What is Anthropology?
The word “anthropology” comes from the Greek words “anthropos”, meaning “man”, and “logia”, meaning “to study”. So, in simple terms, anthropology is the study of man. A more complete explanation of the discipline is that anthropologists study all the aspects of human beings throughout the world and across time. Unlike the modern perception of them, anthropologists don’t just study exotic tribes living in far flung places. Anthropologists look at far more than most people think, and this is reflected in the division of the discipline in north America into four distinct subfields.
Physical anthropology, also known as biological anthropology, is the biological study of human diversity, human evolution, and closely related primates; the different subfields within physical anthropology reflect these study areas. Physical anthropologists study human variation and attempt to answer the question of how and why human populations differ both physically and biologically, despite all human beings being members of the same species (Homo sapiens sapiens).
Paleo-anthropologists are physical anthropologists who study ancient human and primate fossils and attempt to understand and reconstruct the pathways of human evolution.
Primatologists study primates in order to try and discover which of our characteristics are distinctly human, and which can be said to stem from our primate heritage. Because humans are very closely related to chimpanzees and gorillas, primatologists often study their behaviour and use it as a model for how early humans may have interacted with their environments.
Forensic anthropology is the application of physical anthropology in criminal cases. Forensic anthropologists are often called in in cases where a skeletal remains have been found and need to be identified. They use their extensive knowledge of human variation and the human skeletal system in order to try and identify whether a set of remains is male or female; how old they may have been; and what race or population they may have belonged to.
This subfield is variously called cultural anthropology, social anthropology, or sociocultural anthropology. They all refer to the same thing however, the study of culture. Culture itself can be hard to define as it includes everything from food, language and religious beliefs to social behaviour and the way people dress.
Sociocultural anthropologists study contemporary cultures largely through participant observation, that is, they immerse themselves within a culture and study it from the inside. The reports that sociocultural anthropologists publish on their experiences of, and conclusions about a particular culture are referred to as ethnographies. The interpretation and analysis of ethnographies is known and ethnology, and seeks to answer questions about cultural similarities and differences through comparisons of different cultures.
Many people have a view of anthropologists as privileged, rich, white people who study ‘primitive’ cultures. This is an outdated and incorrect view. In fact, many contemporary sociocultural anthropologists study cultures and cultural issues in their own back yards. For example, the American anthropologist Phillipe Bourgois undertook an ethnographic study of Puerto Rican drug dealers in Harlem, New York; while Nancy Scheper-Hughes (also American) studied organ donation and organ trafficking in the United States, south America, and parts of Africa.
Archaeology shares many similarities with sociocultural anthropology, except, instead of studying living cultures, archaeologists study past cultures through the material remains they left behind. Archaeology is divided into two major areas: historical and pre-historic. Historical archaeology is the study of any culture or civilization that had writing. This can include recent cultures like the Victorians, right up to cultures that might be considered ancient, such as certain Islamic or Asian cultures that have had writing for thousands of years. Pre-historic archaeology is the study of cultures without writing. In north America, it is sometimes also referred to as “pre-contact” archaeology, referring to European contact with Native Americans. However, this is considered somewhat ignorant, as it implies that Native Americans had no culture or history of their own beforehand, which is quite untrue. It should also be noted that cultures with writing that cannot be understood are also generally referred to as pre-historic, because we cannot learn anything from their writing until we are able to decipher it.
You may have the idea that archaeology is like an Indiana Jones adventure. However, archaeology is actually very theoretical and science-based. Archaeological digs are often conducted with the strictness of a military operation, with every detail of a site painstakingly recorded. Artifacts are often mapped, drawn and photographed in place before being removed – a process that has to be completed for every layer of soil removed.
While archaeology is generally undertaken by research archaeologists who wish to answer a specific question about a particular culture, there is also a type of applied archaeology called “Cultural Resource Management”, or “CRM”. CRM is usually done by private archaeology firms who work with construction and development companies. In many places in north America, an archaeological survey of the land is required by law before construction can begin in case the area is historically significant. CRM archaeologists will assess a site and say if construction can be approved or not.
Linguistic anthropology is the study of language, its development and evolution, and its relation to culture. There are three main areas of study in the field: the study and documentation of dying languages in order to preserve them; theoretical studies of how language is used; and application of linguistic methods to other areas of anthropological study, like social identity and group interaction.
One of the major themes of linguistics is how children acquire language and culture together. Linguistic anthropologists have found that children do not learn their language and culture separately, rather the two are integrated and intertwined. Another area of study revolves around the ideologies inherent in, and reflected by language, and how the changing of language over time can reflect changing cultural ideas and views.
In addition to the four major subfields, there are many subdivisions within them including medical anthropology, anthropology of religion, ecological anthropology, anthropology of the media, visual anthropology, and many more. Anthropology has such a wide reach that if you can think of something that might be a feature of your culture, or a different culture, then you can be reasonably sure that an anthropologist has studied it.