where each lecture covers some exotic tribe- this is not it. For the most part only 4 or so distinct peoples are covered in great detail.
Date published: 2014-08-10
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Worthwhile but not special, average at best This series does not meet the usual high standards of the Great Courses; it lacks necessary structure, direction & organisation, does not provide the in-depth tretment required in the lecture themes, and there is considerable repetition. Despite this, there is substantial valuable material in the lectures. The first four talks are in effect a sales pitch -- an emphatic introduction to the science of anthropology with biographies of various scientists; this material should occupy only one lecture. Dr Fischer speaks at a brisk pace, frequently stumbles over his words, also has an accent I found annoying ("The Timpest" and "sintury" instead of "The Tempest" and "century"). Frankly, I became bored and upset, anxious for the "real" lectures to start! The course is titled "Peoples and Cultures of the World", not "The Study of Anthropology and Anthropologists"! By lecture 5 "Nature, Nurture and Human Behavior", the substance of the course emerges. I enjoyed the actual information about peoples and cultures in this course, continually wanted more. I also feel there could have been far more use of video material -- selling the listener on anthropology and detailing biographies are not needed. The lectures on language were entertaining and informative though somewhat off-topic. The lectures were recorded in 2004, so perhaps it's time for a new course on Peoples and Cultures of the World?
Date published: 2014-07-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Anthropology Clarified I learned a lot from 'Peoples and Cultures of the World,' though I consider it mis-named. A more appropriate title might have been 'How Anthropologists Go About Studying Peoples and Cultures.' Professor Fischer is engaging, enthusiastic, and non-judgmental as he describes the mores and behaviours of several human societies chosen as illustrative examples. He discusses straightforwardly not just the commendable actions of anthropologists in the field, but also controversies and problems that some of them may have caused. Another plus is that Fischer is not an 'ivory tower' academic; he has 'lived his work' and is able to share relevant personal knowledge of the Maya people, among whom he lived in the highlands of Guatemala, as well as being able to share a wealth of scholarly and historical information about the general discipline of anthropology. During the twenty-four lectures in this course, I especially appreciated Fischer's insights in Lecture 10 (Rites of Passage), Lecture 13 (Gatherers and Hunters), Lecture 19 (Cultures of Capitalism) and Lecture 23 (Maya Resurgence in Guatemala and Mexico). Although this course is available in an audio-only format, having studied it myself in the video format, I strongly recommend the latter. For one thing, the professor's verbal points are enhanced by his gestures, facial expressions, and general body language more so than has been the case in multiple other Great Courses I have previously studied. Photographs of members of the cultures cited as examples and visual displays spelling out or defining anthropological terms are also, I feel, important to getting the most out of this course. I believe there should actually have been even more visual material included during the lectures. Some photos were re-used, not always as clearly 'in sync' with what the professor was saying as they had been when first used. One photo of a Kayapo 'chief' that appeared during the last lecture was extremely unusual and intriguing, yet the professor hardly discussed or explained it, which actually made me wonder if that one had possibly been a stock photo added as an afterthought without Professor Fischer's being aware of it during 'filming.' Regarding the slides or sidebars visually emphasizing terminology, as mentioned above, even more of these would have been helpful and appreciated. All in all, I have rated Professor Fischer's work a 5, but assigned a 4 rating on the other scales above. I consider it to be matters of editing and/or packaging that are just a bit less than excellent for this course.
Date published: 2014-04-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from 4.5-breadth/depth issue I enjoyed the discussion of cultural anthro topics but felt that the prof tried to cover too much by addressing linguistics and economics. These broad topics are covered by other great courses-too bad this wasn't picked up in review of outline of subject matter. It is great to have a course on cultural anthro and ideally I would have liked all lectures on these topics. As many have noted, prof is engaging with very good presentation style. I would rate this course a 4.5
Date published: 2013-10-31
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting course This is a very interesting course which should probably be titled Primitive Cultures of the World. Most of the course revolves around cultural relativism and showing how the norms we take for granted are not practiced in remote and primitive cultures around the world (especially in Central and South America). The highlights of this course for me were 1- finally realizing that the exploration of 'meaning' rests in the realm of anthropology, where it's defined as the intertwining of culture, economics, language, geography, history, etc, as opposed to philosophy, where it is thought to rest in the realm of language, 2- Excellent lectures on early and late capitolism, and 3- a fantastic lecture on 'Is Economics Rational', where the opposite is shown. I do recommned this course, but beware that the title is misleading. There is really no discussion of Middle Easterners, East Asians, Indians, Africans, and many other peoples of the world. It is mainly a lecture centered around primitive cutlures.
Date published: 2013-07-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Alert: outdated information As of May 2013, some of the statements are outdated ideas within the field of cultural anthropology. For example, he stated when written language originated, but currently there is no clear time or location agreed upon. Additionally, his information on fossils may no longer reflect current findings. But he is an excellent, precise speaker and the course is fascinating. RECOMMENDATION: The producers should make the date of each product clear and should review applicable subjects for outdated info.
Date published: 2013-05-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An inspiring flyover of Anthropology As a newcomer to the world of Anthropology I found this course great! It touches upon many topics just enough to spark further interest and to inspire further learning. I love the contant quest for elusive and perhaps unobtainable objectivity that Anthropology is set on. The bibliography offers great texts across a diverse range of subjects!
Date published: 2013-03-01
Rated 2 out of 5 by from IT'S A SMALL WORLD AFTER ALL? When I was in college, courses in anthropology were very popular -- anthropology was considered to be an up-and-coming, new and ground-breaking discipline. I recently had taken courses here with The Teaching Company on the “Introduction to the Study of Religion” with Professor Charlie Jones and I had also taken a course on “Ancient Civilizations” with Professor Ken Harl. I wanted to take this particular course to help me integrate these previous studies with an anthropological perspective on the nature of religion and of human society and civilization. This course focuses on investigating “exotic cultures” rather than on developing anthropological theory, however – we study, for example, the Trobriander near New Guinea, the Yanomamo and Kayapo of the Amazon, the Fulbe of Northern Cameroon, the Dobe of the Kalahari Desert, the Inuit of the North Pole, the Kwakiute Indians of Northwest America, the Hawaiian and Samoan Islanders, and, (the area of Fischer’s own area of expertise,) the Mayan of Guatemala and South Mexico. I had expected to be educated on certain “universal concerns,” “characteristics” or “mythic or religious outlooks” which were common to all of mankind, but instead, it was the universality of brutal human behavior involving murder, fornicati*n, hoarding, envy, s*xism and engaging in abusive initiation rituals which seemed to characterize most of these cultures! It would seem then, based on this course’s model, that the search for the common thread of our humanity is actually a mirror upon our own species’ worst tendencies and attributes! The anthropological discipline itself seemed susceptible to similar shortcomings! The stories of many anthropologists out in the field seem to evoke images of mutual back-biting, trying to out-do others or discrediting those within their own professional community! Derek Freeman, for example, set out to disprove the conclusions made by Margaret Mead in Samoa. (Mead made headlines in America when she wrote about the benefits of female s*xual freedom on this island.) Freeman himself went through apparent mental breakdowns when he was banned from Borneo for having heated exchanges with the curator of the Sarawak Museum. Patrick Tierney, in his book “Darkness in El Dorado,” accuses Napoleon Chagnon of setting up a meeting-feast with the Yanomamo tribe of Indians which later resulted in a murder of an indigenous woman. He also claimed that Chagnon introduced a measles epidemic in the Amazon jungle as well! The rivalry, one-upmanship and cut-throat competition of these anthropologists seem to exhibit the worst features of their own profession! Fischer himself demonstrates some rather questionable attitudes! For example, he jokes that he purposefully keeps the visitor’s chair in his office smaller than his own so he can assume an air of superiority with his students! He also warns us that he could easily intimidate us with his specialized anthropological vocabulary! More importantly, he seems to make light of the seriousness of murder being committed in the Amazon rainforest when he shares with us his “favorite” war-chant of the “fierce” Yanomamo: “I’m meat-hungry, I’m meat-hungry, Like the carrion-eating buzzard, I hunger for flesh.” Over and above these rather provocative points, however, I was taken aback with Fischer’s basic anthropological presuppositions. He states matter-of-factly, for example, that “no culture is better than any other culture.” (Could this be true? Let us consider: – Could the Taliban’s culture of subjugating women by shooting little schoolgirls in the head [e.g. the story of Malala Yousafzai] be just as good as the culture which works to ensure the dignity and equality of women everywhere? Would it be all the same to a Jew to have chosen to live inside the culture of Nazi Germany rather than in the pluralistic culture of America?) Fischer also seems to delight in suggesting that the Marxist orientation of Antonio Gramsci and Subcommandante Marcos might be a suitable theoretical perspective for anthropological study! (Fischer candidly remarks that whenever he extols the virtues of Marx, his father’s eyes roll!) Finally, I was amazed to hear him comment on the “world-perception” of the Kayapo Indians of the Amazon in the following way: “Just being an Indian isn’t enough... you have to be the sort of Indian we white people, Westerners, want to see... it has to fit into our stereotype!” [Lecture 24] I had to look under my chair to look for the “white people” to whom Fischer was referring! I don’t think the term “white people” is an appropriate one to be used by a professional anthropologist who would be addressing a diverse audience of students! Moreover, to my own way of thinking, skin color is not a foundation for making cultural distinctions [although, historically, the Sumerian people did identify themselves as “the black-headed people” back in 4000 B.C., and the ancient Egyptians did distinguish between the skin colors of Nubians, Libyans and Semitics (in the fresco from the tomb of Seti I, c. 1280 B.C.)] If the discipline of anthropology strives for objectivity, however, (and hopefully Fischer is speaking as an anthropologist -- not as a “white man,”) does not the phrase “we white people” betray the idea of a fundamental inclusiveness of all humanity, and in fact does it not compromise the objectivity of anthropology as a discipline? I know that Christian missionaries in recent times have encountered people from unfamiliar cultures in isolated areas around the world for decades, as have anthropologists. In 1944, Christian missionaries were murdered by the Ayores in Bolivia. In 1956, five missionaries were murdered by the Waodani tribe in Ecuador. The wives of the missionaries to Ecuador actually forgave the Waodani tribe for taking the lives of their husbands. They later taught the Waodani women about the Christian faith, who in turn led their husbands to repent of their culture of murder and blood-feuds. To me, the “detached” (ambivalent?) point of view of anthropologists in this course stands in stark contrast to the missionaries who endure the same hardships, but who work and make great sacrifices to bring a better life to the people they encounter. A good depiction of the anthropological nuances of missionary work is depicted in the 1986 movie “The Mission,” where Jesuit priests work to convert the Guarani tribe of South America to Christianity. The Guarani realize they are better off having known the Christian faith than previously when they were ignorant people living in the wild. Ultimately and tragically, however, the Guarani become victims when the “civilized” Spanish and Portuguese begin to infiltrate the jungle and subjugate the native population to their colonial ambitions – a rather ironic and dispiriting twist to the idea of which group of people exhibits the greater savagery! I admit I was quite surprised by a lot of the basic ideas and attitudes demonstrated by Fischer in this course. At the same time, I can see where one might be inspired to pursue extending one’s cultural understanding of peoples by visiting foreign lands and going overseas! There is a certain romanticism involved in discovering the strangeness of diverse cultures! Learning a new language and becoming part of a foreign culture also has great appeal! Although Fischer’s presentation encompasses a grueling 24 lectures, I think I could have digested the bulk of this material in about one-quarter of this time! I think it’s important to investigate the cultural elements which both differentiate and unite humans from around the world, but I’m not so sure that this course was successful in accomplishing this goal! It seemed oriented more toward describing empirical observations (and arriving at quite varied interpretations about them) rather than its trying to compose an over-arching “philosophy of anthropology.” Moreover, I found myself wondering if an anthropologist remains morally neutral about such practices as cannibalism, female mutilation, or murder -- would that make him or her tacitly complicit in such practices by default or omission? Of course, I might be revealing my own biases here, too, but I think I would rather argue for the “self-evident” truth of our intrinsic human nature transcending diverse cultures, rather than for the extreme “cultural relativism” which Fischer seems to advocate here! One can arrive at his or her own conclusions about the nature of human culture, society and morality by doing one’s own research and study -- and thus, I would encourage and invite the student to do so!
Date published: 2013-02-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Admirably Non-judgmental Professor Fischer amazed me with stories of cultural beliefs and practices around the world, including American, without criticizing even those that were to me sometimes outrageous. I'd say, based on that, his knowledge and on his pleasant personality, that he is a model anthropologist. He obviously loves his subject and work. I wish he (and most teachers K-Grad) would appeal more often to more channels of learning (visuals, sound, etc.). But I'm very happy with the course and will watch it again, this time with my grad-student daughter.
Date published: 2013-01-27
Rated 3 out of 5 by from OK-Not was I was hoping for I agree with a number of other reviewers who noted that the lecture was at times repetitive. For me, I often lost the original point when the professor was giving examples. For me it also went into too much detail at times, while glossing over important information others-it just wasn't a good balance of information/examples. On a positive note, he has a very pleasant voice, and is a good story teller. If you are looking for a good overview of what the study of anthropology is, this probably isn't the best course, however if you are interested in the peoples he uses as examples you'll enjoy the course. The statements in the last 5 minutes of the course were my favorite.
Date published: 2012-11-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from We thoroughly enjoyed this course Okay, honestly, we didn't read the course description, and were not expecting cultural anthropology, so were disappointed with the first lecture. However, we decided to stick with it, and all of us (sophomore & senior home school student plus mom) enjoyed this professor's obvious love for the subject as well as the course content. In fact, I was only going to give the course 4 stars, but the sophomore son said it absolutely deserved 5. I would recommend it for a 1/2 credit of high school humanities--we rounded out our studies with research papers.
Date published: 2012-11-07
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Interesting but... I found that this course covered interesting aspects of cultural anthropology but left me feeling that there could have been so much more. Certain areas were a bit repetitive and possibly more could have been said regarding European/Asian/African cultures and not mainly just Ameri-Indian and Pacific. However the course did wet my appetite for further reading so Professor Fischer must have got something across to me.
Date published: 2012-05-17
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Lots of good stuff, but some flaws As someone professionally involved in cultural studies, I found much to like in this course. The second half, in spite of being a bit disjointed (e.g., moving between peoples of the Amazon and the economics of capitalism with too little transition), the extended examples of cultures the professor gives are really quite enlightening. A much bigger problem is in the first part of the course, where he gives examples from our culture to illustrate basic points. Unfortunately, many of his examples are superficial or just plain wrong. (For example, did you know that ADHD wasn't recognized 20 years ago? Actually, it was labeled as ADHD in 1980, but described formally in 1902.) If the professor would clean up these examples in his initial lectures, I would easily raise the rating to 4 stars.
Date published: 2012-01-08
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Had Hoped for More This is the only TC course (so far) that I've found not to be worthwhile. There is some interesting information scattered through the course, but it lacks the density of information and the overall coherence that I've come to expect in TC courses. The lecturer is overly repetitive and spends way too much time as a booster for the field of anthropology (hey, we bought the course, so we don't have to be persuaded). I would have enjoyed learning about more cultures and more cultural practices in a comparative way. There was some of that (interesting stuff on gift-giving, marriage, incest), but not nearly enough for the investment of time.
Date published: 2011-11-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Enjoyable, but slow at times Overall this was an enjoyable lecture series. However, about 75% of the way through it became a bit slow and repetitive. It picked up again towards the end. Definitely piqued my interest in anthropology.
Date published: 2011-06-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Educational and Engaging Dr. Fischer provides a very engaging discussion of various world cultures. I particularly appreciated the broad overview of anthropology at the beginning of the lectures as well as the discourse regarding the need to understand cultures within their own time and context, especially when they differ greatly from that which we are familiar with.
Date published: 2010-12-30
Rated 2 out of 5 by from OK, but a little boring The topics seemed like they would be very interesting, but they were not tied together to make them interesting. I became bored with the course - something that has not happened with other Teaching Company courses. I'm a total novice at anthropology, so maybe the content is more aimed to those who are students in this field.
Date published: 2010-12-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Well-Presented and Engaging I enjoyed watching and listening to Dr. Fischer’s lectures, particularly his field case studies of Inuits, Mayas, South Sea Islanders and Africa’s Kalahari Bushmen. I suspect that any newcomer to the field of anthropology, but possessing an undergraduate degree in the Social Sciences (e.g. sociology, history or economics) would find much of the conceptual and substantive material presented fairly familiar. The variety and coverage of tribal traditions, cultural mores, family practices, religious beliefs, and hierarchical organization is impressive and well documented. His explanation of the four components of anthropology, and how the sub-fields of biological anthropology, archaeology and linguistics relate to his specialty of cultural anthropology, however basic, is instructive. Dr. Fischer devotes several later lectures to a discussion of economics and how the perceived rationality of individual financial decisions can be heavily influenced by cultural factors. He also offers a description of the range of economic activity of the various cultures, from simple barter, to community property to “hegemonic” capitalism (a concept derived originally from Marx). Moreover, this course is not limited to just indigenous cultures, as the lecturer also ventures into 20th century corporate operating practices, contrasting assembly-line production with individual artisan work, and discusses the “worker alienation” effect resulting from the repetitive tasks associated with mass-production specialization. The course ends with a discussion of the positive and negative effects of globalization on native cultures. With the increasing encroachment of modern civilization on indigenous peoples, the waning of their individual cultures must be weighed against new-found prosperity, education and contacts with the outside world. It will be interesting to see how cultural anthropologists address these profound changes in the natïve peoples they study. As with some other TC courses, I think more extensive use of visuals, especially photographs, could have been employed, particularly with respect to the field studies of native cultures. This is the essential difference between the audio and DVD versions, and liberal use of such visuals complements and enhances the presentation significantly in my opinion. This course is admittedly a very basic introduction to the field of anthropology, but is clearly presented and interesting, at times even entertaining, and perhaps that is all that can be expected in a total of twelve hours of lectures. It should be enough to motivate the student to undertake further reading into the human condition of other cultures.
Date published: 2010-09-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from An ok intro to cultural anthropology, but... This course covered many basics in the (very) brief, yet never went into any depth at all on some of the most important and interesting ones such as theories of culture, cultural constructions of reality, differing social structures between cultures, cross-cultural psychology, or theories on cultural values and cultural relativity (see the course titled 'Questions of Value' for that last). However, the ending lectures on cultural economies and globalization provided food for thought and new avenues for investigation. I recommend the course titled 'Thinking About Capitalism' for that angle.
Date published: 2010-09-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good introduction to the topic Before watching this course, I had not studied anthropolgy at all. Therefore, I appreciated the background to the discipline of anthropolgy (as presented in the early lectures). I also found the new content areas stimulating and well illustrated with examples from various cultures around the world. Edward Fischer has an engaging and easy-to-listen-to teaching style. My only criticism of this course would be about the pacing. Although not versed in anthropolgy before doing it, I had encountered some of the topics and themes through the reading I have done. Therefore, I found the pacing of the lectures that covered that particular material a little slow. However, if the material is entirely new to you, this may not be a problem for you. Overall, this is an enjoyable and intellectually stimulating course.
Date published: 2010-06-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating overview of cultural behaviors This was a very enjoyable Cultural Anthropology course, actually better than I expected (and more informative about human behaviors than the ROOTS OF HUMAN BEHAVIOR course I took right before it). As the above course outline shows there is a tremendous amount of fascinating material, and different perspectives covered here. Prof. Fischer starts by giving a comprehensive survey of the basic history, developments, approaches and varied scope of anthropology, using a range of specific, clear and interesting examples from around the world. The last half of the course explores in more detail the 4 basic levels of cultural organization (Bands, Tribes, Chiefdoms, States). It may seem the professor focuses on a few narrow field studies he is more familiar with (esp. the Maya of Central America), yet he effectively uses these specific examples to show how universal and yet uniquely varied human behaviors are. Right now on Earth, there is practically every level of human development being expressed, from most simple to complex. And anthropology is a powerful tool to help understand and appreciate this variety, its precarious balance, and how our lives are part of it. Professor Fischer's approach is consistently articulate, intelligent, lively, inclusive and non judgmental.
Date published: 2010-02-04
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Disappointing The first four lectures were largely about the definitions of the different branches of anthropology and the history of anthropology, and became boring. In the first lecture he demostrated a superficial knowledge of the theory of evolution. In the sixth lecture he stated that Chinese characters are words, when they are actually syllables (some of the syllables are words too). I feared that much of his content would be elementary, and that I couldn't rely on his facts, and decided not to invest any more time.
Date published: 2010-02-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Introduction to Anthropology As other reviewers have mentioned, it's important to know going into this course that it is NOT a survey of a great variety of cultures around the world. The examples are limited, and are used to illustrate points rather than serve as the focus of the course. That being said, this course is fantastic as an introduction to anthropology. With no background in the subject, I found Professor Fischer's distinction between the four types of anthropology very useful. I also appreciated how many of the cultural examples he used were current, not merely famous cases from the past (such as the Easter Islanders and the like). I would highly recommend this course to anyone who does not have extensive knowledge in anthropology. Professor Fischer illustrates his points well, using relevant cultural examples along the way.
Date published: 2009-07-25
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