Anthropology is the scientific study of humans, past and present, that draws and builds upon knowledge from the social sciences, life sciences, and humanities. Since the work of Franz Boas and Bronisław Malinowski in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, social anthropology in Great Britain and cultural anthropology in the US have been distinguished from other social sciences by its emphasis on cross-cultural comparisons, long-term in-depth examination of context, and the importance it places on participant-observation or experiential immersion in the area of research.
Cultural anthropology, in particular, has emphasized cultural relativism, holism, and the use of findings to frame cultural critiques. This has been particularly prominent in the United States, from Boas’ arguments against 19th-century racial ideology, through Margaret Mead‘s advocacy for gender equality and sexual liberation, to current criticisms of post-colonial oppression and promotion of multiculturalism.
Ethnography is one of its primary research designs as well as the text that is generated from anthropological fieldwork. In Great Britain and the Commonwealth countries, the British tradition of social anthropology tends to dominate. In the United States, anthropology has traditionally been divided into the four field approach developed by Franz Boas in the early 20th century: biological anthropology or physical anthropology; social, cultural, or sociocultural anthropology; archaeology; and linguistic anthropology.
These fields frequently overlap, but tend to use different methodologies and techniques. European countries with overseas colonies tended to practice more ethnology (a term coined and defined by Adam F. Kollár in 1783). In non-colonial European countries, social anthropology is now defined as the study of social organization in non-state societies. It is sometimes referred to as sociocultural anthropology in the parts of the world that were influenced by the European tradition.
In this blog post, we will delve into these fields of anthropology, highlighting the key concepts, methods, and approaches that distinguish each sub-discipline. We will also discuss the role of anthropologists, their contributions to anthropological knowledge, and the ethical considerations that guide their work.
Furthermore, we will explore emerging subfields and interdisciplinary approaches that continue to enrich the study of humanity, as well as the professional organizations and career opportunities available within the field.
By the end of this post, you will gain a greater appreciation for the breadth and depth of anthropology and its relevance in today’s interconnected world.
What is an Anthropologist?
Definition and role
An anthropologist is a professional who studies human societies, cultures, and their development by examining various aspects of human life, including biology, culture, language, and history. Their primary role is to explore and understand the diverse dimensions of the human experience, as well as to contribute to anthropological knowledge by conducting research, analyzing data, and developing theoretical frameworks. Anthropologists work in various settings, such as academic institutions, government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and private businesses, where their expertise helps inform policies, practices, and decision-making processes.
Key skills and qualifications
To be an effective anthropologist, one must possess a unique set of skills and qualifications. Some of the most important skills include:
- Critical thinking: The ability to analyze complex information, identify patterns and trends, and develop well-founded conclusions.
- Communication: Proficiency in both written and verbal communication, allowing anthropologists to effectively share their findings and insights with diverse audiences.
- Cultural sensitivity: An understanding and appreciation of cultural differences, which enables anthropologists to approach their research subjects with empathy and respect.
- Adaptability: The capacity to adjust to new environments, work with diverse populations, and navigate the challenges of fieldwork.
- Research skills: Familiarity with various research methodologies, including qualitative and quantitative approaches, to design and conduct studies that yield meaningful data.
In terms of qualifications, anthropologists typically hold an advanced degree in anthropology or a related field, such as sociology or archaeology. Many anthropologists also pursue specialized training in their chosen subfield, which may include courses in ethnographic methods, linguistic analysis, or archaeological techniques.
Responsibilities in the field and academia
Anthropologists have a wide range of responsibilities, depending on their specific area of expertise and the setting in which they work.
In the field, anthropologists may:
- Conduct field research: Collecting data through participant observation, interviews, surveys, or other methods to study human societies, cultures, and behaviors.
- Analyze data: Applying various analytical techniques to interpret and make sense of the data collected during fieldwork.
- Collaborate with local communities: Engaging with local populations to ensure that research is conducted ethically and respects cultural norms and values.
- Document and preserve cultural heritage: Working with communities to record and protect their cultural heritage, including traditional practices, languages, and material remains.
In academia, anthropologists may:
- Teach courses: Educating students in the principles, methods, and theories of anthropology, as well as supervising their academic and research projects.
- Conduct research: Developing and carrying out research projects to advance anthropological knowledge and contribute to the understanding of human societies and cultures.
- Publish findings: Writing and publishing articles, books, and reports to disseminate research findings and contribute to the scholarly discourse in anthropology.
- Participate in conferences and professional organizations: Engaging with colleagues and peers to discuss research, collaborate on projects, and stay informed about the latest developments in the field.
The History of Anthropology
The history of anthropology as a modern discipline can be traced back to the 1860s, influenced by developments in biology, philology, and prehistoric archaeology. Charles Darwin’s work on evolution played a significant role in shaping the field, suggesting that all life forms share a common ancestry and that humans evolved from a shared ancestor with great apes. Early anthropologists, such as Edward Burnett Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan, believed in a universal human history with a progression of stages based on technological advances and social institutions.
However, an alternative approach to anthropology emerged in German-speaking countries, focusing on cultural traditions and local adaptations rather than universal human histories. Franz Boas, trained in this tradition, brought this more particularistic and historical approach to the United States.
In the early 20th century, professionally trained anthropologists began to undertake intensive fieldwork, observing people in their daily activities and recording their customs. This shift led to a change in theoretical focus from historical and evolutionary interests to explaining the functions served by specific institutions or beliefs. Bronisław Malinowski and A.R. Radcliffe-Brown were influential in this functionalist approach to anthropology, as were other theorists like Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss.
The development of anthropology has been marked by various theoretical perspectives, methodological approaches, and areas of focus. From its early beginnings in the study of human evolution and the establishment of cultural traditions, the discipline has grown to encompass a wide range of topics, methods, and theoretical frameworks.
What are the Four Fields of Anthropology?
The four fields of anthropology encompass cultural, biological, linguistic, and archaeological anthropology. Cultural anthropology examines human societies and cultures, utilizing ethnography and participant observation to understand cultural practices and beliefs. Biological anthropology investigates human evolution, diversity, and the relationship between humans and other primates, while linguistic anthropology explores the interplay between language and culture. Archaeology, on the other hand, reconstructs past societies through the analysis of material remains and artifacts, providing insights into human history and cultural heritage.
- Definition and scope: Cultural anthropology is the study of human societies and cultures, focusing on the complexities of human behavior, social interactions, and the factors that shape cultural diversity across time and space. This subfield seeks to understand how people create, maintain, and transform their cultural practices, beliefs, and social structures within different contexts.
- Methods: Ethnography and Participant Observation: Cultural anthropologists primarily use ethnography, an immersive research method that involves living with and observing a community for an extended period. Participant observation, a key aspect of ethnography, allows researchers to gain an insider’s perspective on the community’s customs, values, and social dynamics as they actively engage in everyday life of the group they are studying.
- Key concepts: Culture, Ethnocentrism, and Cultural Relativism: Culture refers to the shared beliefs, values, customs, and practices of a social group, which are learned and transmitted across generations. Ethnocentrism is the tendency to judge other cultures based on one’s own cultural standards, often resulting in a biased and distorted understanding of different societies. Cultural relativism, on the other hand, emphasizes the importance of understanding and evaluating cultural practices within their specific context, recognizing that no single culture is inherently superior or inferior to others. This approach promotes empathy, open-mindedness, and cross-cultural understanding.
Biological or Physical Anthropology
- Definition and scope: Biological anthropology, also known as physical anthropology, focuses on the study of human evolution, biology, and the relationship between humans and other primates. This subfield aims to understand the biological and genetic aspects of human diversity, as well as the processes that have shaped human evolution over time. It also explores the physiological adaptations that enable humans to inhabit diverse environments and the ways in which our biology intersects with culture.
- Methods: Comparative Anatomy, Paleontology, and Genetics: Biological anthropologists employ a variety of methods to investigate human evolution and biological diversity. These include comparative anatomy, which analyzes the similarities and differences between human and non-human primates to better understand our shared evolutionary history; paleontology, which studies fossil remains to reconstruct the evolutionary history of human ancestors; and genetics, which examines the genetic basis of human variation and evolution. Additionally, biological anthropologists may also study living populations to better understand human adaptation and health.
- Key concepts: Human Evolution, Primatology, and Human Variation: Human evolution refers to the biological and cultural changes that have occurred in the human lineage over time, resulting in the emergence of Homo sapiens as a distinct species. Primatology is the study of non-human primates, such as monkeys, apes, and prosimians, to better understand human evolution and behavior. Human variation encompasses the genetic, morphological, and behavioral differences among human populations, which have arisen due to evolutionary processes, such as mutation, gene flow, genetic drift, and natural selection. Understanding human variation is essential for gaining insights into the complex interplay between biology, culture, and environment in shaping human diversity.
- Definition and scope: Linguistic anthropology investigates the relationship between language and culture, exploring how language shapes human experiences, identities, and social interactions. This subfield examines the diversity of human languages and the ways they evolve, change, and adapt within specific cultural contexts. Linguistic anthropologists also study the role of language in constructing and maintaining social hierarchies, power dynamics, and cultural beliefs.
- Methods: Descriptive, Historical, and Sociolinguistics: Linguistic anthropologists utilize various methods to study language and its cultural implications. These include descriptive linguistics, which documents and analyzes the structure of languages, such as phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics; historical linguistics, which studies language change and development over time, investigating linguistic relationships and the evolution of language families; and sociolinguistics, which examines the social aspects of language use and variation, such as dialects, accents, and the influence of social factors like gender, age, and social class on language use.
- Key concepts: Language and Culture, Language Change, and Language Diversity: Language and culture are deeply interconnected, as language both reflects and shapes cultural values, beliefs, and practices. It serves as a medium for transmitting cultural knowledge and plays a crucial role in the formation of individual and group identity. Language change occurs as languages adapt to new cultural, social, and environmental contexts, influenced by factors such as contact between language communities, population movement, and technological innovations. Language diversity refers to the multitude of languages spoken worldwide, each with its unique features and cultural significance. Understanding and preserving this linguistic diversity is vital for maintaining the rich tapestry of human cultural heritage.
- Definition and scope: Archaeology is the study of past human societies through the analysis of material remains, such as artifacts, structures, and landscapes. Archaeologists seek to reconstruct the social, political, and economic systems of past civilizations and to understand how human cultures have evolved over time. This subfield encompasses both prehistoric archaeology, which focuses on societies that existed before the advent of written records, and historic archaeology, which investigates societies with documented histories.
- Methods: Excavation, Survey, and Material Analysis: Archaeological methods include excavation, which involves the systematic uncovering and recording of artifacts and features at a site; survey, which entails the identification and documentation of archaeological sites within a specific area, often using remote sensing techniques like aerial photography and geophysical surveys; and material analysis, which examines the physical properties, function, and cultural significance of artifacts and other archaeological materials. These methods help archaeologists to reconstruct past societies, their ways of life, and their interactions with the environment and other cultures.
- Key concepts: Prehistoric and Historic Archaeology, Cultural Heritage, and Artifact Analysis: Prehistoric archaeology focuses on studying human societies before the development of writing systems, while historic archaeology deals with societies that have written records. Cultural heritage refers to the tangible and intangible aspects of a society’s past, including artifacts, monuments, traditions, and beliefs, which hold cultural significance and contribute to a community’s identity. Artifact analysis is the examination of objects created, used, or modified by humans, such as tools, pottery, and ornaments, to gain insights into past societies’ technology, economy, social organization, and belief systems. By analyzing artifacts and other material remains, archaeologists can better understand the lives and experiences of people in the past and appreciate the rich diversity of human history.
Definition and scope: Applied anthropology refers to the practical application of anthropological knowledge, theories, and methods to address real-world problems and improve human well-being. This subfield encompasses all four core fields of anthropology—cultural, biological, linguistic, and archaeological—and seeks to bridge the gap between academic research and practical solutions by collaborating with communities, organizations, and policymakers. Applied anthropologists work in a wide range of sectors, including public health, education, business, government, and non-governmental organizations.
Importance in addressing real-world problems: Applied anthropology is crucial in addressing contemporary global challenges by offering context-specific, culturally sensitive, and evidence-based solutions. As anthropologists possess a deep understanding of human behavior, culture, and social dynamics, they can provide unique insights into the root causes of social issues and design interventions that are relevant and sustainable. By incorporating the perspectives of the communities they work with, applied anthropologists can foster collaboration, promote social justice, and empower marginalized populations.
Examples of applied anthropology in various sectors:
- Public Health: Applied anthropologists contribute to public health by conducting research on health behaviors, beliefs, and practices, and by designing culturally appropriate health promotion programs and policies. They may also examine the social determinants of health, such as poverty, inequality, and access to resources, to address health disparities.
- Education: In the field of education, applied anthropologists may analyze the cultural factors that influence learning and academic achievement, and develop culturally responsive teaching strategies to improve educational outcomes for diverse student populations.
- Business: Applied anthropologists working in the business sector may conduct market research, assess consumer needs, and examine the cultural dynamics within organizations to enhance product development, marketing strategies, and workplace relations.
- Government and Non-Governmental Organizations: Applied anthropologists collaborate with government agencies and NGOs to design and evaluate policies, programs, and initiatives that address social issues, such as poverty, migration, and environmental sustainability, with a focus on the needs and perspectives of affected communities.
These examples demonstrate the potential of applied anthropology to create meaningful change in various sectors, emphasizing the value of anthropological expertise in addressing complex social and cultural issues.
The Anthropological Perspective
Holism: Holism is a core principle of anthropology that emphasizes the study of humans as complete, integrated beings, considering all aspects of their culture, biology, history, and language. This holistic approach seeks to understand the interconnections between different facets of human life and the complex ways in which these elements interact to shape human experiences and societies.
Cross-cultural comparison: Cross-cultural comparison is a fundamental aspect of anthropological research that involves comparing and contrasting various human societies and cultures to identify similarities, differences, and patterns. This comparative method enables anthropologists to develop broader insights into human behavior, cultural practices, and social structures, and to challenge assumptions about what is considered “normal” or “natural” within any given society.
Cultural relativism vs. ethnocentrism: Cultural relativism is the anthropological principle that asserts the need to understand and evaluate cultural practices and beliefs within their own cultural context, rather than imposing one’s own cultural values and judgments. In contrast, ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s own culture is superior to others, leading to biased interpretations and misunderstandings. Anthropologists strive to practice cultural relativism in their research, recognizing that each culture has its own unique set of values, norms, and practices.
The importance of context: Context is crucial in anthropological research, as it acknowledges that human behavior, beliefs, and practices are shaped by various factors, such as history, environment, social structures, and cultural norms. Anthropologists consider the specific contexts in which people live and interact to provide a more nuanced and accurate understanding of human experiences and societies.
Ethical Considerations in Anthropology
Informed consent: Informed consent is an essential ethical principle in anthropological research, requiring researchers to obtain voluntary and informed consent from research participants before engaging in data collection. This process involves providing participants with clear and comprehensive information about the purpose, methods, risks, and benefits of the research, and ensuring that they understand their rights to withdraw or refuse participation at any time.
Protecting the rights and welfare of research participants: Anthropologists have a responsibility to protect the rights, welfare, and dignity of the individuals and communities with whom they work. This includes ensuring the confidentiality and privacy of research participants, avoiding harm or exploitation, and respecting the cultural values, beliefs, and practices of the communities involved in the research.
Ownership and stewardship of cultural heritage: Anthropologists must be sensitive to issues of ownership and stewardship of cultural heritage, such as archaeological materials, traditional knowledge, or sacred sites. This involves acknowledging and respecting the rights and interests of local communities and collaborating with them to ensure the proper management, preservation, and access to their cultural heritage.
Balancing the needs of research and local communities: Ethical anthropological research involves balancing the pursuit of knowledge with the needs, rights, and interests of the communities being studied. Anthropologists must work collaboratively with local communities, incorporating their perspectives and priorities into the research process, and ensuring that the research outcomes benefit both the academic community and the communities involved.
Professional Organizations in Anthropology
American Anthropological Association (AAA): The American Anthropological Association (AAA) is the largest professional organization for anthropologists in the United States, promoting the advancement of anthropological knowledge, research, and practice. The AAA organizes conferences, publishes journals, provides networking opportunities, and advocates for the discipline within the broader academic and public spheres.
European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA): The European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) is a professional organization that supports and connects anthropologists working in Europe and beyond. EASA promotes collaboration, intellectual exchange, and the dissemination of anthropological research through conferences, workshops, publications, and networking opportunities.
Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA): The Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) is a global organization that brings together professionals who are engaged in the application of anthropological knowledge and methods to address real-world problems. The SfAA organizes annual meetings, offers professional development resources, and publishes the journal Human Organization.
The National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (NAPA): The National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (NAPA) is a professional organization that supports and promotes the practice of anthropology in various sectors, including academia, government, NGOs, and the private sector. NAPA offers professional development resources, mentoring, networking opportunities, and a platform for practitioners to share their experiences and insights.
World Council of Anthropological Associations (WCAA): The World Council of Anthropological Associations (WCAA) is an international network of anthropological associations that aims to promote worldwide communication and collaboration among anthropologists. The WCAA fosters dialogue, encourages the sharing of resources and knowledge, and advocates for the discipline of anthropology on a global scale.
Benefits of joining professional organizations: Joining professional organizations in anthropology offers numerous benefits for both students and professionals, including networking opportunities, access to conferences and workshops, professional development resources, and the chance to contribute to the advancement of the discipline. Membership in these organizations can enhance career prospects, foster collaborations, and provide a platform for sharing research findings and engaging in interdisciplinary conversations.
Careers in Anthropology
Academic and research positions: Many anthropologists pursue careers in academia, working as professors, researchers, or lecturers in universities and research institutions. These positions often involve teaching courses, mentoring students, conducting research projects, and publishing findings in academic journals and books.
Government and non-governmental organizations: Anthropologists can also work in government agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), contributing their expertise to inform public policies, development projects, and humanitarian efforts. They may conduct research, design and evaluate programs, provide cultural insights, or act as liaisons between organizations and local communities.
Private sector opportunities: In the private sector, anthropologists can apply their skills and knowledge to a variety of industries, such as market research, advertising, human resources, and technology. They may work as consultants, user experience (UX) researchers, corporate anthropologists, or consumer behavior analysts, helping companies understand and respond to the needs, values, and preferences of diverse clients and customers.
Interdisciplinary applications: The interdisciplinary nature of anthropology allows for numerous career opportunities in fields such as public health, environmental conservation, education, and media. Anthropologists can collaborate with professionals from other disciplines to address complex problems, develop innovative solutions, and promote cross-cultural understanding and cooperation.
Anthropology is a vital discipline that provides a holistic and comprehensive understanding of human societies, cultures, and experiences. By studying human behavior, beliefs, and practices across time and space, anthropology contributes valuable insights into the complexities of human life and the factors that shape our diverse world.
As our world becomes increasingly interconnected, the importance of anthropology in fostering cross-cultural understanding, tolerance, and empathy cannot be overstated. By highlighting the richness and diversity of human cultures, anthropology challenges stereotypes combats ethnocentrism, and promotes respect for cultural differences, laying the groundwork for a more inclusive and harmonious global society.
For those interested in human cultures, history, and behavior, anthropology offers a fascinating and rewarding path of inquiry. By delving deeper into this rich field, you can develop a more nuanced understanding of the human experience, contribute to the body of anthropological knowledge, and help build a better, more inclusive world for future generations.