Anthropology: Diversifying the Boundaries of Truth.


*Photo under CC license, no attribution required

With characteristics of both social and natural sciences, anthropology has often been misunderstood by its fellow disciplines. Like the natural sciences, it attempts to uncover mysteries through approximation as well as precise experiment. Yet, by trying to streamline complex cultural and social phenomena to quantifiable data, these very researchers have unconsciously erased the contextual nature of the object under study (1). Guided by a search for meaning, the qualitative nature of anthropology does not lend itself suitably to the confines of objective scientific reasoning. It is here where one begins to question the legitimacy of anthropological claims. If all anthropological truths cannot be validated systematically, what role, if any, does truth play in anthropology?

To approach such a question, we must first reject the idea that anthropological truth is a static, one-dimensional, linear concept. Rather, a multifaceted and ever-changing definition of truth will not only be reflective of the deeply humanistic roots of anthropological study, but also allow researchers to minimize the already subjective nature of this discipline.

This idea of truth being multifaceted can be further explored in the context of a Foucauldian philosophy. Foucault reasons that there is no such thing as “one” truth, but rather, there are five different “faces” of truth (2). Namely, Foucault advocates for the notions of criterial, constructivist, perspectivist, experimental and tacit-realist notions of truth. One of the most relevant faces of truth for anthropology that Foucault explores is criterial truth. This is when the value, role and interpretation of truth is defined by a particular society (3). Whilst such relativity has the effect of steering anthropological study away from ethnocentrism and towards cultural relativism, it still does not allow for a truthful (ie. holistic) representation of societies. In addition, one should also consider Foucault’s perspectivist face of truth. This is because it aims to replace a one-dimensional consensus of truth with a network of perspectives. Unlike other disciplines, such an approach does not intend to rationalize or manipulate distinctions between perspectives to arrive at a more objective conclusion. Rather, it keeps the various perspectives unaltered as this is the only way a truthful representation of societies can be preserved.

Nonetheless, we are still left questioning whether truth can cross-cultural, social, disciplinary, or linguistic boundaries. In anthropology, this can play a vital role in determining whether there are observable human characteristics common across all societies, known as “universal truths” (1). Continuing on this notion, the term “cosmopolitanism” comes to mind. This ideology, as opposed to “communitarianism”, accepts that all humans are of the same community, with shared moral principles (4).

However, as anthropologists continue to study how and why humans act in a particular way, the complexity and diversity of different communities become ever more apparent. Yet, despite its broad and almost conceptual nature, anthropologists have traditionally with their parochial observations ignored the expansive cultural mysteries of foreign communities. Most strikingly, this can be seen in the study of communities without a need for a number system.  

I mean, could you imagine living in a society without numbers?

It turns out that one would not need to look much further than the backyard of our Aussie counterparts. Namely, the Warlpiri, a tribal group indigenous to Australia’s northern territory, have no conventional use of numbers like “we” do (5). This is because their communities have never seen a need to expand their number system beyond the number “one. As a result, their conception of arithmetic is as follows:

One, Many. (6).

From an ethnocentric perspective, it is understandable to see why early anthropologists would claim that this lack of basic arithmetic understanding sets the Warlpiri aside from the “developed West”. Yet, such ethnocentric claims devalue the role of truth in anthropology. This is because, despite our assumption that the Warlpiri are less adept to understanding arithmetic concepts because of their lack of a numeral system, the Warlpiri have been shown to have an “innate system for recognizing and representing numerosities – the number of objects in a set” (7).  In 2008, Professor Butterworth of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience worked with indigenous children aged four to seven to study arithmetic concepts in communities with restricted numerical vocabularies. He did this by using abstract means of assessment, such as asking children to link the number of objects with the number of sounds made. Butterworth found that Warlpiri children, along with Anindilyakwa children (who also do not have a number system), performed just as well or better than English-speaking children of the same age (7, 8).

It is here where it becomes evident that characteristics of foreign communities simply cannot be reduced down to elementary assumptions and systematic justifications. Instead, a more open-minded and contextual approach, such as the “criterial” and “perspectivist” methods highlighted by Foucault, need to be taken in order to justify truth claims that accurately reflect the study at hand.

Word Count: 799 words


Works Cited

  1. Keesing RM, Strathern A. Cultural anthropology: a contemporary perspective. 3rd ed. London, New York: Harcourt Brace; 1998.
  2. Turner N. Universality of Truth. 5 January. Perspectives in Anthropology [online]. 2015. [Accessed 21 October 2017]. Available from:
  3. Rouse J. Power/Knowledge. Division I Faculty Publications, Wesleyan University; 2005.
  4. Burns T. Hegel and global politics: Communitarianism or cosmopolitanism?. Journal of International Political Theory [online]. 2014;10(3):325-344. [Accessed 22 October 2017]. Available from:
  5. von Bredow R. Living without Numbers or Time. [online]. Der Spiegel: Spiegel Online; 2006; Sect. International [Accessed 18 October 2017]. Available from:
  6. The Story of 1. [online video]. Directed by: Nick Murphy. United Kingdom: BBC; 2005. Available from:
  7. University College London; Aboriginal kids can count without numbers. NewsRx Health & Science 2008 Sep 07:32.
  8. Butterworth B. Gelman R. Number and language: how are they related? TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences [online]. 2005;9(1):6-10. [Accessed 18 October 2017]. Available from:



When I began researching for this assignment, I opened myself to a variety sources of information ranging from youtube videos to blog posts. Initially, this served as a good fundamental resource for my argumentation. However, as my arguments developed, I had to justify my reasonings with more authoritative sources. It is here where I sought out more ‘reliable’ sources of information from online databases, such as the one that UCL offers. From university publications to books, these references truly helped ground my interpretation of the role of truth in anthropology. One aspect that was particularly difficult to get used to, however, was the use of Vancouver referencing. Double and triple checking that all of my sources were cited correctly did take more time and energy as expected, but now I can say that I have a more widespread understanding of referencing systems. Another aspect of referencing that took some additional trial and error was the proper placing of in-text citation, specifically after multiple sentences alluding to an idea from the same source. Despite my initial inability to adapt, I think that the systematic nature of the Vancouver referencing system makes it easy to comprehend and straightforward to work with.

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