Cultural and Physical Anthropology

Cultural and physical anthropology are two main divisions of at least 11 branches of anthropology (the scientific study of humanity and of human culture; an outgrowth of biology and social science).

Physical anthropology is also called biological anthropology or bio-anthropology; it’s the study of human physical characteristics. For example, a physical anthropologist (such as Louis Leakey) would search for fossil remains from pre-history times to trace the development of the human brain or the human ability to walk upright. Physical anthropologists also seek cultural remains like evidence of fire-making or ancient tools to analyze and further determine the links among posture, brain size and cultural development.

Blood types, skin colors, hereditary diseases, nutrition effects on human behavior and other physical differences among human beings are explored as well.

Other anthropologists within this field study chimpanzees, apes and other animals that most closely resemble humans. By observation, this particular branch seeks to understand what pre-human ancestors were like and the evolution of human beings through thousands of years.

Cultural anthropology is the study of the origins, development and functioning of human culture – the artwork, tools, houses and other material products (what this branch shares in common with archaeology), but this particular branch also studies and researches the music, religious beliefs, symbols, values and other non-tangible aspects of a culture (which was Margaret Mead’s specialty).

A cultural anthropologist can specialize in ecological anthropology – the investigation of how and the ways a society fits into its environment and how the environment affects that society’s culture.

Psychological anthropology involves studying how individual personalities are shaped by different cultures and how children learn to become part of their culture.

Medical anthropology, another specialized area, looks at how different people and cultures experience and deal with illness and disease.

The branches of anthropology frequently overlap. For example, archaeologists (who study objects and remains of past cultures) and cultural anthropologists study many of the same things.

But archaeologists focus on past civilizations, while cultural anthropologists study mainly present ones.

Cultural anthropology can sometimes even overlap with applied anthropology (Applied anthropology is actively using research to achieve a practical goal or improve a situation, rather than just analyzing it). For example, a cultural anthropologist can help local farmers or a village to build a well or increase crop production.

And many cultural and applied anthropologists not only do field research, but work in schools, hospitals, businesses, and even for the government.

1. Source-The World Book Encyclopedia. World Book, Inc. Chicago, Ill. 1990