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Journal Article

Cultural Traits: Units of Analysis in Early Twentieth-Century Anthropology

R. Lee Lyman and Michael J. O'Brien
Journal of Anthropological Research
Vol. 59, No. 2 (Summer, 2003), pp. 225-250
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3631642
Page Count: 26
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Cultural Traits: Units of Analysis in Early Twentieth-Century Anthropology
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Abstract

The basic analytical unit used by E. B. Tylor, Franz Boas, Clark Wissler, A. L. Kroeber, and other early anthropologists interested in cultural transmission was the cultural trait. Most assumed that such traits were, at base, mental phenomena acquired through teaching and learning. The lack of an explicit theoretical concept of cultural trait meant that the units varied greatly in scale, generality, and inclusiveness among ethnographers. Efforts to resolve the difficulties of classification and scale were made but were largely unsuccessful. The history of the concept of cultural trait reveals not only the roots of modern theoretical difficulties with units of cultural transmission but also some of the properties that such a unit needs to have if it is to be analytically useful to theories of cultural evolution.

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