What is Culture History?

For archeologists and anthropologists, culture history is an analytical approach that seeks to describe past cultures and the things those cultures created (“material culture”) through historical time and across geographical space.

Culture historians begin by defining meaningful cultural units (such as phases, cultures, and time periods) characterized by distinctive sets of material traits (such as artifact types, house types, foods, etc.) unique to a given area or region. Typically, a two-dimensional “time-space grid” or chronological chart is constructed that shows the basic relations between culture units through time and across the region. This framework is an essential organizing device, but it inevitably reduces and obscures cultural complexity as any simple scheme must.

By studying the changes and differences in material traits across the landscape and through historical time, the culture historian hopes to understand at least the basic outline of the historical development of the underlying cultures. The best culture historians combine the skills of top-notch detectives, writers, and scientists; such individuals are rare. In Texas, Alex D. Krieger had few peers. A more recent example of an outstanding culture historian is LeRoy Johnson, Jr.

As a formal approach, culture history fell out of academic favor in the 1960s and 1970s because the rich descriptive details it produces provide few satisfying explanations of why cultures change and little understanding of the underlying processes which cause cultures to change (or not). Nonetheless, today culture history continues to provide the basic chronological and organizational framework upon which most explanations of the human past depend.

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