What exactly is anthropology?

Alaskan ethnographicIn the big sense, anthropology as a discipline is the broad study of humankind around the world and throughout time. The field is concerned with both the biological and the cultural aspects of humans.

I think people are fascinating so don’t ask me how textbooks make everything so boring.

There are five main subdivisions: biological, archaeological, cultural, linguistic, and applied anthropology. In addition to these, there are also a plethora of subfields and specializations that cover pretty much every interest under the sun. Critics often accuse us of making up new subject areas (which is true) when the mood strikes. People are amazing and diverse – there is a lot to study.

Most folks know something about the field but usually don’t realize the breadth of the subject areas:

Biological Anthropology

  • Primatology – the study of evolution, anatomy, social behavior and adaptation of primates.
  • Paleoanthropology – the study of how and why humans species evolved.
  • Human Variation – the study of how and why populations vary physically.
  • Forensic Anthropology – the study of the analysis and identification of human remains.

Archaeological Anthropology

  • Investigating the human past by excavating and analyzing material remains.
  • Prehistoric archaeology investigates cultures that lived before the development of writing.
  • Historic archaeology  investigates written accounts along with historic sites.

sod houseCultural Anthropology

  • The study of contemporary and historically recent human societies and cultures.
  • Focus on the customs and beliefs of a human group and understand cultural change.
  • Compare cultures to determine universal principles.
  • Understand how dimensions of human life relate (religion, art, communication, family).

Linguistic Anthropology 

  • How is language used in social contexts?
  • What styles of speech do people use?
  • What do the labels people attach to the environment tell us about the way they perceive the environment?

Applied Anthropology

  • Applies research skills to human problems.
  • Medical anthropology  – the study of health, nutrition, social environment and cultural beliefs.
  • Development anthropology  – the study of that helps  agencies adapt projects to community needs.
  • Educational anthropology – the study that deals with issues of learning and teaching.

What sets anthropology apart from other social sciences is the unique perspective of being holistic, comparative, and relativistic in nature. The holistic approach takes the position that no dimension of culture can be understood in isolation. The comparative perspective finds generalizations about humans that consider the range of cultural diversity. The relativistic aspect maintains that cultures cannot be evaluated based on the standards of another culture – something that can be surprisingly difficult even for trained researchers.

arrowThe next time you pull up the couch and watch some television, you’ll have new ideas about how anthropology infiltrates virtually every aspect of human behavior and interaction. Primetime is littered with programs that swipe content from studies and rely on anthropological consultants. I bet you can name more than a few.

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  1. #1 by Jeri Walker-Bickett (@JeriWB) on February 10, 2014 - 3:04 pm

    When I taught college composition, I would have students write a cultural anthropology paper on a subculture they were not part of so they could draw conclusions about that subculture. My favorite paper submitted as on the backcountry hotsprings lifestyle.

    • #2 by Lesann Berry on February 12, 2014 - 12:01 pm

      Oh, that’s fun! Subculture groupings are always fascinating because they often bridge larger complexes of cultures and groupings. One of the things I most enjoy about traveling around the U.S. is the immense diversity of subcultures. The discipline is vastly under-appreciated but that makes more fun for those of us who ply the trade. 🙂

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