Peoples and Cultures of the World

Reveal the extraordinary power of anthropology as a tool to understand the world's varied human societies, including our own, taught by a renowned expert.
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As the science of humanity," anthropology can help us understand virtually everything about ourselves, from our political and economic systems, to why we get married, to how we decide to buy a particular bottle of wine. In this 24-lecture series, Professor Edward Fischer of Vanderbilt University provides an extraordinary glimpse into the world's varied human societies-including our own."


Edward Fischer
Edward Fischer

We have so much to learn from different cultures and different ways of doing things, and I really enjoyed making those connections in these lectures.


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, the Inter-American Foundation, and the Wener-Grenn Foundation, among others. He is the recipient of the Jeffrey Nordhaus Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Ellen Gregg Ingalls Award for Excellence in Classroom Teaching. Much of his research focuses on the modern Maya peoples of highland Guatemala and the ways they have revitalized their culture as they have become integrated into the global economy. He has also conducted fieldwork in Germany, and his recent work looks at the ways moral values affect economic rationalities. Professor Fischer has an impressive list of scholarly articles and has written or edited seven books, including Cultural Logics and Global Economies: Maya Identity in Thought and Practice, which was named Outstanding Academic Title for 2002 by Choice magazine, and Broccoli and Desire: Global Connections and Maya Struggles in Postwar Guatemala.

By This Professor

The Study of Humanity

01: 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....

33 min
The Four Fields of Anthropology

02: 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....

30 min
Culture and Relativity

03: 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 cul...

29 min
Fieldwork and the Anthropological Method

04: 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....

29 min
Nature, Nurture, and Human Behavior

05: 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....

30 min
Languages, Dialects, and Social Categories

06: 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....

31 min
Language and Thought

07: 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....

30 min
Constructing Emotions and Identities

08: 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."...

30 min
Magic, Religion, and Codes of Conduct

09: 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....

30 min
Rites of Passage

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....

31 min
Family, Marriage, and Incest

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....

29 min
Multiple Spouses and Matrilineality

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....

28 min
Gatherers and Hunters

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....

28 min
Headmen and Horticulturists

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....

30 min
Cannibalism and Violence

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....

29 min
The Role of Reciprocity

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....

30 min
Chiefdoms and Redistribution

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....

28 min
Cultural Contact and Colonialism

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....

33 min
Cultures of Capitalism

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....

31 min
Is Economics Rational?

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....

31 min
Late Capitalism-From Ford to Disney

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....

31 min
The Maya, Ancient and Modern

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....

32 min
Maya Resurgence in Guatemala and Mexico

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....

31 min
The Janus Face of Globalization

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....

32 min