Anthropology Introduction to the four Subfields

The Four Subfields of the Discipline of Anthropology:

In North America it is widely agreed that there are four different specializations within the larger discipline of anthropology, each of which studies different aspects of the human condition (though the programs of specific universities may not emphasize them all). These four subfields, as they are commonly called, were originally suggested by Franz Boas, who was the founder of North American anthropology.

The four subfields include: physical anthropology, archeology, historical linguistics and cultural anthropology.

1. Physical anthropology deals primarily with the origin and evolution of the human species, a study which is based upon uncovering fossil evidence of both early human forms ancestral to /homo sapiens/ (modern humans) and the primate order from which they themselves evolved. Physical anthropology also includes the study of contemporary biological variation within our species, and the study of the behavior of the various species of primates which are the most closely related species to humans genetically, a field known as primatology.

In general, physical anthropology provides the larger context for understanding our biological origins as a species.

2. Archeology is concerned with the study of prehistoric cultures. Prehistory refers to the period of human history prior to the advent of written records, but archaeological methods are also applied to the study of past societies with writing, such as ancient Greece or Egypt, and even to more contemporary history.

The focus of archaeological research is the discovery of material evidence of past human behavior, and its recording in an accurate and scientific manner. This makes it very different from looting, which simply raids ancient sites for artifacts, without recording the location and context in which they were found.

Archaeologists are the “Indian Jones'” of anthropology, who cultural anthropologists affectionately refer to as “diggers.” This is because archaeologists are the one’s who actually go out and get their hands dirty attempting to recover physical evidence of past societies, which is usually buried. Their over-all purpose or focus is the study of the material culture of ancient peoples, and the reconstruction of the human behaviors or lifestyles which produced them.

Behavior and culture must be extrapolated because material culture is the only evidence which is preserved in the archaeological record. It consists of such empirical evidence as tools or artifacts, architecture, settlement patterns, garbage dumps, and of course, burials. Actual human remains are studied by physical anthropologists, while archaeologists would focus on what could be learned about burial customs, and what they might tell us about the society which practiced them.

Thus, both the methodology and the subject matter of physical anthropology and archeology are closely related, and overlap to a large degree in their areas of concern. They are distinguished by the fact that physical anthropology focuses on humans as biological entities, while archeology is primarily concerned with humans as cultural beings-that is, with technology, material culture and the reconstruction of human behavior.

3. Historical linguistics studies the structure and evolution of human languages, which is the most central means through which cultural information is transmitted from one generation to another. By reconstructing the history of linguistic changes, much can be learned about the historical relationships between various populations through time.

4. Cultural anthropology involves the study of both specific contemporary and historical human societies, as well as the underlying patterns of human culture, or culture in general. This definition implies three important subject areas each of which has a technical definition within the subfield of cultural anthropology:

A. Ethnography is the study and description of contemporary cultures or societies through fieldwork, or direct, first-hand study.

B. Ethnohistory is the study of historical societies or cultures through written records or historical documents (generally with an emphasis upon non-Western societies).

Ethnography and ethnohistory are more /descriptive/ and particularist, and can be seen, along with archaeology, as providing data about human societies, and cultural diversity throughout space and time. The third subfield, ethnology, is more /interpretive/, and involves a more generalist attempt to understand the overall patterns and process of culture itself. Therefore:

C. Ethnology is the attempt to understand and/or explain general patterns or rules of cultural behavior. In other words, ethnology is the attempt to understand not a specific culture, but rather culture in general. This implies that ethnology involves two things: 1. cross-cultural comparisons of various specific cultures and, 2. attempts to interpret or explain the data collected by fieldwork (ethnographic), archival (or ethnohistorical) and archaeological (or prehistoric) studies.


While most anthropologists will in fact specialize in one of these subfields, most will have a general knowledge of all four. All university programs do not follow the four fields model, however. Many programs in North America have dropped an emphasis upon historical linguistics, for example, which is often found in a separate department.

European anthropology is also quite different. British social anthropology, for example, is more like cross-cultural sociology than North American anthropology, with the study of prehistory being pursued in the department of antiquities, and physical anthropology being associated with general paleontology (the study of ancient life forms more generally).

Many would argue, however, that a four fields approach to anthropology provides the most holistic understanding of the subject matter.

References, additional readings:

Daniel G. Bates & Elliot M. Fratkin (2003) Cultural Anthropology, Pearson Education.

T. Douglas Price & Gary M. Feinman (1993) Images of the Past, Mayfield Publishing Company.

Phillip Whitten (2001) Anthropology: Contemporary Perpectives, Allyn & Bacon.