The Difference between Anthropology and Archaeology Explained

What is the Difference Between Anthropology and Archaeology?

Anthropology and archaeology are really the same thing, or rather, they are the same but different. This is because archaeology is really just a specialize methodology for approaching certain specific aspects of what the larger discipline of anthropology studies. It is, in other words, a /sub-discipline/.

Confused? Allow me to explain, beginning with the characteristics of anthropology itself.

Anthropology, as a discipline, refers to the study of humanity. Unlike many of the other social sciences, it is an holistic discipline, and has been since its conception. Economics, for example, studies human behavior as it relates to markets and production systems. Political science studies humans as political animals. Sociology studies humans as social beings, and psychology studies humans as individuals.

Anthropology studies human beings more generally, encompassing all of this and more. That is what “holism” means. Anthropology studies all aspects of human existence, and the manner in which they are related to one another. How political and economic systems, for example, are linked with specific ways of thinking, or ideologies. Also the manner in which patterns of belief and patterns of life are linked to larger ecological systems.

Anthropology’s key concept is that of “culture.” Culture is generally defined as a learned, more-or-less shared pattern of human belief and behavior, which includes everything from religion, to morals, to economics and politics, to technology. And each human society throughout history has a unique cultural pattern, in which all of these elements more-or-less tend to fit together, and reinforce one another (Bates and Fratkin 2003).

A useful way of conceiving of anthropology’s holistic way of looking at human reality, is to picture human culture as a series of three nested spheres, located one within the other. The largest sphere, or pattern of interaction, is the ecological or material sphere. This encompasses humans as material beings, and includes technologies, economies and subsistence systems (how people go about acquiring food). Within this is the social sphere, which encompasses how people interact with one another. This sphere includes politics, kinship, the social aspects of economies, and general human interaction. Finally, within the social sphere is located the ideological sphere. It includes patterns of belief generally, including science, religion, political and economic ideologies, morals and ethics, etc.

Each of the larger spheres is also an “enabling condition” for each of the smaller. In other words, the larger spheres make the smaller ones possible. We could not think and use language as we do in the “ideological sphere” unless we were also a part of social groups. This is because language and thought are only made possible by social interaction. Similarly, society could not exist unless it were part of a larger ecological context. This is because we must acquire food and other necessities from the environment surrounding us (Dudgeon 2008).

Thus, anthropology, as a discipline, is “holistic” because it studies the /relationships/ between all aspects of human life.

So where does archaeology fit in to this picture?

Well besides being a relational discipline, anthropology is also holistic in another sense. This is because it studies not only /all aspects of human life/, but also human life /in all times and places/. In other words, not only are all societies throughout the world included in its field of study, but also all societies throughout history.

That’s where archaeology come in. Archaeology, most simply, is the methodology which anthropology uses to study past cultures. In North American anthropology, it is considered to be one of the four “subfields” of the larger discipline of anthropology. These four fields were suggested by the founder of North American anthropology, Franz Boas. They include: cultural anthropology, archaeology, physical anthropology and historical linguistics.

Cultural anthropology studies recent and contemporary societies. Historical linguistics studies the history and evolution of languages, as well as their contemporary form. Physical anthropology studies the evolution of human beings as biological organisms, and archaeology studies the history (and pre-history) of humans as social beings, largely through the recovery of material evidence of past human behavior (Bates and Fratkin 2003).

So in sum; anthropology is the discipline which studies all aspects of human life, past and present. Archeology is a sub-discipline, or a specialized methodology /within/ anthropology, which studies prehistoric and historic human societies.

References, additional readings:

Daniel G. Bates and Elliot M. Fratkin (2003) Cultural Anthropology, Allyn & Bacon.

Roy C. Dudgeon (2008) Common Ground: Eco-holism and Native American Philosophy, Pitch Black Publications.